A Higher Allegiance

This Sunday marks one of those uniquely complicated situations a majority of pastors and worship leaders – at least those in America – face each year.

Memorial Day is an important day in our country’s calendar. On this day, we commemorate the sacrifice of the men and women in the United States Armed Forces who have perished in the midst of their service. It is a solemn day of remembrance for a reality that is all too present in our world. As much as the pundits and politicians may prattle about patriotic ideals of freedom and peace, Memorial Day is nonetheless a reminder that violence grows like a cancer on the human race. It seems the nations of the world cannot keep from locking their horns from time to time, not to mention, in the intervening seasons, sharpening, preening, and polishing for the next challenger.

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Come at me, bro.

Because Memorial Day falls on a Monday, the preceding Sunday worship service must not only be planned in light of the expectation that a significant portion of congregants will be absent due to the long weekend’s festivities (the lake’s not going to water ski itself), but also with regard to how much of this nationwide moment of remembrance should be present within the public liturgy of Sunday’s worship. The latter, of course, is the complicated part.

The worship of the Church is ultimately singular in its focus. It’s about God. A key expression of the soul’s response to the generous omnipotency of God the Father, the world-changing gospel of Jesus the Son, and the mysterious indwelling of the Holy Spirit is an outpouring of adoration, thanksgiving, confession, and celebration. Congregational worship is when our individual outpourings are united together in what we call “the communion of saints.” It’s the Voltron of Christian devotion – individual worship is powerful, but corporate worship is extraordinary.

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PICTURED: 1 Corinthians 12:12

Each week, I sit down with my church’s worship leaders to carefully craft that Sunday’s order of service. While I truly believe preaching to be an art form – that preparing, writing, and delivering a sermon is a uniquely creative act that warrants both individual talent and exhaustive practice – the same can be argued for the planning of a worship service. Constructing a service of congregational worship – painstakingly considering its various movements and individual elements – is not unlike composing a poem. Each line matters. Each word, even. No piece is included without reason No part should be phoned in. The songs spur the prayers, which reflect the salvific message of the Scriptures, which are expounded upon in the sermon, and responded to before the table and altar. And what is this poem about? What is its theme? What is the primary focus?

God.

Always, only God.

Which brings me back to the awkward complications of the pre-Memorial Day worship service. So solemn and respectful is the nature of this day and its prescribed observance that it seems insensitive and heartless for the local church to ignore it within its corporate worship. After all, Memorial Day is, at its core, an acknowledgment of the tragedy of death and the veneration of sacrifice for a cause far greater than oneself. It is a secular observance, yes, born out of the inherent rage of nations and cultures. But if the gathered local church cannot or will not speak to such a moment, I have to question its continued relevance to society in general.

Despite what many professing Christians (as well as some of those same pundits and politicians) may claim, America is not a Christian nation. It is a pluralist nation. The Constitution was crafted under the belief that while the moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian expressions of faith were largely good for civic order and lawfulness, religious exclusivity was not. As such, the founding fathers who were Christians did not seek to legislate their faith any more than the founding fathers who were deists, or atheists, did. So, while the words “separation of Church and state” do not appear in its lines (but rather in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802), the first words of the First Amendment to the Constitution certify the necessary separation of these two entities. This is a good thing. Politicking aside, America bears no national religion. There is no state church. (We take oaths on Bibles, yes, despite the fact that Jesus himself warned us not to do that.)

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From the look of it, you’d think we only had one of these.

I know some colleagues who refuse to acknowledge Memorial Day, Independence Day, or any other secular American observance within their churches. Their reasoning is that it contradicts the theological focus of worship, and dangerously blurs the demarcating line that must run between the Church and the state. I have other friends who are pacifists, some who hail from denominational traditions that uphold pacifism as a tenet of Christian discipline; to them, taking a moment to honor those who have willingly stepped away from such an ideal smacks of hypocrisy. It is not that they aren’t thankful for soldiers who defend their country – it is simply that a worship service is meant to be an outpouring of thanks to God, not to man.

And yet, for the gathered church to turn blind eyes and deaf ears to a nationally recognized moment of remembrance for those who have laid down their lives… well, it just feels wrong. Even if the cause for which these men and women have given their lives is not a godly one, God is indeed present in ungodly places and situations. He is on the bases and carriers, in the O.P.s, Humvees, and cockpits, and surrounding the war-torn communities caught in the middle. War may be hell, but God does not wince at the sight of it.

For pastors seeking to point people to the glory of God and the matchless wonder of his holy kingdom – to assist congregants in lifting their heads above the brambled treeline of this violent world in order to behold the Truth that transcends our man-made darknesses – these moments in the year where our lesser, nationalistic identity points weigh heavy on our minds presents a dilemma. Vice President Mike Pence famously said, “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” I respect that. However, if he is indeed a Christian “first,” then he understands that one’s Christian identity does not always run congruent with the other two. To assume it does is to water down one’s faith in order to make it more palatable for our earthly pursuits and preferences.

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“… a Hoosier fourth, a tenor fifth, a CostCo Club Member sixth, a Belieber seventh… let’s see, what else?”

Hence the complications in planning a worship service that acknowledges Memorial Day, but does not equate its observance with true Christian worship. It is a dilemma not easily addressed or answered. Is there a way to respectfully acknowledge the kingdom of man while engaged in worship of the Kingdom of God? Is there room in our worship for commemorating those who have fallen in defense of the former? After all, while Jesus ordered Peter to sheath his sword, neither did he blame the man for wanting to draw it in the first place.

Here is what I know. I know that a Christian is one who has pledged himself or herself to a higher allegiance. I know that, ultimately, we live not in hope of a more orderly and sensible earthly kingdom, but in hope of a divine kingdom fully consummated on earth as it is in heaven. I know, also, that this hope must not detach or remove us from the present concerns of society. I know we must engage this world as it is, not only as we believe it should be/will be. I know that worshipping communities must not ignore the harsh realities of our day, but rather sow seeds of peace at every opportunity. Church and state may be separate in America, but this is no justification for Christians to divorce themselves from the world, even as we await a better one.

The Fullness and the Emptiness of Ritual

When I think back on the worship experiences of my youth, specifically those that took place in the little Baptist church I attended with my parents, I can picture a lot of meaningful moments. I recall the way the pews creaked beneath the weight of the parishioners, the trembling warble of the organ during communion, and the sound of congregational hymns belted out loudly in that diminutive sanctuary, the old men loudly grumbling, “Hasten so glad and free-ee-ee!” while the rest of us sang the melody. When I think of all these things, I smile. For the most part, my church upbringing was a good one. I’m aware not everyone can claim this, of course, so I am exceedingly grateful that I can.

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Yeah, this place doesn’t exist.

