A Higher Allegiance

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

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

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Come at me, bro.

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

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

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PICTURED: 1 Corinthians 12:12

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

God.

Always, only God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fullness and the Emptiness of Ritual

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

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Yeah, this place doesn’t exist.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I came up empty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epiphany

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

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

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

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PICTURED: An overlooked example of the War on Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it wasn’t enough.

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

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

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“Psst! Guys, show some respect.”

Worshipped the Christ Child.

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

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

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

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.

The Veterans’ Day Lesson I Never Expected

I am the son of a veteran.

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

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

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Eat your heart out, Tony Stark.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Be a Jerk for Jesus

When I was in college, I attended a two-day seminar on apologetics hosted at a church in Austin. A group of students from our campus ministry organization went up together. I can’t speak for them, but at the time I was mildly excited. I had only recently read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity for the first time, and was a bit of a neophyte when it came to this field of study and rhetoric. However, I found the practice of making valid arguments for faith, and rebutting arguments against it, exhilarating, and I was stoked to learn more.

And yet, what I encountered at this seminar quickly doused these kindled sparks of excitement, and for many years after soured my appreciation for modern-day Christian apologetics.

It was not that I saw through the arguments presented at this seminar (and, believe me, the amount of rhetorical ropeadopes and dialectical mic drops presented by the main speaker was staggering!). No, most of them were pretty impressive maneuvers of logic and reasoned rebuke. Commendable, even.

The problem, it turned out, did not lie with the apologetics being presented. The problem was the apologist himself.

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No, it wasn’t because he dressed like a crazy person.

In one of his wonderful essays for Release Magazine, “Telling the Joke,” the late Rich Mullins recounts a heated exchange he once had with a friend, in which he systematically knocked down every argument against the validity of the gospel of Jesus Christ only to be shocked by his friend’s response. As Rich put it:

After I had whacked away his last scrap of defense, after I had successfully cut off every possible escape route that he could use, after I had backed him into an inescapable corner and hit him with a great inarguable truth, [he] blew me away by simply saying, “I do not want to be a Christian. I don’t want your Jesus Christ.” (Release, February/March 1996)

What left me feeling rotten about the seminar I attended was the unmistakable smugness and arrogant glee in the tone of the speaker (who had been touted as a sought-after expert in the field of Christian apologetics) as he walked us through his finely tuned workbook curriculum. Chapter by chapter, we learned, as each page put it, how to prove Mormons are wrong, how to prove Islam is a lie, how to prove atheists are illogical. (There was also a chapter on the fallacies of Catholicism, which in hindsight I realize should have been more of a giveaway of the kind of person we were dealing with.) It was clear that this man loved the work he did, and that, in and of itself, was fine. Indeed, I assume the Ravi Zachariases and Josh McDowells and Lee Strobels of the world love what they do. This man’s devotion to his field of study was not the issue. Rather, it was how much of the man’s personality, passion, and energy seemed focused on not simply contending for the validity of the Christian faith, but absolutely obliterating every opponent he could think of.

Throughout the seminar, this man related stories of past exchanges with imams, Hindu priests, New Age adherents, even Satanists, and, with each subsequent story, he seemed to relish recounting exactly how he had put each one of these pagans in their place. Rarely did he describe these exchanges in a way that highlighted kindness, or gentleness, or even patience. Only flawless precision. These stories were tales of how he outsmarted his opponents and became the undisputed victor of each argument.

What it boiled down to was this. For this alleged expert in the field of apologetics, it seemed that the gospel of Jesus Christ was valuable not because of some inward transformation, but because he had determined ways to empirically and reasonably verify it. It was powerful because it was intellectually ratified, not because it was spiritually manifest inside him. I don’t mean to insinuate the guy is not a devoted follower of Jesus. But for three hours that night (and several more the next morning) the life of faith he exhibited had little to do with the fruits of the Spirit described by the Apostle Paul in Galatians, and much more to do with proving himself right in the face of all other faiths. In this tried-and-true notebook, he had clearly identified the enemies of Christianity, and his focus was not on loving them.

It was on beating them.

Now, apologetics can be a useful tool for Christians, especially in our increasingly pluralistic world. These days, if you are choosing to resist the anti-social hypnotism of your smartphone and are actually looking up at people and engaging with them, you are likely to encounter people who believe all sorts of things contrary to the gospel message. You will meet people who completely dismiss Jesus as a misunderstood and vastly overrated historical figure. You will meet others who are happy that you’ve found meaning in the Christian faith, but not to assume that everyone needs that particular belief system in order to find their own existential meaning. You may even meet full-fledged nihilists who, while outright rejecting any and all religious ideas presented to them, nonetheless surprise you by how well-rounded and gracious they are.

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Probably not these guys, though.

“Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you,” writes St. Peter. St. Paul echoes him in a letter to his protegé, Timothy: “Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.”

If you are meeting people and truly engaging them in conversation and relationship, there will come moments in which you have the opportunity to talk about what you believe. Maybe not breaking out your Bible and flipping to the Romans road, but at least relating the fundamental narratives about who God is and how he interacts with humanity. And, in doing so, you may also find yourself entertaining questions about, or even arguments against, your beliefs. Apologetics is a way of organizing and articulating these narratives within various forms of dialogue. It is intended as a catalyst for deeper conversation, not as a club to bust the lips of skeptics.

Yes, it feels really, really good to win an argument. There is an exceedingly pleasant rush of dopamine that comes whenever you prove yourself right about something. In a day and age in which it has become increasingly rare to convince people they might be mistaken about even the smallest of issues, to actually win an argument is an extraordinary experience. But, like Rich Mullins’s friend showed him, there is more to faith than “proving” its legitimacy. The life of faith was never meant to be lived solely within the mind.

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The word evangelism refers to presenting the gospel in a way that persuades a person to surrender their lives to the salvation and direction of Jesus Christ. But the term is rooted in the New Testament word euangelion, which literally means “good tidings” and was later transliterated as “gospel.” From the very beginning this euangelion was far more than an intellectual exercise – an argument about the legitimacy of faith. It alluded to something much bigger – to the life-changing, reality-altering hope that God is not vindictive but gracious, and that his love for humanity knows no bounds.

At the heart of Jewish ritual prayer is the line, “You shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and with all of your strength.” The Gospel of Luke  records Jesus quoting this line in response to a question about the greatest commandment, and the language includes “and with all of your mind” (in light of how the Greeks viewed knowledge as separate from the others). The point is simple: the life of faith is marked by a submission of the entire human experience – our appetites and emotions, our personalities and passions, our abilities and resources, and, of course, our intellects and memories. Genuine faith transforms the whole person.

So, if you’re in it for the rush of victory, or if the person with whom you are arguing rejects Christianity out of spite for the way you’re defending it, then you’re misusing the tool of apologetics. You might have fashioned a handful of clever points. You may have developed a shrewd and impressive polemic. You may have carefully honed the ability to make a captivating case for the validity of the Christian faith.

But have you made faith captivating? Have you exhibited a gospel message that transforms heart and soul as well as mind?

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You mean I have to be compassionate, too? What a drag!

May we never be so passionate to win an argument that we forget what we’re arguing for. May we encourage twice as much as we correct and rebuke, because, for many of us, that is weakest part of our interactions with others. And may we be people who trade a desire to be seen as right for the desire to be seen as whole.

“I am a Christian,” writes Rich Mullins in that same essay, “because I have seen the love of God lived out in the lives of people who know Him. The Word has become flesh and I have encountered God in the people who have manifested (in many “unreasonable” ways) His Presence; a Presence that is more than convincing – it is a Presence that is compelling.”