Reclaiming Beauty

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If you follow me on any social media platform, you’ll know that I recently went to Rome. If you’ve known me for any period of time, you’ll know that I have always wanted to visit Rome. Why? One word: Vatican. I may not be a part of the Roman Catholic Church, but I have always longed to see the Vatican. Who wouldn’t? It’s full of art, architecture, and beauty. IMG_4236

While visiting Rome, I kept thinking to myself, “we need to reclaim beauty.” Here is what I mean:

I am a part of the American Evangelical Church. I have been my entire life. While walking through the beautiful cathedrals, all I could think about was how much the church used to appreciate beauty. It was sculpted in their structures, painted on their ceilings, and even engraved in their floors. Every single place you looked was beautiful. The American Evangelical church does not appear to appreciate beauty like the Roman Catholic Church. Now, before you get all angry and start saying, “we want to use our money to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless,” let’s analyze this a minute.

When it comes to mission, I am 100% in favor of giving all that we have to help those in need. We should be using our resources to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and give shelter to the homeless. That is what Christ commands us to do. Looking through the beautiful churches, one might suppose that the Roman Catholic Church is not about those things. But they are. In fact, they do more than most. Just take a look at Catholic Charities, one of the largest charities in America.

IMG_4400As they help, they appreciate beauty, as well. It’s intriguing to me that evangelical churches are so concerned with helping the poor and criticize monumental cathedrals when they are willing to spend millions on buildings that won’t stand the test of time. This is what I am getting at. Millions are spent on new buildings but are these buildings beautiful? They may be modern, but I would argue that they do not contain the beauty that is found in the structures of several cathedrals (both Roman and other high-church denominations).

The church can be criticized for spending as much money as they do on buildings and I will listen to those critiques. But when you’re walking through the cathedrals of Rome, you cannot help but think, “they appreciated beauty in all aspects and they wanted to glorify God with these buildings.” And glorify Him they did.

Oftentimes, I wonder if people will visit the latest megachurch building 100 years down the road. My guess is, probably not. There isn’t really too much to see. The cathedrals in Rome are admired for their art and architecture. They are studied in classes. I am not for certain that many evangelical megachurches will be studied in classes.

Beauty needs to be reclaimed in the evangelical movement. We are so focused on being modern and contemporary that we have forgotten beauty. Popes would hire the best artists, architects, and musicians of their day to create works that would stand the test of time. If heaven is not a beautiful cathedral with incredible art, ornate ceilings, and a stunning choir singing in perfect harmony, then I’m not sure what it will be like. IMG_4186

Hire artists.

Why? Because they create things that stand the test of time. Their works give us a taste of what is to come. While visiting San Paolo fuori le Mura in Rome, I was able to hear a choir perform and watch mass. I didn’t understand a single word that was said or sung. But I didn’t have to to know that what was taking place was beauty. The liturgy compelled me to listen and participate. It drew me in. This is the thing about beauty. We might not understand it or even follow it, but we are compelled to it. Why else does the church still sing some ancient hymns and yet they do not sing many of the praise choruses that were created in the 80s (well, some churches still insist on singing “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord” over and over again)? There’s a difference between timeless beauty and modern creations. Timeless beauty can still be created but it may not appear to be modern at the time.IMG_4538

I believe that one of the most compelling thing the evangelical church needs to do is to reclaim beauty. Craft songs that have depth in both lyrics and melody. Hire artists to sculpt and paint. Seek out architects that see in the past. Perhaps I am sounding old-fashioned in my age. I will admit that early 20 year-old Caleb would scoff at what I have evolved into.

We are so careful to create environments that are welcoming that we neglect to have beauty. I think we overanalyze the environment and it causes us to miss important points. People won’t be scared of high ceilings, beautiful sculptures, and divine liturgy. It compels us to enter and participate.

We can do both/and. We can be charitable and beautiful. We have done it in the past and we can do it in the future. Life was not meant to be bland and boring. Church wasn’t either. Let me tell you, there was nothing bland or boring about the aroma, music, art, and structure of the cathedrals in Rome. In fact, to me, that was what church was always meant to be: a little taste of God’s coming Kingdom.

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Why I Must Confess

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Confession is good for the soul. Some people live their lives with a hidden secret that will go to the grave with them. Not only will they live with that secret, but they will also live with shame, regret, and fear.

I love that the Roman Catholic Church has confessionals. It provides an opportunity to confess what is hidden in that darkness. This not only acts as an opportunity to confess that which is hidden, but also the day to day sins of which so many are guilty.

If you are anything like me, you walk through life without paying much attention to sins. Because we live in an age of grace, sometimes we forget to go through the discipline of asking God for forgiveness for things we have done and for things we have left undone. There is something healing in confessing. Sin begins to lose its power in our life when we give words to it.