And yet, there are some things that I can’t remember, not because my memory has been clouded by the density of years, but because the memories simply do not exist. For all the pleasant aspects of that worshipping community who molded me, there were some important elements nonetheless missing from my experience.

For instance, I can’t remember candles in the sanctuary, aside from those stubby ones we used on Christmas Eve – not a single wick burning in a votive or candelabra on any Sunday of year. Neither do I remember the aroma of incense ever filling the room. I have no recollection of a soaked rag on my bare feet, or a thumb tracing a gritty line of ashes upon my forehead. And I can’t even remember a moment of silence – an intentional one, that is, as opposed to those fleeting, quiet moments spent waiting  for an usher to climb the stage to give the offertory prayer.

I can’t remember going to a Good Friday service. I do not recall participating in a Maundy Thursday observance. And it wasn’t until graduate school that I dared set foot in an Ash Wednesday service.

Now, it’s not that these worship elements or “holy day” observances were explicitly condemned in my little Baptist church. However, as far back as I can recall, none of them were sanctioned either. (We did get Fridays off of school back then, along with the Monday after Easter, but I think that had more to do with training workshops for teachers than anything religious.)

When it came to these sensory components, and special worship services, a pervading sentiment existed within the majority of church-goers among whom I grew up that such things were extraneous to true worship. Unnecessary. Some went so far as to imply they were detrimental to our faith, possibly even dangerous.

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“Pentecost Sunday sounds like it’s for the Pentecostals, boy! You wanna celebrate a feast day, Christmas’ll be here in seven months.”

Just about every person I heard say such things would cite the same reason. They would say things like candles and silence, Ash Wednesdays and Maundy Thursdays, were “empty rituals.” What this meant, it seems, was that such institutions which hailed from past eras and periods of history, if ever they were worthwhile to begin with, were wrung dry of real meaning long ago. This, it seemed, was our community’s predominant holdover from the Reformation, in which Protestant viewpoints challenged the 1000+-year teachings of the Roman-Catholic Church: the numerous conventions, traditions, and customs established during those years were just desolate echoes of significant spiritual devotion. They didn’t – couldn’t – mean anything anymore. They were bankrupt of any eternal weight.

That same sentiment acidified the conceptions and sharpened the tones many of my fellow church-goers held toward other denominations, too. Whenever talk turned to another congregation’s worship, especially those considered more “high church” (translation: different than our own), their brows would furrow with ever-increasing concern. The Lutherans and Methodists down the street were fine… I guess. The Church of Christ folks were tolerable, sure, but they probably needed to get over that whole no-instruments-in-worship gaffe. The Presbyterians a few blocks away were troubling, what with all their sitting, standing, and responsive readings. Then there were the Episcopals who gathered a half-mile further down the road – they were as disturbing as their church building’s maverick architecture. And as for the Catholics on the other side of town, well, how could anyone really worship “in spirit and truth” with the stench of sulphur and brimstone stinking up the place?

Don’t get me wrong. I am deeply thankful for the Reformation, for the courageous and brilliant teachings of men like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Knox, Cranmer, Melanchthon, and Simons. And I think in some ways their critiques of worship – differing from one another as they might have been – were necessary indictments of a system that, in a variety of ways, had become sacramentalized into triviality (that is, over-ritualized to the point of folk superstition). Indeed, the Western Church was long overdue for a thorough spring cleaning, and Protestant theology and ecclesiology was the steel wool to the Holy Roman Empire’s tarnishes.

But in the righteous fervor many denominational traditions  have exhibited over the last four-to-five centuries to “do church” the right way – free of the constraints of a once-corrupt and power-drunk system – we made the tragic mistake of throwing innocent babies out with the sullied bath water. In other words, rather than carefully demarcating ourselves only from the specific beliefs and policies we found wanting, instead we gathered up everything bearing even a whiff of the other side and chucked it atop the trash heap. So it was that numerous disciplines, practices, and devotional observances, which continue to bear eternal significance, are often nowhere to be found in many “evangelical” churches today. We considered sensory disciplines like silence, visio divina and centering prayer too mystical, liturgical feasts like Epiphany, Annunciation, and Christ the King too obscure, and symbology like ashes, incense, and iconography too esoteric. Generation after generation of Protestant and evangelical pastors decided against teaching how these diverse elements offered deeper perspectives and unique pictures of the mystery of Christ. Instead, we chocked them up to being less effective communicators of the gospel than our preferred worship elements like baptistries and choir lofts, or church observances like sunrise services and Christmas Eve candlelights.

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How did folks get by without these back in the Middle Ages?

It’s a shame, really. Because, when freed from the chains of rote tradition, these less modern forms of worship still sing with substantial beauty and depth. Baptists are certainly among the “low church” traditions who, over the years, have tenaciously avoided any activities or practices that looked, sounded, felt, smelled, or tasted Catholic (which more often than not is simply our catch-all synonym for any “mystical,” “obscure,” and “esoteric” worship experiences). And while there may indeed have been some healthy reasons for this kind of distancing a couple hundred years ago, those reasons are head-scratchingly flimsy today.

Because here’s the thing about “empty ritual” – the ritual itself does not choose to become vacant. It is the flesh-and-blood worshippers who, year after year, generation after generation, misuse ritual. We are the ones who drain our rituals of their original meanings, because we have the instinctual, bad habit of taking our eyes off the marvelous views they offer.

It is not unlike living in a small, remote cottage by the sea. When you first move in, you pull your best chair up to the wide rear window and, with a steaming mug of coffee in your hand, sit down each morning to gaze out at the gorgeous scene, and watch the waves tumbling into shore, the cormorants spiraling in the dawning sky, and the sun gilding the surface of the water as it climbs atop the horizon.

But, the longer you reside in the cottage, you cannot help growing used to all this. That ocean view becomes more and more normal and common. Little household responsibilities begin to draw your attention. There are house plants to water, dishes to wash, clothes to hang on the line, not to mention an ever-increasing Netflix queue beckoning you from the other room.

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What? Did you think you could really survive out here without an Internet connection?

Now, you’re not so callous that you would ignore the view altogether. After all, that is what makes this little cottage so special to begin with. But the demands and distractions of life bear no respect for morning meditations in front of that window, and after a while not only are you pouring a smaller amount of coffee and spending less time in the chair, but the time you are putting in is no longer coming from a place of inward captivation, but outward obligation. The view from the window never changes, but your reverence for it does. It becomes, in your mind, merely a holdover from earlier days in the house, something devoid of power, even though it is you who no longer submits to its power.

More often than not, this is what becomes of ritual in the Church. Some hold onto it tenaciously even as they lose their own reverence for it, while others reject it outright because they have been told there is no power – no truth – in it. Not anymore, at least. But that is not the case! These disciplines, observances, and symbols established in ancient days by our great cloud of witnesses never lost their power. No, the problem lies with us modern worshippers. We just got lazy, or we got overcritical, or both.

