The Blessing of Advent

The greens are hung, the first carols sung, and we are now officially in Advent. Some people take this more seriously than others. I personally won’t police the songs we’ll sing in worship over the next few weeks to keep out things properly reserved for Christmas, for example, but I do know of pastors who will do everything in their power to keep a sharp demarcation between Advent and Christmas — and that means no “Joy to the World” until the Lord is come.

On the one hand, a legalistic adherence to the church calendar helps no one. I can’t think of a single instance in which responding to “Merry Christmas!” with “No, it’s only Advent, you can’t say that yet” would be both spiritually beneficial and a decent, kind thing to do. (In fact, I can’t imagine saying that off the cuff without being a jerk.) For starters, not everyone observes the liturgical calendar. Not all sanctuaries just changed their color schemes from green to blue or purple; not everyone lit a candle in the name of hope this past Sunday. In fact, probably most Protestants failed to mark the Christian new year in any observable fashion whatsoever, despite it being a universal Christian thing across all denominational boundaries. And so to obliterate cheer, good will, and general niceties just for the sake of a slavish adherence to traditional liturgical appropriateness is a bad move all the way around.

On the other hand, we could use a lot more Advent in our current day and age. Ours is the era of instant gratification, after all. We don’t like waiting for anything; it seems to physically hurt us to not get what we want the second we want it. And that’s kind of crazy. I wish I knew what destroyed any semblance of patience we may have once had, but something tells me it’s a joint effort of many different things: parents who don’t tell their children no and instead give in to every demand; Netflix giving us things in complete bundles instead of on the “one episode a week” installment plan; television shows and movies that change scenes/angles every 3-6 seconds and keep us from having an attention span; and probably a whole bunch of other things. In the end, it’s still attributable to fallen human nature. Where patience is a fruit of the Spirit, a lack of it is best described as a sin problem.

Advent runs totally counter to that “I want it now!” impulse. It makes us slow down and wait. Yes, Christmas is coming. Yes, Christ will come again. But he wasn’t born this instant; his nativity won’t happen for a few more weeks yet. So no, you can’t open your presents right now. You can’t start decorating the tree before Halloween. You must wait. And wait. And wait. And . . .

. . . rejoice for twelve days straight. Because Christmas really is twelve days, you know. (Come on, people. There’s a song and everything!) Now you gain the object of your eager expectation. Sing all the carols you like, bake a figgy pudding, figure out wassailing. It’s Christmas!

But as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait. Christmas can only come after Advent, just as surely as the virgin birth followed the Annunciation. As we move into Advent, slow down. Wait a bit. Savor the moment. Delay your Christmastide gratification. And bask in the hope of the Advent promise: the King is coming.

Election Fatigue

When I left my apartment this morning, I said to the empty space, “Keep paying the bills. I hope to return before the apocalypse.”

It would have been funnier if I hadn’t halfway meant it.

If you, like everyone else in America old enough to know what’s going on, are suffering from “election fatigue,” here are a few things to get you through the days ahead.

  1. God is still on His throne.
  2. Nothing will change #1.
  3. God loves us all.
  4. Nothing will change #3.
  5. The election commercials are over!
  6. The Church is built on the Rock, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
  7. Jesus alone can save. The spilled blood of politicians will accomplish nothing. (And the odds are they won’t accomplish much living, either.)
  8. We have to have better options in 2020. (I realize I won’t be old enough to run until 2024, but I have hopes for 2020 anyway.)
  9. The world will end when God says so, not because a candidate you didn’t vote for gets elected and/or takes office.
  10. Your Facebook feeds will soon return to normal: pictures of food, cats, babies, and the current Internet obsession.

My brothers and sisters, keep the faith. We’ve almost made it. And no matter the results, the gospel we preach remains unchanged: Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again to grant us eternal life if only we believe.

This Is My Story

Many people have asked for my personal testimony, as my faith journey has taken me many places. And, to be fair, I dislike talking about my own life, so most of my story is known only to me. Today I’ll try to fix that. So, without further ado, a bit of my story, a piece of my song.