Grace is a beautiful thing. Without it, we would all be lost. I fear, however, that even with it, we are still somewhat lost. We assume grace. We assume that God will forgive. We assume that our sin will no longer be counted against us.

There is a stark difference between having assurance and assuming. Having assurance is trust. Assuming is not giving much thought to something.

We can have assurance in God’s forgiveness and grace but we cannot assume God’s forgiveness and grace.

One of the things the Book of Common Prayer has in its service is a time of confession. This is not a time for each person to go around saying their sins of the week. It is a time of silent confession before God. Then, they end with this prayer said together:

“Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in your will,
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your Name. Amen.”

This is one of my favorite prayers to pray. I pray it often. Each time I come back to it, the words become more powerful.

Christ taught us to pray each time for God to forgive us our trespasses. Have we forgotten to keep doing that? Some of us will ask for forgiveness for what we consider to be “bigger” sins…but we don’t confess sins of omission, being greedy with our money, lying, or other things that are considered culturally normal. When we remind ourselves of daily sins, we remind ourselves how much grace we actually need. Then we become all the more grateful for the grace of God.

Knowing that God’s grace covers each and every inch of our lives can easily become an assumption.

Confession makes me all the more grateful for God’s forgiveness and grace. It reminds me just how much I need it. And it helps me not to take it for granted. It helps me not to cheapen it.

Sometimes I wish that the American Evangelical Church had a place in the service for confession. How powerful would it be for us to weekly pray a prayer of forgiveness and corporately remembering how much we need God’s grace? It’s amazing to me that so many things in culture point to people desiring confession. There are numerous websites that people can confess on. There are multiple opportunities to anonymously confess your darkest secrets. People want to speak. People want to say what is weighing them down. Shouldn’t we be providing them with that opportunity?

Confession might scare us. Confession might make us uncomfortable. Confession might frustrate us. But confession also reminds us. And we need to be reminded. Daily. Just how much we need God’s grace. We need to be reminded how much we have cheapened it. We need to be reminded how thankful we should be for it. Confession paves the way for that. It’s a discipline that we neglect…but it’s a discipline that should be a daily practice.

Let’s Just Forget Communion

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Once upon a time, I worked as a part-time worship pastor at my home church. I probably wasn’t great at it, but I enjoyed doing it. As a part-time worship pastor, one of my duties was to help with the organization of service. Now this usually doesn’t require much because everything is set in stone; but every now and then, I got to change some things around.

It’s crazy for me to reflect on my life since this only happened 3 years ago. 3 years ago, I thought I knew everything. Today, I really know everything…or so I like to tell myself.

I used to try and cut the time spent on communion down.

Could we get more servers to speed the process along?
Can we shorten the long-winded meditation?
How about we cut communion this week?

I grew up in a church where we took communion each and every week. For the longest of time, I thought it was the worst snack possible. It’s unfortunate how the evangelical movement misses the pinnacle of why we gather.

I thought we gathered for worship.
I thought we gathered for a sermon.
I thought we gathered for a really cool element that would bring all the unchurched people to church.
I thought we gathered so we could discuss the potluck next week.
I thought we gathered so that we could go to heaven.

I was wrong.

Communion. That is why we gather. Communion is the pinnacle of every gathering, and yet we try and shorten it each week because it makes us uncomfortable and we don’t know how to approach it. In her book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans writes some of the most beautiful and challenging thoughts on communion (I would love to quote it, but I’ve lent the book out). She understands the importance of communion and also understands how the evangelical church abandons communion each and every week for things like…

a longer sermon.
extra songs.
cool elements.
announcements (I remember someone asking me once if they could have a longer time for announcements to discuss some important things).

But why would that bother us? Most of us aren’t bothered by how communion is continuously pushed to the fringe of many evangelical services.

Most of us don’t care that communion reminds us that Jesus ate His final meal with His friends…and His enemies.

Most of us don’t care that communion shows us how to serve one another.

Most of us don’t care that communion gives us hope for the return of Christ as we recite, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”

Most of us don’t care that communion is a reminder of what the Kingdom will be like.

It is disheartening to see this. What is even more disheartening, however, is how we have turned communion into a personal time with Jesus to thank Him for everything He did for us. Doesn’t this thought go completely against the word communion?

I grew up in a tradition where we passed the tray. This was a terrifying experience. I always felt like I was holding up the body and blood of Christ from others…or worse yet, that I may spill the body and blood of Christ all over the floor.

31827fee3d937112330f6a7067007ee6Sometimes, I go to the Episcopal Church. Each time I go, I approach the altar with several other strangers and kneel down to receive the body and blood of Christ. In these moments, I truly feel like I am in communion with Christ and with others. It is no longer an individualized moment.

