Thoughts at 40

Every few years, I add a birthday post composed of uncategorized thoughts and opinions currently rattling around the ol’ noggin. It’s a way, I suppose, of taking stock or marking time. Perhaps both. In becoming a senior pastor – which is a pretty significant thing that happened this year – I worried I would struggle to come up with content to teach my congregation each and every Sunday, year in and year out. What if the well ran dry?

I quickly realized two things. First, a lot of preaching is repetition. In the last eight months, I’ve repeated specific truths way more than I’ve introduced new ones. I suspect this is necessary, just as it usually takes several solid strikes to drive a nail. Second, while a lot of the beliefs, thoughts, and musings claiming real-estate in my headspace these days are significant, the abruptness of these opinions aren’t always the easiest to weave into a sermon. They are like unripened avocados – everything is there for edibility, but not yet easy to swallow.

This past Saturday, I turned 40. The big 4-oh! So, yeah, quite a bit fills my mind these days. Family, career, home ownership, community involvement… These are only some of the sources for the half-formed notions that follow. I offer no explanation for them here, nor have I listed them in any discernible order. They are merely strands of concern and conviction of this now forty-year-old pastor.

  • These days we hold at the tip of our minds a hundred different opinions we believe are not only significant, but are also indivisibly tied to our identities. As such, to have even one of these beliefs ignored or disagreed with has become the modern-day equivalent of a glove across the face.
  • Journalism is meant to be persistent for truth, to acquire and protect sources, and even, at times, to write critically of powerful people who attempt to gaslight the world. There is, of course, such a thing as “fake news,” but it very rarely comes from the places our current President would have us believe.
  • I don’t know why, but I’m proud to have never watched a single episode of The Big Bang Theory or Glee.
  • The American Church is fighting over scraps. We’re planting far too many new churches in towns already full of them, and this only contributes to an increase in consumeristic Christianity, not to mention an inevitable ethos of competition as each church strives not so much to bear witness to the gospel as to put on the best Sunday show and offer the most self-focused spiritual programming.
  • Three years ago, I rated my wife’s tendency to be right at 96.7%. Over the last three years, that percentage has held strong, if not gone up a bit.
  • I’m not sure of the specific reasons, but I know from experience it is increasingly difficult to find a doctor (be it a GP or a specialist) who actually cares about your physical ailments and will truly give his/her time and energy to helping you get better.
  • I find most people who quote Romans 6:14, “We are not under law but under grace,” vastly misunderstand Romans in particular and the Apostle Paul’s message in general. If I hear one more minister teach that the Old Testament law does not apply to Christians, I’m going to violate the sixth commandment (in my heart).
  • Climate change is not a hoax. When one looks past the fear-mongering of politicians (deniers and zealots alike) and the non-scientific activists and actually reads the scholarly reports, it becomes crystal clear human beings – particularly in affluent countries like ours – are doing terrible damage to a planet God commissioned us to care for like a gardener tends his garden. The Church must accept this and commit to action, or it will continue to decline in relevance.
  • The Avett Brothers may just be the two nicest, most genuine sibling-musicians in the world.
  • For far too many families in our society, youth sports has become a frighteningly compelling idol, demanding one’s money, time, loyalty, and passion yet giving hardly any lasting value in return.
  • Preaching weekly is difficult. Even for a guy who absolutely loves it, preparing a sermon of quality (as opposed to just slapping some talking points together) is much harder to do on an ongoing, weekly basis than I ever suspected. The thing about pastoring which I thought would come easiest has actually been one of the hardest.
  • My oldest daughter is showing tell-tale signs of my personality type, temperament, and general interests. I’m truly  interested to see what a female version of me looks like.
  • Those of you who ignore individual issues and policies and instead just vote straight-ticket Republican or straight-ticket Democrat… You’re not helping.
  • I miss having likeminded, intimate friends – whom I could talk with about anything – who lived close. It’s been a very long time since they did, and at times it feels like that distance is taking its toll.
  • I’m (irrationally) worried the seasons of autumn and winter won’t exist in the heavenly kingdom. They’re my favorite times of the year, but because they’re marked by withering, death, and dormancy, I fear these seasons are incongruent with heaven, particularly Revelation 21-22. I desperately need one of my professor friends to explain why I’m wrong.
  • The Berenstain Bears by Stan and Jan Berenstain is the most delightful series of children’s books in the world.
  • I’m embarrassed and ashamed that the only reason I maintain paid subscriptions to streaming services like Netflix and Prime Video is for the sake of, like, four TV series in total, each of which takes over a year to make a new season (which are usually only 6-10 episodes in length!).
  • I’ve never in my life been ridiculed for saying “Merry Christmas” to someone, and neither has anyone I know. I’ve also never expected or demanded someone say those words to me. I do not need to legitimize my beliefs by demanding baristas and department store clerks accommodate the vocal accoutrements of my religion. Despite what the politicians and cable news pundits may claim, there is no “war of Thanksgiving” and there is no “war on Christmas.” There is, however, a war on truth and common sense.
  • It is a strange and sensitive experience to change the name of a local church. The vision for outward ministry will inevitably collide with a desire for inward tradition. Conversations can easily devolve into matters of denominational heritage and exclusivity. The purpose of the change is regularly lost in the midst of semantic discussions. This is understandable, of course, though I wonder how it stacks up to Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:33.
  • On a consistently regular basis, I miss living in Germany.
  • I used to believe individualism was the Achilles heel of our society, but now I see that tribalism is the real threat. Tribalism is individualism on steroids. These days, the us-vs.-them mindset plagues our politics, our friendships, our family bonds, and, sadly of all, our churches.
  • I’m not sure why, but I’m increasingly drawn to English history period dramas. Wolf Hall, The Crown, Outlaw King, A Man for All Seasons, The King, Peaky Blinders… Perhaps the fascination stems from my discontent with the American political environment. Or maybe I just like the accents.
  • The most soothing, restful music on earth is currently made by a man named Gregory Alan Isakov.
  • We live in a headline-obsessed yet ironically news-averse culture, a society that pollutes the air through the burning of fossil fuels and pollutes human decency through the burning of our self-righteous indignation.
  • There are spiritual disciplines – practices that open us to God’s goodness and the blessings of the life he has given us. They include practices like centering prayer, fasting, Bible study, Sabbath, acts of compassion, meal-sharing, and church attendance. Then there are unspiritual disciplines – things we do that close us off from God and one another. These include rushing from place to place, watching too much cable news, texting when you really should call, ignoring your children, pressuring your children, resisting conversations with strangers, and looking at your smartphone while in conversation with another human being.

