A Higher Allegiance

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

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

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Come at me, bro.

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

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

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PICTURED: 1 Corinthians 12:12

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

God.

Always, only God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fullness and the Emptiness of Ritual

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

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Yeah, this place doesn’t exist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I came up empty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worldly Discipline and Dark Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I can’t carry all this stuff forever!

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

The Superhumanity of Christians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There are three more pointing back at you, bud.

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

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

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

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

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

A Higher Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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.

When They Just Don’t Get It

This week’s post is a rerun, originally published on June 24, 2013. Next week, look for Part 2 of “A Right to Disconnect.” 

Yesterday, I received an unwelcome glimpse into the future of my vocation.

While the interim senior pastor at my church has been traveling, I’ve had the privilege to deliver the sermons in the morning and evening worship services. I don’t take these invitations lightly.

I love preaching. I love the preparation – choosing the text, meticulous researching, jotting down good lines turned in captivating ways. I enjoy writing the manuscript. And, despite the unavoidable pain that comes from revising and cutting it down to size, I relish the way slashing paragraphs and removing unnecessary repetition seems to grant freedom to the whole enterprise.

I even enjoy practicing the manuscript out loud, contending with it until I’m able to leave it behind without losing point or pace.

cheater

Cheater.

Preaching is an art form. It is as much a specialist’s craft as poetry, painting, playing an instrument or writing a short story. I know I still have a long way to go before I can consider myself an accomplished craftsman, but each opportunity afforded me is practice I need and practice I crave.

But yesterday, following the worship service, I came face-to-face with one of the biggest drawbacks to making this art form part of a ministerial career.

It wasn’t criticism. By now, I’ve preached enough sermons and taught enough Bible studies to receive my fair share of negative responses. A few disparagements have been called for. A few have not. And a few of the “have nots” remain, without a doubt, the most selfish, insensitive and tactless attacks I’ve ever heard leveled against another human being. (That last group usually comes by way of e-mail, one of the many ways the Internet allows us to wage bloody trench wars against people we disagree with.)

It’s true that criticism can be acutely discouraging. I have had my sense of accomplishment and my confidence behind the pulpit sapped more than once by the homiletic equivalent of “haters.” Ultimately, though, negative criticism only makes the preacher work harder and pay more attention to the words and illustrations he chooses.

writing-sermon

Okay, so how can I keep this point from sounding like “the vapid, ignorant utterings of a pea-brained, liberal jackass with all the common sense of a monkey throwing its feces?”

No, what left me so disconcerted with the preaching life yesterday was not criticism. Rather, it was some of the conversations I had with parishioners at the close of the service (no more than ten minutes after I’d finished delivering my sermon). I should say that most of the people who greeted me had only kind and encouraging things to say. However, there was a small minority of people who expressed their enjoyment of the sermon, but then lingered to tell me why. The reasons they gave flowed directly from a point-of-view I had spent the last half hour arguing against!

In a nutshell, yesterday’s sermon intimated that the gospel of Jesus Christ erases all manner of distinction between a person and others. Orbiting the life-altering words of Galatians 3:28 (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”), my main premise was that the truth of the gospel abolishes all lines of contrast we humans so often draw around ourselves or our communities, be they cultural, political, racial, or socioeconomic. I insisted that if followers of Jesus want to live as authentic Christians rather than by the weak and maligned societal definition of the word “Christian,” then we must submit to this radical new way of thinking and speaking and doing. There can be no argument. The gospel of Jesus robs us of the permission to figure our identity by worldly standards.

Somehow, despite so carefully preparing this message and painstakingly practicing its delivery, it seems that a few people nevertheless heard the exact opposite message than I intended. When they praised the sermon, they did so based on a particular cultural, political, or social perspective, and seemed brazenly unaware that bad-mouthing or lamenting people whom they considered different from them was the very thing I had spoken against.

What bothered me most, though, was the presumptuousness. Each of these point-missers simply assumed I shared their point-of-view, when, in reality, all I could think was, “Well, that’s not what I meant at all,” and “Did you even listen to the part where I said ________?”

plugging-ears

Aah! He’s saying something that sounds impactful. Quick, plug your ears!

Look, I’m no fool. I understand it is unrealistic to expect one sermon to completely change every heart and mind, no matter how much preparation I give to it. And I also realize that God is patient, and that he calls his children to be patient as well. Changing minds takes time. As a matter of fact, that happened to be one of the main points of the sermon – that sanctification is a struggle because we are constantly pulled backwards into our old ways of life, into cold legalism and the convenience of social distinctions.

And yet, there is something deeply disconcerting when the words you speak are not only heard incorrectly, but the people who most need to hear a message of deliverance interpret what you say as encouragement to keep on living the way they’ve been living. It made me wonder if this is always going to be an unwelcome aspect of the preaching life. Will anything ever break through to such people? Will the Spirit ever be able to convict them?

Furthermore, how exactly do I respond to such misinterpreted praise? Granted, I was a substitute – a guest preacher. Communicating the truth of God’s Word comes as one-shot opportunities right now. I’m not sure it’s my place to stop the well-meaning commenters in the middle of what they’re telling me and say, “Wow, you just didn’t get it at all, did you?”

Spiritual Life Week

“C’mon, be honest. You were just doodling in the bulletin the whole time, weren’t you?”

