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.

Counter-Narrative

My generation is the generation of storytellers. We may not necessarily rally ’round the bonfire to relate spine-tingling tales of fiction (although we might), and we may not all be hooked on the latest trilogy of best-selling novels (yet we probably are), but we are the ones who sit down together and say, “Tell me your story.” Social media gives us the ability to heard hundreds of anecdotes and reports a day, and we absorb them all, connect them all. What’s more — we treasure them. We greatly value hearing about each other’s lives, the good and the bad together. We prize having a voice and giving voices to others who may long have been silent.

In fact, we’re so hooked on story we view the world through the lens of narrative. Everything is part of a narrative. For example, while we may know the pertinent historical data about slavery, those data matter less than the narratives of African-Americans from start to finish — the greater story, the metanarrative, of those people. Slavery may be chapter two (or seventeen or whatever), but there are also chapters on emancipation, the Tuskegee Institute, Jim Crow, civil rights, gang violence, poetry, music, and the NAACP. It’s a story of a people, and stories convey emotion and depth history texts lack. Those kind of narratives and metanarratives are what people like me pursue.

The world is full of them. Everyone has multiple roles in multiple stories. And our culture offers a jolly good one.

When you think of yourself as an American (if you are one; if not, as a citizen of your own country), what pops into your head? What’s the (American) story? For us in the States, I’d say it’s one of an obsession with liberty. Liberties seem to have been our main concern for the past 240 years. Early on it was political and economic freedoms, but it’s shifted now to personal liberties. All of us were given at birth what my minor advisor in college dubbed an “LLPH injection” — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That became our story, our American metanarrative. The government of any country (including our own) as well as private citizens cannot interfere with our liberty, with LLPH. Anything else would be un-American. And so our story is written with an eye towards that.

Recent chapters of that story have refined the narrative somewhat. Personal liberties trump all others, even the constitutionally-protected ones. The glorification of individualism via secular humanism is the new story about liberty. Liberals and Conservatives alike are equally guilty here: one group pushes a revised (or removed) sexual ethic, the other a fear of the Other (because the Other threatens their freedom). Drugs are my choice; you can’t take my guns. I can murder my unborn child; I’m under no obligation to pay taxes for your healthcare. And on and on and on and on.

It’s the story of our people. A story of violence and hate and laughter and freedom. A story which has obtained cultural dominance, a sort of hegemonic metanarrative, if you will, one that has been retold and accepted as true again and again and again. A story which all too frequently leaves out God.

So what if there’s another story? What if there’s a counter-narrative to our cultural metanarrative?

Thankfully I know just the story. Even better: it’s a true story. Even even better: it’s a true story about an unfading, unending love.

The story of God begins in the unknown. What happened before this universe existed is best left to the realm of speculation. Once we were spoken into being, though, the fun starts. And so does the pain. One of His first creations rebelled and inspired others to join him. Later the same rebel would entice a new race of beings into rebellion against God. Yet God still loved them, those all-too-human human beings. He made covenants with them, promised to bless and care for them, and said all we had to do in exchange was to let Him be our God.

If only we could have done that.

Instead, the story went another, darker direction. Every time God brought us back to obedience and blessing and worship, we rebelled anew. We rejected Him as king and God over us, preferring instead our own attempts at rule and happiness, attempts which invariably ended in exile and horror. As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, “What Satan put into the head of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’ — could set up on their own as if they had created themselves — be their own masters — invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history — money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery — the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

But there’s a better story.

God never abandons us. He continues to love us. And so it was that, in His great, unfailing love, He came to us in the form of Jesus Christ. God put on flesh and blood. He bled and died to forgive us of our sins and reconcile us to Himself after our rebellions. He came to life again the third day to defeat death, hell, and the grave. We can share in that victory and gain eternal life.

That’s the story of God. A story which compels us to love as we are loved, to forgive even as we have been forgiven. To go and serve and help and laugh and weep and mourn and rejoice. All because there’s more to life than ourselves. More than the individual. More than the subjective. More than the story our culture tells us.