I could probably go to forty, in honor of this prestigious birthday, but twenty-five feels like more than enough to fling into cyberspace. I now consider these thoughts adequately documented.

Whatever Happened to Joy?

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

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

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

They were huge bummers.

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

So, yeah, huge bummers.

picketing

Ah, good times. Good times.

Changing Narratives

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

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

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

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

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

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

cable news

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

Misplacing Joy

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

They had misplaced joy.

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

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

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

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

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

Where is our joy?

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

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Time to take a stand for Jesus!

When Witness Becomes Worthless

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

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

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

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

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

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

calvin

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

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

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

Why We Don’t Talk Anymore

We’ve come to that moment yet again.

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

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?

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

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

Worldly Discipline and Dark Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holding_GFs_Bag_1

I can’t carry all this stuff forever!

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

The Superhumanity of Christians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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There are three more pointing back at you, bud.

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

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

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

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

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

A Higher Standard

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

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

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

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

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

On Rest (Lenten Reflections, Week 7)

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

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

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

Well, now you do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All I can do is rest.

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

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

On Repentance (Lenten Reflections, Week 1)

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

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

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

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

But what is repentance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Evangelicalism Isn’t to Blame

In the wake of the presidential election, a lot of insinuations regarding who is responsible for electing Donald Trump have been tossed around by news sources, pundits, dissatisfied voters, and many a social media post. As far as I have noticed, the culprits receiving perhaps the most blame in news articles, blogs, and social media have been a group of Americans categorized as “white evangelicals.”

If this political demographic had not drawn its fair share of ire leading up to the election, it is receiving a cascade of vitriol now. On Twitter, in particular, I have read the incensed statements of friends and strangers alike denigrating this group as, at best, duped patsies, and, at worst, homophobic-racist-bigots by association. Most troubling to me has been how these allegations are coming as much from Christians as they are non-Christians and atheists.