Here’s the kicker: I’m writing this not as an intellectual observation, but out of my own experience of (re)discovery of these ancient, often maligned, practices.

I spent several of my initial years in the ministry searching for a fresh, genuine experience in the faith. I went to a plethora of conferences and festivals, visited churches who promoted and boasted the latest in modern worship methods and styles. I read book after book by pastors and evangelists trying to “repaint” the Christian life in vibrant, innovative terminologies and metaphors. I bounced from worship service to worship service in search of a new, restorative buzz.

But I came up empty.

Then came a single spring in which I unintentionally wandered into experience after experience of ancient, historical worship practices. Out of rebellious curiosity I sat in on an Ash Wednesday service. I read a book about how to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I explored the Revised Common Lectionary and the Book of Common Prayer for the first time. I even took a week-long field trip to a Benedictine monastery. All of these things would have found most of the members of my small town church furrowing their brow and shaking their heads. I could even hear some of their concerned voices in my head. “Be careful,” they warned. “That stuff looks kind of Catholic-y.”

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“They grow their own food?! Looks kind of Communist-y, too.”

Maybe it was. Silence, fasting, and lectio divina are certainly mystical experiences, but that is only because each one is a door into the endless, overarching mystery of the praying life. Anyone who says prayer does not hold a mystical quality should rethink what, at its core, prayer is.

Ash Wednesday, Pentecost Sunday, and All Saints Day were shockingly foreign to my view of what a worship service should look like, but, then again, my view of what a worship service looked like had been the very thing that left me feeling dry. My biggest adjustment to worship style, at that time, was trading three hymns for three praise-and-worship choruses.

And, it turned out, the Benedictines did exactly what I had always imagined monks do, and yet my conversations with them revealed that not only were they otherwise completely normal people, but their own sense of faith and devotion to God was radiant. Evangelicals can say what they want about Catholics, I suppose, but until you spend some quality time with them, you speak more from ignorance than understanding.

So it was that I learned life-renewing lessons that have shaped the way I teach and minister in churches ever since. When it comes to our modern culture’s seeming obsession with the “next big thing,” Christians need not always follow. Sometimes, it’s better to hark back than to leap forward. While the Church must indeed engage and interact with the trappings of modernity, ours is a wealth of fascinating, captivating, and entralling practices and traditions that, while tragically ignored by many believers, still possess untold significance, which the Holy Spirit can and will use to strengthen our faith and sanctify our souls.

The view from the window never changes. The same sea laps the shore, the same birds dance at dawn, and that same sun rises just as glorious as ever. So let us not neglect such undeserved grace. Let us instead dust off and straighten the chair, brew a full pot of joe, and settle in for a fresh gaze upon an age-old view.

Epiphany

There was a time when I took pleasure in ruining Nativity scenes.

Setting aside the lack of biblical evidence for Jesus’ birth taking place in an actual stable (a blog post for another time, perhaps), one aspect of Nativity scenes that irked me the most was the standard inclusion of the three wise men, bearing their fancy gifts and mingling among the lowly shepherds and the lowing cattle. Surely, I thought, everyone knows these mysterious magi did not happen upon Joseph and Mary at the exact same time the shepherds did! So, eventually I started doing something about the blatant misrepresentation of Scripture. When nobody was paying attention, I would often purloin the wise men from a Nativity scene and then set them somewhere else in the room, preferably east of the main arrangement.

Yeah, I did this all the time. And not just in my own house, but also in department stores, church lobbies, and other friends’ homes. It was my immature, passive-aggressive way of  nudging people to take another look at the Gospels. You can imagine how appreciative people were.

Nativity scene

PICTURED: An overlooked example of the War on Christmas.

Around the same time I was perfecting my slight of hand with Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar’s location, I was also learning more about the liturgical Christian year, something I was not aware of growing up (unless you count celebrating Halloween, Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter). I was exposed to other important feast days like the Annunciation, All Saints, and Christ the King. I learned about the different seasons of the traditional Christian calendar, how they were created so as to continually proclaim the full story of redemption in Jesus, and thus uniquely flow into next, like Advent into Christmas, Lent into Holy Week, and Easter into Pentecost.

So it was that I found out about January 6 and the Feast of Epiphany, an ancient commemoration that predates even Christmas. The word derives from the Greek epiphania, meaning “manifestation,” “appearance,” or “unveiling.” The purpose of the feast was to celebrate the revelation of the Incarnate Son of God to the world he came to save. As it turned out, the story of the wise men is considered, at least by the Western traditions of the Church, to be the focal passage for Epiphany, because these gift-bearers represent, at least in part, international recognition and adoration of God’s Son.

Vindication! I had been right all along. My vandalism of traditionalist depictions of the Nativity was not only backed up by close exegesis of Matthew’s Gospel, but also by 1700 years of Church history. In other words, the beloved stories of Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds need not share space with the magi; from a perspective of worship and reflection, I could sit with the actual Nativity longer.

Oh, I became utterly insufferable after this discovery! I began fussing about the singing of Christmas carols prior to December 25 (because Advent was about long-suffering expectation and we were rushing right past that). I started boldly greeting people with “Merry Christmas” on Decembers 26, 27, 28, and so on in hopes they would try to correct me (so I could smugly explain that, no, Christmas is a 12-day season and what do you think that whole “Twelve Days of Christmas” song is all about?). And, I casually shamed people who took down their Christmas decorations before Twelfth Night, the eve of Epiphany (because, for centuries, this had been the accepted custom).

What an ecclesiological butthead I was! I reveled in my knowledge of liturgy and ancient tradition as if I was the only Baptist minister who knew about it.

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“And another thing! Shepherds weren’t outcasts. For crying out loud, King David was a shepherd! I mean, of all the ridiculous, uninformed – Hey, wait, where are you going?”

This went on for several years until, one holiday season a few years ago, I found myself lamenting, as I often do, how quickly all the festivities and observances passes. Like many people, I always feel saddened that while malls and grocery stores start playing Christmas music on November 1, the actual season nonetheless races by and seems to conclude before we can even finish our bottle of eggnog. But as I wallowed in the seeming brevity of the season, suddenly the personal desperation that underscored my pharisaical adherence to the liturgical year was laid bare. I realized one of the main reasons I had been leaning so heavily into the full Christian year was out of a misguided attempt to preserve the longevity of the season’s sentimentality. I just wanted a longer Christmas any way I could get it.

So, I had to ask myself, “Why is it so important to me that Christmas not end so quickly?”

