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.

ChurchSign

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.

The Veterans’ Day Lesson I Never Expected

I am the son of a veteran.

My father is a retired Air Force pilot. He flew missions in the Vietnam conflict as well as the Balkans. During Operation Desert Storm, he spoke to an assembly of my entire middle school student body about the reasons for the war and the United State’s objectives in aiding the Kuwaitis. Throughout his career, he flew everything from bombers to F-4 Phantoms to the A-10 Thunderbolt (a.k.a. the “Warthog”). I still remember occasionally looking up to the sky during afternoon soccer practice and seeing that funny-looking, green warplane, with its massive front cannon, gliding across the sky. It would suddenly bank to the side, circle around, and fly over again, this time dipping its wings back and forth. This, I knew, was my father returning to Bergstrom Air Force Base after a trip. He had adjusted his flight-path in order to say a quick hello to his son (while simultaneously solidifying his status, in the eyes of all my teammates, as the coolest dad in the world).

Growing up, I played with models of various airplanes – A-4 Skyhawks, F-14 Tomcats, F-15 Eagles, F-16 Falcons, the list goes on. I watched Top Gun so many times as a kid that to this day I can still quote the final air battle scene in its entirety. And I stood in awe at airshows watching jet pilots scream across the sky performing barrels rolls and synchronized maneuvers. More than anything, though, I loved watching that twin-engine monstrosity roar in low and reduce a targeting shack to a billion exploding splinters of debris.

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Eat your heart out, Tony Stark.

I am exceedingly proud of my father, for his service, for the career he chose, and for what he taught me about discipline, honor, and respect for our country. I do not take it lightly that people like him (not to mention his father and two of my cousins who served in the Marine Corps) have dedicated their lives to protecting this country and its interests. And while I realize not every modern military conflict is directly concerned with our personal freedom, I still recognize that the freedoms we enjoy in this country and the possibility for an even brighter future is what inspires men and women like my father to serve.

I did not choose the line of work my father did. A thousand Top Gun viewings notwithstanding, I was afraid of flying. I still am. I’m also terrible at math, which any jet pilot will tell you is an integral part of the job.

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Not the best place to run out of fuel because you forgot to carry the one.

Instead, I entered another form of service. I dedicated my life to preserving and furthering the freedom of a different kind of country – a freedom, I believe, that is far more precious than even the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. And, on this Veterans’ Day, I recognize that my father’s military service has helped me comprehend a much deeper truth about my own choice of career.

As a pastor, I am tasked with teaching the disciplines of this other country we call the Kingdom of God. It is my job to incite respect and encourage honor for the interests of our Creator and his people. And just as our commander-in-chief, Jesus the Son of God, laid down his life for the sake of every kingdom citizen, so must I be ready and willing to sacrifice my own for the sake of his gospel. This isn’t just a job. It’s a calling. A way of life. And I do not undertake this service merely because I am commanded to, but because, like a good soldier fighting to preserve the interest of the country he loves, I am irrevocably inspired by the freedom I have in Christ, and the promise of a bright, shining future.

Without realizing it, the dedication my father exhibited to his career in the Air Force was at the same time preparing me for my own career in the fields of our Lord. And for that, above everything else, I am abundantly grateful.

So, thank you, Dad, for the discipline, honor, and respect you taught me. Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for the missions. Thank you for your life of service.

And thanks for those fly-bys over soccer practice. That was freaking awesome!

Playing Jesus

I spent hours last week pretending to be Jesus.

If you grew up in an evangelical tradition of the Church like I did, particularly one that unfolded in or around the so-called “Bible Belt,” you probably remember a little thing called Vacation Bible School. Granted, it is an understatement to call this old standard of summer children’s ministry a little thing; anyone who has worked the VBS of even a small-to-moderate-sized church knows it often commands the attention of dozens, if not hundreds, of church members. Even before the actual event arrives, it’s all-hands-on-deck. There are materials to organize, rosters to assemble, costumes to distribute, sets to build, and a plethora of decorations to plaster in every nook and cranny of the church campus.

I was volunteering with Vacation Bible Schools  – whether willingly or compulsorily – well before I ever chose to enter the ministry. Over the years, I’ve contributed in a variety of areas: registration clerk, recreation leader, classroom helper, recreation leader, drama team member, recreation leader, and storyteller. Oh, and recreation leader. If you work in VBS long enough, you will find yourself donning a variety of hats. I mean that literally. You will end up sporting some of the most ridiculous and unnecessary headgear you’ve ever seen, all in service of the event’s exuberant, almost manic atmosphere.

jester's hat

VBS: the only week of the year a senior pastor can wear shorts, sandals, and a jester’s hat and nobody complains.

