When You Have to Toot Your Own Horn

There is no greater work than to practice His mercies daily.

That is the particular pearl of wisdom I’ve contemplated in my prayers over this past week. I must admit, though, that while the truth of this precept seems obvious, I forget it regularly. As the persistent gray of winter stretches out before us, and as we continue through the throes of an exceedingly bleak pandemic, the idea that God’s calling and his blessings might actually dwell right in front of our faces isn’t easy to accept.

These days, I often feel as if I’m suspended in limbo, as if my life is unfolding in an intermediate state between the shadow of What Was and the brightness of What Will Be. So much of normal existence is in hiatus right now. I cannot think of another season in my life in which I’ve had to wait on so many different things all at once.

But, above all, what’s made this time of prolonged deference even harder has been the interminable focus on finding a job.

Resumés, References, and Cover Letters, Oh My!

After making the difficult decision to step away from my last church position back in July, I’ve been doggedly searching for my next place of ministry. This has meant spending months scouring various listings, applying to search agencies, and, of course, polishing up the ol’ resumé. And it’s that last one that really starts to mess with your head, because crafting a resumé can easily become an exercise in self-promotion.

As anyone engaged in a job hunt knows, a resumé isn’t merely an ordered list of past employment and corresponding responsibilities. It’s a way of selling yourself. A medium by which you cast yourself in the best light, highlighting those attributes and accomplishments you hope will stick in the mind, those personal qualities and impressive experiences that resonate with hiring managers, HR reps, or church search teams. You don’t just make sure the document is clear and crisp; you try to make it sing.

“Ooh! This one plays “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Oh, wait. It’s the William Shatner version.”

To a degree, this makes sense. A person should strive for excellence in every endeavor, even when it comes to compiling his background, acquired skills, personal talents, and defining accomplishments in a mere 1-2 pages. As a system for making initial evaluations, I certainly can’t think of another method that would be as orderly or efficient.

And yet, the desire for a job can sometimes lead you down bad paths. It could be dishonesty, in which you exaggerate or outright lie about your qualifications, or it could be egotism, wherein your efforts to present yourself as a commodity too valuable to turn down gives rise to an inflated sense of self-importance. We all want to put our best foot forward, but rarely is someone going to play a fanfare for you. Sometimes, you’ve got to toot your own horn. However, in so doing we must recognize that self-preservation and self-absorption are very real, and very destructive, temptations.

Where Greatness Comes From

“What does it profit a man to gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?” Jesus asked his followers (Mt.16:26). I take his words to mean not simply that salvation is more valuable than earthly comforts, but that whatever worldly pursuit we engage in affects us on a soul-level. And because my highest pursuit involves the denial of self, any pursuit that cajoles me toward self-promotion poses a dilemma.

I don’t mean to imply it’s vanity to talk about one’s accomplishments or advocate for one’s skills. On the contrary, I’m quite pleased with my specific talents and a lot of the work I’ve done in previous positions. At the same time, though, I’m grateful for the One who bestowed these talents and entrusted me with those opportunities in the first place. As the minister Douglas McKelvey writes in Every Moment Holy, his book of prayers and liturgies, “It is not you that will do any great thing for God, but God laboring in you and through you who will greatly accomplish his own good purposes according to the workings of his sovereignty and love.”

Thus, there is no greater work than to practice His mercies daily. Or, to borrow the words of Jesus’ friend and spiritual hype-man, “He must increase, and I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30).

John the Baptist, seen here posing for the cover of Judean Men’s Fitness.

Where Resumés Fear to Tread

All of this has had a significant impact on my search for a new ministry post. On the one hand, I have to do everything I can (short of lying, of course) to make my 2-page snapshot stand out. Those in charge of hiring for the kind of positions I’m applying for usually receive anywhere from 50 to 500 resumés. (That’s poorer odds than the majority of Hollywood auditions.) But on the other hand, I must simultaneously entrust my pursuit to the will, direction, and timing of the God of All Wisdom, who not only knows me better than I know myself, but also knows every church better than they know themselves.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves,” wrote the Apostle Paul to the church in Philippi. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Pp. 2:3-4). What I’ve always found interesting about the Epistle to the Philippians is that, among the many New Testament letters to the churches, Philippians is highly affirming. In so many ways, the Christians in Philippi were banging on all cylinders. And yet, Paul is compelled to remind them of the dangers of self-centeredness, which is really the root of all other sins.

In truth, the Devil is capable of using all sorts of noble, honest endeavors to compromise God’s people. That includes the crafting and sending of resumés. Over the past six months, I’ve received a few disappointing rejections, a couple even before making it to the interview stage. Naturally, these missed opportunities drive you back to the resumé, to pour over each section and consider each line with the kind of critical eye that would make Strunk & White proud.

Hmm, under “Special Skills,” I included “Fluent in Dothraki.” … Nah, that’s super impressive. I’m leaving it in.

Again, nothing wrong with that. But in the midst of these discouragements I’ll admit that I’ve also fallen to the temptations of self-doubt and disillusionment. I’ve considered whether the sum of the parts I’ve included in my resumé – even though each one is a gift from a loving, generous God – is far too deficient to ever compel another church to consider me.

In my moments of confession, it’s these doubts and insecurities I continually bring before the Throne. “Lord, I believe,” I cry. “Help my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24). Help me to see myself as you see me, as a child of the King, whose worth is not wrapped up in his own ambitions and pursuits, but in the matchless worth of the One who sits at the right hand of the Father.

So, in the same way, may you remember that any good work you have done, and any good work you bring about in the future, is not the product of your own exceptionality, but rather the workings of God’s indomitable, merciful, holy Spirit, who will not be deterred in accomplishing his purposes, even through one as lowly and needy as you.

May each of us accept that our greatest works are not to be found in whatever positions we’re called to in the future, but are, and will always be, found in the daily practice of His abundant mercies.

And when I consider who I am, may it be as my Lord’s instrument, whose song is so much sweeter when placed before the lips of the Master.

Be invested instead, child,
in simple obedience to your king,
and in long faithfulness to his call,
shepherding daily those gifts and tasks
and relationships he has entrusted to you,
regardless of outcomes and appearances.

Douglas Kaine McKelvey, Every Moment Holy

All Who Take the Sword

“You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

President Donald J. Trump

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

John 18:36-37

I wonder what was going through Simon Peter’s mind the moment Jesus rebuked his act of violence. As the servant of the high priest dropped to his knees with his hands pressed against his gushing wound, and the guards charged forward, and Peter took a step back and prepared to meet them, sword in hand, he and the rest of his fellow disciples must have believed this was the moment. This was the day they would take back their country.

Of course, they were no match for the Temple police. But what must have left Simon flabbergasted was his master’s statement, which immediately followed: “Put your sword back into its sheath. All who take the sword perish by the sword. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (Mt. 26:52, Jn. 18:11).

Or what was he thinking only a little while later when the woman, who was guarding the courtyard gate of Annas’s house, asked him whether he was a Galilean sympathizer (Jn 18:12-18)? His response was a quick, “I am not.” It was a denial of convenience, a little white lie that gained him access to the proceedings within, where a contingent of the Sanhedrin were set to condemn Simon’s master.