Donald Miller, in Searching for God Knows What, writes this: “I wonder if when we take Christian theology out of the context of its narrative, when we ignore the poetry in which it is presented, when we turn it into formulas to help us achieve the American dream, we lose its meaning entirely, and the ideas become fodder for the head but have no impact on the way we live our lives or think about God. This is, perhaps, why people are so hostile towards religion.”

He’s right. The love story of God isn’t a how-to guide for living out another narrative. It demands to be the only metanarrative, the only story for which we live our lives. It requires us to reorient our existence around that story, to live it out day by day until we’re called home. When we don’t do that, when we try to stop serving God and instead force Him to serve us, we lose the story. It’s not the right narrative. And people know. They know about the story of God. They know how that narrative should impact our lives. When it doesn’t? When we twist it to suit us? When we make it a secondary story and live out another instead? They get hostile. They belittle God’s story because it effectively doesn’t matter in the lives of those who profess to believe it. So they remain locked in the “long terrible story of man [sic],” a story in which nothing matters but their own LLPH.

Folks, we must tell the better story. We must live out the metanarrative of Scripture, a story of love, hope, community, sacrifice, and eternity. We must present the world with an old, old story, a tale which alone can offer them salvation. This is our story to tell; we are the only ones who can offer the Christian counter-narrative.

Let’s go be storytellers.

Skin

When I sat down to write this post, it was with a heavy heart and a weary soul. As I’ve written elsewhere, I am not a violent man. I recognize its occasional necessity, yes, but I still deplore violence, regardless. The last week has seen me an earthly citizen of a violent land. Two men were killed by police, and five officers were killed in a retaliation which ultimately left the shooter dead as well. An additional three people are dead in a courthouse shooting unconnected to the other three. Eleven citizens and police officers dead in a week — and that doesn’t count those who didn’t make the news, the hometown heroes and the innocent victims of racially-motivated violence. Much like the martyrs of Revelation 6, my heart cries out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true? How long?” The violence brings to the forefront of the American consciousness a variety of things: gun control, police brutality, media bias, racism, race relations. Normally I would be hesitant to discuss any of these topics, but these are not normal times. Today, then, I want to run the risk of exposing my own ignorance to talk about race.

Our society seems given to two extremes, both of which are in error (as extremes so frequently are). On the one side, we make too much of race. It becomes our primary identity, the main way we see ourselves and the main way we want other people to see us. Organizations are created to preserve our differences, but they permit only those of the designated race to participate. Skin color becomes the deciding factor in everything from hiring policies to the church one attends. On this side of the spectrum, then, lie the errors of exclusivity and partiality. To make race a “greater than” in any fashion is to ignore the equality of creation as well as the truth of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile . . . for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” The error inevitably devolves into racism in its more violent incarnations (physical, social, and otherwise).

At the opposite end of the spectrum is, well, the opposite error. Instead of making too much of race, we become “colorblind.” Proponents of this philosophy “don’t see color anymore.” Colorblindness takes Gal. 3:28 and similar texts to the illogical conclusion that race doesn’t matter at all just because Christ makes all races equal. Race itself and all its implications are ignored: its contributions to how one experiences life, cultural distinctives, benefits, detriments, all of it. This can lead to racism as well, but in a different way. If an over-emphasis of race can lead to violent racism, then a de-emphasis of race can lead to apathetic racism. Problems are ignored, stories marginalized, beauty and pain both unacknowledged just because they’re connected to race — and, after all, we’re equal, and “I don’t see race anymore.”

I may not be an Anglican, but I still believe we need a via media here. So what would a middle way, a healthy view of race, look like?

For starters, it requires us to admit that race exists, as do racial differences. We are all equal in Christ Jesus, yes, but our fallen world may never see us as truly one. We must work to end racism in any form. Racist institutions must be brought to account. People should recognize the diversity of ethnicities and celebrate it — and them. The media and the justice system must be taught to treat all races with equality and justice. Churches should integrate; truly, we are among the last bastions of accepted segregation. Whites should worship with Blacks, Blacks with Asians, Asians with Latinos, Latinos with Whites . . . you get the picture. This is what eschatological worship will be (Revelation 7:9-11). Shouldn’t we try to bring a bit of heaven to earth?