People often ask how I ended up in ministry. My response is usually along the lines of, “I’m the son of a preacher and a Sunday school teacher. I was doomed from birth.” And it’s partially true. My father is a deacon-turned-minister, and my mother taught the wee ones in Sunday school for a long, long time. Her father was our Sunday school superintendent, and his prayers at the Communion table are fresh in my mind over a decade later. My sister and I were brought up in church; if the doors were open, the Peters family was there, no excuses. And even as small children, we behaved, too. The only time I dared to sit with my rowdier cousins in church resulted in the wrath of the aforementioned grandfather, and I never ventured to cross the line in the house of God again.

Having been exposed to consistently to church-y things, I guess it was inevitable I would “make a move” at the ripe old age of seven. I told my father I wanted to become a Christian, and so one evening he sat us down in the floor beside my bed and talked to me. It wasn’t an interrogation by any means, but he asked and probed many minutes, determining whether or not I knew what I was saying in wanting to be saved (and, I suspect, seeking an indication from the Holy Spirit a small boy was under conviction). My answers seemed to satisfy him, and we went to the altar together the next Sunday when the pastor gave the invitation. And so it was I was baptized in pink-ish overalls on a boat ramp as November snow fell on the watching congregation. I remember slipping on ice; I remember a great-grandmother leaning over to my mother to say, “Kathy, he’s so little“; I remember getting wet. After that, they said I was a Christian.

As much as I could, I lived into that identity. I told all my friends at school about Jesus. I did my best to never lie. I broke down late at night in remorse for having taken a piece of another’s toy from the playground (my mom assured me I wasn’t going to hell for breaking a commandment). I had nightmares of friends and family, unsaved all, falling into a bottomless pit. And so it went for many years.

By the time I was thirteen, I began doubting my conversion. I hadn’t gone off the deep end, never really rebelled, but I was still worried. Yes, I had gone down at that altar call — even got baptized — but had my heart been in it? I hadn’t actually prayed that day on my knees, after all; seven-year-old-me hadn’t known the words. The still, small voice of God told me I needed true salvation. The active, loud voice of ego told me I could never admit that in public.

Four years later, and the Sunday came for my sister’s baptism following a revival. I could bear it no longer; I had to be God’s entirely or find some way to abandon ship. Unable to do the latter, I went forward again, this time pouring out my heart to God, begging forgiveness from Christ, and calling him Lord and Savior. For the first time in my life (it wouldn’t be the last), God spoke verbally: Welcome home. Still slightly embarrassed — I had earlier professed a call to preach — I told the congregation my story. Once again in November, I went to the water’s edge, and both of my parents’ children were baptized together.

I went home that day and emailed all my friends about my salvation (email was still a thing), news which was met with mixed reviews. Some were skeptical I had found religion; I had a reputation as, well, evil. It was hard for them to accept an unemotional, logic-driven, “morals impede efficiency,” “cheer for the villain” teenager would go for love and goodness and righteousness. Humility, after all, stood in opposition to ambition and a thirst for power. (I was a textbook Slytherin, and I know it. My friends even called me by the name of another evil wizard: Raistlin Majere.) Other friends rejoiced with me and eagerly (and rather relievedly, I’d wager) awaited the accompanying shift in personality. But life remained largely unchanged aside from my being a bit friendlier.

When I started college the next fall, I briefly became a closet atheist. Caught in the early waves of scientism, I relied on human knowledge to explain away the “theoretical” existence of God. Arrogant in this knowledge, sitting alone in my dorm room, I challenged the Almighty to show Himself. About five minutes later, I woke up and picked myself up off the floor, the desk chair I had been occupying having gone straight over backwards. I never questioned the existence of God again.

I did, however, explore other things in addition to God. I probably know more about Wicca than I should. I have extensive mental notes on other aspects of the occult, mythologies, rituals, Eastern spiritualism, and a dozen other things. But all of those adventures were thought experiments from the guy working in the university library over the summers. Research interests never put into practice.

