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.

remote-ireland

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.

kneeling

“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.

cards

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.

king cake

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.

exorcist

“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.

Christ the King

Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the last day of the Christian Church calendar.

Depending on the tradition of the faith in which you worship, you may or may not observe this particular day. There are a lot of significant days and seasons within the Church year, and almost all denominations observe at least some of them (e.g., Christmas, Good Friday, Easter). If you are Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox, it is likely your worshipping community follows the Christian calendar very closely, including such focal observances as the Feasts of Epiphany, the Annunciation, and Pentecost, to name merely a few. The same is mostly true for more “high church” traditions like Anglicans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, and some Methodists, in which it is not out of the norm to participate in special services like Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Trinity Sunday.

While it is less common in “low church” circles like the Baptists, Assemblies of God, and the majority of non-denomination communities to observe many aspects of this ancient Christian liturgy, the last decade or so has seen a resurgence of ancient traditions within modern contexts of church worship. Younger generations, including those that did not grow up within liturgically based systems, are beginning to reintegrate an increasing number of observances and practices once considered outdated or traditionalistic.

What makes Christ the King Sunday a valuable component of the Church calendar for all Christians, regardless of denominational tradition, is not simply the fact that it stands as the culminating observance of the whole year (which will begin anew next Sunday with the first week of Advent). It is what the central theme of this “feast” is concerned with, which is the crowning of Jesus Christ, in a devotional sense, as Messiah and ruler over every aspect of our lives. Having anticipated his incarnation during the season of Advent, celebrated his birth throughout the twelve days of Christmas, recognized within the season of his Epiphany the greatness of his mission, the genius of his teaching, and the glory of his wonders, followed him throughout Lent as he set his face toward Jerusalem, mourned his death on Good Friday, glorified him on Resurrection Sunday, and accepted his call to a revolutionary discipleship at Pentecost, we finally arrive at a moment of “completion” (Phil. 1:6) at the Feast of Christ the King.

While a relatively new observance within the liturgical year (it’s current placement on the calendar was established in 1925), I can think of no better way to culminate the Christian year than by crowning my Lord and Savior as king over every part of my life. As Pope Pius XI wrote upon the establishment of this feast day:

“If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new right subjected to his dominion; if this power embraces all men, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truths and to the doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments for the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.”

Or, consider how Frederick Buechner puts this concept of personal Lordship in his memoir, The Sacred Journey, as he recalls the sermon that finally moved him to a point of conversion, delivered by the renowned preacher, George Buttrick:

There came one particular sermon with one particular phrase in it that does not even appear in a transcript of his words… I can only assume that he must have dreamed it up at the last-minute and ad-libbed it and on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of us all. Jesus Christ refused the crown that Satan offered him in the wilderness, Buttrick said, but he is king nonetheless because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that inward coronation takes place, Buttrick said, “among confession, and tears, and great laughter.” It was the phrase great laughter that did it, did whatever it was that I believe must have been hidden in the doing all the years of my journey up till then. It was not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon.

On Christ the King Sunday, we shed every allegiance that, whether intentionally or not, sets itself up as contrary to the Kingdom of God and its principles. We worship the glory and splendor of the coming King, but we also take a long, sobering look at ourselves and the myriad ways we are so regularly disturbed by, and entangled in, the fleeting, finite affairs of a world that is constantly trying to save itself through its own limited ingenuity.

So, in a day and age when, through both news and social media outlets, we are subjected to the blustering bravado of self-centered, image-obsessed world leaders…

When, in search of a better life, we make the mistake of placing our hope in partisan platforms, legislative moralizing, and the dubious assurances of politicians who are well versed in the dog-whistle buzzwords of various faith-based groups…

When we so frequently trade the timeless spiritual disciplines of formative prayer and Scripture-reading for pop spirituality fads and self-help books that do our study of the Bible for us…

When we stray from the ancient way of humility, compassion, and forgiveness because we buy into a lie that certain people with certain hangups, or particular groups hailing from particularly nasty regions, have in some way crossed a line which allows us to withhold our kindness and leniency…

When we forego the call to bear an honest and persuasive witness to the Way of Jesus and instead give in to the instant satisfaction that comes by way of pithy soundbites and hashtag “prayers”…

Of these things, we repent.

For these things, we ask forgiveness.

From these things, we confess our need for deliverance.

Before the refrains of the Advent hymns and Christmas carols begin anew, we pause today to swear the only allegiance that will endure – to profess faithfulness and obedience to the one true and worthy King. We bow our knees, realizing that this is not only good and right to do, but it is also the very reason we were given knees at all, so they might bend before the perfect authority and unrivaled mercy of the One through whom all things live and move and have their very being.