This year, though, it was determined my headgear should emulate none other than Jesus of Nazareth, or as stereotyped a version of our risen Savior one might expect to find within a suburban Baptist church’s Vacation Bible School. Now, having spent years in silly period costumes – playing everybody from Noah to St. Peter to a Roman centurion to a wise, old Bedouin shepherd I ignorantly named Apu Nihasapiddananajada – I wasn’t immediately phased by the thought of putting on a fake beard and long-haired wig and, four times each day, portraying Jesus to an auditorium full of elementary-aged children. After all, I hammed my way through countless Bible dramas throughout high school and college, and, as a twenty-something youth pastor, directed just as many groan-worthy yet well-intentioned productions. So, I was no stranger to playing the Son of God.

bedouin

Seriously, guys, I really do apologize for that name. I was 25, lazy, and I’d never traveled anywhere farther than southern Québec.

It wasn’t until I’d struggled through the first day of VBS that I realized I may have finally taken on a role that was over my head. I had never portrayed Jesus to children, let alone in such a wide-eyed, jovial, and interactive manner. I’d never had to go sans script and improvise my way through an entire performance, all the while happily acknowledging eagerly raised hands and the astonishingly perceptive questions that followed.

Why do your sandals look like my daddy’s flip-flops?

How did you get here from heaven? Did you fly?

If you were nailed to a cross, why aren’t there holes in your hands?

Do you know my grandmother? She lives in heaven, too.

I never thought I would envy the people who wrap themselves in long underwear and furry red and white coats every December to play Santa Claus. At least the people portraying Kris Kringle are working with an easily malleable mythology; when your backstory includes a fabled home at the North Pole and a perpetually efficient labor force of elves, what harm is there in adding the occasional fabrication?

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Like the fact that, for some reason, the guy who knows every address in the world doesn’t even attempt to find baby Will Ferrell’s correct residence…

But when you’re playing Jesus to children (and you also hold a masters degree in biblical theology), the last thing you want to do is stretch the truth about God’s Son, or satiate them with a spurious answer. I didn’t want some unbiblical exagerration imbedding itself in their brains for years to come. By the same token, I didn’t want to be dismissive of their questions, either. I knew these kids weren’t asking merely to humor me. They weren’t simply playing along. Each concern was genuine; each child expected an answer.

I remember having several conversations during my years in seminary regarding the alleged “age of accountability.” The essential question went like this: At what age is it appropriate to encourage a personal response to the gospel message? Few of my fellow grad students debated whether it was all right to teach kids the story of Jesus, even the grisly and mysterious details of his death, burial, and resurrection. After all, most of them had heard the story themselves since before they were even out of diapers. However, plenty of them differed on what age children must reach before they can genuinely respond to the inherent truth of that story – when they can be expected to actually understand what it really means to “admit, believe, and confess.” Five years old? Seven? Ten? How about a wise-beyond-their-years six? How about an eight-year-old who always makes the Honor Roll?

I had my own opinions. When I became a father, those ideas didn’t change all at once, but the older my children get, the more sheepish I feel about how uncompromising I used to be. I used to answer decisively to the age of accountability question.

Lately? Not so much.

Plenty of people who reject the teachings of Christianity are quick to label things like Vacation Bible School nothing more than manipulative indoctrination of the young. And I will abashedly acknowledge there is plenty of misguided and even damaging manipulation alive and well in our churches today (and not just with the young). However, as I struggled through four days of Good Shepherd performances, inundated each day with questions upon questions, one thing became clear to me. It is a fool’s errand to definitively apply, across the board, an age of accountability for children hearing, and reacting to, the gospel.

While Christians may disagree on what exact moment in a person’s salvation experience the Holy Spirit spurs his insight, even more mysterious is the vast array of ages that receive his prodding. It can take a lifetime for the truth part of The Way and The Truth and The Life to resonate in some folk’s minds. And yet, sometimes the Spirit will choose to illumine the path of salvation to a child who hasn’t yet mastered the “loop-it-swoop-it-pull” method on their sneakers.

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Who’s got time for laces when you could be reading the collected works of Kierkegaard?

Throughout this past week, I was regularly reminded of the moment I awkwardly stepped onto the trailhead of my own spiritual journey. I was only eight years old when, one dark night beneath the bed covers, I whispered the Sinner’s Prayer. My sister had died less than a year earlier, in a freak accident on a church youth group outing. Prior to that moment, I hadn’t given much thought to death – the how or the why of it – or what exactly the afterlife might be, if there even was such a thing. I was just a kid who liked marshmallow cereal, Saturday morning cartoons, and Voltron. My acquaintance with Jesus was through the handsome, white-robed depictions on Sunday School room posters and storybook Bible covers. I knew he was the guy all that Sunday morning stuff revolved around, and that he somehow related to the Sandy Patti and Amy Grant songs my mother listened to on our car’s cassette player, but I couldn’t have articulated that connection in any coherent way. Still, I believed in God because I was told he was real, and because we bowed our heads before every meal, and because there were at least a dozen churches in my tiny, bucolic town and how could every single one of them be wrong? It just made sense to believe in God.