As I ponder the next step and whether or not I’m really up for this kind of life, I realize that maybe there is no significant difference between receiving negative criticism and receiving misinterpreted praise. It still just makes me want to work harder – to meticulously pour over that next message (whenever the opportunity to preach comes my way again), and consider even more deliberately the audience to whom I speak.

I realize something else, too. It occurs to me that it’s one thing to stand up on a stage or behind a pulpit and preach a good sermon. It’s a whole other thing, in the midst of post-sermon conversations, to live as that very model of grace and Christ-filled patience.

God have mercy! There’s no greater art form than that.

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?

Elf_039Pyxurz

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.

shoes-for-kids-930176_960_720

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.

Bernie_Sanders_2014

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.

On Confession (Lenten Reflections, Week 4)

Now pride and hate, they live inside me
I need your love enough to guide me
Help me walk across these borders
I’m a pilgrim in deep waters

Faithful God, like faithful sunrise
Help me break from all these old ties
Lead me all to that is holy
Break these chains, but break them slowly

from “Mansions” by Burlap to Cashmere
from the album, Anybody Out There?

Confession is both an instinctual mode of prayer – what I like to call a posture – and also a spiritual discipline.

A mode, or posture, of prayer refers to what a follower of Jesus prays about. Confession is part of an “inward” posture. It is the kind of prayer that gazes not upward at God’s majesty, nor outward at the needs of others, but into the depths of our individual selves – and into the darkening residue of grime that accumulates the longer we tarry in this present world. It is a means of katharsis, the essential first step in spiritual transformation that I wrote about in last week’s post. Confessional prayer is the way we gather up and expel the junk that piles up in our souls. Prayer by prayer, we identify the rust and rot of self-centeredness and we tear it out, clearing our houses, preparing them for further renovations courtesy of the Holy Spirit.

But confession is not simply a type of prayer. It is also a spiritual discipline – that is, something we apply ourselves to. Something we work at. Something we strive to improve in, even master, in our pursuit of purity and blamelessness (a pursuit that often takes a lifetime for a devoted follower to experience, as Paul infers in Philippians 1:9-11).

There is a reason why Catholic churches include confessional booths, and why their spiritual leaders insist parishioners visit them regularly. Despite the way pop culture treats these little closets as either priestly power plays, impromptu counseling centers, or ineffectual shrines to narcissism, very early in to this whole Christianity thing the Church recognized that the act of confession is not simply a one time statement of belief in the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. Rather, it is a necessary practice of prayer – something anyone who desires to follow the Savior’s way must make room for in his or her life.

In the evangelical tradition – which is, sadly, becoming much more scattershot and tangled in the poison of partisanship and nationalism – we don’t always do a good job of teaching confession as a discipline of prayer. (Truth be told, we don’t do a good job of teaching the disciplines much at all anymore.) We tend to refer to prayer in primarily general terms, I think because, deep down, we feel like going into detail about its many, many different methods and disciplines and techniques will end up confusing people. There may be some truth to that inclination, but the problem that inevitably arises from generalizing prayer is that generations of believers grow up within a faith tradition that fails to train people how to pray.

As such, when a run-of-the-mill evangelical believer hears the word “confession,” he will usually think of one of two things. One, the stereotype of a confession booth, or, two, the moment a person professes Jesus as Savior. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord,” the Apostle Paul writes to the believers in Rome, “and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

But that is only the start of the discipline of confession. It is an extraordinarily powerful first confession, for sure, but it is certainly not meant to be the last. Not because forgiveness is contingent upon our actual naming of each sin we have committed, but rather because it is through confession that we continue to identify not merely our sinful acts but even more the selfish inclinations and lingering weaknesses weighing down our souls. In other words, when you “invite Jesus into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior” as the saying goes, this act breaks the stranglehold of sin on your life; it does not, however, eradicate your selfish nature altogether. You are just as susceptible to act selfishly as you were before you first confessed Christ as Savior.

Confession, then, is the discipline that teaches us just how far God’s forgiveness reaches. As we seek to live as renewed, repurposed children of our heavenly Father, we engage in the process of katharsis, and, by confession, we continue to clean house of all those old, imbedded wounds and the deep-set tendencies to assert our own will over the will of the Great Architect.

When we pray our prayers of confession, we are not informing God of our wrongdoing and wrongbeing. What we are actually doing is agreeing with him that, yes, our flesh is indeed corrupted by worldly obsessions. We are not telling God anything he doesn’t know, but just because God knows it all doesn’t mean there isn’t profound power in naming these things before him. Confession has always been more for us than it is for God.

Lastly, it is important to remember that there is more to the discipline of confession than merely through listing off our individual sinful deeds, as if we are simply taking a depressing, masochistic inventory of all our bad behaviors at day’s end. On the contrary, time spent in confession should leave a follower of Jesus rejuvenated rather than drained. Filled with a sense of freedom and peace rather than sorrow and guilt. Confession begins heavy, but it ends light. In confession, we identify healthy practices that must replace our sinful habits. We take comfort in God’s mercy, and find confidence in his grace to commit again to obedience and purity. We marvel at the endless reach of his perfect, healing love.

So, may you not shy away from the act of confession. May you make it one of the good habits that replaces the self-centered clutter littering your soul. May you run desperately into your moments of confession, eager for the cleansing that it brings, and the peace that sweeps through you like a cool wind in the heat of the day. May you confess your brokenness in such a way that you cannot help but lift up praises to the One who holds the power to put all things back together again.