The Curious Case of Kanye West

I’ve given up trying to have hip musical tastes. Life’s too short, I’ve realized. I’m a month shy of 40, and I just want to listen to what I like. So, that usually means the Americana stylings of The Avett Brothers, the acoustic-driven songs of Gregory Alan Isakov, Josh Ritter, or Iron and Wine, or the smooth folk-jazz of Over the Rhine. I no longer concern myself with the Top 40 or the zeitgeist of pop, R&B, or hip-hop. As popular as these genres are, they don’t entertain or inspire me.

Hip-hop in particular was difficult to get into. I mean, I like “Lose Yourself,” but who doesn’t? I tried listening to Kendrick Lamar’s Damn after it won a Pulitzer, but it just didn’t resonate. It’s not that I think hip-hop is a lesser genre. It’s just never been my cup of tea.

music taste

The fact that I use the idiom “cup of tea” may be its own indicator.

Because of this, I have little interest in listening to Jesus is King by Kanye West.

Apparently that’s what every Christian under 45 years of age has been doing the last couple of weeks. If you haven’t heard, Kanye West has become a Christian, and he just released an album expounding upon his newfound faith. He has also stated he will retroactively adjust lyrics from past albums to make them less offensive.

As an exercise in theological evaluation, I suppose I am curious how exactly a notoriously narcissistic hip-hop star articulates the gospel after his conversion? Are his lyrics biblically sound or rough around the doctrinal edges? Is Scripture treated with reverence and respect, or culturally proof-texted to make a predetermined point? Then again, these are questions we should be asking of any album intended to proclaim the truth of the gospel.

My musical tastes will likely prevent me from asking Alexa to fill my kitchen with Kanye’s sick-yet-gospelized beats. Sorry, Kanye. However, I’m not wholly indifferent to news of your conversion. In fact, I’m far more curious about how our culture is treating that than the reviews of your latest studio effort.

What’s Really Going on Here?

It’s not Kanye’s new album, but rather his alleged conversion and the Church’s response to it, that intrigues me. I include “alleged” simply because I do not know Kanye, nor do I know the individuals in his life who claim to have witnessed his surrender to the gospel. I hope that his decision to follow Jesus as “King” is genuine. If it is, I believe it should be celebrated. After all, while I’m not hip enough to quote any of his lyrics, I’m familiar with enough pop culture to know Kanye’s reputation has been anything but humble and compassionate. Christians are right to celebrate when the gospel transforms a life, when a once self-involved individual starts serving the local church.

kanyeinterupts

“I’mma let you finish, Pastor, but first, would the parents of Caleb Williams make your way to the nursery? He ate too many graham crackers and got a tummy ache…”

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure we can call what a lot of Christians are doing in relation to Kanye West’s conversion a celebration of the gospel. Perhaps this is a slip toward cynicism on my part, but what social media posts and religious publications are saying about Kanye’s life-change seem more akin to when your favorite sports team acquires a quality first-round draft pick. It feels like some of us are cheering the success of a team, instead of the power of the gospel. Meanwhile, the other side (the skeptical ones) are quick to doubt the conversion based on any number of assumptions.

We do this a lot, actually. For decades, Christians in America (particularly evangelicals) have struggled with the concept of celebrities professing faith. Sometimes this is a known Christian who becomes more active on the secular stage (think musicians like Amy Grant and P.O.D., or politicians such as Mike Huckabee and Jesse Jackson). When this happens, Christians quickly split into two main camps – those who applaud the person’s courageous choice to exemplify faith to a dark world, and those who question the genuineness of the person’s faith, instead labeling them either a sell-out or an apostate.

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“They’re playing “Meant to Live” on the secular rock station. Switchfoot is dead to me now.”