Two thousand years removed from that fateful night, Christians consider all of Simon’s actions – the drawing of his sword, the three denials – to be blatantly sinful acts. But I suspect Simon Peter thought little of them at the time. His goal was to draw closer to Jesus – first to protect him, then to remain nearby, ready to do what needed doing for the sake of God and country. He was convinced that peace and order were on the line. Morality and righteousness and truth and justice were being threatened. In this scheme of things, what was one small denial?

So, it wasn’t the actual words he spoke that left Simon Peter weeping before a Judean sunrise. It was the dawning realization of just how misplaced was his passion, how misguided was his patriotism. What brought him to shameful tears and chased him into the dusty street was a recognition of just how far he had strayed from the will and way of Jesus, his Teacher and Lord.

A Tale of Two Cities

Simon Peter exemplifies an important truth for all who profess belief in Jesus, who call themselves “Christians.” It is that even the most fervent believer can disobey. Even the most ardent follower can get it wrong. He can mistake the vision. He can misconstrue the path.

Simon Peter spent years in Jesus’ inner-circle. He had the extraordinary privilege of sitting in his presence, listening to him speak, asking questions, witnessing first-hand the way his master spoke and acted. And yet, at the climax of that experience, when everything he had seen and heard was coming to a head, Simon chose a worldly kingdom over a heavenly one.

It’s this tragic mistake we’re witnessing more and more starkly in America right now. As I write this, throngs of protestors are storming the Capital building in Washington, D.C., threatening and demanding that Congress overturn the results of the presidential election. Their actions today are akin to Simon Peter drawing his sword. They have offered up their lives not for a heavenly kingdom, but an earthly one. We can see quite clearly the tale unfolding – it is a tale of two cities. No matter what religious affiliation they claim, if any, these trespassing protestors have chosen the city of Man over the city of God. I suspect some have trouble envisioning how the two might actually be different.

A Kingdom Not of This World

To follow Jesus requires a shift in one’s allegiances. This isn’t something a lot of Americans want to hear, but it’s clearly on display in the Gospels and throughout the New Testament. For the first disciples, it required being labeled religious blasphemers and political insurrectionists. It put them in the cross-hairs of the Temple authorities and eventually led to derision and bloody persecutions at the hands of the Roman Empire. So it is that even for those modern-day believers who are convinced our religious freedoms are being systematically stripped away, our instruction from Scripture is to assume the positions of humility, peacemaking, and non-violence.

By no means must Christians assume a position of indifference to governmental rule, but their allegiance to any worldly government – friendly or not – is fundamentally a limited allegiance because it isn’t their highest allegiance. The highest is reserved for a King who insisted his kingdom was not of this world, that it must never be confused with any earthly government.

Perhaps one of the most extraordinary transformations in the entire Bible is the one that takes place in the years between a zealous Simon Peter drawing his sword in Gethsemane and a timeworn Saint Peter, who toward the end of his life held out the following teaching:

For the Lord’s sake accept the authorities of every human institution, whether the emperor as supreme, or the governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right… As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Peter 2:13-14, 16-17

As a reminder, tradition tells us that soon after this teaching was offered, the emperor whom Simon Peter encouraged all believers to honor ordered that Simon Peter be crucified for treason.

I don’t doubt Simon Peter was concerned about the government’s injustices. Nor do I think he was turning a blind eye to the crescendo of ostracization and persecution against Christians. But what old Peter understood that young Peter didn’t was that our responsibility as followers of Jesus is to be the hands and feet of our Savior in this world. It’s to embody his way, to cling to the example he offered even as he was accused without cause, tried without evidence, and executed without remorse.

To follow Jesus is to choose peace over contention, humility over cynicism, and forgiveness over fairness. We are commanded not to stand up for our own rights, but to surrender them that we might inherit God’s greater plan. Doing so isn’t always convenient or comfortable, of course. It may indeed look more like weakness than strength, like you’re letting the world walk all over you. Even though they profess to serve Jesus, some believers may not be able to stand the idea of not taking their stand, especially when it seems their world is falling apart.

But as it is, his kingdom is not from here. It’s not a kingdom that must be guarded or contended for or fought over. Just as his salvation is not a battle but a gift, so it is with his kingdom.

It cannot be won. It can only be received.

The Stall

1

I do my best to hide the pain.

The little house is crowded. With the relatives in town, there is hardly a place to sit, let alone a private room or a bed to oneself. I share with Yosef’s younger sisters, but at night I must turn about constantly. Eventually, one of the sisters takes hold of a blanket and moves to the floor, not far from where her brothers sleep. This morning, I wake with an aching back and an odd cramping pain that flares up at random. Throughout the day, I bite my lip, trying not to show how uncomfortable I am.

Lately, the baby seems completely uninterested in sleep. He moves about my womb with a great, bouncing restlessness. The women of the house say he’s eager to be born, that he’s impatient to meet everyone. One of the sisters wonders aloud if all the kicking and shifting means he’ll be a handful to raise. I feign a laugh, but I’m wondering the same thing. The child’s abiding energy unnerves me.

I count it a grace that the women even indulge my presence. None of this has come easily for them either. I don’t begrudge the forced kindness in their tones, or the way they maintain a slight distance from me most of the time. Occasionally I’ll turn my head and catch one of the sisters quickly averting her stare. It’s to be expected. Here in the southern lands there are less whispers, but whispers nonetheless. These women may trust Yosef, but that doesn’t mean they’ll ever fully trust me.

It’s difficult not to have Yosef nearby. Everyone is more gracious when he’s around. He has a calm and quiet way. Without saying a word, he can evoke goodness and courtesy from an entire household. But he doesn’t linger in the house. When the morning sun gilds the eastern hills, he’s out the door, his purse thrown over his shoulder and weighed down with tools. The better part of each day he gives to the community – repairs their lentils, patches their roofs, restores the walls in their homes that have begun to crumble. Like his father before him, Yosef is an agent of renewal for this village that has watched him come of age. And now, with the census, there’s more work to be done, more people to shelter, more mouths to feed.

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The odd morning pain has increased. It no longer seems random, nor does the discomfort abate for long. I try to mask it, try to turn my winces into smiles. My heartbeat quickens. I know what’s happening, and I’m afraid.

Not now. Not yet.

Some evenings, Yosef eats with those whose homes he has serviced that day. The others, he appears only briefly, hardly long enough to dip a hunk of bread in the stew and chew, before withdrawing again to the ongoing project outside. From where I sit now, furtively breathing through the contractions, I can hear them on the other side of the house wall – Yosef and his younger brother scraping and packing and grunting from the weight of the materials, and the short statements from their father, Yakov, whose knotted, shaking hands have long-since precluded him from work, but who still points trembling knuckles and offers experienced advice. It is slow work, and now I worry it has been too slow. My throat lumps, and tears push against the back of my eyes. After all, it’s my fault the room hasn’t been finished. Yosef is more than a capable builder, but because of all that has happened, and the way it has happened, he hasn’t had enough time to complete the job.

Yet it seems HaShem has completed his.