But after Katy died, it stopped being enough for me that God’s existence made sense, that Jesus was a nice guy who wanted you and me to be nice, too. In the void left by the passing of my only sibling, I was curious for more than logic. I didn’t realize it until much later, but what I was really interested in was hope. So, I responded to the gospel because, alone in the dark beneath the dubiously protective shroud of my covers, I decided there must be more to Jesus than niceness. Something about the combination of his cross and his empty tomb offered possibility, a semblance of hope beyond the dark finality of death. I didn’t have the whole equation worked out yet, but what I did have was the memory of a simple prayer our pastor had taught a sanctuary full of wiggling grade-schoolers a few weeks earlier at the annual Vacation Bible School.

That patchwork prayer was the first meager offering I brought before the God of the Universe.

There are some who could no doubt point to that moment as yet another example of indoctrination – the actions of a child who had been subtly brainwashed to interpret a recent tragedy, and his own connection to that tragedy, all according to something that amounted, ultimately, to little more than a fairy tale. If I consider things from their perspective, I can understand where they’re coming from.

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I don’t blame you, Bernie. If I were you, I’d probably think it sounded crazy, too.

And, of course, there is much more to salvation than the articulation of a prayer. More than human cognition and abstract thinking. Because just like the kids at last week’s VBS who prayed such a prayer to God for the first time, eight-year-old me didn’t understand everything about what I was praying. I couldn’t fully comprehend the ramifications of what I was saying to God. But, oftentimes, understanding comes later. If we Christians are honest, and we certainly should be, we will admit that genuine understanding takes longer than even a lifetime allows. As Rich Mullins once said, “We never understand what we’re praying, but God, in his mercy, does not answer our prayers according to our understanding of them, but according to his wisdom.”

All I know is what I have become. All I know is that from time to time I have found another couple of crumbs scattered along this path. Not every day, of course, but every season. If I keep my eyes peeled, eventually I spy yet another modest clue that leads me onward. Perhaps one day I’ll discover that they were all incidental, and this path I have chosen has lead me only to a dead-end. Or, perhaps I’ll come to the termination point, push back the undergrowth of weeds, and behold a wide and magnificent river.

Several times during their handful of years spent together, Jesus’ disciples would ask him what it really took to be considered “great” in the heavenly kingdom. On one of those occasions, Scripture says Jesus called a little child over and had him stand in front of the disciples. “Unless you become like this little guy,” he told them, “you’ll never even get a look at the kingdom. And whomever makes room in his life for children just like this one is the one who makes room for me.”

I don’t know if the children who encountered this freckled, fake-bearded Caucasian Jesus last week received from him any great truth. Then again, maybe they weren’t the only ones the Spirit was interested in teaching.

coach jesus

I know, I know. Look, it was a sports theme, OK. So, yes, I was “Coach” Jesus, and, yes, I wore a whistle and I had … oh, never mind.

It Shakes You

Earlier today a man called the church. He claimed he had viewed our website and was interested in joining our community and finding out if the people here would be his brothers and sisters. But first he wanted to pose a question.

“What does it mean to bear your cross and follow Jesus?”

As a pastor, I’ve had many opportunities to explain the meaning of Jesus’ well known statement, but I have never before been asked what it means by someone who, it seems, already knows the answer. In this case, I quickly learned that the man on the phone did not consider my response completely satisfactory.

My response to his question was something along these lines: “To take up one’s cross is to live sacrificially – to surrender my own will in favor of the will of God. And to follow Jesus is to recognize him not only as the example of how to live for God, but also as the atoning sacrifice that makes it possible for me to experience a relationship with God.”

The man seemed pleased with my answer initially. However, before I could really respond again, he began to accuse me, and by extension the entire church leadership, of forsaking the true meaning of “bearing the cross.” Apparently, this man interprets that passage as the relinquishment of all worldly possessions, everything from houses to material items to, as he said, “everything you got up there in that bank.” This man believes Jesus was promoting complete asceticism when he said his followers must take up their crosses. (I’m not sure where the use of a phone, or the Internet, falls in that extreme expectation.)

There was little I could say at that point. It was clear this man’s mind was made up, that he had a predetermined agenda and this question was just a setup – a test for me to fail so I could receive his rebuke. What is more, as his correction quickly morphed into impassioned rant and then into fever-pitch screaming, he would not have been able to hear me even if I had wanted to repent right then and there.

“Sir,” I said beneath his tirade, “I cannot talk with you if you won’t listen to anything I say. I’m going to have to hang up.”

The last words I heard as I placed the phone back into its cradle was, “You see, you’re running! That’s all you people do when I call, just run away from-”

Click.

In the silence that followed, I could feel my beating heart, quickened with the adrenaline that washes over you when you’re being screamed at. I could hear my shuddering exhale under stress. And I could feel the rush of my racing mind, immediately turning inward, awakening the inevitable personal reflection that comes from any kind of rebuke, whether unwarranted or wholly deserved.

Have I interpreted that verse of Scripture incorrectly? Was the man on the phone right? Have I strayed from the true meaning of discipleship?