Deep down, I knew the reason. I desperately craved more time for reverence, as if reverence of the Christ Child must be confined to Christmas Eve and Day. I wanted more time to slow down, to sit in the quiet candlelight of Advent’s hope and Christmas’s joy, because, truth be told, I rarely emerged from the holiday season carrying those virtues with me. No, like the ornaments and the garland and the Nativity scenes that I sadly boxed up at the end of the season, I was also ignorantly stuffing those soul-shaping elements of the faith into their own cardboard box to store away for another eleven months.

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All right, that’s all finished. Now to set the tree on fire.

I had found solace – and an excuse to revel in those virtues slightly longer – by turning the beautiful story of the Christian year into a legalistic exercise. I held the liturgy up to my eye like an aristocrat’s monocle, and I looked down on those who allowed the holiday so thin a margin of time and commemoration in their own lives. Somehow, doing this made me feel a little better, at least for a little while.

But it wasn’t enough.

Discovering Epiphany – that wonderful, ancient feast – had set me down that wayward path of observance. But Epiphany, ultimately, brought me back again. Because, after realizing the motivations that perpetuated my legalism, before I could finish my eggnog, January 6 marched into the foreground, and, out of my newly adopted obligation to a legalistic observance of liturgy, I set out to commemorate the day correctly. This included reading the story of the magi in Matthew 2. At first, I read it with that righteous confidence I had developed and nurtured over several years. The wise men’s arrive in Jerusalem after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and only after consulting with wicked, scheming, severely manic-depressive Herod do they then set out for the little illage six miles south. And they arrive not at a stable, but at a house (oikia in Greek), thank you very much. And they bow before a child (paidion), not an infant (brephos). And, they enter that house and…

Well, it says here they… um… fell down and worshipped him.

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“Psst! Guys, show some respect.”

Worshipped the Christ Child.

The truth of the passage stared back at me with a knowing smile. It seemed to have been waiting for this moment for years. These foreign dignitaries worshipped the Christ Child, whatever his age, with a wonder and a joy in much the same way that the shepherds of Luke’s Gospel did (and perhaps even more reverently, since the shepherds seem so overcome by their discovery of the baby in the manger that they don’t stick around very long at all, and instead immediately begin relaying their experience to the rest of their countrymen). The magi may not have shown up on that silent night. They may not have ducked their turbanned heads carefully beneath the ignoble rafters of an animal pen. They may not have opened up their treasures chests upon a bed of straw, while the soft bleating and shuffling of sheep cast a humble, bucolic backdrop to the whole affair. But worship still happened. Recognition of the glory and outlandish wonder of the Incarnation still took place. Hope was revealed. Joy experienced.

It would be the same many times over. Jesus would not stop being that miracle child in the manger any more than Epiphany or Lent or Easter or Pentecost would cease to be a celebration of Immanuel, God with us. We were never meant to leave the seasonal wonder of Christmas in a box marked “holiday decor.” On the contrary, we are encouraged to deck the halls of every season, every month, with the glad tidings of his Incarnation. As Jesus would later remind his disciples, we remain in him just as he remains in us, always, season upon season, liturgy or no liturgy.

So, I don’t move the figurines of the wise men anymore. Rather, I allow them to freely worship the Christ Child. And I remind myself to do the same, today, tomorrow, and the whole year through.

Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?

I’ll be honest right up front. I like Halloween. I like the costumes. I like most of the decorations. I like the tradition of trick-or-treating. I like seeing the excitement on my children’s faces, in part because it feeds an abiding nostalgia I feel for the holiday. I like judging candy quality with them, teaching them why a Fun-Size Snickers is better than a miniature 3 Musketeers, and watching with the same sense of anticipation as they open a miniature Starburst two-pack in hopes of scoring a pink or red (rather than the dreaded double-yellow).

I like walking neighborhood streets where neighbors actually speak socially and kindly with one another. I like fire pits set up in driveways and the smell of woodsmoke and burning leaves. I like the short-lived season of autumn, and I like to celebrate the fall harvest in spite of the fact that, not being a farmer, I do not actually participate in any harvesting activities.

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Fun gimmick, or lazy farmer?

I’m not ashamed to admit that I even like staying up late and watching scary movies. I’m not a fan of gore and ultra-violent horror flicks, but I do appreciate a good haunted house or monster movie, especially on Halloween.

So, a question like, “Should Christians celebrate Halloween?” strikes a major blow to what has become for me one of the most pleasant times of the entire year. At the same time, I completely understand the question, and the concern that lies behind it. It is a valid concern indeed, and one worth exploring no matter how I feel about the holiday.

Hallowing the Saints

Answering the question, “Should Christians celebrate Halloween?” requires at least some level of understanding of the holiday’s origins. And understanding the origins of Halloween needs to start with that word: “holiday.” The word derives from “holy day,” as in a special day of observance in the Christian liturgical year.

Now, for many Christians – including a growing number of evangelicals – the Christian year is a mostly foreign concept, save for a few holy days that have not faded from regular liturgical observance, such as Christmas, Palm Sunday, and Easter. Many modern-day Christians who make much of those holy “feast” days still may wrinkle their noses at others, like Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, and the feast of All Saints’, which is also known as All Hallows Day.

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Is there a Hallmark Card for “Happy Presentation of the Lord in the Temple Day”?

All Saints’ Day in particular is a big deal in several denominational traditions, including Roman-Catholics, Anglicans, and some Lutherans, but you may also encounter church communities from other traditions who observe the feast as well. All Saints’ is a day set aside to honor all the saints and martyrs who have contributed to the perseverance of the Church through the ages, including those individuals who have not been venerated or canonized. For many years, the Catholic Church offered Plenary indulgences for participation in All Saints’ Day practices, which included visiting church graveyards, lighting candles, and praying for (and to) those heroes of the faith who had passed away. The point of All Saints’ was for Christians to hallow the deaths of these faithful brothers and sisters, and express gratitude for the sacrificial lives they lived. It is similar to the American tradition of Memorial Day, albeit with a far greater spiritual weight.

Now, inherent to the traditions of these holy days was the keeping of a prepatory vigil the evening prior to the feast day. Worshippers would offer prayers or gather for worship in anticipation of the special commemoration taking place on the following day. Christmas Eve is perhaps the best known example, but there is also Shrove Tuesday, which traditionally precedes the holy day of repentance and fasting known as Ash Wednesday. On Shrove Tuesday, worshippers were supposed to clear their homes of flour and other goods in preparation for the Lenten fast. It is sometimes referred to as “Fat” Tuesday, due to the baking of cakes and other goods in order to use up all the flour. If you’ve ever had a Mardi Gras king cake, you’re eating one culture’s time-honored product of this practice.

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Ah, the long-established religious custom of choking on a plastic baby.