We should go a step further, too. Whether in church or elsewhere, persons of all races should be free to celebrate who they are, to say, “I am _____, and I ______.” Freedom of expression is beautiful. It can even be godly. So let’s celebrate the wonders of the human race together, taking the gifts offered to each of us by our races and using them in the service of each other and enriching each other’s lives.

To do these things, however, we must back up a step and reclaim a biblical concept so basic it appears in the very first chapter of the Book. Genesis 1:26-27 tells us we are made in the image of God. Each of us, regardless of the color of our skin, bears the image of the divine. We cannot believe others to be less-than or more-than because they don’t look like us — because we all look like God. (The image isn’t physical, but you know what I mean.) All races are comprised of persons who are relational, rational, moral, and commissioned to have dominion over the earth. And if that’s true, then perhaps race is another gift from God, a blessing to be celebrated and enjoyed.

We must learn to love each other. If we don’t, we cannot love God (1 John 4:20). We must end the hatred, the evils of racism. We must work for a world wherein race is seen as a gift, not a curse, a world which sees, yet looks beyond, skin tone and recognizes the image of God in the Other. We can stop racially-motivated violence, regardless of its origin. We can open our hearts to listen and love those who are different than us. Then we can begin healing the broken heart of a broken land.

Hats and Books

Upon seeing the picture of me in my office, a picture taken while I was still in college (the last family portrait we had made), my visitor remarked, “You look like a geek off of a TV show.” Well, yes, I did. Do. Whatever. My designated on-screen counterpart isn’t Sheldon Cooper for nothing, you know.

About a month later, the same member returned, walking in on me to find my desk littered with papers, my Bible open, and a Greek New Testament in my hand. “Oh. Sorry,” she began, “I just forget you do that.”

“Do what?”

“Study.”

Bewildered, I asked, “Are you not used to pastors who study?”

She looked thoughtful for a moment before finally replying, “Well, no. Not really.”

On the one hand, I was horrified. Never saw a pastor study? Never witnessed a minister in the midst of digging into the word of God, making notes, consulting reference texts? Unthinkable. But on the other hand, I knew exactly where this church member was coming from. Pastors are private people, when we can be. And while we all have walk-ins, many make appointments to speak with the minister, so the opportunity to just walk in during sermon or lesson prep is minimal. For another thing, most preachers in Appalachia don’t do that kind of study. They are devoted men of God and better ministers than I’ll ever be, but they don’t see a need for it, or else they lack the training/resources to do the work of research. Another consideration is simply that the full role of the pastor is largely unknown to the average churchgoer. They wonder why we get paid a salary to see people in the hospital and talk for 20-30 minutes a week, never knowing we make house calls, teach in the nursing homes, plan events, write lesson plans, plan worship services, coordinate volunteers, keep up with the latest articles, serve the community at special happenings, counsel the hurting, handle people who come in needing financial assistance, fix the toilets . . . Well, let’s just say there are reasons the average workweek for the average pastor is well over 50 hours.

It should be apparent by now that pastors wear many hats. Different ministers excel at different parts of the job, so there are different archetypes for ministers: administrators, preachers, scholars, counselors, spiritual directors, etc. And we all know it — and know which one we are. In fact, in seminary, I was tempted to order t-shirts for the guys in my cohort featuring nothing but our archetypes: “The Administrator” (for the guy who scheduled making his schedules), “The Theologian” (for the guy who came to seminary a better theologian than I left it), “The Pastor” (for the guy who could do it all), and “The Mystic”(for the guy who took all the spiritual formation classes). In the interest of full disclosure, my roommates, two of whom were The Theologian and The Mystic, decided my archetype was “The Exorcist” (but that’s a different story for a different day.) Every pastor may wear any one of these hats at any given moment, but we all have a default role.

