Everything in its Time

Hours after a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict the police officer who murdered Eric Garner, the City of Philadelphia lit up a Christmas tree. Normally, it’s a festive event – this year it was interrupted by protestors. It was a strange juxtaposition: Bundled up toddlers standing alongside outraged activists. Holiday decorations upstaged by signs begging “Stop Killer Cops” Carols drowned out by chants of “Hands Up: Don’t shoot!”

It’s always interesting to me when terrible stuff happens around the holidays. Objectively, tragedy is tragedy no matter when it occurs. But whenever something bad happens this time of year – when our society is trying to focus on things like peace, joy, family, and generosity – it stands out a bit more and pulls on our heartstrings a bit harder. Continue reading →

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The Ultimate Holiday Blog Post

The December edition of Real Simple magazine arrived in my mailbox a couple of weeks ago. Sprawled across the cover are some glitzy Christmas lights and the words “Holiday Spectacular: Your Happiest Season Ever Starts Here.” The November issue (“The Ultimate Holiday Planner”) was pretty similar in nature and content. These two magazines contain dozens of helpful articles covering a wide range of holiday-centered topics: affordable gifts, make-ahead recipes, quick cleaning solutions, winter skin care, avoiding awkward moments with family and friends, easy decorations, and, my personal favorite, “How to Teach Gratitude.”

All of this information promises a simple, cheerful, and stress-free holiday season. Which makes me wonder, why do we meticulously plan for and strategize about the holiday season? We turn to guides, lists, and diagrams to help us “get through” the holiday season, as if it is something that needs to be accomplished. This suggests to me that as a culture, we are doing hospitality wrong. Continue reading →

Evolution: Not a Big Deal

Last week, the ever-so-edgy Pope Francis endorsed evolution.

Tweets were sent. Articles were written. Feathers were ruffled.

And then people started remembering that the Vatican okayed evolution, like, 60 years ago. Not to mention the early Christian teachers who speculated about something like it, like, 1600 years ago.

It’s always fun when church-people get hot and bothered about the e-word. It’s also kind of funny to see how non-church people react when they realize that not all Christians are raging creationists.

Anyway, this conversation seems to pop up in the media every so often, and I enjoy taking the opportunity to remember where I’ve come, and why I’ve grown to appreciate the concept of evolution so much. Continue reading →

Bearing Witness (A Conversion Story)

The first time I heard a testimony was in sixth or seventh grade. It was delivered by an older guy in my youth group. If I recall correctly, his parents were out of the picture and his life was really rough, but by the grace of God everything was okay and he planned to go to Bible college to become a youth pastor. In the years since then, I’ve heard many such stories – tales of broken homes, violence, substance abuse, depression, all building up to a culminating moment: a single prayer to accept Jesus, and a redeemed life. Most of those redeemed lives ended up in ministry, telling their story over and over again, usually to teenagers.

Somewhere along the line, I realized that these stories were meant to convince us of something. A failed suicide attempt = God is real. A drug addict turned pastor = God changes lives. These were compelling stories, so compelling that I saw many people say that same culminating prayer and commit their lives to Jesus. Sometimes these commitments were short lived – it’s easy to make promises in the moments following an emotionally charged story, especially when the lights are dim and there’s acoustic music playing softly in the background. This method never convinced me, and I grew cynical.To me, this practice of sharing one’s testimony (a word that continues to make me cringe, except when it’s used on Law & Order) seemed gimmicky and misleading. A single, dramatic story of redemption was no way to convert someone. If I wasn’t already a Christian at the time, I knew that I wouldn’t be convinced simply be hearing someone on a stage tearfully recount parts of their biography. It seemed shallow, tacky, and manipulative. And I think part of the issue was my own story: a bookish, straitlaced kid from a stable family who was raised in the faith…stayed in the faith. No drama, no climactic prayer, very little tangible redemption. No one would be convinced by that. There were times that I regretted how painless my life had been – I wished that there had been something terrible for me to have been saved from, so that people might be compelled by my story too. I hated being asked to share my testimony – the entire practice was a sham.

I’ve since come to terms with this, for the most part. I still think that it’s silly to try to convince people with one dramatic story, but that doesn’t mean that stories aren’t worth telling.

Humans are obsessed with stories. We tell them all the time – I would guess that about half of my casual conversations revolve around storytelling. Societies are built by them, cultures are shaped by them, we pay to consume them in various forms, and are converted by them all the time, in many ways. There is something deeply human about stories and storytelling. We need them.