I do not believe so. However, this man unknowingly exposed the scars I bear from my own upbringing. For years, I worried I was getting it all wrong. During my adolescence, I walked many a confessional aisle, prayed many salvation prayers (which we so often referred to as “prayers of rededication”), made many recommitments to Jesus, most of which basically boiled down to a white-knuckled, teeth-clenched, self-actualizing vow that this time I would get things right. This time I would really be a Christian.

I have come to accept and even embrace the ambiguity of biblical interpretation. I realize that I have many brothers and sisters in Christ who understand and apply certain passages and verses differently than I do, and unlike the man who called me, I do not think all of them are wrong and I am right. I believe God is bigger than our finite understanding of him. I believe he is bigger than our interpretive capacities. I believe he is bigger even than this testimony about him that we call the Bible.

I believe that I will never be able to get it all right, and that is essentially the reason God sent his son to die on a cross. And I believe that what brings the Son of God glory is when I try to get it right – when I make a genuine, honest effort. As Thomas Merton famously wrote, “The fact that I think that I am following your will doesn’t mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

Nevertheless, a confrontation such as the one I had with this man may cut more deeply than you expect it will. It halts you. It shakes you. It gives you the kind of uncomfortable, self-searching pause that few of us ever seek out on our own.

Holy Spirit, sustain me. Abide in me, and teach me your ways. When I am wrong, rebuke me with gentleness and wisdom. When I am right, bless me with humble assurance. Holy Lord, I thank you that, ultimately, I must answer to no one else but you. Amen.

Slave

It must have been incredibly shocking.

I have to wonder if at first they even noticed what exactly was happening. The way people dined back then, there is at least a chance these men were used to not paying attention to whomever was behind them performing this task. The way they sat – reclining on their elbows, their legs stretched out behind them, focused on the food in front of them, holding conversation, seeing only the other faces at the table – it could very well have been that their master had made it halfway around the table before anyone even noticed he was the one washing their feet.

When Jesus got up from the table, perhaps they didn’t pay him much mind. Maybe they thought he was just excusing himself to the privy. Maybe in their periphery they noticed him messing with the wash basin and assumed he was performing a thorough wash before the main course began. And since the act of foot-washing was typically performed by the lowest of slaves – Gentiles, girls, or Gentile girls – it probably wasn’t customary to pay much attention to the one cleaning the dust of Judaea roads from your feet.

John doesn’t record who first noticed what Jesus was up to. He does, however, put the audible reaction in Peter’s mouth, one of the more outspoken members of the group (a trait that would soon bring him to his lowest point, and not long after raise him to his highest). The way Peter speaks when a stripped-down Jesus draws near to him with the water basin and soiled towel, you would think he is not merely scandalized by this role-reversal but is going so far as to swear an oath; he insists he will never permit his esteemed rabbi to persist in the humiliation of touching another man’s dirt-ridden feet. Granted, Peter had a habit of refusing Jesus of things, though his intentions were usually noble.

“I have to do this,” Jesus tells him. “Otherwise, you will have no share in what is coming.” It’s a puzzling statement to our modern ears, but not to a first-century Jew following a man they believe to be the promised Messiah. Being included in Jesus’ “share” no doubt evoked images of glory and affluence, of being a part of the newly crowned king’s inner circle. Peter wasn’t the only one interested in this future. The Gospel writers occasionally point out that debates regarding rank and status came up now and again. James and John thought about it often. It is very likely Judas Iscariot was just as interested in this outcome, and when he didn’t see it going the way he envisioned, he either sold-out to the establishment, or he arranged a plan with the establishment in hopes of provoking his master to finally, at long last, take the bull by the horns. One way or another, to have a “share” with Jesus was a chief concern of the Twelve.

“Then wash everything!” says Peter. “Do my head and hands. Do it all.” Translation: I want a share more than anybody else; I’d like a share greater than everyone else; include me in your plans more integrally than anyone else.

You have to wonder if Jesus smiled at that point. Or maybe he even laughed. It was a night in which he was no doubt experiencing a creeping melancholy because of what he had perceived was coming, but this moment of intimacy among men with which he had spent so much time over the past several years was something he had been looking forward to for a long while. Maybe he chuckled before he said to Peter, “That won’t be necessary. Now give me the other foot.”

And so the disciples watched their rabbi – the one they called Messiah, Savior, Lord, etc., and the one who called himself the eschatological “Son of Man,” divinely related to the one true God, whom he called Father – wipe away the gunk and grime from their well-traveled feet. They felt his hands guide the towel between their toes, scraping them clean. They saw beads of sweat form on his forehead and temples because he was not pretending to wash their feet, he was actually washing them, scrubbing them back to a presentable, hygienic purity.

James and John watched him, and they thought about how Jesus had responded to one of their recent arguments: “Whoever wishes to be the best among the group must act as the slave of everyone else.”