2

“Are you all right, child?” Yosef’s mother is gazing up at me from the bottom of the stairs that lead to the lower level of the house. She has been lining the mangers with hay. Behind her, the sisters lead the animals inside for the night – a goat and two ewes freshly sheered, one of which carries a lamb of her own. She walks slower than the other, bleating meekly as she’s jostled inside. I know how she feels.

“I’m fine.” The old woman eyes me carefully. “It’s just… just the baby moving again. There’s no room.”

“Sounds to me like there’s plenty of room,” she replies.

The sisters finish shooing the animals to the troughs. Their mother hands a large clump of hay to one of them to take to the work ox, which is tied up outside – a shared possession among the neighbors. The dog trots inside as well and takes his place at the foot of the stairs. Yosef’s mother closes the door, then steps deftly over him and ascends the three steps to the main level. She meets my eyes and continues. “To be moving about like he is, there must be room enough.”

I nod. A tremor rattles. I exhale nervously. I know Yosef’s mother has been keeping watch over me. She’s nothing if not perceptive. I squeeze my eyes shut and try to conjure peaceful thoughts.

The one that comes to my mind – that has sustained me even as my anxieties have swelled – is the image of Yosef stepping across the threshold. Not the threshold of this house, but rather my father’s house.

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Only four months ago, he turned from me. I had begun to show, and the rumors were spreading. Our confrontation was inevitable. I told him everything, as bewildering a tale as I knew it would be. The more I said, the more those expressive eyes of his flared with stifled fury and humiliation. Of course they did! How do you describe something like that and not sound utterly mad? His warm expression grew cold as he listened. His lips were set like a seal, locking in all emotion. Then my father sent me out of the room, but even from the courtyard I could hear their tense conversation, the shock and frustration in Yosef’s voice. I knew something had been broken. Like water from a cracked well, his trust was draining away.

I didn’t expect to see him again. No one did. But now, in my mind’s eye, the scene unfolds anew, and for a few moments it calms my nervous breathing. I see Yosef at the door of my father’s house, not a month later. His hands are clasped in front of him as he steps inside and removes his sandals. I watch, my heart in my throat, as he kneels in front of my father and asks his mercy. Then I am left open-mouthed when he does the same to me. “Forgive me,” he whispers. “I didn’t know. I didn’t understand.” I want to cry and laugh and speak all at once. I want to tell him that I hardly understand it either. I want to ask him what has changed, why has he returned? But I have no words. Here he is, back in Nazara, back in the home that scorned him, and he is on his knees like a chastened sinner, deferring to me. “Forgive me, Miriam,” he says, and the only response I am capable of is to reach out and take his hand in mine.

I’ve clung to that hand ever since.

3

“When do you think they will finish?” one of the sisters asks as the goat and the sheep nose eagerly at the hay in the mangers. The other sister is about the work of preparing the house for another crowded sleep – spreading blankets on the berths and the floor. Outside, scraping sounds testify that mortar is being spread. Incrementally, the walls grow. Just a few more days is all Yosef needs to finish it. I imagine the privacy such a room could offer. If only it were already finished.

“Soon enough,” Yosef’s mother answers.

“Will someone be able to sleep there?”

“Of course,” the older woman answers. “But not until after the ceremony.” She unfurls a blanket and spreads it below the bed I’m to sleep on. A few feet away, Yosef’s youngest brother is already asleep, snoring loudly. Yosef’s mother surveys the room, a grimace on her face. I know she recognizes how small the house has become. She doesn’t let on, but her concern for the new room to be completed is as heightened as mine. She tosses a fleeting look in my direction, evaluating me with a glance. I try to keep my composure, but I’m sweating now. I wonder if she is aware that time is up. The room is not finished, and there is no place available inside either. No suitable space for what is about to happen.

She turns away to fetch another blanket. That is when I double-over as another wave of pain rolls through me. Gripping the edge of the table, my fingernails dig into the rough wood.

“Will the ceremony be… before…?” Yosef’s sister falls silent. From across the candlelit room, she sees.

“Let’s not discuss it right now,” says her mother softly. Then her eyes catch sight of her daughter’s gaze, and she whirls to look at me again.

4

Before anyone can speak a word, the door to the house opens and in steps Yosef’s father, brother, and, finally, Yosef himself. Chilled night air billows in behind them. Yakov walks right past me, shedding his cloak. “It’s started raining,” he announces with disappointment. “Not long, I reckon, but we’ll have to take a break for now.”

Yosef’s mother ignores her husband. She rushes past him and both brothers to kneel at my feet. She lays her hand on my shoulder. “Are you all right, child?”

“Miriam?” Yosef’s soft voice is tinged with concern.

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I hardly want to move for fear I’ll make the pain worse. My face contorts. This newest wave is horrible. Is it supposed to feel like this?

“Breathe, my dear,” says the old woman, taking my hand. “Breathe long and slow.”

“I can’t… there’s no…”

“Don’t speak. Breathe.”

“But there’s no…”

“Just breathe.”

A shudder overwhelms me, from my shoulders down to my feet. My jaw tightens. I want to speak, to raise a protest – I can’t have this child here! There’s no room! – but my body won’t allow it.

“Breathe, Miriam,” she urges. “It helps to breathe.”

“What can I do?” The inquiries come from all directions, from Yosef’s brother, from Yakov, even from the younger one who, in the suddenly tense and crowded house, has sat up rubbing his eyes.

One of the sisters rushes forward and crouches next to us. “Fetch a basin and as much clean cloth as you can find,” her mother commands. Through squinting eyes, I see her gaze pass over the room once more. Her brow is furrowed. She looks dissatisfied, disappointed. I want to apologize, to tell her how sorry I am, sorry for what I’ve done to their family, for the turmoil I’ve caused, but I’m still paralyzed by the contractions.

“Mother,” says Yosef, kneeling on the other side and taking hold of my other hand. I immediately squeeze it, and won’t let it go.

“Don’t fear, my son,” she says, but she doesn’t look at him. She is still considering the room.

“It’s not finished,” he tells her. “The walls, or the roof. And it’s raining.”

Red-faced, I suck in breath. A moan escapes my clenched throat.

“I know,” Yosef’s mother whispers. “We need space and privacy. There are too many people in this house!”

Finally, the intensity lessens, and I release a long, ragged breath. Tears immediately follow. My shoulders tremble with sudden, uncontrollable sobbing.

Yosef places his other hand over mine. “Miriam, it’ll be-”

“Draw some water,” his mother interrupts, “and heat it. Quickly.”

“No!” I cry as Yosef stands up. I can’t bear him leaving my side.

“Don’t be afraid,” she tells me, taking hold of my hand and working it free. She is surprisingly strong. Yosef hurries away. His brother frantically stokes the hearth fire. “I want you to try to stand up,” she says softly. She’s come around and is already lifting me from the chair.

Somehow, I gain my feet. My knees shake. Where are we going?

Yosef’s mother looks for her other daughter, finds her standing frozen at the foot of the lower level steps, eyes as full and wide as the moon. “Put the animals out,” she says abruptly. “And bring in more straw.”

“But… but where is she going to…”

“Don’t stand there blubbering, girl! Do as I say. We need room, however we can get it.”

“My dear,” Yosef’s father says. “The stall?”

