Ch-Ch-Changes

For the last two-ish months, my life has been one change after another. As soon as I think I get things settled, another transition moment jumps me in a dark alley and demands my wallet. Well, maybe not, but it occasionally feels that way. Really, though, I could extend that metaphor for the last two years, not just months. Just to keep score, in the last two years I have:

  1. Graduated from seminary.
  2. Spent too much time trying to find a full-time ministry position, preaching my way across Kentucky, Indiana, and Georgia.
  3. Moved to Kansas to start a new ministry position.
  4. Resigned from said position and moved back to Kentucky.
  5. Was called to another church to serve.
  6. Moved to a decently-close part of Kentucky to serve said church as youth minister.
  7. Went from youth minister on a staff of two to “guy who does everything, party of one.”
  8. Transitioned into an interim senior minister position from my youth ministry job (at the same church) while welcoming an interim youth director to fill the spot I was vacating.

Changes. Perhaps too many changes. And yes, they take a toll, but when I look at the big picture, I see I’m exactly where I need to be right now, doing exactly what I need to be doing. This is God’s will for my life.

It often takes a bit of time to gain that sort of perspective. Few people embrace change willy-nilly, so to speak. We all need time to transition into and out of roles, time to process what’s going on, what needs to be done, and our role in doing it. We tend to cleave to what went on before, ever looking backward at what is past instead of looking forward to that which is to come. While we shouldn’t rush changes or enact change simply for the sake of change, we also can’t be afraid to let go, to jump in, and to do what needs to be done.

Today I was reminded of the person I used to be in college (which is longer ago than I would care to admit). I would never go back to being that person, but I still have a twinge of nostalgia for the college life, for the things I experienced in those years. It’s during those moments of reminiscence I hear Jay Gatsby’s voice whisper in my ear: “Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can!”

Well, no. You can’t. And you shouldn’t. The things which are past, those things we’re afraid to change in order to have a better future? We call those “sacred cows.” And sacred cows have a way of becoming golden calves.

If we focus too much on “We’ve always done this,” we make the past an idol. We get locked into routines of worship, routines of life, routines of thought from which we can but won’t break free. Churches stagnate and die. Friend groups wither away. All because we won’t let go of our idol of “This is how it’s always been.” We try to repeat the past and watch as the future disappears. The old saying, “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you’ve always got” doesn’t necessarily hold true anymore. It seems more accurate these days to say, “If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll also lose what you’ve already got.”

To be fair (and somewhat balanced), I would by no means advocate a church in particular give up its history. It can’t fully break with its past, its origins, the lives of so many of its saints. (This is one reason I love the liturgical year.) A church should likewise never abandon the truth of the Bible as expressed throughout the history of the Church. We can’t innovate new readings of the text which deny its historical understanding and which fly in the face of the text itself. We can’t water down the Gospel to suit itching ears. But we can present it in new ways. We can preach, teach, and sing our theology in ways which make it understandable (and perhaps even appealing) to our communities — all in ways which retain its integrity.

(Aside: Please never use the word “relevant” in conversation with me about worship. Worship is always relevant. The Bible is always relevant. Let’s stop pretending we somehow have to change it to make it applicable to our lives. It always has been and always will be.)

Thankfully our God exists outside of time. He doesn’t dwell on the past or worry over the future. He’s already there — in both cases. And He’s here with us, the God who was, who is, and who ever shall be. Let’s move forward together into the future God has in store for us, praising Him for the past and present which we have been given.

Even if we have to change a few things to get there.

Stuff and Things

I’m a closet ascetic. Well, I like to tell myself that, at least. At one point it was true, too. I may have never taken a vow of poverty, but I certainly didn’t own much, nor did I care to. Just as an example, when my freshman roommate and I moved into our college dorm room, we discovered they had booked two people into a single-person room. As such, we only had a single desk, a single five-drawer chest, and a single closet rack. After stowing our gear, we still had space on the rack and an entirely empty chest drawer. That’s how much stuff we didn’t bring with us.

Flash forward twelve years. I just moved again, and it took a 20′ Uhaul. I’m not married. I filled a twenty-foot-long truck (and my car, and my mom’s SUV) with just my stuff.