This divide also surfaces when news breaks that a known celebrity has professed faith in Christ (e.g., Alice Cooper, Justin Bieber, the dude from Korn) or has been “outed” as a believer (e.g., Stephen Colbert, MC Hammer, Chris Pratt). Again, the camps form. Some Christians celebrate the person’s radical choice to turn from the wide gate and instead walk the narrow road of faith. Others scratch their heads and question whether the person’s faith is actually authentic. This is what we’re currently experiencing in the curious case of Kanye West.

In Search of Legitimacy

Often, when popular celebrities are revealed to be people of faith, this tends to legitimize them in the eyes of many believers. A kind of “team pride” dynamic emerges within Christian circles. Whether it’s Bob Dylan, Mel Gibson, or Kanye West, a lot of people feel the need to look back over a person’s career and point to moments that seem to indicate faith in the gospel, or at least an openness to it (“C’mon, man. Don’t you remember “Jesus Walks” from Dropout…“). Inevitably, some newfound fans will compare the newly converted to a certain Pharisee who experienced his own dramatic change of direction. They’re convinced that this one-time enemy of the faith is now a child of the light who will quite possibly have the same worldwide impact as the Saul of Tarsus. After all, just consider their well-established platform, and all those current fans ripe for conversion now that their hero has surrendered to the gospel.

stoning of paul the apostle

That’s how things worked out for Saul, right?

While some of these hopes lie in the realm of the possible, there are some troubling implications to them as well. First, it assumes the spread of the gospel is based as much in popularity as it is in relationship. Joe Schmo may be able to win a couple close friends to Jesus, but imagine how many lives will be touched when Bieber brings Hillsong United on his next tour. There’s no comparing which person will spark the next Great Awakening.

Second, we’re quick to celebrate a profession of mind, but are rarely interested in considering a subsequent change of action. Usually, this is because we don’t want to appear judgmental. However, Scripture reminds us many times over that faith devoid of action can hardly be called genuine. Jesus asked, “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit” (Mt. 7:16-17). And James reminded the Church, “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like” (Ja. 1:22-24). He would later go on to point out that a profession of belief is not enough. “Even the demons believe,” he wrote (2:19).

Now, I’m not saying we should subject new believers to unreasonable scrutiny – especially those we’re acquainted with only through a pop-culture lens. Formation in the Spirit is a lifelong process. Neither am I advocating we should pounce on a believer’s missteps as proof of illegitimate faith. We must remember, though, that it is a Christian’s life that testifies to the truth of salvation, not just a Christian’s mouth.

When holding out for this form of evidence from an allegedly converted celebrity is considered divisive, we have a problem. But the choice to wait-and-see is very often labeled as cynical, judgmental, or even the biggest insult one can throw at a fellow Christian: pharisaical.

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It’s considered offensive and uncouth for Christians to express skepticism at stories of famous people professing faith. Elvis Presley, Tyler Perry, Deion Sanders, every other country music singer… Questioning the authenticity of a celebrity’s profession of faith (true repentance or just a passing fad) often gets you accused of overly pietistic faith. “Someone has come along who can, by his mainstream appeal, validate Christian devotion!” some say. “But look at all the spiritual party-poopers threatened by what they can’t understand.”

I know I do not feel threatened by Kanye’s profession of faith. I’m not even sure what “side” I’m on. I’m certainly not with the doubters. If anything, I’m cautiously optimistic that his is genuine repentance. What I’m waiting for, though, is spiritual fruit, which Jesus reminds all of us is the evidence of true faith. An album called Jesus is King isn’t enough, just as Slow Train Coming and Saved weren’t enough for Dylan. There is more to following Jesus than writing a handful of Christ-themed songs.