Peter watched him, and thought about the time Jesus had spoken about being watchful for the master’s return: “Blessed are the slaves the master finds still waiting up for him; the master will be so happy that he’ll cook dinner for them.

Judas watched him and struggled. He remembered the day Jesus had sat down on the hilltop and taught a gathered throng: “No one can be a slave of two different masters. It’s only natural that he’ll refuse one and obey the other.”

They all struggled. It was a shocking illustration, and even though they were used to their rabbi shirking propriety for the sake of making his point, to feel his hands on their feet – hands that had touched unseeing eyes, held leprous hands, lifted up lame bodies – was a sensation difficult to appreciate. It was also, of course, a sensation that would remain vividly in memory for many years to come.

So there they sat, around the table, feeling their master wash their feet.

Watching him do the work of a slave on their behalf.

Letting the Son of Man serve them.

 

5 Reminders for Christians Worried About Same-Sex Marriage

In my last post, I wrote about the inherent tension that comes from pursuing a holy life. I believe this tension has become as evident as ever within American churches in light of the recent Supreme Court decision. Many, many Christians are struggling to reconcile orthopraxy with orthodoxy – that is, correct conduct with correct belief.

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How are Christians supposed to maintain genuine attitudes of hospitality and compassion to people they believe are openly engaging in sinful practices? And, now that same-sex marriage has been federally legalized, does this mark the beginning of the end for any form of biblical morality within government legislation?

If we are going to adequately and correctly address questions such as these, there are several important truths Christians in this country need to bear in mind…

#1 – Christians in America still enjoy unprecedented levels of religious liberty.

When it comes to our place in American society, it is difficult for the modern-day Church to find any similarities to the Christian Church of the first century. For hundreds of years, followers of the Way (Acts 9:2, 22:4) were the weird and suspicious cult members of the neighborhood. Their worship practices were misunderstood, and their theology was considered heretical by some and ludicrous by others. In those first few centuries, persecution was an integral part of their reality; sometimes it was localized to a particular region because a local governor didn’t like them, and other times the Roman Emperor himself sanctioned the oppression empire-wide. And so we’re clear, the Church didn’t define persecution merely as unkind words or unfair stereotyping of their faith. That, they believed, was just the nature of a worldly society desiring to malign them. No, persecution was more significant than that. It was shocking, often violent. From vicious slander to the stripping of business ownership. From treatment as social pariahs to imprisonment, forced apostasy and even execution.

Kind of puts our fussing about the

Kind of puts our fussing about the “rights” of florists and caterers in perspective.

When we stop and consider the social conditions within which the first and second-century Church operated, believers in America should be thoroughly humbled by how good we’ve got it. We should also be embarrassed that while recent Pew Research reports indicate a decline in church membership today, in contrast the early Church grew at an extraordinary rate despite being seen as much more counter-cultural. We may lament the recent decision by the Supreme Court, but we should also remember that both the judge writing for the majority and the President of the United States himself included statements acknowledging and calling for respect of those in the country who hold dissenting views due to religious reasons in particular. This, along with the First Amendment itself, would have bewildered Christians in the first century.

And, concurrently, they certainly would have reminded us that…

#2 – Christians are not called to infringe on another person’s civil rights.

Some Christians may refuse to admit it, but there is simply no basis in Scripture for preventing a citizen of a democratic country from enjoying his or her civil rights. What is more, Christians were never called to enforce their belief system – or the behavioral standards incumbent – on the public at large. Sure, they could and did argue for the value of it. Boldly even. But when the powers that be rejected their theological, moral and ethical viewpoints, neither did the Christians take their dolls and go home to pout. They recognized that what they believed in – the new reality to which they had sworn allegiance – was much bigger than mere civic responsibility. Jesus did not spend his last hours accusing the Sanhedrin of corruption and unfair treatment, but rather looked into the eyes of skeptical Pilate and said, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).

Of course, there are many Christians who would argue that America was founded as a Christian nation and that means it should uphold Christian morality. The problem with this, besides the fact that the foundation of the United States was more a product of Enlightenment principles than biblical ones, is that it assumes the measure of a good society is found in its laws rather than the ideas that inspired them. But what does it mean to be American? Is it to be a biblically moral person, or to be a person liberated from tyranny and oppression? This Saturday is Independence Day. What will that celebration look like: Reveling in the satisfaction that comes from being law-abiding citizens, or gratefully extolling our country’s commitment to equality and personal freedom? At some point, Christians must recognize that for other people to live unto the standards we hold ourselves to, they must be inspired toward them, not forced into them. In the meantime, we mustn’t degrade people who fail to uphold a standard they don’t even believe in.

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And speaking of forcing people into something, we should remember that…

#3 – A Christian is called to live a holy life, not to legislate for one.

The fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage reveals that a lot of Christians are deeply confused about the inherent difference between an authentic life of faith and civil responsibility. The Bible never claims that trusting in God will bring about a socially comfortable life. The story of Scripture finds true believers constantly at odds with the world around them, with no legislation to ease that antagonism. Those who seek to live a righteous life according to the will of God will, at some point, find themselves in conflict with the prevailing moral and ethical standards of the day. As that point, the committed follower must choose whether he or she will continue to think, speak or act contrary to that worldly standard, or assimilate to it.