Regardless of that role, clergy friends, part of our calling is lifelong learning. We spent years receiving the training and education to do what we do, but we will never know all there is about our faith. Our task as shepherds of the flock is to get that knowledge into the hands of the people in the pews. They have questions, doubts, disbelief. We have to be the ones with the answers. Granted, sometimes the answer is, “I don’t know,” but that should always be followed with “but I’ll find out.” Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not mandating we ministers keep up with our Hebrew and Greek (although I think we should) or other things you may not find particularly valuable in your ministry context. But I firmly believe part of our job description is to study our trade. Leadership, theology, current events, all of it. Especially those things which don’t correspond to our default role (or t-shirt archetype). Oh, and fiction. We should be readers of fiction for two main reasons: 1) our congregations are reading it, thus culture is influenced by it, and 2) it can tell us about the messiness of the human heart in ways other things can’t.

Let me broaden my scope a bit. It’s not only pastors who need to constantly brush up on matters of faith. I encourage everyone — Christian or otherwise — to get their hands on solid books about our religion. Study your Bibles, study church history. Systematic theology isn’t for everyone, but I think we’re all interested in things like salvation, heaven, the end times, angels, and things like that. Find something you’re interested in and go for it!

One other word to the laity: please understand the various roles — and varying gifts — of your shepherds. I know we all want the perfect pastor (who, by one survey, would work about 114 hours per week), but we’re mortals, too. We’re great at some things, good at a few more, and terrible at the rest of it, even if it’s part of our pastoral ministry. Please be kind, forgiving, understanding, and patient. We cycle through all of our roles on any given day, so give us time to swap hats and chug along beside you. Help us in our weak areas. Love us the way we love you; after all, we’re family.

And sometimes, families have geeks who study a lot. So come study with us.

An Open Letter to the Church Universal

Dear Church,

I know. I promised both of us I would never do this, that I’d never write to you in public like a public service announcement. And while I hate to break my word to you about this — you know how that always hurts my soul — and while I wish there were another way to say this, there simply isn’t one this time. Too much is going on, and you won’t answer your phone. We need to talk, even if you really don’t want to. So . . . here goes.

I miss you. I miss you so very, very much. You used to be different. Simpler. More focused. I’m not saying you’re too busy or too complex or whatnot, but it just feels like you’ve lost sight of who you are. You don’t keep the Main Thing the main thing anymore, as the saying goes. You’re the Church. The Bride of Christ. The Body of Christ. Baptized believers. The followers of the Way. “Little Christs.” Our Mother, even as God is Our Father. Jesus told you that the very gates of hell itself would not triumph over you. You’re built on the rock, secure in the confession that Jesus is Lord. You’re a hospital for sick souls. A teacher for those who need knowledge of God. Among other things.

Church, do you notice the theme? The single recurring element in everything you used to be — and were supposed to be? Jesus. God. The Holy Spirit. The salvation of souls from hellfire, the regenerate Christian life of the new creation. That’s you! That’s who you are! That’s what you’re supposed to do! That’s the Main Thing! The gospel of Jesus Christ is the Main Thing! Remember how incredible the good news is the first time someone hears it? That the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that the Son of God emptied himself of all but love, came to earth, taught, bled, died, and rose again all for us? That we receive salvation, forgiveness, and freedom because of that, if only we believe? It’s the Main Thing.

So why did you leave it behind?

Don’t give me that look, Church. We both know it’s true, and it won’t do either of us any good if you feign righteous indignation like that. I know you’re just acting scandalized so you can get me to apologize and ignore the problem again. I can’t do that this time. This is just too serious to drop. Because I love you. I love you, Church, with all my heart. I love the way you help the poor, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry. I love how you go into prisons and offer redemption to those who think themselves beyond it. I love how you tend to the sick and elderly, how you befriend the friendless, extend hope to the hopeless. I’m head-over-heels for how much you love the dying and minister to the grieving and heartbroken. And the way you sing? All of your rites and rituals? Your worship makes me weak in the knees, so much so that I can’t even stand up sometimes and have no choice but to kneel down with you. You’re my favorite. I love you.

I love you so much I can’t let you go on like this.

I get it. You’re part of — no, a pillar of your community. You want to serve it and honor it. And that’s great! We’re servants, you and I. We paint homes and wash feet. It’s who we are. But lately you’ve been crossing the line quite a bit — and blurring it even more than that. You trade worship services for community events that may or may not try to masquerade as praise of God. You let politicians into your pulpits to advance their agendas instead of preaching the gospel. I mean, you’re overly politicized in general, really. You know I enjoy politics, and you know I think you, Church, should spread the gospel even in political ways at times, but . . . really? You’re more worried about maintaining political power than producing genuine disciples of Jesus Christ. Church, the Bible only commands us and commissions us for one of those things; guess which?