For instance:

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It did not take long for my anxiety over the election of Donald Trump to be overshadowed by full-on despair at the unmitigated acrimony leveled against evangelicalism. More than I am worried about a Trump White House – and, believe me, I am still pretty worried about a Trump White House – I have been much more hurt by this reactionary fallout toward evangelicalism.

Why?

Because, last Tuesday, I cast a vote in the presidential election. And it was not for Donald Trump. For over a year, I was deeply disturbed at the idea of him becoming Commander-in-Chief, not simply because of his past and present moral debasement, but also because, having researched many of the policies he touted throughout his campaign, I could see in them no ultimate viability. In other words, my vote was not cast for Trump not only because of the lack of personal temperance and honor I saw in him, but also because I chose to be an informed voter who, despite the perceived character of a candidate, nonetheless weighs the practicality of his or her platforms.

And yet, I am an evangelical, and a white evangelical at that. Thus, according to a large group of Americans, many of whom are infuriated at the result of this election, I am responsible for a President Donald J. Trump.

From the tweets of those Christians above, it now seems the only good and right course of action for me is to renounce evangelicalism as a corrupt and profane group. Otherwise, I must accept the indignation of my more enlightened brothers and sisters in the faith, and live under the guilt of my association. Even if, technically, I belong to the mere 19% of white evangelicals whose votes were not cast for Trump, I will certainly find myself haunted by my inability to persuade my demographic’s majority not to vote for a monster. That, or I must wallow in shame because I was not bold or courageous enough to speak against him and those who planned to vote for him.

According to the first Tweet featured above, from spiritual director and author Richard Rohr, whom I deeply respect, the evangelical movement has irrevocably defiled itself. Real Christians should extricate themselves from it as soon as possible, as if it doing so were truly the quick and simple adjustment some think it is. As if all it takes is for a Baptist to start attending a Catholic parish instead, or an Assemblies of God Republican to re-register as a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party and transfer his membership to an Episcopal church.

The truth is, every single Christian whose tweets are shown above have not slipped the bounds of evangelicalism as wholly as they may think. Many of them may disparage both the word and the social demographic it categorizes, but were you to press them for an honest answer on whether they have truly rejected the core principles of evangelicalism, you would find almost all of them remain squarely in the center of evangelicalism whether they like it to not.

Back in seminary, I had a friend who was outspoken about his rejection of the term “Christian.” To him, the word had been so drastically watered-down and misapplied that he had completely lost use of it (or, rather, he feared he would be associated with people with whom he did not share particular political or spiritual beliefs). He preferred, instead, the title “marked by X,” (X representing the Greek letter, chi, the first letter in the word “Christ.”). “I am not a Christian,” he would say to us. “I am marked by X.”

Meaning he was a Christian; he just didn’t like the word.

My friend despised the many false connotations the word “Christian” had picked up over the years, like dirt and cockleburs that stick to a hiker’s clothing as he journeys along a wooded trail. In the minds of many people today, the word “evangelical” is in very nearly the same situation. The question, then, is whether or not Christians should “divorce” themselves from the word or persist in using it?

What would we gain if we rejected evangelicalism as a term? Clarity, maybe. Or at least a slightly clearer conscience.

What would we lose? Only a word describing the very heart of Christianity itself. Not to mention associating ourselves with a more than 500-year-old movement of individual and communal liberation.

The term “evangelicalism” comes from the Koine Greek word euangelion, a combination of eû (“good”) and ángelos (“messenger”). The word is found all over the New Testament, commonly translated “good news” or “gospel.” In the Church, it refers exclusively to “the way, the truth, and the life” provided us by Jesus Christ. To be an evangelical is to stake your entire existence on the belief that atonement for sin, salvation of the soul, and redemption of the body is found in Jesus alone. It means pursuing transformation by the Holy Spirit through the practice of spiritual disciplines modeled for us by the Savior, including befriending rich and poor alike, showing endless compassion to the oppressed, responding to all conflict and confrontation with grace and non-violence, and accepting the expectation that your obedience to the Law must surpass that of even the religious (and political) elite. Throughout history, the evangelical movement has continually challenged the Church to find its identity in this Gospel, and to, in turn, proclaim and practice its principles unto all humankind.