Not good.

I would love to say I have things I can easily discard, but that’s just not true. Do I need everything I own in order to survive? No. There are a few luxuries I allow myself (primarily books — my latest tally is a nice, round 555), but otherwise, I use it all. I have no surplus of unidentifiable kitchen utensils; I wear every article of clothing I own; and my (admittedly few) guests tend to appreciate having a couch to sit upon during their stay. Yet my life seems cluttered, and that clutter calls out for its own. I find myself increasingly falling prey to the notion that if I could get my hands on just this one other thing, I wouldn’t need to bring anything else into my life. This isn’t a problem I used to wrestle with, and yet it’s popping up with alarming frequency.

I hadn’t realized how bad this had gotten until a couple of weeks ago. As you probably figured out, I’m a book hoarder. It’s difficult for me to pass up a book, and once I’ve read it, I’ll keep it even if I know I’ll never crack open the spine again. I wasn’t really aware of that problem until I received an offer in the mail for a free book: Kitchen and Food Safety for Ministries. A certain part of my brain whispered Free book! to my heart, and the battle was almost lost. Then the more reasonable part of my brain chimed in. Hang on a minute. Why would we ever need this? You don’t run a church kitchen. You can barely feed yourself. There’s no conceivable situation in which you will ever need or read this book, so maybe we should just give it a miss this time, free-ness notwithstanding. Luckily, that side won the day, and I passed on the chance to get a totally free, totally unnecessary book.

Perhaps we all have things like that. Something’s out there which immediately triggers the I need this right now instinct in us. Or maybe it doesn’t even require a trigger; we just naturally want to go on accumulating things like a mammalian magpie bringing shinies back to our nests. We don’t need those things, and we may never even open the boxes after we buy them, but we’re still driven to get them, to claim them, to call them . . . precious.

To me, that speaks of a soul issue. Instead of filling our lives with the One who gives us life, we fill them with stuff and things. Instead of decluttering our hearts so we can see the Savior waiting for take up his abode with us, we create little mountains of junk which block our view so we don’t have to look at him as he pleads with us to make room for him. We consume and consume without ever making or mending. We make sacrifices to have more stuff instead of sacrificing the stuff to have more life. And when Christ said he came to give us a more abundant life (John 10:10), he wasn’t talking about giving us everything thing on our Christmas lists (and oh, the irony of calling them that). Instead our abundant life comes with a warning: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).

Your stuff in the living room may not be money in the bank, but it was still money, wealth, possessions. And really, if you think about, all that stuff represents hours of your life. When you work, you get paid. That money is reimbursement for the hours you spent working (hence the idea of the hourly wage). If you make $10 an hour and buy a $100 item, it took ten hours of your life to pay for that purchase. How much is your time with your family worth? Time with friends? At church? Serving God in other ways?  If you spend all your time working to get money to get stuff, then that stuff is your master. It rules you, demands you devote your life to acquiring and maintaining it instead of using that time elsewhere. Like in service of God.

Maybe we don’t need, truly need, as much as we all think we do. Maybe there are things we can do without in order to break the chains they’ve wrapped around our souls. Maybe a simple life is the best life, one lived without thought to the next Big Thing which promises to make us finally, truly happy — and which never can, never will, because the only Person which can do that is God Almighty.

 

Idols on the Court

It’s happened to all of us. Maybe we did it ourselves. Maybe we overheard someone else do it. Or perhaps we were the minister to whom it was done.

“Preacher, you gotta wrap this up early today. The game comes on when church lets out!”

Yeah. That.

It’s a proven fact that on game day, the pews are a little emptier than they normally are. That holds true even if the game begins well after church, as many people will skip or leave early in order to get their “let’s watch the game” party together (especially during tournament times like March Madness or the Superbowl). When it comes to queso or the cross, it seems chips-and-dip often wins.  Then there’s the area of children’s sports. Many children’s leagues have claimed the times ordinarily reserved specifically for the church, and now, instead of bringing them to worship or to youth group, parents drive their kids to Wednesday evening practices and Sunday morning and afternoon games. Occasionally they protest the team is taking time away from church, but I have yet to hear a protesting parent who was seriously considering finding another activity for their child which didn’t require those specific time commitments.