Still holding me tightly, she turns to her husband. “Yes, Yakov. The stall.”

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I’m hit again. Unable to hold back a scream, I collapse against the old woman, but she keeps me upright. “Breathe, child. Breathe.” Then she looks back to her husband. “If there’s no room, then we’ll have to make room. Help us down these steps, and then go give word to the women. Tell them where to find us.”

“Mother,” says Yosef’s brother. “Let me go to the neighbor’s and ask if we might-”

“Enough of that,” the old woman insists. “We’ll not be shooing this poor girl all over Bet Lehem. She is in no condition for it. The stall will do. What matters is the child. Now, be silent and fetch some blankets.”

Yosef’s mother is practically carrying me, an astonishing feat for a woman of so small a frame. Her daughter frantically shoves the animals away. The dog scampers back, and the pregnant ewe gives an irritated bleat as she waddles back through the stall door and into the courtyard. Yakov, soon to become my father, somehow keeps the two of us balanced with his palsied hands. We slowly descend the wooden steps to the dusty, straw-laden floor. The smell of musk, hay, and excrement greets my nose. Nausea floods through me.

“I can’t,” I tell them. “It can’t be here.”

A voice behind me, confident and calming, says, “It will be all right, Miriam. I’m here. I’m going to stay by your side.”

“Don’t be afraid, child,” his mother whispers in my ear as we shuffle toward the rear stall, as private a spot as can be found in the little house. “I know it’s not the way you wanted or the way you expected, but even in such a place as this, HaShem is with you. He is with us all. You’re not alone. You’ve never been alone.”

A Few Moments of Peace in the Peaceable Kingdom

Outside my window is a pallid sky, an unremitting drizzle, and the kind of mugginess you get when autumn reports for duty but summer stubbornly contests the election. It’s a sunless day. Gloomy, lugubrious, melancholy. Pick your adjective.

On boring, featureless days like these, hope feels hard to come by. The pandemic continues to siphon our nation’s positivity. The relentless cacophony of politics drowns out our optimism for the future. We keep talking past each other on issues of race, climate change, the economy. And so, while hope has become a precious commodity we need more than ever – more valuable than toilet paper in March – unfortunately there seems less and less to go around.

Maybe that’s why today I found myself daydreaming of heaven.

My imagination wandered into that mysterious realm, that inscrutable kingdom that lies both in our future and outside of time itself. I did not picture the eye-rolling stereotypes of clouds, golden gates, and Roman columns, since none of those come anywhere close to sound interpretations of Scripture and the handful of enigmatic images it provides. No, I pictured that prophecied coupling of heaven and earth from Revelation 21-22, in which every inch of our world is saturated with the goodness, beauty, and truth of God’s presence. Skeptics and atheists may say this is a desperate and pitiful reverie, an utterly incongruent idea when placed next to what we know of human history. Still, the thought of this heaven is the boost my heart needs when the streams of hope run dry.

Of course, whenever I envision the light of the New Jerusalem gleaming like some divine Minas Tirith, I end up with more questions than I do certainties. Not what will such a land look like, necessarily, but what will life in that great new age be like?

OK, cue the predictably lame “I Can Only Imagine” jokes…

That’s the point of the exercise, right? Not simply to picture a beautiful place, but also to cast our hearts and minds to an existence rescued from all the societal unrest, ugly partisanship, and tragic wilting of truth.

And so I wonder…

Will There Be Politics in the Kingdom of God?

You laugh, I know. After all, right now the very thought of politics brings a grimace to the face of Trump and Biden supporters alike. But if I read what is inarguably the most beautiful scene in the Book of Revelation to its conclusion, I find this curious detail:

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring its splendor into it.

Revelation 21:23-34

Did you catch it? Alongside that divine capitol city, there are nations… and kings… and state visits, apparently. Which means even in the glorious kingdom of God in some form or another there are gates and borders and territories. There are regions and locales, dominions and jurisdictions.

It seems John’s vision, or at least his perception of that vision, unfolded according to something like a system of suzerainty, in which tributary states prosper as protectorates under a greater sovereign state. Whether or not this form of international relations is simply a way for our finite minds to comprehend the incomprehensible, or is actually God’s chosen structure for his consummate Kingdom, one fascinating aspect it assumes is that eternal life progresses within a perfected governmental structure, of which the Lamb is the head. There will be monarchical oversight, perhaps a Camelot-like administration, yet completely devoid of scandal, hypocrisy, and duplicitous agendas.

Thankfully for everyone, God is not on Twitter.

I know, I know… I’m already lost in the semantics of this otherworldly reality. Still, with every bombastic tweet, every puerile power grab, every legislative bottleneck, and every vindictive political meme a friend callously posts on Facebook, the promise that God will not merely eradicate politics but rather teach us what governing truly looks like is the kind of hope I want to cling to on gray days like this one.

Will There Be Art in the Kingdom of God?

I remember how my friends and I used to regularly pester our poor youth minister. Only in his early twenties himself, Stephen somehow dealt with our impertinences with the patience of Dumbledore. That didn’t mean he didn’t get fed up sometimes, though. One night in particular, we were peppering him with ill-conceived questions about heaven. After patiently fielding as many ridiculous inquiries as he could, in exasperation he finally held up his hands and said, “Look, guys, here’s what I think heaven is going to be like. I think we’re going to sing praises to God all day, and we’re going to like it.”

We winced and looked at each other. Praise God… all day? Like, all day? Just some endless worship service? Ugh! Would we have to wear church clothes?

“So, like, is the heavenly banquet like a big church potluck? Will I get in trouble if I bring deviled eggs?”

Thinking back to that moment, I smile. Stephen was doing his best to sketch us a picture while remaining true to Scripture, and yet we had worn him down so much he had little imagination left. Don’t worry, he assured us. In heaven, church’ll be fun.

Scripture does not paint a full picture of heaven, least of all what our main activities will be, but it does allude to moments of congregational praise of God for his glorious power and love. And rightly so. Worship would certainly underscore life in God’s kingdom. But we also know there are all sorts of ways to worship God – to express our awe, our adoration, and our thanksgiving. Music is one way, but so is writing, painting, sculpting.

Art is the expression of ideas and concepts too important for only one mind to possess. It’s a creative act bestowed by a benevolent Creator. For me, preaching a sermon is a form of art, while for another it may be photography, playing a great round of golf, composing a musical, or fine-tuning a stand-up routine.

If art is how we experience all that is good and beautiful and peace-giving in life, then art also extends beyond those activities commonly considered part of the medium. Thus, art is found in a fisherman expertly casting his fly, a carpenter deftly sanding down a length of wood, or a gardener gently guiding her plants into full bloom. It is expressed in that magic space where one’s power, patience, and passion meet.

While not Scripture itself, Gerard Manley Hopkins’s oft-quoted “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” reinforces the idea that our attention to beauty – and our recognition that there is beauty even in our most instinctual and mundane actions – is a core part of worship. The poem concludes,

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — 
Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 
To the Father through the features of men’s faces
.

– Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877

Is it too much of an extrabiblical stretch to believe our Creator will allow us to retain the capacity and love for creating, even within the perfection of our imperishable bodies? That in addition to singing the Lord’s praises, we might also write in reverence of them, paint in reverence of them, make music and movies and even amazing meals in reverence of them?