And, perhaps more importantly, God is real, and God changes lives. Even though one secondhand account of this shouldn’t be enough to convert someone, these stories are important and we need to tell them. This mini-conversion of mine, as with most conversions I’ve experienced, occurred gradually over time. I heard simple stories of redemption, and was reminded of grace. I read the Psalms, and saw that God wants us to repeatedly speak of his work. I recited the Creed over and over again, and noticed that this too is simply a retelling of the greatest story ever told. These things are not gimmicks, but important stories that bear witness to the Risen Christ. So let’s keep telling stories.

Good Evangelism/Bad Evangelism (A Conversion Story)

bridge-diagram-3

Look how happy those outlines of new Christians are!

While doing some spring cleaning recently, I found an old tract in one of my suitcases. I didn’t look at it too carefully; I suspect that there’s something on there about salvation, or John 3:16, or maybe that diagram of an abyss bridged by a cross. What did catch my attention was what was written on the back – a name and phone number.

I remember that day only vaguely. I was hanging out with some friends on Ocean City’s boardwalk, near the entrance to Gillian’s Pier (i.e., the place of childhood wonder and cotton candy-induced sugar rushes). My friends and I had recently graduated high school and were spending some time down the shore together before heading off to college. For whatever reason, we were approached by a couple of tract-bearing evangelists. They were both young women, probably in college, probably on a summer missions trip. Ocean City was their mission field (lucky).

The conversation went something like this:

Bright-eyed evangelists: Do you have a relationship with God?
High school me: Yeah, I guess, maybe.
Bright-eyed evangelists: Well, do you go to church?
High school me: It’s been a while, kind of.
Bright-eyed evangelists: Are you a Christian?
High School me: I don’t know. I’m working through some stuff.
Meanwhile, my friends are there, muttering answers. We’re all extremely uncomfortable, but trying to be polite.

And then one of them gave me her number and said that I could call her and maybe we could meet up and talk about that stuff I was working through. As far as boardwalk evangelists go, these women weren’t so bad. They were earnest and genuine, not terribly obnoxious, and actually seemed somewhat interested in having an extended conversation and forming something of a relationship.

By the tender age of 18, I had already been through what I now fondly refer to as my Evangelical Phase, and had moved onto my Cynical Phase. This was the time of life where I realized that I didn’t buy creationism, legalism, sola scriptura, or the far right. Somehow I still believed in the Risen Christ, but I was embarrassed by the family name and didn’t quite call myself a Christian. I was also bothered by some of those unanswerable questions that have bothered skeptics and believers alike through the ages. But I knew where that bright eyed evangelist who gave me her number was coming from, because I had been there. I thought about calling her, not because it would be helpful, but because I thought it would be fun to mess with her, to ask her some of the questions that were keeping me up at night, to see what she had to say. (I’m glad I didn’t, because that would have been really mean).

What I needed – to call myself a Christian again, to regain some of those healthy elements of my Evangelical Phase – was not a tract, and not a conversation with an eager evangelist. I knew that. And I knew what I needed was something more stable, substantial, and lasting. That’s why I didn’t engage too much with those evangelists. I was about to leave for college, and I had a feeling that through that experience my faith would be restored.

Over time, it was. I was not re-converted through tracts or brief boardwalk conversations, but through caring professors, excellent curricula, the Great Books, tradition, theology, philosophy, good friends who were asking the same questions, and a church that was designed to preach the gospel to people like me. It was not a simple process, nor a quick one. There were lots of papers written, classes taken, questions asked, late night conversations had, and books read, over the course of months, possibly years.

That’s the kind of evangelism that convinces, or at least converts, me. I’m sure that tracts and boardwalk conversations are helpful for some people – and I’m grateful for that – but is it good evangelism?

Life & Worship: Leisure

I haven’t had very much time to write lately, because I’ve been spending a lot of my down time attending and/or throwing parties. It’s just one of those seasons, where there is much to celebrate with shared meals and late nights.

As someone who thrives on productivity, I find myself struggling not to feel too guilty about using my time in this way. I try to justify it as a much-needed or much deserved break from work (and maybe it is). I tell myself that I need things like parties to help me relax, so that on Monday I can return to the office refreshed and ultimately more productive (and maybe I will). But these excuses represent a common misunderstanding of leisure and what it’s for.