What I am threatened by – or perhaps the better word is “concerned” – are those who defend a celebrity’s conversion not out of any actual familiarity with the person, but rather out of a desire to protect the legitimacy they feel a famous person’s faith now gives their own. If Dylan or Bieber or Kanye can be Christians, that must mean my own faith is not incompatible with the mainstream. Christians can be cool. The Church is back, baby!

pouting

“If Lady Gaga would go to church a little more, maybe Mom would let me listen to her albums…”

The Idolatry of Image

While our first experience of repentance may resonate in our very bones, it remains no simple task to follow Jesus daily. In twenty years of ministry, I’ve witnessed countless conversions – people prostrating themselves before sanctuary altars, teenagers walking aisles in tears, all-night conversations with skeptics who finally, in the wee hours of the morning, bow their heads in humble recognition of the Great Mystery. These were powerful moments all.

And yet, I need only glance at my Facebook feed to recognize not every one of these once-repentant souls are currently bearing spiritual fruit. While many lives were radically changed, others never really were. Some who passionately professed belief and spoke words of surrender returned to their old ways not long after that experience. A few have walked away from faith altogether, chalking up their conversion experience to naïveté or ignorance.

The point of this post is not to dismiss the genuineness of confession, nor is it to ponder whether one can lose his or her salvation. I’m merely pointing out that repentance, while central to our salvation, is only step one. Being remade by the Spirit is actually a lifelong process, and to be a true spiritual leader of others requires a lot more than having a built-in platform. There is good reason why Saul backed away from public life for three years before finally engaging with the apostles in Jerusalem (Gal. 1:15-18). Conversion is a glorious bloom, but if it’s going to blossom a commitment to grow in faith – to be corrected, trained, and formed by the truth – must be joined with it. Saul of Tarsus did indeed have an extraordinary impact on the spread of the gospel, but that impact was not immediate. Several years passed between the Damascus Road and his first missionary excursion.

I have no reason to discredit Kanye’s fervor for the gospel, nor do I doubt the lyrics in Jesus is King come from a genuine passion for his Savior. However, what I know the man needs now is the opportunity and the space to grow in his faith, especially considering the materialistic, self-seeking celebrity culture in which he has lived for so long. Good trees don’t bear good fruit overnight.

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Saul went to Arabia. Maybe Kanye should spend three years in the Mojave.

We in the Church have a bad habit of making idols out of famous converts. To pin our hopes to their redeemed coattails and bask in the glow of our own newfound legitimacy. We would do better to treat these people like the young brothers and sisters in Christ they actually are. We should pray for them, and pray against the onslaught of temptation, the whispers of the Evil One who will try to tell them they were just going through a phase, just experiencing a moment of weakness, when they offered that sinner’s prayer.

So, maybe I should give Jesus is King a listen. Kanye’s beats may not be my cup of tea, but, while I don’t know the man personally, that doesn’t mean I can’t pray for him to grow and to learn and to prosper. And it doesn’t mean I can’t change the way I respond to these reports of celebrities who profess faith – entrusting each one to the Lord, and calling upon his name and his influence to bring about the furthering of his purposes.

It’s in Jesus and Jesus alone I place my trust. After all, as Kanye’s album reminds us, he is the King.

This is part one of a two-part series on the intersection of the Christian faith and celebrity culture. Check back soon for part two.

Whatever Happened to Joy?

When I was attending seminary, I met a recently married couple who taught me something about an often overlooked struggle between ministry and witness.

Both were students pursuing their advanced degrees, and the more I and my fellow seminarians got to know them, the more we could see that they were made for each other. This was not a case of opposites attract. Quite the contrary. Their sameness was impossible to overlook. They spoke with the same quiet tone, they were both obvious introverts, and they were both exceedingly intelligent. But none of these similarities were as noticeable as how equally devoted the two of them were to a plethora of social causes. No matter what the topic of discussion might be in a given class, when either of them contributed, it was always with a fervent passion for justice and compassion. If you saw one’s mouth open, you already knew the gist of what was about to be fiercely spoken. There were a lot of students at the seminary who could be labeled as “activists,” but these two took the cake. They were are own pair of profusely bleeding hearts.