On Rest (Lenten Reflections, Week 7)

I write this early in the morning on Good Friday, at the welcome desk in the lobby of the chapel. To my left is a simple, black and white sign indicating the starting point for my church’s Stations of the Cross prayer exercise. A little c.d. player spills gentle, acoustic ballads into the solemn atmosphere. In each of eight classrooms behind me, there is a small table bearing the name of each station, a corresponding Scripture text, and an artistic, black and white photograph imagining eight individual seconds of an event that unfolded in the early morning hours of the first Good Friday 1,990 years ago, give or take a couple of years.

My mind is not in this… yet. I am still imbibing my first cup of coffee, still going over in my head the setup for today’s prayer exercise to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything, still wondering if the air conditioning is going to cut on. (Oh, there it goes. That’s good.)

But my mind is also toeing the high-cliff edges above a reservoir of doubt. In the past couple of days, my soul has been bombarded by troubling news and dark truths. News stories have flashed across my little smartphone screen, informing me of chemical warfare and subsequent retaliation; of a massive bomb dropped in Afghanistan (Oh, not a nuclear bomb. That’s… good?); of North Korea threatening to test an actual nuclear bomb; of the president of Turkey actively pursuing despotism. To top it off, I just finished a podcast all about super volcanoes. Did you know that when the super volcano residing beneath Yellowstone Park finally explodes, it will release 580 cubic miles of molten rock and dust up to 16 miles into the atmosphere, inevitably triggering a nuclear winter that will almost certainly bring human life to screeching halt?

Well, now you do.

I behold a world of chaos, of natural and man-made disasters roiling just beneath the surface of quotidian life. Then I step into the pre-dawn dark of this chapel lobby, and I click on the little spotlights that illuminate eight simple images of a first-century Jewish peasant scalded to death by a brief steam vent of that chaos. And I am reminded that a Christian is one who is supposed to believe this betrayed and beaten and brutally assassinated Jewish peasant is, somehow, in control of everything else. That there is no measure of chaos, momentary or catastrophic, to which he cannot speak a pacifying word – that he cannot, if he would choose, remove entirely from reality itself.

No wonder so few people in this world truly believe, let alone truly follow, this Savior. It does not merely seem as if the scales are tipped in the other direction; it seems like a joke to believe some massacred miracle-worker from an utterly insignificant blip of a town within a long-lost empire could possibly hold power over a gentle spring breeze, let alone all the world and all its contentious inhabitants.

It is a difficult thing to apply ourselves to the disciplines of which I wrote in my last post. But it is a far more difficult thing to rest in the Master who guides us in his discipline. To accept that what I am doing with my life – these commitments I am making and striving to keep – holds any consequence, makes any difference. Because, in the scheme of things…

But things don’t have schemes, it turns out. World powers serve a lie that one violent act can end violence, rather than naturally necessitate another. World leaders falsely believe that the pinnacle of achievement is asserting their authority, even though millennia have proved all authority is fleeting. And the world itself simply spins and shifts and rumbles along, a slave to chemistry and physics. There is no scheme – no rhyme, no reason – to what it does.

The only scheme belongs to God alone. The only efficacious plan is the one of a Heavenly Father who sends his Son to model true humanity to misguided humans, and to surrender to that misguidedness to the extreme point of blood and nails and death.

It makes no sense… to me. To us. But, then again, I’m a misguided human. When false schemes frustratedly vent their steam, I quake in my boots. I cannot comprehend the mind of the Lord; I cannot fathom his divine logic.

All I can do is rest.

Rest in his power. In his authority. In his order.

If this season of Lent has taught me anything, it is that discipline without rest is just a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Repentance without reassurance is pointless. Purgation without peace is worthless. Confession without joy, meditation without stillness… it is all for naught if we cannot lay our myriad fears and doubts and disbelief at the feet of our Savior and say, “Please cast these shackles so far away they cannot be remembered. And defend me, because this world loves to jangle about in its carefully fashioned chains. It loves to rattle sabres and hear the cruel and pretty sounds they make. Guard my eyes. Preserve my ears. Still the anxious beating of my heart. Help me, glorious God, holy Other, to rest in you.”

On Repentance (Lenten Reflections, Week 1)

I wish that I could change things
Testify to some deliverance
Yeah, I talk-show it right into the ground
Like some salvation experience
Yeah, I wish that I could change things
Say some new words for all these feelings that I’ve felt
We all want to change things
But can you change yourself?

from “Songwriter (Numb)” by Bill Mallonee
from the album, Dear Life

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. The first day of the season of Lent.