This may be just me wanting to take some of this world with me when I die. Or, perhaps it’s me wanting these beautiful things we get to experience in this life – things like Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, or Tom Colicchio’s braised short ribs – to be more than just beautiful things, but rather genuine traces of heaven itself.

Will There Be Seasons in the Kingdom of God?

The expectancy of the seasons is a fundamental aspect of life on earth. Cynical philosophers may declare that time is merely a human construct, but scientific research actually reveals we don’t count hours, days, and months for arbitrary reasons. It’s actually a response to immutable natural forces. The concept of a twenty-four-hour day, for instance, is how we acknowledge the intuitive rhythm of our internal circadian clock.

The dang circadas are keeping me awake!

So, let’s talk seasons. While today’s mugginess isn’t pleasant, we’re nonetheless entering the time of year I treasure most. The welcoming cool of autumn, and its crisp scents and colors, is coming on. The season of harvest. Every year, it lifts my spirit. I marvel at God’s imagination, his astonishing attention to detail.

I know the same could be said for summer, but I’ve never been near as fond of it. It’s hot, humid. You have to schedule your morning run before 7 AM or you risk heatstroke. Even evening strolls make you want to shower afterward. Granted, I grew up in Texas and I live in Georgia, so you get what you pay for. But this is all the more reason why I adore fall, and why I hope the same unique and sublime sensations it brings will be present in the heavenly kingdom.

Here’s the thing, though. Again, the cynic will say, “Well, technically, autumn signals death and dormancy. It marks the withering of life (even if only temporary).” The leaves may change into beautiful colors, sure, but they end up a lifeless, brown pile on the yellowing lawn. Crops are harvested and fields are mowed. Sunlight retreats. It’s darker in the mornings, and it’s darker in the evenings. This is a season of senescence, old age preparing for expiration. As lovely as an autumn breeze may feel, what place would such morbidity have in the renewed and eternal kingdom of God?

A valid point, I suppose. The description of the kingdom in Revelation 21-22 does repeatedly claim there will be no need for the sun or the moon, for all illumination will come from God himself. So, if there is no day or night, how can there be a harvest season? How does one even sow seeds or reap their fruit?

On the other hand, the final image of John’s prophecy is of a restored Eden, in which there are indeed crops which yield fruit each month (Rev. 22:2). So, either there are no seasons and these crops are as magical as everything else, or in heaven the harvest season is a permanent state rather than a passing one.

Now available FOR ALL ETERNITY!

I don’t know. But here’s what I do know, or at least, here’s what I believe.

The gospel is the story of hope emerging, struggling, dying, and living again. It is the way of Jesus, who reigns as King of heaven, and every year hence the earth has, in its skies, its climates, and its seasons, retold his story. Through both splendid songs and harrowing groans, through both mountain vistas and dissolving glaciers, this world tells the story of its once and future King. It has offered its very being unto its Creator.

When you think of it like that, even the mugginess of this gray day is put into a greater perspective. In these times when all hope seems lost, the earth itself reminds us that these moments, however long they feel, are fleeting. They are but a single page in a grand book about the triumph of hope. And I can’t fathom why the telling of this glorious gospel would ever cease once heaven and earth meet. No, in the peaceable kingdom, I believe it will be on display with even greater eloquence than it is now.

I know, I know. It feels like an outlandish fantasy, even for the devout. No doubt I’m playing and bit too fast and loose with Scripture here. But, you know, given the spiraling fear and acrimony being sown today in our politics, our national discourse, even our homes and our churches, I’ll take a few peaceful moments in this heavenly daydream however I can get them.

Because they remind me that hope remains. It endures.

A Sense of Place

When I was a kid, I enjoyed rearranging my bedroom. Every once in a while, I was overcome by an urge to completely rework the space. Nothing was wrong with the prior arrangement; I just wanted something new. I know my parents heard me shifting stuff around back there, but they didn’t seem to mind. I pushed my bed across the room, shoved bookshelves into different corners, and reorganized the posters on my wall. Whenever I finished these renovations, I was brimming with pride over my visionary use of feng shui.

There was only one problem. No one else cared.

I had no siblings to invite for a tour. Plus, I lived far from town, so my circle of friends rarely congregated at my house. I believed I had created a thoroughly welcoming space, but few people would ever experience it.

Lately, I’ve realized the same dilemma plagues the local church. When it comes to our hospitality toward the wider community, we unwittingly operate from a “come and see” mindset. We push promotions and shove forward new programs in an attempt to draw people inside. Meanwhile, numerous research polls show that even as churches utilize cutting-edge technology to gain public attention, church attendance is steadily declining. Even the growth of large church bodies is primarily “switchers,” people who simply jump from one congregation to another, rather than the result of genuine new relationships forged in the local community.

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Collect them all!

Over twenty years of ministry, I experienced this mindset several times, particularly whenever the churches in which I served were engaged in a building program, whether it was the construction of a brand new campus or merely the renovation of an existing building. I’m sure there are thousands of pastors who, like me, were regularly approached by congregants and new acquaintances with questions about those building plans. In those moments, the easiest response is to speak from a “come and see” mentality – to talk about a state-of-the-art sanctuary with a seating capacity of this or that, or a sophisticated, interactive classroom environment for children, or an aesthetically pleasing multi-purpose space from which a dozen different ministries can operate. It’s easy to paint that mental picture, to extol the bells and whistles and fixate on the sleekness of it all. Just you wait. It’s going to be awesome!

But what does any of that matter if no one cares to see it? If we build only what our congregation needs, what have we accomplished other than an expensive room remodel? Too often in my sermons have I felt the need to pose this question: What good is it to build a warm welcome space if we haven’t first learned how to be warm, welcoming people?

Isn’t that an essential responsibility of a local church?

coffee

But… but… but we’ve got a coffee shop in the lobby!

I believe churches should exemplify a commitment to caring for the local community. Christians should consider not simply how their particular physical meeting spaces look to outsiders, but also how those places directly serve the neighborhoods, businesses, and organizations in their immediate vicinity. I don’t just mean how inviting your sanctuary looks, or how conspicuously you advertise your church name to the wider community. I mean being good stewards of the places and spaces God has given you by opening them to community use. Sure, becoming a polling location is great. You know what’s even better? Partnering with local government to facilitate town hall meetings, or with local schools for after-school clubs or tutoring programs. Yes, a food pantry is a wonderful resource. But what if, in addition to dedicating that large closet to collecting canned goods, you turned that extra acre of green lawn into a community garden or weekly farmer’s market that championed healthy eating habits?