Sports is easily the most culturally accepted idol of our age (although the twin idols of “self” and “humanism” seem to be giving it a run for its money). It’s thought that some 96% of people have some sort of connection to sports, whether it’s playing on a team, supporting friends or family on a team, or simply being the people who, rain or shine, root, root, root for the home team. (And if they don’t win, it really is a shame.) Regularly-scheduled television programs get moved or booted off the air to allow viewers to watch the games. Ticket prices to get into arenas and stadiums can fetch upwards of thousands of dollars. Athletes themselves rake in tens of millions of dollars each year to play their games and compete in their events.  After all, in a culture of bread and circuses, we must have our circuses.

This is not to say, however, sports are somehow inherently evil. They’re not. Many young women and young men have found families in their teams. They’ve been molded by coaches who poured into their lives as no one else ever could. They learned the value of teamwork and hard work and working for something they truly want. Citizenship, a regard for the rules, humility and grace in the face of defeat, all of these things are taught by sports. All of these things help grow individuals and make them into solid, responsible human beings.

The problem only comes when we keep things out of balance, as our culture seems to do when it comes to sports. As much as I love Kentucky, and as much as I cheer for the Wildcats (which is far less than the average UK fan, I must admit), I will forever be outraged and ashamed at the riots which take place during the NCAA tournament when the Cats lose . . . and when they win. I’ll never understand the level of fanaticism which requires the villainization of fans of other teams or which mandates the victimizing of hapless bystanders. Things are not as they should be.

When I personally refer to “The Big Ten,” I mean the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments (not the athletic conference). The first of the Big Ten is, quite simply, “You shall have no other gods before me.” In its original ancient context, it meant that literally. There were many other gods on the market, and the Israelites knew about them: Ba’al, Molech, Chemosh, Tiamat, Astarte, Marduk, Isis, Thoth, Ra, Osiris, you name it. To have no other gods before YHWH meant to worship no other gods, period. This was a jealous God who demanded absolute loyalty and who would never be satisfied with “You can worship me and some other deity, too.”

I said that’s what it meant in the original context, but it still means that today, too. Other gods still vie for the worship of mortals, including those I listed. Personally, I think those other gods are demons masquerading as something worthy of worship — they just happen to succeed on occasion. Think about the upswing in paganism in places like Greece, Iceland, and the U.K. Those other gods still want to be worshiped. In our contemporary context, though, we also seem to have an overabundance of other things trying to play at being gods: beauty, wealth, fame, status, sex, career, family . . . sports.

When you decide to go to a game and not to church, you’ve put your sports ahead of your God. When you think the pastor should let you go early because you have a game to watch, you’ve put your sports ahead of your God. When you teach your children to never miss church unless they have a game or a practice session, you’ve put your sports ahead of your God. Or perhaps I should say you’ve made your sports your god.  Go out, play ball, enjoy the game. Really. But do it in a way that keeps it in its proper place. Don’t turn the tournament trophy or the star quarterback into an idol. Don’t let your team become your pantheon. Worship your God with your heart, soul, mind, strength — and your money, your priorities, and your time.

You can always record a game, but you should never put something else before God.

 

I Love Jesus and I Love Religion

The current mindset of much of the world is one of atheism, or, at best, a sort of apathetic agnosticism. A potential cause for the problem many postmoderns have offered is that “religion” is simply turning people off from the faith. They don’t like the rites, the prayers, the rituals, the commitments. A growing number of those who identify as Christians are taking the same stand. “I love Jesus,” they say, “but I hate religion.” You can buy any number of t-shirts with the now-common phrase “Relationship not Religion”  or even “Relationship > Religion.”

I hear you. I do. I am not a fan of hollow religious observance, either. I firmly believe everything a church does (and thus everything a Christian does for the sake of his/her Lord) should have deeply theological reasons behind it. When I say “everything,” I mean, “everything.” Everything from how much Scripture is read on a Sunday to what gets put out in the clothing program to how we decorate the sanctuary to the architecture of the building itself. On the individual level, how often we attend church, what songs we sing, what media we consume, how we treat our friends and ourselves . . . the list is literally endless. We must be thinking about these things from a Christian perspective. We need to understand why we do what we do, and we must do everything for a reason.