By the end of my junior year of college, many things were in motion. I had taken a larger role in a band/music department Bible study and somehow got myself elected chaplain. I felt led to explore options for hospital chaplaincy and planned visits to seminaries. Instead of graduating early, I filled my schedule with electives, including two semesters of biblical Hebrew. The call to vocational ministry came to an English major, and I was ready to answer.

Unfortunately many things also fell apart by the next fall. My seminary of choice failed to inform me of financial aid deadlines, leaving me with no way to pay for my education. Devastated, and at the urging of my then-girlfriend, I put in for my master’s in literature. I received email notification of my acceptance to UK and graduated that May ready to become a professor. Except that never happened. Having never gotten the appropriate paperwork to enroll in the program officially, I contacted the graduate chair of English. He confirmed I had been accepted, but they had misplaced my documentation, so I had missed the deadline. Trying to remain calm with my future on the line, I requested the paperwork, saying that since the university had admitted its error, surely I’d have the chance to correct their mistake. Well, no, they said. Deadlines are deadlines; I was just out of luck.

My luck never returned. By the end of January 2009, I had quit one job and lost another, lost a chance to do a second bachelor degree in a more employable field, and my girlfriend who became my fiancee had become my ex-fiancee. No job, no marriage, no hope. In that darkness, God reminded me of my calling. I began volunteering with my church’s youth group, teaching every other week. My church confirmed my call to preached and ordained me August 29, 2009. I began a young adult group and led it until I left for seminary in 2011, a recipient of a new scholarship covering almost all of my expenses. The next three years of my life were spent getting the education I needed to do what I was called to do. They were the best years of my life (so far), and I grew closer to God the more I learned about Him.

All of my studies in historical theology and liturgics, though, pointed me to the Roman Catholic Church. I considered myself a fairly ecumenical guy, being raised in a Christian church and graduating from a Southern Baptist university before attending a Wesleyan (Methodist) seminary. But so much of the historical positions of the Church didn’t line up with my Protestant ways — and the Mass captivated me with its beauty. I began seeing the diocesan vocations director to discern a call to priesthood. And it was Father Steve who, even after I ate with the bishop and enrolled in RCIA classes, unwittingly closed that door for me. He recommended a book on mariology, and, after reading it, I couldn’t agree with the church’s positions. So while I gained a new respect for Mary (and a rosary blessed by John Paul II), I remained Protestant.

The next step down the ladder was Anglicanism, which I loved. But the Episcopal Church had no place for a theological conservative, and the Anglican Communion as a whole frowns upon my rejection of infant baptism, so I moved on. My learning eventually brought me back into the land of the Campbellites. At some point, however, the learning began to be its own end. I no longer sought a church; I sought a classroom, a podium, not a pulpit. I tried to find a Ph.D. program, with the full support of friends, family, and professors alike.

And then I went to Korea.

The full tale of that trip is told elsewhere, but it was on a mountain in South Korea God once again called me to become a pastor. I returned to our lodgings that night and, from 11,000 miles away, changed my course schedule to better prepare me for a life in ministry instead of academia. I did internships at a megachurch and a Hispanic church, then graduated with my M.Div. a year after I landed back in America and began searching for a church.

Nothing happened.

I had once quipped to a mentor that if none of my 30+ applications panned out, God clearly didn’t want me in ministry. I was hired by the 321st church to receive my resume (no, that isn’t a typo), a Disciples of Christ congregation in Wichita, Kansas. But I was made to wait for a reason. My other grandfather was on his deathbed, and my father and I led him to Christ. I baptized him in the hospital; never have I seen a man so proud of his baptism certificate. He died a Christian at the end of December; I performed his funeral (an extended graveside service) in January; and I moved to Kansas in February.

I stayed four months.