All this is to explain where Halloween gets its name. Over time, All Hallows Evening (i.e., the day preceding All Saints’) became “Hallows Evening,” which was shortened to “Hallows E’en,” which ended up as “Halloween.” Simple enough, really. However, it is not so much the name, but rather Halloween’s alleged origin, that unnerves a lot of believers.

Samhain, Pope Gregory, and Those Kooky Celts

Around the turn of the seventh century A.D., Pope Boniface IV commemorated St. Mary and the martyrs on May 13, alongside the rededication of the Pantheon in Rome. This also happened to be the same day as the Feast of Lemuria, an ancient Roman festival that focused on dispelling the evil spirits and ghosts of the dead. This is one example among many of the Christian Church re-appropriating pagan festivals and practices according to its theology. Some people today scoff at this concept; they are often the same people who can’t resist explaining that Christmas Day is totally not Christian at all but was actually the Roman holiday, Sol Invictus, a pagan sun god festival and so there what do you think about that, huh? I’ve found that rather than arguing with these people, it’s best to just smile and nod and let them enjoy the endorphine rush that comes from feeling smarter than everyone around them.

The truth is, whether or not some people today find the practice disingenuous, one of the key ways Christianity was spread across continents, Europe in particular, was through the “Christianization” of certain cultural holidays and festivals and the theologizing of annual observances. In the midst of their assimilation into the Christian faith, the Church would encourage (or, yes, force) pagan people to re-appropriate their spiritual beliefs according to a more biblical interpretation. That, or they would completely overhaul a holiday or spiritual ideology according to a new, Christological significance. This is one of the main reasons why, in the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV officially adjusted the hallowing of the saints and martyrs to November 1. For many regions of Europe, this date roughly marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, in which the days grew shorter, the nights stretched longer, and nature began its annual time of death. Leaves turned and fell. Fields sat in fallow furrows. The cold set in, eventually blanketing the world in a frigid blankness.

For the Celts, as well as several other nordic and Germanic people, this time of year was not only deeply symbolic of death and quiet remembrance. They also saw a liminal quality in this shriveling of the environment – that is, they held a belief that whatever unseen veil lay between the land of the living and the realm of the dead was at its thinnest during these cold, dark months. Back then, humans perceived the realm of death with greater reverence and disquiet than we often do today, and, like a sieve, death could sometimes leak through into the land of the living, or so they believed. The Gaelic festival of Samhain, one of four seasonal festivals, included many traditions that nurtured this idea, including the practice of “guising” to hide from those members of the Aos Sí (i.e., fairies, or nature spirits) who may have crossed over into the land of the living with more mischievous or malevolent agendas. Additionally, Samhain included the lighting of bonfires and other harvest-related activities, but, yes, there were also occasions for divination, which makes sense when you remember that the prevailing belief of most people was that this was the one brief time each year when you might truly encounter, or interact with, the spirits of the dead.

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If you lived in Mexico, your dog might turn out to be your rainbow-colored spirit animal. How cool is that?

To our post-Enlightenment, Western culture minds, it is easy to dismiss this belief as the dim bulb fantasies of uneducated barbarians. These days, we place our trust as securely with science and reason as the people of these so-called “Dark Ages” deposited their trust and daily conduct into a vast, enigmatic supernatural reality that, as far as they understood it, extended far above, below, and beyond their own. And yet, even if we are intellectually smarter than the people of that time, does that necessarily make us wiser than they?

Christians and the Spiritual Realm

Unfortunately, much of what many Christians believe about spiritual beings and the unseen, “supernatural” realm is based as much in pop-cultural renderings of these old traditions as they are in anything the Bible really has to communicate on the subject. And, in truth, the Bible is actually quite thin on information regarding the spiritual realm. References abound, but details are quite scarce. There are some standout stories, of course, such as King Saul visiting a witch to summon the spirit of Samuel (1 Samuel 28), Elisha being surrounded by supernatural chariots of fire (2 Kings 6), or Jesus encountering a man possessed by a legion of demonic powers (Mark 5).

For each story containing ambiguous pictures of a spiritual reality, there is never a shortage of interpretations. Some lean into what is presented, and they subsequently build an entire angelic-demonic hierarchical worldview based on these fleeting glimpses. Others, though, lean away from literal explanations and instead posit ideas like lucid dreaming or demon-possession as a pre-Enlightenment explanation for schizophrenia or manic disorders, nothing more.

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“The power of Christ compels you… to please take this Clozapine prescription.”

Say what you want about the tactics of the Holy Roman Church, but by Christianizing these holidays that bore deep spiritual significance, they forced pagan people to contend with a brand new element within the accepted realm of the supernatural: an all-powerful Creator God who has freely bestowed his power and authority unto his resurrected and ascended son, Jesus. The key word there is power. After all, when it came to the practices of divination or conjuring of the spirits, the two biggest motivators were security and power. People either wanted to ensure safety or protection from that which they could not control, or they wanted to gain control over that which they could not control.

For Christian monks, priests, and missionaries, the gospel message was best understood and expressed as a story of God’s power infiltrating and overwhelming the powers of evil both within and beyond our existence. It was a story of rescue not merely from sinful guilt, but of bondage to the malevolent whims of a nefarious, multi-faceted evil power at work in our world. The death and resurrection of Jesus signified the defeat of these dark, worldly powers, and summoned believers to posture their lives according to his truth and his ways. Whether or not the Holy Roman Church always exhibited this truth and those ways properly and graciously… hint: they didn’t… is beside the point.

Halloween, as we know it today, is indeed born of both light and darkness. Christianity and European paganism collided again and again, over several centuries, and eventually produced the hodgepodge offspring of beliefs, traditions, and activities recognized and accepted in our modern, Western society. Yes, there are elements of the holiday that bear a less than seemly origin, and the way some observers enjoy playing fast and loose with the concepts of ghosts, evil spirits, and “contacting” the dead is worrisome. Christians, after all, should recognize that such stuff is not mere child’s play.

And yet, there is much we as Christians can learn about Halloween. Much about how the Church – and, in particular, individual believers – should not fear the culture in which we find ourselves, nor the bulk of its well-meaning and meaningful practices, even if such traditions are ultimately ignorant of the gospel. It’s been said that Christians should never blame the dark for being dark, but rather live as a composed, confident, and compassionate light shining in the midst of that darkness.

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But, you know, let’s avoid embarrassing ourselves with overtly biblical costumes like this.

So, tomorrow I will walk the neighborhood streets and speak and laugh with neighbors. I will bless little children by complimenting their costumes, going so far as to feign fright at some. I will smile at creative jack o’lanterns, vigilantly search for the good Starbursts in my kids’ candy buckets, and breathe in the cool, autumn air that reminds me, even in its pleasantness, that life is fleeting.

I will be a bold and confident rock for my children. If and when they see something that unnerves them, I will assure them that while there are indeed things in this world that are frightening, we have placed our trust in a Power that has overcome the world. His is a far greater, and far kinder, power than any even the darkest of forces can conjure against us.