The Book of Leviticus was an incredibly progressive work, defining a sacrificial system and a code of moral/ethical conduct far more advanced than any of the prevailing polytheistic societies that surrounded the ancient Israelites. Thus, we read time and again phrases like, “be holy,” “consecrate yourselves,” and “I am the Lord.” It is clear that the purpose of the book was not simply to establish a detailed code of law for the Israelites to live by. No, it was first and foremost a call to live a holy life – to be different, distinct from all the other neighboring cultures and their hazardous influences. To be a people set apart and belonging to a loving, almighty God.

Yeah, I tried to read that one. I really did, but then my eyelids got all heavy...

Yeah, I really tried to read that one, but then my eyelids got all heavy…

In the New Testament, we find Jesus upholding this same call despite living under a different law – the Law of Rome – which had politically subjugated the Jewish code. But for Jesus, holiness need not be government sanctioned. It was a question of open-handed devotion to God, not fist-clenched obedience to the law. He embraced the moral and ethical code, claiming in his most famous sermon that he had not come to abolish this call but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-20), but he continually pointed to inner motivation as the key to outward behavior. Christians today need to understand that even if we are unsuccessful in passing legislation that upholds our behavioral ideals, that failure in no way affects our unique call to live a holy life unto the Lord within this country.

Which brings us to the biggest spot of tension, namely that…

#4 – Christians are called to resist idolatry, not simply to uphold biblical morality.

Historically, Christians have been called not to pull back from a society that contains unbiblical laws, but rather to abide within it. Peter’s first letter acknowledged the tension of living in a culture that rejected what they saw as an unpatriotic, upstart Messiah cult. Nonetheless, while encouraging Christians to pursue holy living, he also instructed them to submit to, and even honor, human authorities. Any Christian who would seek to justify his or her disrespectful or ill talk against the government or its leaders would do well to contemplate 1 Peter 2:11-17. Those words pull no punches.

The New Testament never assumes society would affirm the principles and standards of God’s kingdom, or even that it could. Rather, Christians are expected to resist the spiritual, political or social idols that offered only false identity and fleeting provision. The problem is, we often forget what idolatry really is. When we place our trust in a worldly institution or individual (for security, provision, identity, recognition, and/or pleasure), that is idolatry. It has always come in many forms, from natural elements to graven images to political figures. And we find a variety of manifestations of idolatry in our world today, but one Christians often overlook is American individualism. A side-effect to living in a country founded on Enlightenment ideals and upholding democratic principles is that we place quite a bit of importance on individual freedom – that “pursuit of happiness” part of our Declaration of Independence. Thus, when some Christians rage against American courts that choose not to uphold their moral standards, they are reacting less from a commitment to spiritual holiness and more from an innate sense that their personal liberties are being challenged. In reality, they have made idols out of state and federal laws. They have placed in them their sense of security and personal worth, and when that law changes, they feel vulnerable, insecure, and threatened.

And what of same-sex marriage itself? In our time, one of the most deceptive idols has turned out to be human sexuality. Our conditioning within American individualism only furthers the misguided belief that sexual expression is key to defining oneself. More and more people, whether they are heterosexual, homosexual, transgender, etc., have been fed his lie. And so, the search for individual identity trumps submission to divine relationship, let alone biblical morality. However, even committed Christians have just as often fallen prey to this particular form of idolatry. For instance, young Christians who believe that a “true-love-waiting” soul mate will finally complete their existence are just as misguided as homosexual couples who believe they will find true fulfillment through government-sanctioned marriage.

Because of course God wants me to get married.

Because of course God wants me to get married.

So, given the above four truths, how do we as Christians move forward, particularly in relationship with those who do not share our commitment to holy living?

#5 – Christians should be ever-mindful of their approach as much as their attitude.

The whole story of Scripture – Old Testament and New – is of God calling people to anticipate and participate in His work of redemption and restoration. The first two chapters of Genesis paint us a vivid picture of God’s perfect intentions, and it is immediately followed by a story of how the whole thing was thrown out of sorts by our selfishness. (Adam and Eve’s response to the serpent’s lie that they could become “like gods” is indicative of the idolatrous thinking discussed above.) Everything after that is the account of God seeking to restore what has been broken. And at the exact right time, God’s son appeared to not only provide atonement for that inherent selfishness, but also to show us what it looks like when we truly live within God’s redemptive plan.