Somehow, we’ve lost sight of that. We’ve turned worship into a consumeristic “get people in the door” enterprise instead of a means of evangelism and discipleship. It’s easy to say we don’t like religion when we don’t understand what happens in the Mass, or hate repeating the same words in a praise chorus over and over again, or when we almost fall asleep listening to the pastor recite the same prayer or same sermon each and every Sunday. It becomes stagnant. It dies. It becomes “religion.” (Air quotes.)

Only . . . that’s not what “religion” means. That’s not what it means at all.

Somewhere along the way, the term got hijacked and cast in a totally negative light by atheists and believers (particularly evangelicals) alike. It’s used as a scapegoat by both groups, and both use “religion” to refer to the reason the world is in such sad shape. Atheists say religion holds us backs and keeps us from using human reason. The spiritual-but-not-religious crowd says religion keep us from truly loving Jesus and thus making a difference in the world. Frankly, I think they’re both wrong. I think deeply religious people are the ones who truly change the world. It’s hard to want to aid the inbreaking of the kingdom of God if you don’t think it exists. And as for the latter group, well, if you didn’t have “religion,” you wouldn’t have Jesus.

Let me explain.

A religion, in broadest possible terms, is a system of beliefs about what I’m going to call ultimates. It can be about a deity such as God, a pantheon of minor gods, the idea that everything contains divinity, or even that a particular way to think is the end-all-be-all which will unlock the secrets of the universe (as in scientism). However you believe you encounter ultimate truth about the universe, that’s your religion. Atheism is a religion in this way of thinking, too, because its belief about a deity is that there isn’t one; instead the universe claims the throne of the ultimate (as does science for many). Christianity is a religion, Islam is a religion, Buddhism and Sikhism and Baha’i and Zoroastrianism and paganism and . . . They’re all systems of beliefs about ultimates. About divinity and deity and the true nature of things.

Jesus was a deeply religious man.

All the rituals and rites and observances you don’t want to keep? Jesus celebrated his own version of them in his own time. He observed Passover and other Jewish festivals. He was concerned about personal holiness. He submitted himself to baptism. He attended and taught in the synagogues and the temple. He taught people how to encounter God in all things. He even instituted a new rite: Holy Communion, a.k.a. the Eucharist, a.k.a. the Lord’s Supper. Look at it this way: Jesus culminated one religion and established a new one right down to the rules needed to be in it and the processes and procedures, the rituals and rites, which adherents would need to follow.

Sounds like a pretty religious guy to me. Not like someone who would shy away from rituals and prayers and feasts and churches. It seems to me he embraced all of these and said, “This is the way you will draw close to me. I give you new things to do, new cycles and patterns of living which will reveal myself to you each time you live into them.”  It’s why we have bread and wine and why we immerse people in water: because God comes to us, reveals Himself to us, in these physical things we do, and in the doing, we proclaim Him to the world. These are the things which deepen and exhibit our relationship to the Risen Savior. These are the things we use to worship.

Do they themselves offer salvation apart from faith? Absolutely not, for salvation requires the grace of God, not the works of human beings. But they’re how we maintain our relationship with Him. I mean, you wouldn’t say you had a relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend if you never went on a date, right? You wouldn’t have a solid relationship with your friends and family if you never talked to them or hung out with them. You wouldn’t consider yourself an employee of a place for which you never work. Why do we treat the God who wired us for relationship any differently? Why do we believe we can have the fullness of a relationship with God when we do nothing to stay in touch? Do nothing He’s commanded us to do? Never visit His house, never receive the Communion elements, never celebrate the birth and the resurrection and everything in-between?

Again, Christ has commanded us to do these things, and as he himself said, “If you love me, keep my commandments. . . . Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me” (John 14:15,23-24). Just thinking about God, just saying “Yeah, I know he’s there, so I’ll try not to hurt anybody” will never be enough. You can’t be spiritual enough. And your relationship isn’t greater than the religion; the religion is the relationship, and that relationship will never be complete without the “religion” to go with it.