I know this, not only because the Bible says it, but because there have been those dear saints, unknown but not forgotten, who told me so as well. This Power reigns in my heart in part because of the lives those dearly departed ones lived before me, and the sacrifices of faith they left behind.

May the Lord of all creation bless, keep, and hallow each one of them.

Worldly Discipline and Dark Fire

I see, and smell, that even under wartime conditions the College cellar still has a few sound old vintage Pharisee. Well, well, well. This is like old times. Hold it beneath your nostrils for a moment, gentledevils. Hold it up to the light. Look at those fiery streaks that writhe and tangle in its dark heart, as if they were contending. As so they are. You know how this wine is blended? Different types of Pharisee have been harvested, trodden, and fermented together to produce its subtle flavour. Types that were most antagonistic to one another on earth. Some were all rules and relics and rosaries; others were all drab clothes, long faces, and petty traditional abstinences from wine or cards or the theatre. Both had in common their self-righteousness and the almost infinite distance between their actual outlook and anything the Enemy really is or commands… How they hated each other up there where the sun shone! How much more they hate each other now that they are forever conjoined but not reconciled. Their astonishment, their resentment, at the combination, the festering of their eternally impenitent spite, passing into our spiritual digestion, will work like fire. Dark fire.

– C.S. Lewis, from “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”

Over the past couple of months, my church endeavored to make several weighty decisions pertaining to the congregation’s bylaws and its budget. Now, being good, historical Baptists, in order to make these decisions we were obligated to provide opportunities for open discussion prior to conducting a church-wide vote. This is something I appreciate about the Baptist commitment to local church autonomy; it is up to our own congregation, and ours alone, to determine its way in the world. We commit to civil, democratic discussion before gathering together to cast our vote.

But that doesn’t mean those decisions always come easy.

During the weeks in which these issues were discussed, I engaged in a number of pleasant and eye-opening conversations with my fellow church members who voiced passionate concerns regarding the various sides and stances orbiting these decisions. These conversations were insightful and sharp-witted. We learned from one another, and were better for it. However, I also experienced what seemed an unusually high number of angry or bitter exchanges. So many, in fact, that at first I figured some of the changes being proposed must have unexpectedly touched on an emotional nerve much more raw than usual.

And yet, the more I listened to the people who were upset, and the more I listened to the people who were upset that those people were upset, the more I realized that the issues being discussed were not overly sensitive or precarious. No, the raw emotion was not a new occurrence in the lives of our congregants at all. I realized that even before these issues were presented or discussed, we had already been living on a razor’s edge. We had been carrying around anger, distrust, and suspicion everywhere we went, and – at least subconsciously – had been looking for an opportunity to act on these qualities.

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I can’t carry all this stuff forever!

The anger and bitterness that bubbled over in these conversations and group discussions was startling considering just how mild the level of disagreement amounted to regarding some of the issues in question. But rather that handling our differences of opinion with patience, kindness, and an enduring sense of trust in everyone’s better angels, many of us lashed out as if personally attacked. We accused those on the other side of ulterior motives and intentions, or we labeled those who did not see it our way as ignorant, no matter how genuine and well-reasoned their alternative viewpoint might be. We drew clear battle lines despite the fact that no one had declared war.

The Superhumanity of Christians

Certainly, there are times in church life when difficult decisions must be made, when differences of opinion can erupt into actual conflict and ill feelings. This is a natural byproduct of life together – even in the context of a community built on the hope of God’s kingdom. But I do not think it is out of line to state these times of contention should be very few and far between. Otherwise, what is the difference between a congregation of Christians and a PTA, or an HOA, or a country club, or the U.S. House of Representatives? When conflict, suspicion, and side-taking abound, what is the difference between the church and the world in which it operates?

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PICTURED: An artist’s depiction of last week’s Senate hearings.

Christians are human beings. We function according to the same conglomeration of emotions and survival instincts. We get angry. We feel offended, or betrayed. We react emotionally. We know full well the self-preserving convenience of lies and duplicity. And we get the same dopamine rush from building up our “side” of an issue while degrading the other. These are deeply rooted aspects of the human experience that are extremely difficult to resist or control.

But, in another manner of speaking, Christians are also more than human beings. We believe that we have been transformed inwardly, and that we now live unto a different standard of being.

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17 So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Corinthians 5:16-17, NRSV)

As such, the usual suspects of our emotions are no longer given free reign. We do not accept their unparalleled influence in our thoughts, words, and actions. If we did, then the transformation we claim has taken place in our life comes across as nothing more than wishful thinking (or pathetic delusion). “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free,” the Apostle Paul writes to the church in Galatia. “But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13, NIV).

Serve one another. An action that, time and again, is revealed as the exact opposite of the prevailing sentiment in our world. Look no further than the current political sphere and its glut of grandstanding, hyper-partisanship, and army of news pundits wagging fingers and prognosticating the depravity of the other side. There is very little interest in serving one another, or serving with one another. There is only jaw-clenching hostility and resentment.

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There are three more pointing back at you, bud.

And if you are watching and reading about all this and you don’t realize how deeply it is affecting you – that it is writing its own set of negative character qualities upon your own spirit – it is time to wake up and smell the bitterness.

Christians are called to transcend the pettiness of human conflict. Not that we never experience conflict, but rather that we approach each case of it with patience, wisdom, and a tenacious commitment to peace in the midst of contention.

And yet, looking around today, or scrolling for a mere sixty seconds on my Facebook feed, all I see is misdirected anger, mounting distrust, hand-wringing despair, and vitriolic insinuations about “the other side.” I read the status updates of friends who bless the Name of Jesus and petulantly belittle every Democrat in the same breath. Then I read linked articles from others who liken any and all Republicans to human garbage. It’s almost as if we think that, since the Bible doesn’t explicitly mention the concept of social media, Christians get a pass in that area.

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Oh yeah! Wait ’til I get on Twitter, bro. I’m gonna @ you so hard!

In reality, though, rather than embracing the way of Christ’s Spirit, and engaging the disciplines of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, far more often we immerse ourselves in the worldly disciplines of anger, distrust, cynicism, despair, suspicion, degradation, humiliation, discrimination, and favoritism. Not intentionally, of course. No one chases after these things overtly. But our world is good at serving us regular helpings of each through cable news talk shows, unbalanced op-eds, small-minded social media posts, and exceedingly unpresidential tweets.