In the gospels, we see Jesus spending a lot of time around dinner tables or at parties. I suspect that his motives for doing such things had little to do with his need to relax so that he could calm seas more effectively the next day. Instead, God in Jesus seems to be showing us that leisure is actually really important in itself, and that he is at work through time wasted well.

Leisure is a form of worship, because as God’s image bearers, we have an ontological need for community. God’s very essence is communal – three persons, one substance, existing in perfect will and harmony. We aren’t God, so the communities that we create to fulfill this human need are often broken and chaotic, but our desire for them is good. And when we gather with family, friends, or strangers for happy hour, or in a coffee shop, or over dinner, the brief moments of peace that we might enjoy together point back to our triune creator and enable us to engage with one another as whole persons.

Likewise, when God created man in his image, he determined that man alone was “not good” (the first and only “not good” thing that he made). Man, by himself, had exclusive access to the entirety of creation, and his creator – basically everything – but it wasn’t enough. So God created woman, and together they were good. All of this to say, we need each other. Nothing, not even an exclusive relationship with God, satiates our need for other people. This is why we take care of our young longer than any other creature, and why, eventually, our young take care of us. This is why we might feel lonely even while staring at Facebook while situated in a crowded city. This is why we desire robust relationships with friends, siblings, parents, and spouses. And this is why going to parties is sometimes more important than sitting at home and writing.

And, as much as I love parties and robust community, there is even more to leisure than that. During my senior year of college, I read Josef Pieper’s little book, Leisure – The Basis of Culture. Here, Pieper makes a case for leisure, defining it, distinguishing it from work, explaining that it’s an end in itself, and ultimately arguing that it is the basis of lasting culture. In addition to feasts and celebrations, leisure is also the time that we allow for contemplation – that is, the time that we allow ourselves to ask unanswerable questions, think about first principals, and invest in that which might not grant us much return. But this contemplation time, or leisure, is what eventually produces great art, books, and ideas.

Earlier I wrote about how part of worship is creativity and productivity, and I think that we can do that not just through work, but also through leisure. Whenever we create, whether it be communities or culture, we are living up to our title of God’s image bearers, thus worshiping the one who made us.

Life & Worship: Work

This is the first in a short series of posts for the Easter season, which I introduced last week.

During a good week, the average Christian spends about an hour or two at church – singing, praying, and generally acknowledging God – and maybe a few more hours here and there praying, reading Scripture, chatting it up with other Christians, etc. And the rest of that week is spent at work. That’s four or five hours directly focused on God, and 40+ hours focused on charts, diagrams, budgets, or whatever else working people are up to these days.

This would be a huge problem for Christians if work itself wasn’t a form of worship. But it is.

In my last post, I talked about how the activities of worship include anything that is necessitated by us being God’s image-bearers. That’s pretty vague. To get a better idea of what this might mean, let’s start from the beginning:

Step 1: From nothing, God makes everything seen and unseen.
Step 2: God makes the first human (“in our image”), and calls him “good.” This human has a body.
Step 3: God gives that first human dominion, including naming rights, over everything that He just made. He also tells him to cultivate that garden in the East.
Step 4: God stops making stuff.

At this point, we don’t know very much about God or about people. One of the things we do know is that God is infinitely creative and productive, and that He seems to want people to be as well. Before the fall, God ordains work.

Between then and now, God has revealed Himself to us many times in many ways, including and especially by becoming one of us – the perfect human. This perfect human did a lot of really incredible things, turning water to wine, making a feast out of a few loaves and fish, restoring bodies and lives. And this was over the course of just a few years. For the first 30 or so years of his life, Jesus studied, and made stuff.

Scripture isn’t super clear about how we’re supposed to conduct ourselves in the details of our everyday lives, but I think it’s pretty clear about this. We are supposed to work.

Now we’re kind of treading some tricky territory. Our society has a…complicated…understanding of work, what it is, what it’s for, how much we ought to commit to it, etc. For the sake of clarity, I’d like to define work as productive human activity that sustains and grows us, our families, our societies, and our world. This is a very broad definition; incidentally, there are literally millions of things that qualify as work (and we’re thinking up new ones all the time!) – each of them good, necessary, and potentially worshipful.

One of the mistakes that our society makes in its thinking about work is that it is exclusively related to one’s job. I don’t know why this is. Perhaps it’s because we’re kind of obsessed with our careers or we really like money or something. But the legitimacy of work is not determined by how difficult it is or how much money it earns.