My tradition takes a memorialist view of communion (that it is purely a time to remember what Christ has done). I believe this has a lot to do with why we don’t really care about it. We can remember what Christ has done through other ways, right?

The Orthodox view is The Divine Mystery. Christ is present in communion. We don’t know how. But He is. It is mysterious. If we all treated communion in this way, that Christ was present, wouldn’t we pay a bit more attention to it?

I fear that when we push communion to a 5-minute time slot where we rush people to hurry up and take the body and blood, we forget the reason why we gather.

We don’t gather to make church cool.
We don’t gather to make the unchurched feel welcomed.
We don’t gather for an awesome worship experience.
We don’t gather for a sermon that makes us think.
We don’t gather to spend time with our friends.

We gather for communion. Because in communion, everything begins to make sense. In communion, friends and enemies come together. In communion, Christ’s Kingdom is experienced. In communion, the church finds its hope. In communion, Christ is present and exalted.

It is time to bring into focus this sacrament. May we never push it into a 5-minute time slot. May we never individualize it. May we never think lightly about it. May we never stop someone from partaking in it. Jesus didn’t stop Peter or Judas…so why do we stop others?

In our attempts to be culturally relevant, we have lost all respect for the sacredness of communion. It is time that we repent of our behavior and return to this act that is the focal point the church needs.

What We Forgot On Memorial Day

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Question: If you went to church last weekend, what holiday, if any, did your church acknowledge? If your church is like mine, you acknowledged Memorial Day and, hence, the U.S. military. Across the country last weekend, church projector screens donned digital American flags, choruses of God Bless America filled the rafters, and prayers were uttered thanking God for “those who, like Christ, have given their lives so that we might worship here in freedom today.” For many people and churches, this is standard operating procedure for patriotic holiday weekends, and it would seem strange, even offensive, not to honor those who have served in the military on such occasions.

Here’s my question, though. When we gather together to worship, as whom are we gathered? Are we gathered as citizens of the United States who happen to live in the same area and worship at the same church? If so, by all means let us salute our flag and thank God for our soldiers.

However, if we are gathered as citizens of the Kingdom of God (Col. 1:13-14), a Kingdom that transcends national borders and unites the Church as one people regardless of nationality, socio-economic status, or gender (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11), we are a new community—a counter-culture—that operates not by power, violence, and coercion, but by humility, meekness, and death and resurrection (Romans 12:14-21). As a people baptized into this new community, we worship God and God alone in our assemblies. Our new identity in Christ supplants prior allegiances, and the King of kings becomes the sole object of our worship (on Sunday and every other day of the week). Any other power of this world, including nations and their soldiers, we choose to honor in our assemblies is, quite simply, an idol.

Honoring a power of this world in Christian assembly detracts from the worship of God and introduces a competing allegiance to that of the Kingdom of God. To honor the United States or any nation in Christian assembly is to lose sight of who we truly are—we are followers of Jesus, baptized into his new community, no longer defined by worldly socio-political boundaries. Thus, when we salute the American flag, sing patriotic songs, and adorn our sanctuaries with red, white, and blue, we divide our allegiance to God and his Kingdom and we make an idol out of the worldly kingdom in which we live. Our Kingdom, however, is not of this world (John 18:33-38).

Now, back to the holiday question. What I find perhaps even more disturbing than the blatant nationalism displayed in many churches last Sunday is the special day most of these churches failed to acknowledge. There was another day, a holy day, on the calendar last Sunday. At least it was on the liturgical calendar (our calendar). Last Sunday was Pentecost Sunday.

Most evangelical churches do not acknowledge or operate by the liturgical calendar (outside of Christmas and Easter), and many would dismiss it as antiquated or too “Catholic.” I couldn’t disagree more. (Well, I guess it is kind of Catholic, but I disagree with that being a bad thing.)

The holy day of Pentecost, which coincides with the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Lev. 23:15-22), occurs 50 days after Easter, and on Pentecost Sunday, Christians celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire upon those gathered for the Feast of Weeks in Jerusalem after Christ’s ascension.

In more liturgical traditions, Pentecost Sunday is a day of great rejoicing and celebration. Festive, colorful processions make their ways through the gathered people of God as the church universal experiences anew the story of the Spirit descending upon those assembled in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. I worshiped with an Episcopal church on Pentecost Sunday one year, and at a certain point in the service, about twenty people in the congregation stood and simultaneously read aloud a passage of Scripture in different languages to incarnate afresh the coming of the Holy Spirit and the empowering of the people to speak in tongues at Pentecost. This was one of the most memorable and impactful moments of any worship service I have ever experienced.