A Higher Standard

At first I was surprised by the amount of bitterness and contentiousness I encountered in many of my conversations with church members about the upcoming church vote. But then, in my own life, I recognized how quickly I have jumped to suspicion, how naturally distrust and cynicism crops up in my decision-making. And I realized that while I may spend thirty minutes or even an hour a day in prayer, spiritual reflection, and reading Scripture, I usually spend three times that amount bathing in the collective acrimony of the moment. I’ve become much more adept at defending my opinion about the Russia probe, the Kavanaugh hearings, or the midterm elections than I have at anything related to God’s kingdom. More often than not, the badge of citizenship I wear on my shoulder is of the City of Man, not the Kingdom of God.

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My name is King of kings and Lord of lords, and I alone approve this message.

It is one thing to hold an opinion, and to voice that opinion. It is one thing to disagree with a position or a proposal, and to make your disagreement known. But no matter how wrong or misguided you perceive the other side to be, as a Christian you are called to a higher standard – a much higher standard – of engagement with the conflicts and enmity of the day.

The eyes by which you view an issue are not your own. The mind with which you discern that viewpoint is not your own. The lips by which you speak your position are not your own. And the life that is shaped by these views you attest is not your own. You surrendered ownership to Jesus a long time ago.

Are you really sure you have a better idea than he how to think, speak, and act in this contentious, hurting world? Do you really possess the capacity to perceive how the ripples from the stones you’ve cast into society’s pond have affected the people in your own congregation? Because you don’t. You said so yourself when you tearfully confessed your selfishness, brokenness, and shame to the Savior and Redeemer of the world. Don’t worry, though. He wasn’t shocked. You weren’t telling him anything he didn’t already know.

Red Tide

The first thing you notice is the smell.

It is putrid, rancid – a sour stench that turns the stomach. It is the fetor of wet dog, a refrigerator thawed and spoiling in the summer heat. It rolls in from the shore, across the sand, through the weeds, born upon the usually pleasant inland breeze. And it hangs in the air. It soaks the palm branches and the leafy, green vines that color the shore. Step outside your door, and you catch the scent in seconds.

Aftermath of the red tide phenomenon in the west coast of Florida, Captiva, Usa - 03 Aug 2018

But the smell is not the worst of it. The smell is only fallout. It is the indicator of death, but it is not death itself. For that, you must go to the source. You must brave the stench and journey down the wood-planked pathway to the water’s edge. Here you find the culprit – one long, seemingly endless stretch of decay frames the shore. Where once had been only an adorning necklace of seaweed, and accumulated belts of colorful shells ringing the beach – the ever-present deposit of a teeming, vibrant world beneath the waves, a world that invited you to wade in and draw your fingers and toes along the ocean’s floor, feeling for suspicious lumps, spying the scuttling legs and mandibles that flail from within apertures of exquisite, swirled conchs, reaching down and lifting up sandpaper-like discs alive with tiny, wriggling tentacles, grasping hold of living stars the size of dinner platters with arms that curl around yours and kiss your skin for dear life until you finally release them again into the murky depths where they belong…

Now, before your bare feet can even sink into the wet sand at the water’s foaming edge, what you find is a sickening, grey-black mantle of corpses spread across the entire beach. A cataclysm encircles the entire island, like the leavings of some terrifying, occult ritual. Grouper, bonito, croaker, and redfish lay strewn like Antietam’s dead, lidless eyes staring up at white cumulus masses above. Anchovy, threadfins, and bluebacks bake in the shadeless tropical heat.

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You stand there, staring at the carnage, awestruck that so much life has been lost outside of your sight. Death stealthily spreads out across the gulf, infiltrating every bay, every cove, every canal. Each morning you awake to find a not-so-fresh stratum of the ocean’s dead expectorated upon dry land, as if the sea has engaged in some kind of macabre renovation project, its inhabitants continually tossing the dross and detritus off the edge of their world.

You peer into the tumbling breakers, intent on perceiving what you cannot really see. A scarlet bloom of sickness just beneath the surface – a billowing red cloud, like chum slopped overboard and spreading out into the glaucous blue. From where you stand, though, there is nothing to see but the aftermath. You behold the effects, but the cause remains veiled. This irrepressible algal contamination that has laid low so much life is invisible to you. It is difficult to fathom. How can so prolific a killer keep its executioner’s mask in place? How has the entire sea not turned both the color and viscosity of blood?

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For millennia, he who stood at the ocean’s edge, letting his feet slowly sink pleasantly into the gritty mud while gazing upon the endless ebb and flow of the waves, felt compelled to contemplate the vastness of human existence. Like the relentless creep and withdrawal of the tide, so our own lives reach out for safety, security, meaning, but then recoil in order to preserve a healthy amount of distance from everyone else. We are as numerous as the waves, and just as unique – each one of us determinedly roll in with our own unique size and strength until we finally break and collapse upon ourselves. Nothing lasts forever.

And, all that time, beneath those waves lies a whole other world. If you did not perceive it before, now that the dead of this world have been vomited up onto the border of our own, you realize it. So much life – so much existence – schooling and swarming and spreading out beneath the surface, and yet most people never give it any more than a passing, facile thought. We putter about in our little worlds, focused on our highly individualized concerns, and we glance up and beyond the stirred dust cloud of our ceaseless activities only long enough to briefly acknowledge an existence extending beyond our own. We give it no real thought, because we have no time to do so.

Standing at the edge of the sea, one is compelled to contemplate one’s place in the world. Standing at the periphery of a red tide, one is forced to consider one’s mortality – to be reminded that, short or long, life as we know it does indeed come to an end. That we who are finite are subject to the consequences of finitude.

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But you hope in Something else. Another place, another time. Another sea, another shore. Somewhere in which the finite are reborn infinite, and the waves roll forever, uncontaminated and teeming with glorious new life.

The Face in the Mirror

I just spent the last month telling people they were sinners.

It didn’t come across that blunt, of course. At least, I certainly hope it didn’t. But that was indeed the truth at the core of the four-week class I taught in my church’s annual Summer Institute, a two-month season in which our regular Sunday morning classes take a break and our staff offers a handful of specialized courses not usually on the Sunday School menu. Downstairs, my colleague Allen educated roughly one hundred folks on the history of the Bible’s composition and translation while a large carafe of coffee percolated in the corner. Across the hall, a trio of associate pastors took turns leading discussion with four dozen parents about strategies for effectively rearing one’s children in an often tumultuous culture. And in D-311/312/313, the old classroom partitions were accordioned away in order to accommodate fifty people who, for whatever reason, were willing to come hear me talk to them about their bad habits and psychological hang-ups.

Oh, the strange activities we Christians involve ourselves in on Sunday mornings…

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The doughnuts help.