I don’t mean to disparage them for this. In many ways, this couple served as a much-needed conscience for a lot of us who were perhaps far too concerned with our GPA and our exam schedules than we were the problematic issues of our day, which at that time included such troublesome situations as the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars, the 2004 Presidential election, and ever-escalating prejudices of a society still reeling from 9/11. In many ways, this couple inspired us not to divorce what we were studying from why we were studying it. There was really only one thing glaringly wrong with this couple’s presence in our community.

They were huge bummers.

You see, it wasn’t that their concerns for a wide variety of causes were unfounded, or that their political stances were not legitimate, or even that they chose to spend most of their free time holding up picket signs or circulating petitions. The problem was that the more they went about this dedicated work of social justice reform, the more their attitudes soured. They became the two gloomiest people in the school. They were often far too indignant with the ills of society to constructively contribute to class discussions. They were moody and melancholic. They may have loved each other, but whatever newlywed bliss may have existed between them was overshadowed by outrage at cultural sins. They were overly contentious even with those of us – their seminary colleagues – who held differing views, stances, or philosophies than theirs. They may have been passionate ministers, but their witness was chiefly marked by anger and resentment. They seemed completely unwilling to smile or laugh because there was just too much suffering in the world and how could any of us privileged, first-world Christians dare smile or laugh at a time like this?!

So, yeah, huge bummers.

picketing

Ah, good times. Good times.

Changing Narratives

This is not a post about the pitfalls of social justice reform. In fact, I’m sickened by the way some of my Christians brothers and sisters guiltlessly disparage the so-called “SJWs” of this age. I don’t know what exactly has happened in the last century or so, but there was a time not that long ago when the Church (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox all) was positioned on the front lines of most social justice movements, including issues of equality, education, universal healthcare, and immigration. My own faith tradition, Baptists, were occasionally viewed as dangerous liberals not two-hundred years ago.

Just because some of our modern-day social justice issues may no longer align with a Christian worldview does not mean followers of Jesus (himself considered the equivalent of an SJW in the eyes of the first-century powers-that-be) should throw the baby out with the bathwater. We certainly shouldn’t buy in to every movement getting airtime on the news today, but neither should we allow ultra-conservative pundits to lump all social justice movements together as the workings of sinister agendas of people that hate us and our country. Give me a break!

No, this post is not about the important role played by social justice warriors. It is about the dangers faced by Christians of all stripes – those who embrace social justice movements and those who are fearful of them – when our fixation on these issues begins to change us.

The term spiritual formation refers to how our daily commitment to the way of Jesus gradually transforms us from the sinful habits and compulsions of our old life to a way of thinking, speaking, and acting that reflects the fruits of God’s transforming Spirit and the higher principles of his Kingdom. At the core of this “formation” is a changing of our narratives. In other words, the stories we tell ourselves regarding who God is and what he desires of us, what matters most in life, and our perpetual need of forgiveness.

This is why new believers are encouraged to immerse themselves in Scripture, to pray regularly, and to connect with a local worshipping community. Each of these things foster the good narratives of our holy God. And that’s tremendously vital when we live in a world that is simultaneously feeding us narratives of self-aggrandizement, materialism, consumerism, and individual freedom – narratives that sap our commitment to selflessness, humility, and empathy for others.

It is so easy to spend more time in the narratives of the world than the narratives of Jesus. We can commit half an hour every morning to reading the Psalms and bowing our heads in prayer, but if we then turn around and immerse ourselves in contentious talk-radio on our morning commute, or let cable news blare away every afternoon for hours on end, why should we be surprised when our attitudes and behaviors are defined more by the rotten fruit of suspicion, offense, contention, anger, and fear than by the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, and kindness? If the majority of the narratives we’re drinking in every day are born of this world, then we will continue to exhibit the lesser values of this world. Sure, you’ll still have your conversion experience, your church membership, and your claimed relationship with Jesus, but none of those things automatically transform you into a compelling ambassador for Christ.

cable news

We all do, Mr. President. The question is what lessons are being taught to us.