One of the most impressive things about Jesus’ life is how he was able to uphold a moral standard while simultaneously showing sincere empathy and genuine compassion to people whose lives had become idolatrous messes. Jesus’ attitude about sin never faltered. He was both grieved and angered by it, particularly the way it prevented people from recognizing what God was up to in their midst. Nevertheless, he also maintained an intimate and understanding approach toward sinful people. He did not keep people at arm’s length, but instead showed them incredible patience. And he never once complained that the government should better regulate faithful living. As one writer has put it, his position on sin never overshadowed his posture toward those lost in it. So, when it came to instructing his disciples in holy living, he did not say, “Let your light be so legislated among all people that they may be legally held to your moral standards and glorify your Father in heaven.” Nope. He wasn’t interested in seeing a world that knew nothing of holiness forced to conform to that standard.

“Listen, before I take off, did everyone add their names to the petition that was passed around?”

Instead, Jesus asked his followers to live in such a way that here and there in a lost and bewildered world, we might stand out as those rare individuals who know where true identity comes from. That we might be those peculiar folks who, as it turns out, have learned what real freedom is all about.

Do You Have Time for a Quiet Time?

This is the final post in a five-part series on the problems with keeping a personal, daily “quiet time.” Click herehere, here and here to read the previous installments.

I have not written on this blog in quite a while. I blame the world, but I know it is my own fault.

The thing about living in a world that everyday seems to spin a little quicker on its axis is that unless we’re willing to be mindful of our time, time will pay us no mind at all. I can blame the world, but that means I must also blame myself, because seeing myself as the center of the world is my default setting. And, like the world, my life is pitched forward into a swirling sea of stress, hurry and expediency. Sometimes I feel like I’m plunging down the slope of a ravine – not so much running as barreling headlong, with a point of collision racing to meet me.

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The older I get, the more I seem to feel this way. Now, five days shy of thirty-five, I feel as if I would do anything to slow my pace, to reach out and grab hold of something stationary in a desperate attempt to slow my rate of descent.

The previous four posts were born out of a lingering, nagging concern that I have spent too many years going about this whole “quiet time with God” thing all wrong. As I’ve already mentioned, I grew up in a church culture that placed an incredible amount of emphasis on keeping a personal devotional time with God; unfortunately, though, it did not produce many leaders and teachers who knew how to properly shepherd a young person in such a commitment. As I got older, I found that some of these leaders were dealing with their own quiet-time struggles, others weren’t sure how to go about expressing their own methods, and still others never really practiced any of the disciplines they preached. When I first stepped into the life of a minister (specifically, the life of a youth minister), there were times when I typified each of these lifestyles.

And now, despite still being referred to often as a “young man” by many a member of my church, I recognize that I am a full-fledged adult. And I have had to declare false the assumption I and so many other kids had throughout our childhoods that once we crossed that ill-defined developmental Rubicon into actual adulthood we would understand all those mysteries that so irked our younger selves. There is no instantaneous “I know Kung Fu” moment for us. Very little of the why’s and how’s in this life are received fully realized. We must learn them. And if we are to truly retain what we learn, we must practice them.

The world is our dojo.

The world is our dojo.

I was talking to a gentleman in a bookstore the other day who was telling me about teaching his thirteen-year-old son how to build a simple pair of shelves. He wanted his boy to learn some of the same skills that had been handed down to him from his own father. As they worked, the man asked his son if he agreed that it was important to learn skills like building shelves and basic construction. His son replied, “Isn’t that what Google is for?”

We are all moving so fast, faster than fifty years ago and faster even than fifty days ago. And rather than inventing things that might slow us back down even a little, instead we improve on tools that can keep pace with us. We microwave our food, order coffee from drive-thrus, and pay an annual fee to Amazon.com just so we can receive our purchases a couple of days sooner. We text more than we call, and we call more than we sit down together. We have multiple e-mail addresses, but haven’t sent a handwritten letter in decades. Why? Because we have little, if any, time to spare.

My dearest Helga, I would have thrilled to send you this humble correspondence, but you wouldn't believe how much stamps cost these days!

My dearest Helga, I would have thrilled to send you this humble correspondence, but you wouldn’t believe how much stamps cost these days!

In an age of convenience the likes of which we have never seen before, we are more rushed, more stressed, more frazzled, more impatient, and more inattentive than we have ever been.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate quite a few of these conveniences. I like that I can get an answer to a question from Google that used to be reserved for the reference section of my library. I’m embarrassed, though, that I cannot tell you what any section of my neighborhood library looks like. I appreciate that I don’t have to wait until 7 PM to find out the latest news of the world. I’m wearied, though, by how long I can stare at CNN despite knowing in thirty seconds they have no new information worth reporting. I love having thousands of movies and television shows available at the click of a button. I’m mortified that sometimes, when a somewhat long-winded person is talking to me, I feel an unmistakable desire to fast-forward, as if the conversation was stored in my cable’s DVR.

What does all this have to do with spending time with God?

Simply that, despite a million little conveniences designed to save us time, we usually find ourselves unable to offer God any of it. We’re sleeping less as a society, so waking up a little earlier has become a sacrifice too great for some. Lunch breaks are often taken at our desks rather than in an office atrium or the park across the street, and the average mealtime has dwindled from one hour to fifteen minutes. And what about the end of the day? I don’t know about you, but by the time I get my two preschoolers to bed in the evening, I feel as if I’m running on fumes. Even if I were to give God that hour or so before my own bedtime, would he really be getting the best of me?