“With a commitment to place, and with gratitude for the immensity of God’s gifts there,” write C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison in their excellent book, Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, “our churches become catalysts of human flourishing: nurturing local economies and local culture, and seeking the common good of our places.” This is a community-minded extension of the Apostle Paul’s own encouragement, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

But this kind of mindset is not exclusively a religious practice. Whether we’re talking about a church’s presence in its community, or simply a person’s presence among his or her neighbors, “come and see” is never as compelling as “go and be.” On its own, “come and see” allows us to pretend we’re hospitable without having to put our hands and feet into it. Over the years I’ve met a lot of well-intentioned folks who claimed they loved to entertain people in their home, yet I never once saw the inside of it, and whenever I would invite them over to mine, I learned their schedules were actually far too busy to accommodate such a visit.

planner

“I’ve got ‘Me-Time’ scheduled every other Thursday from 6:05-6:25 AM…”

We can get so caught up in arranging and re-arranging our own lives that we have little if any desire to welcome other people into them. Technology has made us remarkably efficient and productive, and yet we seem to have less and less time for actual community interaction. These days, we speak more to Alexa or Siri than to our neighbors. Groceries can be ordered online and picked up without ever having to set foot inside the store. Amazon leaves just about anything we could possibly want right on our doorsteps. Increasingly, as a result, our front porches are empty, our neighborhood encounters are fleeting, and involvement in community life is at an all-time low. And if you think Covid-19 hasn’t ingrained an even more rugged sense of rugged individualism into the American social fabric, you’re living in a fantasy world.

Recovering a sense of true community is no easy thing, especially in the middle of a global pandemic where the best preventative is “distancing” from each other. But if we will keep our self-preservationist instincts in check, then maybe we can begin to cultivate a willingness to provide for the needs of others with the same impulse that drives us to provide for ourselves.

Sometimes this will mean designing a church campus that strives to meet your community’s needs, not merely your own. More often, though, it will simply mean pausing at your mailbox to ask your neighbor about his day, respecting someone even if his or her political opinion doesn’t match your own, or engaging in a genuine conversation with the lady ringing up your purchase at Publix, even if you don’t like talking through that pesky face mask.

karen

Oh, and it also means actually wearing a mask. (Sorry, Karen.)

From time to time, we all get those urges for something new. But when you get that itch to rearrange your schedule, don’t forget to make some room for, well… for whatever opportunities might come your way. Because they’re everywhere. We just have to shed the “come and see” mentality, step outside our doors, and take those chances when we see them.

 

*this post was adapted from a recent column first published in The Jackson Herald 

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.

outrage

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.

abortion

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.)

rally

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?

protestor fight

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.

cartoon bridge

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?

jesus_final

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.

Epiphany

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

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

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

Nativity scene

PICTURED: An overlooked example of the War on Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

f165860ca2832f1fee5cdf4b0d0b27d1

“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.

christmas-decoration-storage-tips-2

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

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

But it wasn’t enough.

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

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

kneeling

“Psst! Guys, show some respect.”

Worshipped the Christ Child.

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

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

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

Should Christians Celebrate Halloween?

I’ll be honest right up front. I like Halloween. I like the costumes. I like most of the decorations. I like the tradition of trick-or-treating. I like seeing the excitement on my children’s faces, in part because it feeds an abiding nostalgia I feel for the holiday. I like judging candy quality with them, teaching them why a Fun-Size Snickers is better than a miniature 3 Musketeers, and watching with the same sense of anticipation as they open a miniature Starburst two-pack in hopes of scoring a pink or red (rather than the dreaded double-yellow).

I like walking neighborhood streets where neighbors actually speak socially and kindly with one another. I like fire pits set up in driveways and the smell of woodsmoke and burning leaves. I like the short-lived season of autumn, and I like to celebrate the fall harvest in spite of the fact that, not being a farmer, I do not actually participate in any harvesting activities.

corn

Fun gimmick, or lazy farmer?

I’m not ashamed to admit that I even like staying up late and watching scary movies. I’m not a fan of gore and ultra-violent horror flicks, but I do appreciate a good haunted house or monster movie, especially on Halloween.

So, a question like, “Should Christians celebrate Halloween?” strikes a major blow to what has become for me one of the most pleasant times of the entire year. At the same time, I completely understand the question, and the concern that lies behind it. It is a valid concern indeed, and one worth exploring no matter how I feel about the holiday.

Hallowing the Saints

Answering the question, “Should Christians celebrate Halloween?” requires at least some level of understanding of the holiday’s origins. And understanding the origins of Halloween needs to start with that word: “holiday.” The word derives from “holy day,” as in a special day of observance in the Christian liturgical year.

Now, for many Christians – including a growing number of evangelicals – the Christian year is a mostly foreign concept, save for a few holy days that have not faded from regular liturgical observance, such as Christmas, Palm Sunday, and Easter. Many modern-day Christians who make much of those holy “feast” days still may wrinkle their noses at others, like Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, and the feast of All Saints’, which is also known as All Hallows Day.

cards

Is there a Hallmark Card for “Happy Presentation of the Lord in the Temple Day”?

All Saints’ Day in particular is a big deal in several denominational traditions, including Roman-Catholics, Anglicans, and some Lutherans, but you may also encounter church communities from other traditions who observe the feast as well. All Saints’ is a day set aside to honor all the saints and martyrs who have contributed to the perseverance of the Church through the ages, including those individuals who have not been venerated or canonized. For many years, the Catholic Church offered Plenary indulgences for participation in All Saints’ Day practices, which included visiting church graveyards, lighting candles, and praying for (and to) those heroes of the faith who had passed away. The point of All Saints’ was for Christians to hallow the deaths of these faithful brothers and sisters, and express gratitude for the sacrificial lives they lived. It is similar to the American tradition of Memorial Day, albeit with a far greater spiritual weight.

Now, inherent to the traditions of these holy days was the keeping of a prepatory vigil the evening prior to the feast day. Worshippers would offer prayers or gather for worship in anticipation of the special commemoration taking place on the following day. Christmas Eve is perhaps the best known example, but there is also Shrove Tuesday, which traditionally precedes the holy day of repentance and fasting known as Ash Wednesday. On Shrove Tuesday, worshippers were supposed to clear their homes of flour and other goods in preparation for the Lenten fast. It is sometimes referred to as “Fat” Tuesday, due to the baking of cakes and other goods in order to use up all the flour. If you’ve ever had a Mardi Gras king cake, you’re eating one culture’s time-honored product of this practice.

king cake

Ah, the long-established religious custom of choking on a plastic baby.

All this is to explain where Halloween gets its name. Over time, All Hallows Evening (i.e., the day preceding All Saints’) became “Hallows Evening,” which was shortened to “Hallows E’en,” which ended up as “Halloween.” Simple enough, really. However, it is not so much the name, but rather Halloween’s alleged origin, that unnerves a lot of believers.

Samhain, Pope Gregory, and Those Kooky Celts

Around the turn of the seventh century A.D., Pope Boniface IV commemorated St. Mary and the martyrs on May 13, alongside the rededication of the Pantheon in Rome. This also happened to be the same day as the Feast of Lemuria, an ancient Roman festival that focused on dispelling the evil spirits and ghosts of the dead. This is one example among many of the Christian Church re-appropriating pagan festivals and practices according to its theology. Some people today scoff at this concept; they are often the same people who can’t resist explaining that Christmas Day is totally not Christian at all but was actually the Roman holiday, Sol Invictus, a pagan sun god festival and so there what do you think about that, huh? I’ve found that rather than arguing with these people, it’s best to just smile and nod and let them enjoy the endorphine rush that comes from feeling smarter than everyone around them.