Mine was an ambitious class. I knew that going in. In only four 50-minute sessions, my objective was to not only present a particular hermeneutic on Romans 7 and the spoiling influence of “the flesh,” but also to discuss a variety of teachings on the process of sanctification – that is, how we lowly sinners can actually become more like Christ by way of the Holy Spirit’s influence and transforming work in our inner life. I endeavored to talk about the Desert Fathers’ teachings on spiritual disciplines, the oft misunderstood “seven deadly sins” in Church doctrine, the threefold path of prayer and reflection, and, most directly, the Enneagram system of personality – a tool of spiritual direction that has helped me better understand the root fixations and self-preserving inclinations in my own life. So, yes, I might have been biting off more than I could chew with this course.

Nevertheless, it went as well as a pastor can hope when speaking specifically about sin for the better part of an hour for four straight weeks. But even from the very beginning of our first session, I experienced a pair of sobering realizations that stuck with me throughout the course, and have continued to chime in the back of my mind in the days since the class wrapped.

The first realization was that, for all the many Bible lessons I have taught in my (has it really been?) eighteen-year ministry career, and all the sermons I have preached, and all the panels I have sat on offering far larger sums than a mere two cents can buy, rarely have I found myself speaking explicitly about sin – the human struggle with it, and the Christian’s continual struggle against it. Oh, sure, the concept of sin – the reminder of it – is always there, darkening the edges of my lessons like an integral plot point in a film or novel you mustn’t forget about if the ending is going to make any sense.

I am a pastor who delights in speaking of the love of God and the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, but I am not so ensorcelled by this truth that I have completely done away with references to the effects of sin – its invasive influences and erosive effects. It does not escape me or the messages I preach that we live in a fallen world, that we are broken people in need of mending, and that it is somehow both necessary and futile to resist temptation. We are a people who stand in need, everyday, of salvation.

But aside from the occasional passage of Scripture that requires I address the issue of sin, as I dove into this latest lesson series I realized that my usual modus operandi is merely to dance around the idea of sin rather than look it full in the face. After all, nothing puts a damper on an enjoyable Bible study excursion than a self-selected detour through the swampy thicket of human wretchedness.

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If Bible studies were family dinners, teaching about sin would be the Brussel sprouts of the meal.

The second realization was that I am not alone in limiting my use of the ‘S’ word in my lessons. I cannot speak for all churches, of course, but I get the feeling that aside from a few denominational traditions out there that are customarily fixated on iniquitousness, the majority of Christians in the West are not well-versed in the specifics of the biblical witness regarding sin. This is not because we deny the problem of sin, but because we would rather hold it in our minds in a vague and generalized way, and then move right on past to the bits about love and salvation and faithfulness and a grace that is greater than all our sin.

And that’s understandable. The more sin can be that faceless, nebulous villain threatening the entire collected populace, the better we can function within the reality of its constant influence on our lives. It is only when I begin to consider just how guilefully and intricately its tentacles have entwined my own soul that I recall just how dire and desperate is this struggle.

Sin does not merely stunt spiritual growth, it creates a crippling drag on every motion in my life. And, worst of all, sin is a mirror that, when I dare to gaze into it, shows me not the face of some sinister outside invader, but myself. It reminds me that I am my own worst enemy.

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And that I look much cooler than I actually am…

The Apostle Paul was willing to look hard at this familiar face in the mirror, and then he conveyed his utter bewilderment with an equally bewildering description:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Romans 7:15-20, NIV)

For the devoted Christian, this is the vexing mystery of sin. It is us, but it is also not us. Paul found this dilemma both infuriating and humbling. After all, no one enjoys looking in a mirror if they know something ugly is going to be staring back at them. We would much rather avert our eyes whenever that dark glass hoves into view. A few of us will go so far as to deny the mirror exists at all.

Thus, without noticing it, I had put together a course in which, over the span of four weeks, I forced both myself and the fifty people in the audience, to lock eyes with that gaunt and ghastly figure grinning back at them from their mirrors. And I was reminded of just how important (and yet terribly unpopular) an exercise this is for Christians. In the earlier days of the Church, this practice of constructively contemplating one’s sinfulness was known as mortification of the flesh. As an element of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life, mortification referred to willing meditation on the darkness and death that clings to the soul like June bugs on a T-shirt. It’s objective was the adoption of particular spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting, chastity, solitary prayer) that would, little by little, purge from our souls the self-centeredness and deeply rooted compulsions which, as the Apostle Paul insisted, continually prevent us from living godly lives.

There is nothing fun about mortification of the flesh. Looking inward to identify our bad habits and behold our crippling wounds, even with the comforting guidance of God’s Spirit, is no picnic. It can be an arduous and uncomfortable process. If we forget the truth that Paul declared in Romans 8 (right on the heels of his personal lament about sin) – that there is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ – we can easily sink into the murky depths of self-loathing and despair.

However, never has the ancient practice of mortification been more necessary than in our modern culture. This is an age in which people will rush to publicly shame someone who has violated or failed others, but will keep a tight-fisted hold on individualistic pride if and whenever their own shortcomings come to light. We have little trouble maligning others, but often refuse to admit our own shame. And while the Christian life is certainly not about shaming sinners – seriously, it is not about shaming sinners – it is absolutely concerned with how people come to identify, accept, and find forgiveness for their sins, which, contrary to popular worldly opinion, is the only way to really move on from them.

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And yet, knowing all of this, I still avoid looking in the mirror. As a minister, I too often preach the grace of God without taking the time to ponder its limitless depths. All the while, the masses continue their endless search for alternative, non-messy methods to overcome the rottenness they know lies at the core of their being.

All because we do not want to feel ashamed.

Thomas Merton identified this epidemic of denial in his journals:

“What (besides making lists of the vices of our age) are some of the greatest vices of our age? To begin with, people began to get self-conscious about the fact that their misconducted lives were going to pieces, so instead of ceasing to do the things that made them ashamed and unhappy, they made it a new rule that they must never be ashamed of the things they did. There was to be only one capital sin: to be ashamed. That was how they thought they could solve the problem of sin, by abolishing the term.

Oh, that we would brave the embarrassment and, yes, even the shame of our sin in order to find the way past it. If only we would learn that ignoring the plank in our own eye is responsible for far more disappointments in life than our neighbors’ specks could ever be. If only we would trust in the love and strength of the One who heals us – who called us out of the miserable grip of sin – and, in that source of confidence, level our gaze at the false self staring back at us in our mirrors.

As I told that gathered group of fellow sinners, if we are willing to do this – to bravely and honestly look inward and behold who we truly are – perhaps we will finally be able to see past the grim features and fiendish grin of the old, false self, and behold the truth that lies behind its leering eyes. Perhaps we would recognize the fear hidden beneath that gaze – that the old man in the mirror is dying, his power has been stripped away. He has been rendered nothing more than a fading shadow that now dissipates in the radiant light of the sun of righteousness.

Freedom breaks like the dawn, and, if we really look, within its rays we can indeed see the visage in the mirror slowly but surely being transformed from lowly sinner to soaring saint.