Lent is a season of the Christian Year in which followers of Jesus acknowledge their struggle against sin and selfishness, and return – as a community of believers – to God. It is a day of self-examination, and, hopefully, repentance.

But what is repentance?

For those who grew up going to church, repentance can mean several different things. Some think of it in conjunction with the often stereotyped, turn-or-burn preachers of their youth; those red-faced, index-finger-pointing persuaders presiding over heavy-hearted altar calls Sunday after Sunday.

Others think of the wild-eyed, wild-haired prophets of old, dressed in tattered robes or wrapped in sackcloth, crying out to the masses with frightening conviction, “Repent!”

Still others hear the word “repentance” and smile. We think of the moment – or, perhaps many moments – in our lives when we grasped the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice and prayed to be counted among the forgiven.

Every one of these images is a picture of repentance, because to repent of something actually means “to change one’s mind.” To see reality differently.

In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, only a couple sentences after Jesus of Nazareth is introduced, we read the statement, “Jesus came into Galilee preaching the good news of God, saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent, and believe in the gospel.'”

In his telling of the greatest story ever told, these are the first words Mark ascribes to Jesus.

Mark chooses to introduce his readers to Jesus by attributing an astonishing statement as the core theme of the Nazarene’s ministry. Don’t miss the seditious nature of Jesus’ words. He is proclaiming the euangelion (“gospel” or “good news”) of God to a people who had lived for centuries hearing only the decreed gospels of worldly authorities – Alexander the Great, Antiochus Epiphanes, Caesar Augustus, Herod Antipas, and so on. An euangelion, which comes from a Greek word meaning “message,” was almost exclusively a political edict or proclamation, describing the “glad tidings” that would come to all those who accepted and supported the ruler’s rule. It was the inevitable legislation that proceeded from the will of an ascended governor, king, or emperor. And whether or not it was actually something to celebrate, it was nonetheless proclaimed as such.

So it is that Jesus, a poor tradesman from a minuscule village in the hill country of Palestine, proclaims his own euangelion. Only, this gospel is not of a military conqueror or a political premier. It is the gospel of God himself! And if that weren’t enough to saddle the upstart prophet with accusations of insurrection, Jesus insists that God’s Kingdom – as opposed to the kingdom of Rome – has drawn near. Essentially, what he describes is as much a geopolitical invasion as it is a spiritual reality. Another mightier Kingdom has begun its annexation of Caesar’s empire.

Simply put, when Jesus says, “Repent,” he is exhorting his hearers to make a choice of allegiance. Either continue living in the reality you’ve known – one in which your entire culture and nationality has been swallowed up by a seemingly overwhelming, irrepressible worldly power – or choose to look at your reality differently. Transcendently.

Repentance is not simply a time of confession. As a matter of fact, repentance is what leads to confession. This is because repentance is what happens when we choose to see our lives differently. When we change our minds about the very laws of reality. We accept that there is another world – another truth – that runs contrary to the one we have lived in for so long, and we make a choice to put aside the old beliefs and obsolete habits in order to now live according to that world and its truth.

For 1500 years, the Church has recognized that Christians of all shapes and sizes can benefit from a day set aside for this kind of reflection and repentance. A day to refocus our sights on a heavenly kingdom instead of lesser, worldly ones. A day to change our minds, and to confess the many, many times we have failed to live according to this new reality, this Kingdom of God, this euangelion that Jesus proclaimed. We call that day Ash Wednesday.

The ashes symbolize the helplessness of humanity. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But – and don’t miss this! – we receive the mark of ashes in the sign of the cross of Jesus Christ, which accomplished reconciliation between God and humanity. So, while we are but dust, the salvation we receive in Jesus makes us more than dust. More than the sum of our parts. Citizens of a new Kingdom.

Next week, I’ll write a bit about the process that comes after repentance – this putting away of old habits in exchange for the practices that align with God’s Kingdom, our glorious, new reality.

In the meantime, may you not be hypnotized by the worldly realities that so often envelope us. May you not imbibe the lies masquerading as truth, which are heaped upon us day after day by politicians and presidents, newspapers and news pundits. Instead, may you remember there is a greater truth – an absolute Truth – running counter to this world. It is invisible to the masses, but to those who search for it, it becomes as clear as day. May you open your eyes to look for it and perceive it. And when you catch sight of it, may you forever change your mind.