The truth is, whether or not some people today find the practice disingenuous, one of the key ways Christianity was spread across continents, Europe in particular, was through the “Christianization” of certain cultural holidays and festivals and the theologizing of annual observances. In the midst of their assimilation into the Christian faith, the Church would encourage (or, yes, force) pagan people to re-appropriate their spiritual beliefs according to a more biblical interpretation. That, or they would completely overhaul a holiday or spiritual ideology according to a new, Christological significance. This is one of the main reasons why, in the ninth century, Pope Gregory IV officially adjusted the hallowing of the saints and martyrs to November 1. For many regions of Europe, this date roughly marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, in which the days grew shorter, the nights stretched longer, and nature began its annual time of death. Leaves turned and fell. Fields sat in fallow furrows. The cold set in, eventually blanketing the world in a frigid blankness.

For the Celts, as well as several other nordic and Germanic people, this time of year was not only deeply symbolic of death and quiet remembrance. They also saw a liminal quality in this shriveling of the environment – that is, they held a belief that whatever unseen veil lay between the land of the living and the realm of the dead was at its thinnest during these cold, dark months. Back then, humans perceived the realm of death with greater reverence and disquiet than we often do today, and, like a sieve, death could sometimes leak through into the land of the living, or so they believed. The Gaelic festival of Samhain, one of four seasonal festivals, included many traditions that nurtured this idea, including the practice of “guising” to hide from those members of the Aos Sí (i.e., fairies, or nature spirits) who may have crossed over into the land of the living with more mischievous or malevolent agendas. Additionally, Samhain included the lighting of bonfires and other harvest-related activities, but, yes, there were also occasions for divination, which makes sense when you remember that the prevailing belief of most people was that this was the one brief time each year when you might truly encounter, or interact with, the spirits of the dead.

coco

If you lived in Mexico, your dog might turn out to be your rainbow-colored spirit animal. How cool is that?

To our post-Enlightenment, Western culture minds, it is easy to dismiss this belief as the dim bulb fantasies of uneducated barbarians. These days, we place our trust as securely with science and reason as the people of these so-called “Dark Ages” deposited their trust and daily conduct into a vast, enigmatic supernatural reality that, as far as they understood it, extended far above, below, and beyond their own. And yet, even if we are intellectually smarter than the people of that time, does that necessarily make us wiser than they?

Christians and the Spiritual Realm

Unfortunately, much of what many Christians believe about spiritual beings and the unseen, “supernatural” realm is based as much in pop-cultural renderings of these old traditions as they are in anything the Bible really has to communicate on the subject. And, in truth, the Bible is actually quite thin on information regarding the spiritual realm. References abound, but details are quite scarce. There are some standout stories, of course, such as King Saul visiting a witch to summon the spirit of Samuel (1 Samuel 28), Elisha being surrounded by supernatural chariots of fire (2 Kings 6), or Jesus encountering a man possessed by a legion of demonic powers (Mark 5).

For each story containing ambiguous pictures of a spiritual reality, there is never a shortage of interpretations. Some lean into what is presented, and they subsequently build an entire angelic-demonic hierarchical worldview based on these fleeting glimpses. Others, though, lean away from literal explanations and instead posit ideas like lucid dreaming or demon-possession as a pre-Enlightenment explanation for schizophrenia or manic disorders, nothing more.

exorcist

“The power of Christ compels you… to please take this Clozapine prescription.”

Say what you want about the tactics of the Holy Roman Church, but by Christianizing these holidays that bore deep spiritual significance, they forced pagan people to contend with a brand new element within the accepted realm of the supernatural: an all-powerful Creator God who has freely bestowed his power and authority unto his resurrected and ascended son, Jesus. The key word there is power. After all, when it came to the practices of divination or conjuring of the spirits, the two biggest motivators were security and power. People either wanted to ensure safety or protection from that which they could not control, or they wanted to gain control over that which they could not control.

For Christian monks, priests, and missionaries, the gospel message was best understood and expressed as a story of God’s power infiltrating and overwhelming the powers of evil both within and beyond our existence. It was a story of rescue not merely from sinful guilt, but of bondage to the malevolent whims of a nefarious, multi-faceted evil power at work in our world. The death and resurrection of Jesus signified the defeat of these dark, worldly powers, and summoned believers to posture their lives according to his truth and his ways. Whether or not the Holy Roman Church always exhibited this truth and those ways properly and graciously… hint: they didn’t… is beside the point.

Halloween, as we know it today, is indeed born of both light and darkness. Christianity and European paganism collided again and again, over several centuries, and eventually produced the hodgepodge offspring of beliefs, traditions, and activities recognized and accepted in our modern, Western society. Yes, there are elements of the holiday that bear a less than seemly origin, and the way some observers enjoy playing fast and loose with the concepts of ghosts, evil spirits, and “contacting” the dead is worrisome. Christians, after all, should recognize that such stuff is not mere child’s play.

And yet, there is much we as Christians can learn about Halloween. Much about how the Church – and, in particular, individual believers – should not fear the culture in which we find ourselves, nor the bulk of its well-meaning practices, even if such traditions are ultimately ignorant of the gospel. It’s been said that Christians should never blame the dark for being dark, but rather live as a composed, confident, and compassionate light shining in the midst of that darkness.

adam

But, you know, let’s avoid embarrassing ourselves with overtly biblical costumes like this.

So, tomorrow I will walk the neighborhood streets and speak and laugh with neighbors. I will bless little children by complimenting their costumes, going so far as to feign fright at some. I will smile at creative jack o’lanterns, vigilantly search for the good Starbursts in my kids’ candy buckets, and breathe in the cool, autumn air that reminds me, even in its pleasantness, that life is fleeting.

I will be a bold and confident rock for my children. If and when they see something that unnerves them, I will assure them that while there are indeed things in this world that are frightening, we have placed our trust in a Power that has overcome the world. His is a far greater, and far kinder, power than any even the darkest of forces can conjure against us.

I know this, not only because the Bible says it, but because there have been those dear saints, unknown but not forgotten, who told me so as well. This Power reigns in my heart in part because of the lives those dearly departed ones lived before me, and the sacrifices of faith they left behind.

May the Lord of all creation bless, keep, and hallow each one of them.

The Face in the Mirror

I just spent the last month telling people they were sinners.

It didn’t come across that blunt, of course. At least, I certainly hope it didn’t. But that was indeed the truth at the core of the four-week class I taught in my church’s annual Summer Institute, a two-month season in which our regular Sunday morning classes take a break and our staff offers a handful of specialized courses not usually on the Sunday School menu. Downstairs, my colleague Allen educated roughly one hundred folks on the history of the Bible’s composition and translation while a large carafe of coffee percolated in the corner. Across the hall, a trio of associate pastors took turns leading discussion with four dozen parents about strategies for effectively rearing one’s children in an often tumultuous culture. And in D-311/312/313, the old classroom partitions were accordioned away in order to accommodate fifty people who, for whatever reason, were willing to come hear me talk to them about their bad habits and psychological hang-ups.

Oh, the strange activities we Christians involve ourselves in on Sunday mornings…

doughnuts

The doughnuts help.