Lately I’ve been reading and encouraged by Margaret Peterson’s book Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life. In this treatise on housework, she points out that “in a society dominated by its monetary economy, it is easy to assume that any unpaid activity is either a form of consumption or an oppressive waste of time. But housework, although unpaid, is essentially productive; it is among the ways which humans can and do participate in God’s own work of creation” (Peterson 38). In the office, we might not be particularly creative, and that’s okay. But we should fulfill this part of our human end at home, first and foremost by establishing a hospitable and flourishing household.

Sometimes we also forget that work is a means to an end, not an end it itself. Work is only good and worthwhile insofar as it achieves whatever it aims to do. To be sure, the general aims of work are of cosmic significance.

And this is why work – all of it – ought to be done well. The quality of one’s work is essential to the Christian. Somewhere along the line, the Church (particularly the Evangelical tradition) lost its way and began to devalue tangible worldly things, including work, which was rendered a mere distraction from God that doesn’t ultimately matter.

In her book Creed and Chaos – which is about the things that ought to matter the most to Christians – Anglican writer Dorothy Sayers includes a chapter about work. She reminds us that “the only Christian work is good work well done” (Sayers 108). She also argues that churches should be very interested in how people conduct themselves after the benediction, saying that “The Church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the Church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables” (Sayers 106).

Peterson also makes the interesting and compelling argument that “work is sacramental…In a traditional Christian understanding, sacraments are points at which material and spiritual things come together and God is present and active in particular ways… (work), while not a sacrament properly speaking, may in a similar way allow physical objects and actions to link believers to Christian memory, hope, and present faithfulness” (Peterson 40).

I find all of this deeply relieving. It means that God cares about how I use my time, and not just because He’s jealous that I’m not using it all to pray or something. It means that every day matters, not just Sundays. And it means that it’s not idolatrous to care about the emails I send in the office or the food I cook in the kitchen.

Life & Worship: An Introduction

Every week, I attend a “worship” service. I sing songs that are led by a “worship team,” and refer to my handy “worship folder” for lyrics, prayers, etc. The term “worship” has a bit of a buzzword-quality to it. At the very least, it’s a word that is loaded with meaning that we sometimes casually use as a prefix with other words, especially on Sundays.

There’s nothing wrong with affixing the word “worship” onto the names of the various aspects surrounding a church service – it’s helpful and pretty harmless. However, sometimes I wonder if it conveys the idea that worship only happens on Sundays. While Sundays are definitely sacred, worship can and should happen all the time, in everyday life.

This is what worship looks like. Except not really.

This is what worship looks like. Except not really.

Throughout Easter, I’ll be sharing a series of posts about life and worship, focusing on four topics: work, leisure, rest, and seasons. For now, I’m going to lay a little groundwork, in an effort to ensure that we’re all on the same page.

Full disclosure: these posts could stray into apologetics-territory. Part of why I’m interested in this topic is my desire to defend why I think it’s okay to go to happy hour instead of prayer meetings, why, in addition to the Bible, it’s okay to read anything from Socrates to Stephen King, and why Christians can be legitimately called into things other than ministry (and not just so that they can evangelize to the other doctors, teachers, baristas, etc.). Sorry if I get defensive – this is something that I care deeply about, and I think it’s one of the great things about following a Lord who is Risen.

This Risen Lord is worth our devotion, i.e., our worship. What I’m interested in here what worship looks like – what are the actions associated with it? The sacred activities that transpire in churches on Sundays is a start (and I’d argue that it’s non-negotiable for Christians). But it doesn’t end with the benediction.

Worship starts with recognizing who God is and who we are in relation to Him. This can mean a lot of things, but most basically, it means that 1) He is God, 2) we are human, and 3) we were made in His image.

It’s no simple task, being God’s image-bearer. Because He made us like Himself, God has certain expectations for us. We should be reasonable. We should be  creative and productive. We should exist in community. Amongst other things. Meeting these expectations is the very beginning of worship. Being human is the very beginning of worship, and I think worship is deeply connected to our personhood.

Worship is participating in human activities in a way that glorifies God. When we act like people, especially good people, we are worshipping. What happens in churches is deeply humanizing, but so is what happens in kitchens, classrooms, and coffee shops. I’m excited to further explore this notion in the coming weeks.

