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.

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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.