Mine was an ambitious class. I knew that going in. In only four 50-minute sessions, my objective was to not only present a particular hermeneutic on Romans 7 and the spoiling influence of “the flesh,” but also to discuss a variety of teachings on the process of sanctification – that is, how we lowly sinners can actually become more like Christ by way of the Holy Spirit’s influence and transforming work in our inner life. I endeavored to talk about the Desert Fathers’ teachings on spiritual disciplines, the oft misunderstood “seven deadly sins” in Church doctrine, the threefold path of prayer and reflection, and, most directly, the Enneagram system of personality – a tool of spiritual direction that has helped me better understand the root fixations and self-preserving inclinations in my own life. So, yes, I might have been biting off more than I could chew with this course.

Nevertheless, it went as well as a pastor can hope when speaking specifically about sin for the better part of an hour for four straight weeks. But even from the very beginning of our first session, I experienced a pair of sobering realizations that stuck with me throughout the course, and have continued to chime in the back of my mind in the days since the class wrapped.

The first realization was that, for all the many Bible lessons I have taught in my (has it really been?) eighteen-year ministry career, and all the sermons I have preached, and all the panels I have sat on offering far larger sums than a mere two cents can buy, rarely have I found myself speaking explicitly about sin – the human struggle with it, and the Christian’s continual struggle against it. Oh, sure, the concept of sin – the reminder of it – is always there, darkening the edges of my lessons like an integral plot point in a film or novel you mustn’t forget about if the ending is going to make any sense.

I am a pastor who delights in speaking of the love of God and the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, but I am not so ensorcelled by this truth that I have completely done away with references to the effects of sin – its invasive influences and erosive effects. It does not escape me or the messages I preach that we live in a fallen world, that we are broken people in need of mending, and that it is somehow both necessary and futile to resist temptation. We are a people who stand in need, everyday, of salvation.

But aside from the occasional passage of Scripture that requires I address the issue of sin, as I dove into this latest lesson series I realized that my usual modus operandi is merely to dance around the idea of sin rather than look it full in the face. After all, nothing puts a damper on an enjoyable Bible study excursion than a self-selected detour through the swampy thicket of human wretchedness.

brussel sprouts

If Bible studies were family dinners, teaching about sin would be the Brussel sprouts of the meal.

The second realization was that I am not alone in limiting my use of the ‘S’ word in my lessons. I cannot speak for all churches, of course, but I get the feeling that aside from a few denominational traditions out there that are customarily fixated on iniquitousness, the majority of Christians in the West are not well-versed in the specifics of the biblical witness regarding sin. This is not because we deny the problem of sin, but because we would rather hold it in our minds in a vague and generalized way, and then move right on past to the bits about love and salvation and faithfulness and a grace that is greater than all our sin.

And that’s understandable. The more sin can be that faceless, nebulous villain threatening the entire collected populace, the better we can function within the reality of its constant influence on our lives. It is only when I begin to consider just how guilefully and intricately its tentacles have entwined my own soul that I recall just how dire and desperate is this struggle.

Sin does not merely stunt spiritual growth, it creates a crippling drag on every motion in my life. And, worst of all, sin is a mirror that, when I dare to gaze into it, shows me not the face of some sinister outside invader, but myself. It reminds me that I am my own worst enemy.

How-does-a-Man-stop-ageing

And that I look much cooler than I actually am…

The Apostle Paul was willing to look hard at this familiar face in the mirror, and then he conveyed his utter bewilderment with an equally bewildering description:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. (Romans 7:15-20, NIV)

For the devoted Christian, this is the vexing mystery of sin. It is us, but it is also not us. Paul found this dilemma both infuriating and humbling. After all, no one enjoys looking in a mirror if they know something ugly is going to be staring back at them. We would much rather avert our eyes whenever that dark glass hoves into view. A few of us will go so far as to deny the mirror exists at all.

Thus, without noticing it, I had put together a course in which, over the span of four weeks, I forced both myself and the fifty people in the audience, to lock eyes with that gaunt and ghastly figure grinning back at them from their mirrors. And I was reminded of just how important (and yet terribly unpopular) an exercise this is for Christians. In the earlier days of the Church, this practice of constructively contemplating one’s sinfulness was known as mortification of the flesh. As an element of the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life, mortification referred to willing meditation on the darkness and death that clings to the soul like June bugs on a T-shirt. It’s objective was the adoption of particular spiritual disciplines (e.g., fasting, chastity, solitary prayer) that would, little by little, purge from our souls the self-centeredness and deeply rooted compulsions which, as the Apostle Paul insisted, continually prevent us from living godly lives.

There is nothing fun about mortification of the flesh. Looking inward to identify our bad habits and behold our crippling wounds, even with the comforting guidance of God’s Spirit, is no picnic. It can be an arduous and uncomfortable process. If we forget the truth that Paul declared in Romans 8 (right on the heels of his personal lament about sin) – that there is no condemnation for those who are in Jesus Christ – we can easily sink into the murky depths of self-loathing and despair.

However, never has the ancient practice of mortification been more necessary than in our modern culture. This is an age in which people will rush to publicly shame someone who has violated or failed others, but will keep a tight-fisted hold on individualistic pride if and whenever their own shortcomings come to light. We have little trouble maligning others, but often refuse to admit our own shame. And while the Christian life is certainly not about shaming sinners – seriously, it is not about shaming sinners – it is absolutely concerned with how people come to identify, accept, and find forgiveness for their sins, which, contrary to popular worldly opinion, is the only way to really move on from them.

love-the-sinner-570x187

And yet, knowing all of this, I still avoid looking in the mirror. As a minister, I too often preach the grace of God without taking the time to ponder its limitless depths. All the while, the masses continue their endless search for alternative, non-messy methods to overcome the rottenness they know lies at the core of their being.

All because we do not want to feel ashamed.

Thomas Merton identified this epidemic of denial in his journals:

“What (besides making lists of the vices of our age) are some of the greatest vices of our age? To begin with, people began to get self-conscious about the fact that their misconducted lives were going to pieces, so instead of ceasing to do the things that made them ashamed and unhappy, they made it a new rule that they must never be ashamed of the things they did. There was to be only one capital sin: to be ashamed. That was how they thought they could solve the problem of sin, by abolishing the term.

Oh, that we would brave the embarrassment and, yes, even the shame of our sin in order to find the way past it. If only we would learn that ignoring the plank in our own eye is responsible for far more disappointments in life than our neighbors’ specks could ever be. If only we would trust in the love and strength of the One who heals us – who called us out of the miserable grip of sin – and, in that source of confidence, level our gaze at the false self staring back at us in our mirrors.

As I told that gathered group of fellow sinners, if we are willing to do this – to bravely and honestly look inward and behold who we truly are – perhaps we will finally be able to see past the grim features and fiendish grin of the old, false self, and behold the truth that lies behind its leering eyes. Perhaps we would recognize the fear hidden beneath that gaze – that the old man in the mirror is dying, his power has been stripped away. He has been rendered nothing more than a fading shadow that now dissipates in the radiant light of the sun of righteousness.

Freedom breaks like the dawn, and, if we really look, within its rays we can indeed see the visage in the mirror slowly but surely being transformed from lowly sinner to soaring saint.

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.