You’re not you when the Main Thing isn’t the main thing.

While we’re talking about being active in culture, let me reverse that and discuss how culture is too active in you. I’m not against contemporary music (you’ve seen my iTunes), but the stuff you’re trying to pass off as Christian just . . . isn’t. Yeah, I know; you’re being trendy, appealing to the younger crowd. Great! Fantastic! Do it! Get them in here! But give them the Main Thing when you do. Sing songs with biblical lyrics, not empty appeals to emotions. I mean, yeah, give us Jesus with a beat, but please make sure you’re giving us Jesus. All these programs you have going on? Which do you really need to do? It’s grand to have things for every age group, but if we don’t let all ages worship together, aren’t we really just contributing to the demise of the family we keep saying we’re protecting? Relax a little bit. Don’t try to do so much, Church. You’ll only wear yourself out. And all these trends and fads . . . please stop. Jesus threw the moneychangers and merchants out of the temple, so please stop trying to sell me brown water impersonating coffee before the service starts. If you love me, truly love me, you’ll permanently ban anyone on the platform from wearing skinny jeans ever again. Right now. And cool t-shirts, cool tattoos, cool glasses, cool bar stools for preachers, cool music stands filling in for pulpits . . . just anything cool that has no function besides being trendy. Those trends change too fast and have too little substance.

You want to be cool; I understand. You want all the cool kids to like you; it’s only natural. But Church, you and I, well, you and I will never be cool. Remember our Main Thing? Telling people about a guy bleeding out on a cross will never win popularity contests. A mixed choir of kindergarteners and octogenarians will never win any talent shows, either. We will never be the cool kids on the block. And you know what? We were never meant to be. Remember when you were young and had to hide in the catacombs or be killed? Or how about all those times people called you “an alternative community” because it was up to you to offer the world something different than what was popular? It is literally in your job description to be uncool. You’re asking people to die to themselves, take up their crosses daily, and follow Jesus. You invite people to come just as they are but to leave new creations in the Holy Spirit, changing — repenting of their ways.

Total reorientation of one’s life generally isn’t popular.

Please, Church. Let it go. Let go of the idea you have to somehow make relevant the timeless word of God. It’s always relevant. Make it appealing, make it knowable, but don’t sacrifice bits of it on the altar of the false gods Relevancy, Popularity, and Cultural Clout. You do you. Be the weird kid who gets picked last at recess. That’s us, Church. The weird ones. The ones who put faith in a God we’ve never seen face to face. Who believe words written two and three thousand years ago are still absolutely true for absolutely everyone. Who sacrificially love everyone, even the ones who hate us. That’s the real you. That’s the Church I fell in love with and was called to shepherd.

Come home, Church. Come back to being you. Come back to the gospel. Let’s make the Main Thing the main thing again. Let’s go hug the homeless, give them a bed, and tell them about Jesus. Let’s hold hands and walk in faith, hope, and love one more time.

Because I love you. And I always will.

Love,

Chris

For God and Country

It’s often said everyone has two primary allegiances in life, one to God and one to one’s country. We all have other loyalties, of course: family, friends, schools, sports teams, etc. And there’s nothing wrong with any of them (unless you cheer for the University of Tennessee, Duke, or the Yankees, in which case I will pray for your salvation and invite you to be baptized). Loyalties and allegiances create communities, and we as human beings created in the image of God are hardwired for community. God designed us to forge those connections and relationships. But today I want to focus on the dynamic between those first two: God and country.