Misplacing Joy

What bothered me the most about the couple I described above was not their commitment to issues of social justice. I know this came from a deep place of spiritual conviction. Their faith had spurred them forward into a life of service, and that was to be commended. Unfortunately, in the midst of this work they had misplaced a fundamental aspect of the life of faith.

They had misplaced joy.

Now, I’m not saying this couple was never happy. That they couldn’t take comfort or delight while singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness” or listening to a sermon about the unconditional love of God. But in Scripture the concept of joy is much more than a fleeting sensation. It is a presence of thankfulness and gladness that cannot be shaken by external forces. It is as present in our trials as much as in our triumphs, because the source is not found in present circumstance but rather in the eternal truth of Christ’s forgiveness. Most important of all, this joy is supposed to be noticeably evident in the life of a Christian. The Apostle Paul wrote of it often – both his own joy and the joy he encouraged in his congregations.

“I am acting with great boldness toward you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with comfort. In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy,” he wrote to the Corinthians (2 Cor. 7:4.). Paul was able to claim joy even in the midst of all his many hardships. If anyone had reason to be dreadfully morose, it was the apostle who suffered regular persecution from both his fellow Jews and his fellow Romans. And yet, again and again in his letters, Paul cites a joy that remained alive and well in him. Later in his letter to the Corinthians, he writes:

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. (2 Cor. 8:1-2)

Paul celebrates a generosity that is born from two things: joy and poverty. That was all it took for the churches of Macedonia, even in the midst of severe affliction, to provide for the needs of others in a way that Paul didn’t just appreciate, but was so impressed he had to tell their story. For him, a Christian’s witness was directly tied to one’s abiding sense of joy.

I look around today, I listen to the conversations of other Christians, I participate in Bible study discussions, and one question in particular nags at me.

Where is our joy?

What happened to Christians in America? Why have we allowed politics and cultural touchpoints to rob us of the fundamental joy of our salvation? It certainly seems to be the prevailing image of Christians today. It is as if the majority of Christians have set aside their joy until they see a return to biblical morality or newfound respect for their particular ideology. Do we really believe the alleged seriousness of this cultural moment makes it OK to speak with the same brand of contentiousness and fear-mongering as those who have never truly known this joy? That it’s acceptable to post vindictive statements and acrimonious memes on our social media feeds with as much regularity as we share favorite Bible verses and devotional nuggets? That our preferred political affiliation or our cultural worldview permits us to belittle and vilify the other side?

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Time to take a stand for Jesus!

When Witness Becomes Worthless

When I was a teenager, I remember being told by various camp speakers and ministers that if I lived obediently to the way of Jesus then people would approach me simply to ask what made me different. They would want to know how they could have the kind of joy and peace so clearly evident in my life. This, it seemed, would be the most compelling method of evangelism – simply nurturing the overt fruits of the Spirit in my life.

Looking around these days, that idea seems woefully naïve. Young people are leaving the Church in droves, congregations are shrinking, and more and more people feel like a non-affiliation with religion is the most reasonable lifestyle option. After all…

  • When the majority of our recognized leaders are as factional and cynical as the rest of the world, who would want to continue associating with us?
  • When Christians in America are more interested in discussing all the sinister agendas we perceive to be leveled against us than they are in spurring one another on to love and good deeds, who would want to seek out membership in any of our communities?
  • When there is nothing about our lives that stands out from the masses – that stands above the furious discord of our age – then our witness has become worthless.

I’ve heard believers talk at length about how Satan is at work in various organizations and groups to destroy the Church, and how we need to stand firm because we’re under attack for our faith. But I truly think what Satan is really up to is fostering a defensive paranoia in as many of our churches as possible, in order to hinder any actual ministry from getting done. After all, a church that sets aside its joy is a church that is effectively crippled from representing the way of Jesus.