The God of Bread and Wine

There’s this painting by Salvador Dali hanging somewhere in the National Gallery entitled “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.” Here, Dali is depicting what many other great artists before him have depicted – one of the most crucial, remembered, and celebrated meals in history. His rendering of this moment is transcendent. Christ, surrounded by his followers, is clean, pure, and translucent. The communion elements are laid out on the table before him in perfect symmetry. It’s a cleverly crafted and deeply thought-provoking work of art, an excellent demonstration of Dali’s genius and skill.

But it’s all wrong.

At the last supper, Jesus does indeed represent the clean and pure lamb of God – figuratively. But he had just spent the day hanging out in ancient Jerusalem, and, in an act of great humility, washed his disciples’ feet (with his hands, without gloves. Disgusting, and beautiful). His clothes were not clean and his hands were not pure. And he was there, physically, tangibly; not hovering above the table like a ghost or something. He was and is God, and he was and is man too. His body was at that table and with his friends, breaking bread and sharing wine.

And that bread and wine were not pre-packaged or store-bought, purchased hastily and thoughtlessly on the way to a friend’s house for dinner. Someone, possibly someone in that household or eating that Passover meal, made them from scratch in a very physical process.

Days before, that bread was grain, gathered from a nearby field and ground into flour. It was prepared quickly – unleavened – and taken out of the oven just hours before God himself took it and said, “this is my Body, broken for you.” The wine, on the other hand, would have required much more time. While unleavened bread is a helpful reminder of the Israelites‘ urgent flight from Egypt, wine reminds us of something else. Waiting and patience, perhaps. Those grapes were taken from a vine long ago, processed and left to ferment in a cool, dark place, for months, or possibly years. Jesus loves good wine, so I suspect that this was a particularly excellent batch, brought out just for this occasion. And he took it and said, “this is my Blood, shed for you.”

There’s a version of the Prayer of Thanksgiving that we say during ordinary time that really captures the holy physicality of this sacrament. Just before ordaining the elements, the minister prays, “And as this grain has been gathered from many fields into one loaf, and these grapes from many hills into one cup, grant, O Lord, that your whole Church may soon be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

When determining how his people would eternally remember him, I don’t think Jesus chose to use bread and wine on a whim. He didn’t have some sort of arrangement with Welch’s or Franzia, nor did he simply grab whatever was laying around the house. To be sure, it’s no coincidence that bread and wine are simple and common household items, but they are also delicious, skillfully prepared, and point to an Incarnate God, a bloody sacrifice, and a united Church.

The gifts of God, for the people of God.

We Killed Him

This reflection originally appeared in the Liberti Church/Restoration Living Lent Prayerbook. If you haven’t already, you should check out this great resource – it’s not too late!

In the days leading up to Christmas this year, one of my favorite snippets of scripture kept running through my mind: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14, NIV). I smile whenever I think about this sentence, and the beautiful meaning that it conveys – the eternal God of the universe put on skin, moved into the neighborhood, and lived a messy, grace-filled life. What good news!

But Christmas is long over, and lately I can’t get this revision out of my head: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…and we killed him.” God became a person, and we said, “Go home.” He tried to show us Himself, and we said, “No thanks.” He fed and healed us and we said, “We don’t need you.” He gave us a glimpse of redemption and we said, “You are not our King.”

I try not to think about this stuff too much because it bums me out – these thoughts are hard because they require real honesty about the part of the Gospel story that isn’t good. I’m partial to the “practice-resurrection” Christianity that sets its gaze on the risen Lord and the empty tomb, instead of the cross. I confess my sins on Sunday and go about my week. Those few moments of honesty and repentance are enough for me, usually.

"Exodus" by Marc Chagall, 1952

“Exodus” by Marc Chagall, 1952

But thank God for Lent, because those few moments are not actually enough – not after what we did to Him. Thank God that those few moments are drawn out to forty days, where I am reminded that before that glorious empty tomb, there was a bloody cross. Thank God for this season that makes me think about who I am (really) and who God is (really). Thank God that Lent isn’t about finite self-loathing or wallowing in guilt, but existential honesty.

As we draw closer to Good Friday, I invite you to dwell in this uncomfortable honesty. I invite you to acknowledge the startling truth that just as his friends and neighbors betrayed and rejected him, we too betray and reject Christ everyday in our thoughts, words, and actions. I invite you to repent. Because it is only through true repentance that we may move on from that ugly cross and joyfully embrace the empty tomb.