Historically, the evangelical movement has boldly stood up to corrupt, idolatrous men of power who selfishly and opportunistically entangled the Church with the State, and who used its influence to oppress millions and withhold dignity and basic rights from the masses. It preached that forgiveness of sin comes from God alone, and that no mere human being may wield power over another’s soul. It insisted that all people have a divine right to read the Scriptures in their own common languages. It contended time and again that salvation is for everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status.

Are we sure we want to separate ourselves from so extraordinary a movement, and the incredibly fitting word that describes it, simply because a handful of one country’s population (categorized “evangelicals” by secular news agencies and pollsters ) have made what many would say is a bad political choice out of the very real temptation for personal prosperity and security?

The simple fact is, even if a person is a committed Christian, they are not exempted from national concerns. The inclination to chase after individual liberties, sustainable employment, general safety at home and lasting security abroad is as common to us as it is to every other American. No matter what some Christians may claim, these desires do not always present themselves as black-and-white choices, even when we consider them in light of the Gospel. Certainly many of these “white evangelicals” are considered Christians simply because they live in heavily “Christianized” areas, not because the principles of the Gospel populate the top of their personal priority lists. In other words, the only way the term “evangelical” describes them is in its false, sociopolitical context.

And yet, I am also well aware that there are plenty of people within the 81% of white evangelical Trump voters who have indeed been cleansed of their sins – past, present, and future – and are being transformed by the Holy Spirit. Personally, I could not reconcile a Gospel-centered life with a vote for Trump. Some of my brothers and sisters in Christ would disagree. And many others either were not considering the principles of the Gospel, or considered a vote for any official candidate to be a compromise of those values in one way or another. And so many “evangelicals” voted for a guy who promised (however dubious such promises may be) that he would fight to protect their morals and way of life. They are afraid the country is turning its back on many important things, including at least some of the principles of the Gospel they believe in, and so they cast their vote for the person who convinced them he would do the most to stem the tide, and perhaps even reverse it.

In other words, the true meaning of evangelicalism, nor the tradition of the movement, is not responsible for the result of the election. National sentiment is, and whether or not it is easy to describe this sentiment as “evangelical,” it is ahistorical and pseudo-theological to do so.

I realize that my argument is primarily semantic. It mostly revolves around the definition of a word. But no matter how many times I read the indignant statements of Christians who have turned their noses up at “evangelicals” and have joined with the masses in equating the movement with racism, homophobia, bigotry, and regressive conservatism, I cannot bring myself to disassociate with a concept that stands at the heart of our faith.

The evening after the election, I was teaching a class on the inspiration and translation of Scripture. I reminded the class that one of the hallmarks of the evangelical movement was fully evident in the room: every person had their own copy of the Bible, not only in their own language, but even in a style of that language they most preferred to read! (I am willing to bet a large sum of money that every single person whose tweets are shown above take advantage of that same privilege.)

One man asked, “What’s the difference between a Christian and an ‘evangelical Christian’?”

In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election, there are many people who would have you believe the answer to this man’s question is, “A lot!”

But if Christians – be they Trump protestors or Trump supporters – will resist the temptation to treat politics as that which brings justification, security, and ultimate happiness, then maybe we can restore the original meaning of evangelicalism. Maybe we can even be united by it, even as we continue to differ on specific ethical or denominational issues. Maybe we can humbly admit that no one is so enlightened in the faith that they cannot be led astray by Gospel-less perspectives and opinions.

Maybe we can come to see the nonsensical redundancy of the term “evangelical Christian,” because we know a true Christian is evangelical, and a true evangelical is a Christian. Maybe we can look that man in the eye when he asks his question, and reply, “Actually, there is no difference at all.”

This article has been updated since its original publication in order to correct language, primarily in the 19th paragraph, that unintentionally insinuated those who voted for Donald Trump do not truly believe in, or understand, the Gospel. This, of course, is the opposite of the point I was endeavoring to make. My sincerest apologies to any who may have been offended in their initial reading.