Calendars carry formative potential. Calendars shape us. Think about how the weeks leading up to Christmas alter your mood (either positively or negatively); so, too, with other holidays. The liturgical calendar is no different. The season of Lent is a time of purging, penitence, and preparation before the celebration of Easter. Holy Week, the last week of Lent, is a time of special reflection and meditation on the last week of Jesus’ life. Advent, the four weeks prior to Christmas, is a time to both remember and give thanks for Christ’s first coming and eagerly await and pray for his second coming.

The liturgical calendar reminds us who we are. It reminds us where we’ve come from and, with God’s help, where we’re going. For some (myself included), it even acts as a subversive alternative to the American calendar. I love Arbor Day as much as the next person, but disciplining myself to observe the liturgical calendar and its special days and seasons helps me further solidify my identity in Christ, my connection to the communion of saints, and my allegiance to the Kingdom of God—a Kingdom whose soldiers carry crosses, not guns.

Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.  –A prayer for Pentecost Sunday from the Book of Common Prayer

How to Have it All and Still Follow Christ

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41AxZWXdzuLRecently, I finished NT Wright’s book, “Surprised by Scripture.” Although I wasn’t too “surprised” by some of the things he said (anyone who has read anything by him will not be too surprised by his points), I was encouraged and challenged to see things a bit differently. Something Wright said at the beginning of the book stuck with me throughout the rest of the book and it spurred me on to think through exactly what the evangelical church in America is teaching.

“Christianity thrived precisely among those for whom the major existing philosophies had little to offer.”

Wright was speaking primarily toward Epicureanism and how Christianity thrived during that time because Epicureanism spoke predominately to wealthy people. “If you were an ordinary lower-class person – that is, among the 95 percent of the free population – or a slave, the exhortation to relax and enjoy your life might have rung somewhat hollow.”

Does the message that we preach through our lives echo the Gospel? Or does it simply reiterate what current philosophies of the day have to say? Sometimes I believe that we simply take the current philosophies and add a Christian-themed twist to them. Perhaps this is why Christianity isn’t thriving like it should.

Let’s look, for example, at the American Dream. Our current philosophies say to pursue that dream. Buy a house. Climb up the ladder as quickly as possible. Get a family. Have the new and best of everything. Build your retirement fund. Go into debt to appear successful. Currently, I believe that sometimes the message of the evangelical American church tends to look something like, “how to have it all and still follow Christ.” Even some churches look like this. They buy the best technology, build the biggest buildings, go into debt to appear successful, etc. All of this is in hopes that they might attract people to see Christ. I believe this is admirable, but I can’t quite buy into it completely.

In church jargon, attractional is this idea that you bring people to church to encounter Christ. Perhaps, taking Wright’s statement into play, this isn’t a terrible idea. Jesus’s message always struck a chord with the tax collectors, prostitutes, lepers, and others whom society and religion had deemed a minority. It struck a chord with anyone who questioned the leading philosophies of the day. It still can.

Christianity should thrive among the poor.

We hear this all the time, but it is still true. In a culture obsessed with money, our message simply cannot be one of how to give to God and get a great tax write-off. It should thrive among those who have nothing to give because God isn’t looking for money. He is desiring people. Christianity should thrive among those who may never own a home or a new car or have a nice 401K.

Christianity should thrive among the child molesters, rapists, and other sexual outcasts.

When society gives out a scarlet letter, Christianity should be showing a redeeming story. I have read story after story of individuals who have no life anymore because of a mistake. This should never satisfy a Christ follower. They are outcasts of society. We shouldn’t celebrate that. We should redeem that. Christianity should thrive among that.

Christianity should thrive among those who are dying of communicable diseases.

With the recent Ebola fear that is plaguing Americans (for some reason), we cannot simply run and hide like the rest. Our response can’t be to cast them out of society. Our response has to be one of love and empathy. Of no fear.

Simply put, Christianity has always thrived among those who realize that they have nothing. It’s harder to realize that you have nothing when you are constantly surrounded by everything. This past summer, I went to Baltimore on a mission trip with some of my students. While there, we worked with an inner city organization that gave to those whom politicians and the rest of society had forgotten. To be remembered by someone was the Gospel to them. I remember having a conversation with the head of the organization asking him how to translate something like this to the suburbs. He looked at me and said, “I have no answer for that.” I then proceeded to ask, “Will it take a complete wrecking of dreams, possessions, and careers, for the Gospel to penetrate lives? And if so, what message should we speak until then?” Once again, he had no answer. Maybe because the answer was too difficult to speak.

Christianity thrives among those who have nothing, but for a long time it has seemed that our target audience has been one of successful appearances. Now this isn’t true for all. I can only speak for the American evangelical church. Perhaps it is time for us to change our message from “How to Have it All and Still Follow Christ,” to “How to Lose it All and Begin Following Christ.”