I love Jesus. I value my spirituality, and I treasure my relationship with the Triune God of grace and glory. And that’s precisely why I love religion. I could never come to God on my own terms. I could never do enough on my own; I couldn’t even know what to do. I could never know who He is without His revelation and His commands — without His religion. And for that reason, and because I know I have that personal relationship with a personal savior, I will stand boldly and proclaim myself a Christian, an adherent of Christianity, a member of the Christian religion.

Zeitgeist und Heilige Geist

I like languages. I’ve always been fascinated with the way we use sounds and scratches on dead trees to convey meaning. And I like people who like languages, too; I once dated a girl who was fluent in six or seven different dialects (which put me to shame, and I’m no slouch myself). Today’s title borrows a word from German without an English equivalent (and so I thought, why not put the whole thing in German): zeitgeist. Literally it’s a compound word of “time-ghost” (which sound a bit wibbly-wobbly), and so it refers to what we think of as “the spirit of the age,” or “the spirit of the times.”

Every age in history has its own zeitgeist, its own particular cultural consensus as to how it views the world. Think of the Roaring Twenties and its accompanying sense of decadence, or the relative prudery of Victorian England, or the unflagging courage and valor of the Greatest Generation, or of the “flower power” of 1960s America. These are examples of the spirits of the age. They arise in every time period in every culture. They may even be in competition with each other depending on where one finds oneself; academia may have one prevailing wind, as it were, and rural areas another; Europe may be in opposition to Africa; you get the idea.

So what’s our current American zeitgeist? What’s the spirit of our age and area which defines how our culture looks at the world? It arises out of a confluence of different factors, but we can look at several of them. The political landscape, foremost on people’s minds this election year, is just a mess. It’s a combination of optimism and sheer horror.  (As one anonymous commentator on the Internet has said, “It’s like this is the final season of America and the writers are just going crazy.”) I think it’s also tinged with a bit of xenophobia, with the “other” being whatever is appropriate for your context: immigrants, homosexuals, Republicans, Gen X-ers, Christians, Muslims, what have you. Then we have to take into account a rampant individualism, especially as evidenced in the proponents of abortion, LGBT advocacy, the quickly-declining marriage rate, the steadily-rising divorce rate, the preference of young adults to rent rather than own homes (and thus not be tied down, among other reasons), the ubiquitous selfie, etc. Many, many things which point to the Self as the Golden Calf of our times. If I had to characterize our zeitgeist in two words, then, I would choose these: fear and narcissism. We love ourselves, and we’re scared of anything that a) isn’t us and b) might prevent us from being who we truly want to be.

One man’s opinion.

The problem with any spirit of the age, however, is that it must ultimately deal with the spirit: the Holy Spirit, the Heilige Geist from the title. An unchanging God will not bend to the personal preferences of particular people, nor will He kowtow to the whims of those who wish Him nonexistent or a carbon of themselves. God is God — and He is a holy God. A Holy Spirit cannot get mired down in the sins of the world without ceasing to be holy. And so God can participate in neither the fear nor the ego of our current zeitgeist. He stands as loving Father and final Judge of this age and all others. When the spirit of the age comes into conflict with the Holy Spirit, our loyalty must always be to the latter. We can’t let ourselves get so caught up in the world we lose sight of the holy; we can’t focus on the temporal to the exclusion of the eternal. And so we rest our identities and our souls in the one who stands outside of time.

Our worship should do the same. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating for solely traditional worship, and I’m not suggesting we should move into the purely contemporary (my thoughts on the so-called worship wars will come later). But we shouldn’t let our Christian practices of worship be dictated by popular opinion. We must continue to do what is holy and what is sacred. We continue on with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, regardless of rhythm; we continue to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the lost souls in a dark world; we celebrate the Table and we baptize those who come to saving faith; and we take our renewed bodies, hearts, minds, and souls out to the highways and hedges and compel them to come in.  That’s the real point of worship: to ascribe blessing, honor, glory, and power to the God who deserves it and to invite others to a place where they can do the same.

The church must continue to be a community called from among the world, called away from the zeitgeist, but then it must always go back out to the same world to offer it a different Spirit. The Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit from a holy God of holy love.