"Do you have any devotional Bibles that are shaped like pillows?"

“Do you have any devotional Bibles that are shaped like pillows?”

Should it really be this difficult to cut an hour, or even thirty minutes, out of our daily schedules so we can spend it with God?

Realizing the difficulty of this leads me to a recognition of something else. According to Scripture, what God required of his people was not thirty minutes per day, or an hour here and there during the week. Smack dab in the Ten Commandments is a decree that God’s people would devote an entire day to him. They would honor him by putting aside every effort toward productivity, and instead be present. The Sabbath wasn’t something crammed into a daily planner; it was a sacred period of time, declared “holy” because it was set apart from the rest of a week so diligently focused on labor, development and output.

The Sabbath was a time to rest, and growing up I thought that meant the Israelites had built into their weeks a day to sleep-in and take a nap, like some sort of super-siesta at the end of each week. It wasn’t until later that I realized what the Sabbath was really about. I re-read Jesus’ statement, “The Sabbath was not made for man, but man was made for the Sabbath,” and it occurred to me that the “rest” referred to in the commandment was more about being present and being still than it was about catching up on sleep. The rest God desired for his people wasn’t so much about replenishing energy from all the work that had sapped their strength as it was about taking stock of the glory that lay behind the work itself. Just as God “rested” on the seventh day of Creation, surveying all he had made and declaring it good, so also he wanted his children to avoid getting so caught up in production that they failed to marvel at their God-given ability to produce anything at all.

How else would we be able to deal with all the messes that happen on day 8?

How else would we be able to deal with all the messes that happen on day 8?

I recognize this – a decree so important it was cooked into the center of the Torah’s Ten Commandments – and I shake my head at how meager a thing it is to scrape and strive to spend a full hour with God every day. I mean, hey, if that hour is life-giving for you, and you walk away feeling in deep communion with the Holy Spirit, then more power to you. But if you have been striving for years to commit an hour – or even a half-hour – to God only to feel more wearied by, or disappointed with, your quiet time, maybe your real problem isn’t how you’re spending that hour. Maybe the problem is how you’re spending the other twenty-three.

I haven’t been able to write on this blog in more than a month not because I’ve been too busy, but because writing on this blog has unwittingly tumbled down multiple notches on my priority list. Trying to reestablish a beloved and life-giving activity to the top of your priority list – even a time for communion with the Creator of the universe – can be as difficult a thing as Baylor trying to get the College Football Playoff committee to notice them after losing to West Virginia in October.

34 points? Is that all?

You beat Oklahoma by 34 points? Is that all?

The more we pack into our lives, the harder it becomes to manage, organize, and prioritize those things. Growing up, I was warned about all the dark, ungodly temptations that lay in wait for me out in the world. What I’ve found is most of the temptations I face are not ignoble vices, but noble endeavors. Most of the things we fill our time with are good things. There is nothing wrong with productivity. There is nothing wrong with success. There is certainly nothing wrong with hard work. But like the workers in the vineyard who become incensed at receiving only a standard daily wage for their day’s worth of labor, the majority of us have lost sight of the truth that what matters even more than being productive is the ability to be present and still and thankful before a holy and generous God – a God who wants much more than mere hours of our weeks.

After many years already, I have come to realize what this means for me. It means I have to scale back. I have to simplify. Not Thoreau, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately” simple, but I need to at least be more mindful of my priorities, and faithful to maintaining that list. Maybe I’m not the kind of person who can wake up at 5 AM to spend quality time with my Creator. That means I mustn’t allow the rest of that day to be so chock full of tasks and duties and responsibilities that I am either exhausted or perpetually distracted, unable to live in the present. If I constantly find myself arriving somewhere with no time to spare, or several minutes late, I should consider what tasks (or distractions) force me to depart late. If it seems I am often anxious, or unprepared for meetings, I must reflect on how many other concerns I allowed to pull and tug at me during that day. The more I have to think about, the less I can think.

If every day you blame your tardiness on traffic, that's the same as saying, "I have no short-term memory."

If every day you blame your tardiness on traffic, that’s the same as saying, “I have no short-term memory.”

It is going to take sacrifice, and tenacious attention to the undercurrent of our lives. It is going to mean severing ties with some responsibilities that don’t measure up to a revitalized priority list. It is going to mean a lessened focus on being productive in a world that demands productivity above most everything else. Until we slow ourselves down, we will never truly experience the kind of joy God desired for his people. But, once we do, quiet times become simply a happy accident of being alive.

Our hard work, ambition, and efficiency are not the problems. But our “love” of them (i.e., enslavement to them) are. The good news is Christ came to set us free from a yoke of slavery. The shackles have been broken, and the cell door stands open. The choice to walk out into a free and open world is up to us.