It doesn’t take an actual sinister agenda to thwart the Church; all it takes is planting a seed of fear that we’re vulnerable. The world is more than happy to do this planting day after day after day. And, soon enough, we start spending the bulk of our time indulging narratives of self-preservation, religious liberty, and unjust persecution above anything else. We read Scripture only through these lenses. Our small group discussions devolve into lamentations about our wayward culture and the precarious position of the Church in America. And as for the narratives of selflessness, peacemaking, and Jesus’ call to take up our crosses (to actually embrace persecution), well whose got time to heed those narratives when our Constitutional freedoms are under attack?!

And, just like that, our joy becomes little more than a dying ember buried beneath the cold ash of our own fiery indignation.

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I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of joyless Bible studies. I’m wearied of conversations that are devoid of the thankfulness and gladness. These are not fleeting sentiments, but core conditions that should reside at the center of our lives no matter how bad things may seem in our world. I’m sick of reading the angry political rants and mean-spirited opinion pieces that litter my friends’ social media profiles. If the joy of your salvation cannot stand up to the rancor of our age, I have to question whether you’ve ever really experienced that joy at all.

This life is hard, and the people of God must walk a fine line between our convictions and our humility. But it is not enough to smile only every once in a while, or to only lift our hands in praise for a few minutes once a week. The way of Jesus is a way of love over hate, peace over division, patience in affliction, and joy amidst suffering.

May we remember this not merely for the sake of our own troubled spirits, but also for all the hurting souls in whose midst God has placed us.

Why We Don’t Talk Anymore

We’ve come to that moment yet again.

The perpetual, politicized discourse that abides within our social media feeds, among our back porch conversations, and somewhere between our half-empty coffee mugs at the local breakfast spot is now poised to flare up once again with what has, unfortunately, become an all-too-frequent set of talking points. I’m referring, of course, to the interconnected debate over gun-control, mental illness, racism, and personal liberty. We’re discussing debating arguing feuding over these issues far too often these days. It’s like a Simpsons clip show – it’s showing up more and more, and each one only reminds us that the show has been going downhill for quite some time.

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The ghastly tragedies in El Paso and Dayton that occurred this past weekend have thrown a fresh heaping of salt into our lacerated hearts while simultaneously squirting a fresh helping of lighter fluid on a raging wildfire that continues to burn across America.

On one side of the flames are those who cry out for reform – for this nation to sit down for an intervention that will help us turn away from our addiction to firearms and, at long last, seek help.

On the other side are those who cry out for personal liberty – for this country to distinguish the lonely psychopaths, xenophobic degenerates, and violence-obsessed reprobates who commit these horrible acts from the host of good, upstanding gun-owners and enthusiasts who would never so much as jokingly point an unloaded gun at their buddy.

For all the irrational arguments spewed online and on cable news,  both sides know, deep down, that the other side makes some good points. But the vast majority refuse to ever admit it.

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It’s Not Me, It’s You

Instead, when it comes to issues like gun-control, immigration, abortion, gender identity, and religious equality, we are like a divorced couple whose irreconcilable differences became so acute and traumatic that now even the sight of one another sends us spiraling into an uncontrollable fury of indignation and vindictiveness. We do not bear a shred of trust for one another, and we have plenty of past interactions to point to as reasons why.

But what makes this separation even worse is the fact that, at one time, we were united. We had our disagreements, but there was a period where we were relatively successful at living with those differences. However, as we gradually settled deeper into our preferred ideologies, the relationship was strained. We went from appreciating one another, to tolerating one another, to waking up one morning and loathing the one next to us. There were feelings of betrayal on both sides – a lack of fidelity, a chasing after other interests and pleasures that turned the crack between us into a gaping chasm. (By the way, for those of us who do not feel we belong to either “side,” it is abundantly clear we have become children of divorce. Do not think by not aligning ourselves with one side or another that we will make it through this bitter split unscathed.)