The church and I had a serious disagreement over gay marriage, and I was left no option but to resign. I returned to Kentucky in July knowing I had made the right decision but feeling defeated nevertheless. It would take until December for another church to express interest in me. By that time, I had reapplied to grad school, uncertain as to my future as a clergyman.

The next February, one year after having left for Kansas, I began as youth minister at my current church. At the end of my third day on the job, my senior minister announced his resignation. Feeling a bit like the rug had been pulled out from under me, I decided to wait until they had hired a new senior minister before fully committing or, on the flip side, packing up one more time. I had been accepted for graduate studies; the escape plan was ready.

A couple of friends had joked this was all my attempt to secure power and I would just change offices. I told them time and time again no youth minister gets hired and promoted a month later. I believed that, too, right up until the elders came into my office to ask if I “would consider the head coaching job.”

And here I am. And here I will stay until God calls me elsewhere. Period.

Most testimonies I hear are along the lines of “God delivered me from _________, and now I’m free!” Well, I don’t have that kind of story. The best I can say as an analog is God delivered me from myself. The Hound of Heaven chased me across spiritualities, denominations, theologies, and continents. He taught me untold things even as He pursued me. I ran until He caught me. And when He did, the real work began. My teenage self would be appalled that he grew up to be a contemplative shepherd of souls (and not a supervillain like everyone expected). But I’m not that boy. God cut off bits of me and added others. He changed me, made me new. He delivered me from myself.

And that has made an eternal difference.

Bibliology

I took a couple of vacation days last week. One thing which helped me relax more than anything else was pulling the plug on Facebook for a couple of days. For just those precious few hours, I could afford to have zero online presence. I could remain blissfully unaware of the public outpouring of life’s most intimate details — and better: no belligerent political posts the entire time. My soul was refreshed. In place of it all, I got even more reading done than usual.

Of course, if we are what we eat, then we also think how we read. The ideas we willingly ingest, the ones in which we marinate our minds for hours, eventually become our own. Oh sure, we give proper credit to the originator of those ides, but we still speak them and believe them just the same. Who among us can truthfully say a book, any book, has never made an impact on our lives? Who can rightly claim the printed word, ink on paper in a binding, has never influenced their thinking one jot? Even if we ourselves never pick up a book (the horror!), the people we interact with each day do, and their choice of reading material thus affects us, too, albeit indirectly. Yes, books have nigh infinite capabilities to alter even our paradigmatic beliefs.And that’s what makes them so very dangerous.

For that reason, I, bibliovore than I am, have frequently purged my own library. There have been books I have read and owned which made me a worse human being. Oddly enough, they have always been fiction. I’ve read things as morally repulsive as The Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf, for example, without becoming a socialist or a fascist. Such bold claims are easily rejected for their very boldness, just as a woman may smack a particularly lascivious suitor for his brazenness. The ideas which get to me are more insidious, fundamental assumptions made for the sake of the narrative. And once convinced of their truth and necessity (for the book’s sake) to make the world go ’round, it’s difficult to shake the notion those ideas are foundational for the real world, too.

Such is the power and the danger of books.

We’ve all bought into false narratives before. We’ve all had to dispel the errant notions undergirding our thinking; we’ve all experienced paradigm shifts. Sometimes it’s even been because of good things.

As Christians, our lives are Theocentric — God-centered. We organize everything we do around God, around the gospel of Jesus Christ. To do so, however, requires a book. We come to know God first and foremost through the written (and subsequently preached) word of God, the Holy Bible. That word — that book — provides central guiding principles for our lives. It offers a complete worldview, teaching us how to think, how to scrutinize the countervalues spoken to us by the world. It provides something holy and good, and that is what should fill our minds: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellent, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).

That’s our guideline for all entertainments (and other things), too, to be sure. But let us apply it especially to our books, to those things which so directly affect our worldview — and which may lead us into the path of salvation.

Regeneration

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.

Unapologetic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The World of Gardeners

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

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

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

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

Mama Nature can’t be too happy right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us worship God by taking care of His world.