I see nothing wrong with patriotism. When our nation is in the will of God, we should be proud of it; when it is not, we should help it to be so; and at all times, we should pray for it and seek its good. The success of our country is in the best interests of every single one of its citizens, including its Christian citizenry. Part of the Christian love for our neighbor is manifested in good citizenship. We help those around us in direct ways, yes, but also by speaking out on their behalf in the public forum. If Christians refuse to be advocates for the poor, the abused, the sex worker, and the immigrant — the disenfranchised, the minority, and the voiceless in general — then we’ve ignored a significant portion of what Our Lord commanded us to do. Of course, we can’t all be lobbyists, which is why I personally believe we have a Christian obligation to vote and to be a voice for our sisters and brothers in that way. And if God chooses you for political office, that office is for servant leadership in much the same way.

But political engagement is only one arena of civic duty. Community aid organizations are another. So is military service (although that’s another blog for the future). Simply keeping up with current events can be a matter of citizenship — and so can knowing history (after all, what’s on the test to become a naturalized citizen?). We must obey all just laws which do not conflict with God’s law. We carefully steward our treasures and resources, natural and otherwise. And yes, we even pay our taxes. These are all indicative of the patriotic Christian.

Christian patriotism, however, must never morph into jingoism — which is never Christian.

Jingoism is an excessive patriotism. The strict definition deals with an overly-aggressive (dare I say neoconservative?) foreign policy which prefers the use of force, or the threat thereof, to peaceful negotiations. It’s generally limited to things of national interest or national security. In a broader sense, jingoism is rampant, unchecked patriotism which places love of country above all else. A jingoist, for example, might want to build a wall on the border or deport everyone of a specific race or religion, all in the name of national security or making the country great (again). This perversion of patriotism ignores the Christian duty to the Other, yet any Christian who says as much is instantly labeled by jingoists as an unpatriotic, treasonous communist (or socialist — if you’re American, at any rate; other places may accuse you of being a capitalistic democrat). Jingoists will hear no bad about their country, especially if the criticism is valid.

The main concern for many Christian (and practically all pastors) on this front is American civil religion, otherwise stated as “how many flags can I put in my sanctuary.” The nation itself becomes sacred, an object of worship and devotion. Its monuments become holy symbols, its key figures priests and gods. This sense of “holiness” frequently gets imported into churches. George Washington goes on the wall alongside Moses, and the Bible shares a lectern with the Constitution.

My friends, this ought not to be.

When our love of country overrides our love of God, many things happen. First and foremost, we sin. We sin the sin of idolatry, and the Stars and Stripes receives our worship. Next we distort the word of God, twisting it to accommodate and support flatly unbiblical ideas like xenophobia (and excessive patriotism/jingoism). Sermons go from the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the declaration of the greatness of the United States (and the lament of its woes). We focus on maintaining political power and cultural clout instead of preparing to become pariahs and martyrs — the latter of which being far more biblical than the former. Our military becomes the priests of the new covenant of country (a phenomenon known as the sacralization of the military). In short, we worship U-S-A instead of G-O-D. And that’s idolatry. That’s sin. And sin requires repentance.

Let me be transparent for a moment. I have no problems with an American flag in the sanctuary, as the church should celebrate the good of this land and our freedom to worship — but it had better be accompanied by a Christian flag, otherwise it’s right out. If I could, I would even (illegally) fly a Christian flag above the American one; the church’s allegiance is to God over all, even country. I rarely put my hand over my heart during the pledge of allegiance, as I am firmly convinced my heart belongs solely to the Lord who bought it with his blood, not the only empire since Rome to require that particular gesture. While I spoke against the sacralization of the military, I still hold our servicemen and servicewomen in the highest (appropriate) regard. I myself was one failed medical evaluation from becoming an Army chaplain, wanting to be a shepherd who went with his flock to face the wolves. Theirs is a sacrifice and a service I am literally incapable of making, and I truly love them for it. But in all these things, I must keep the proper perspective of patriotism and Christianity. I know which one must always be kept first, especially when it collides with the other. My citizenship truly resides in a country not of this world, an eternal country with God Himself as ruler. One day I will be home, and I will never stop singing the praises of that land.

All of this to say: obey God and honor the king. Love your country, pray for it, serve it, and be a good citizen of it. But don’t let that override your faith in God. He is our God, not America. He watches over us, not our guns and our walls. He, not our politicians, died for us, loves us, forgives our sins and makes us new. And He is the Alpha and Omega, the One who was before all countries began — and who will stand when the last empire falls.