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We don’t know how to talk to one another anymore. We’ve lost the capacity to listen all the way through without interjecting. We are bottle rockets of emotion and our fuses have been clipped dangerously short. Before we can recuperate from the problems at hand, we need rehabilitation of discourse. Such a reconditioning cannot be found in the pages of sociology books, or accomplished in the twenty-second soundbites of presidential candidates. And it certainly can’t be achieved through a small town pastor’s blog.

Until we’re ready to sit in the same room together, to rediscover the common aspirations that once bound us (and still can), to resist the urge to shame one another’s viewpoints like we’re blocking shots in the NBA Finals, and to patiently hear each other out, then we should not be surprised at the lack of civility in our politics, not to mention our social media feeds. We shouldn’t gasp when leaders feign ignorance about racially-charged rhetoric rather than condemning it because they don’t want to sound like the other side. We shouldn’t be shocked at the rise of extremist ideas and behaviors from either side. We shouldn’t scratch our heads at those pundits, politicians, and preachers who would have us believe that only one side is right about every issue. And when this deep-seated stubbornness gives birth to suffering and violence, we should not be surprised. When you form a snowball and send it rolling down a slippery slope, do you ever really expect it to stop midway?

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Where Have All the Prophets Gone?

As a pastor, I am finding it more and more difficult to speak into these issues. I have not the intuition nor the energy to share anything of substance – at least anything that actually seems to make a difference. Joy is a commodity in short supply, and the standard for contentment is pathetically low. It has gotten to the point where, if I meet a fellow minister over breakfast or coffee and they don’t regurgitate the talking points of one side (usually assuming I will automatically agree with them), I’m relieved. Perhaps it’s my own proclivity for the dramatic, but there are times when I cannot help but feel like the prophet Jeremiah, tasked with pronouncing the will of the Lord to a people who were absolutely convinced they were in the right and he was just a street-corner kook.

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Reform your ways and your actions, and I will let you live in this place. Do not trust in deceptive words and say, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your ancestors forever and ever. But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless.

Jeremiah 7:3-8, NIV

Even as I read these words, in my mind the counterarguments of both sides open their lips and raise their voices. Yeah, well, they’re the ones who are speaking deceptive words. I’m trying to change our actions, but they’re not listening. Whatever innocent blood is shed has nothing to do with me! Why don’t you talk to them about that? I’m trying to be part of the solution, not the problem. And by the way, if these foreigners would just come in legally, I wouldn’t have to “oppress” them…

Our confidence in the merits of our own side will be our undoing. Our refusal to establish common ground has resulted in an insurmountable chasm. It even seems like anyone who attempts to build a bridge between the two must endure sniper-fire from both ends. To be clear, as noble a task as it seems, I am not that bridge builder – I’m too afraid of the bullets.

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The Narrow Road to Unity

The only hope I find is in the one person who wasn’t afraid (or, at least, he didn’t give in to his fear). He knew the work of unity – of uncovering a bond that runs deeper than the most divisive of ideological disagreements – was worth being doubted, rejected, and ridiculed. He knew it was worth dying for. And he was certain that death awaited, that there really was no way to avoid it if he continued down the treacherous, rocky path of reconciliation.

I wonder what he thought when he called his traveling companions to join him on that journey. Those twelve men who formed his inner-circle. Certainly it was no oversight, no miscalculation on his part, that one was a tax-collecting traitor to his countrymen, and another was a Zealot who believed all traitors should be purged in a violent, bloody overthrow of the status quo. What were those fireside conversations like? How could Levi and Simon even stand to be in the same room with one another, let alone not erupt into fisticuffs seconds into any conversation?

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There must have been something far more compelling than their own self-righteousness that held their attention. Someone who did not dismiss the ideas that separated them, but instead graciously offered to help both men transcend their differences  – to be transformed in the narrow way of unity rather than trampled underfoot on the thoroughfare of fearful discord.

Anyone who could get those two to not only tolerate one another, but to ultimately work together in the end… Let’s just say, we would do well to shut our mouths and listen to someone like that.

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.

Pulpit-view

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.