25 February 2014

It's All About Delivery

Concerning Pope Francis: “He knows that the way faith is presented makes a difference: people are rarely argued into the church, but they are often loved into it.”

-John M. Buchanan (“Pastor as Pope,” The Christian Century; October 30, 2013)*

Boy, this one’s not going to make me any friends, but it is precisely the concept above that strikes at the very heart of why I am not a fan of apologetics.  There, I said it.

Perhaps it boils down to how the venture of apologetics has been practiced and presented over the years.  Take, for instance, the early church apologists.  I sort of understand why they did what they did, wrote what they wrote, and at times felt the need to stridently defend the relatively young Christian faith and Church.  Up until Emperor Constantine declared Christianity legal, the Christian Church largely existed in a pre-Christian (or at least a pre-Christendom) era. Theologians, monks, priests, bishops, and all of the other early Church Mothers and Fathers were arguing for and defending the Church largely to distinguish Christianity from the multitude of other religions and religious practices found throughout the Roman Empire. (NOTE: Ployd, I apologize if this is too simplistic a description).

The practice of convincing a person that their beliefs and/or religious convictions are wrong, and subsequently attempting to convince that person that your particular flavor of Christianity is right misses the whole point of what the earliest of Christian apologists were trying to accomplish.  There was no Question, no “Do you know where you’re eternal soul will end up if you die today?” followed by a string of arguments and proofs for God’s existence, all finally wrapped up with a sinner’s prayer at the end…like a nice neat little bow, perfectly packaged to convert the heathen masses.  Joining the Church, so to speak, was actually a very lengthy and difficult process.  After a period of at least a year, you were brought into the body of Christ, Baptism being the sacrament signifying your incorporation into the life and community of the Church.  This marked the beginning of your journey, not the end.

I say all of this to point out that the world of ancient Christianity, the world of the early Church was far different than our world.  The unique theological issues and socio-historical milieu that early Christians dealt with and operated within were just that…they were unique.  We are not them.  We will never be them.  We would be foolish to ever think that their experiences are the same as our experiences, even in light of our strange fascination with dredging up and re-igniting some of those old debates.

So, in what is now described as a largely Christianized (in some form or fashion and similar to the idea of the Hellenized world) and postmodern world, what are we defending Christianity against?  Itself?  Each other?  Because honestly, whose brand of Christianity is the right and true manifestation of the Church?  Who gets to claim the designation “Arbiter of the Christian faith?”  Realistically, not only do we live in a multicultural and pluralistic world, but if you’re a Christian you are part of a pluralistic religion, at least as it concerns practices, rites, rules, sacraments, a vast number of theological concepts, and well, I guess the list really goes on and on.  This is okay.  I repeat, THIS IS OKAY.  It’s nothing to lose any sleep over.

What concerns me, however, are Christians who subscribe to a form of apologetics that I have found to be rampant in the Western Christian Church (i.e. the United States), particularly within many Protestant churches.  In tapping into Pope Francis’ way of presenting the Christian faith, John Buchanan puts into words what I have for so long struggled to say. Why must we feel the need to argue Christianity into someone’s life?  Really, why do we feel that we must argue at all about something that is really not arguable?  There are NO legitimate proofs for God, no proofs that Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully God, no proofs that the Holy Trinity desires salvation and reconciliation for all.  We know these things not because of well-argued proofs and scientific data.  We know them because we have faith, which requires a leap into the unknown and the never fully knowable.  And are we so arrogant to think that we are the agents of faith and conversion?  Really?  It’s not about us.  It’s about God, and I’m pretty sure God does not want us going around beating faith into people with, at best, tenuous arguments.

And so we come to Pope Francis, or rather, we come to the title of this post:  it’s all about delivery.  It’s all about love.  As Buchanan states of Pope Francis’ method of sharing and showing his faith, people are more often loved into the church, not argued into it.  Ironically, or interestingly (or both), this concept brings to mind a saying by Pope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who was noted to have said (roughly quoted), “Preach the gospel in all places, and if you must, use words.”  Ultimately, how are we, as Christians showing others love, particularly God’s love?  How are we loving them into the church, into a more open understanding of faith in God, into the embrace of a God whose love and grace knows no bounds?  Maybe the question should be: Are we doing that?  Are we loving others into the church, to God?  If not, perhaps we need to change our delivery.

Ideally, and in my opinion, apologetics (or at least the argumentative and coercive kind that I have commonly run into) should be a needless venture, a dead idea.  How we live and love and respectfully interact with each other should be “apologetic” enough.  May we learn to do just that.  May we love others into the Church.  May they know we are Christians by our love, our actions, the gospel preached both with and without words.  For this I hope.  For this I pray…for all those who bear the name Christian, most especially me.  Lord, in your mercy, hear this prayer.

*Buchanan, John M.  "Pastor as Pope," The Christian Century.  October 30, 2013; page 7.

21 February 2014

On Prayer, Part Two

So here I am, next to the last leg of my journey back to the United States, back to my family, back home.  It’s very easy to get caught up in the utter monotony of waiting, of doing absolutely nothing but sitting around and watching movies on my laptop in my bunk.  A lot of guys do just that.  I cannot.  I have to get out, even if it’s raining or snowing, even if it’s stupid cold outside, even if it means grabbing some coffee at the nearby Green Beans Coffee (the sacrifices we make, right?) or sitting around and reading at the USO.  I have to fight the monotony and the boredom that can easily consume you at BAF.

And this, I have found, is precisely where some of our modern notions of prayer really begin to break down.  Well-defined prayer times and even particular prayer forms I find maddeningly difficult in this environment.  For one, it’s hard to actually get away, to find some quiet time to yourself, to think, to pray.  Heck, even right now I’m sitting here writing this in a USO with people watching movies and playing video games all around me.  My only getaway is a pair of headphones and my wife’s “Happy Dance” Spotify playlist.  And have you ever tried private prayer in a noisy open bay barracks building filled with a hundred or so noisy Soldiers that stay up all hours of the night?  It just ain’t happening, at least not for me.

And it is precisely here, at this moment, that Roberta Bondi’s words on prayer profoundly resonate with me:
“I was able to lay aside my modern assumptions about prayer…I abandoned the notion that prayer is basically verbal petition and praise, and came to see that prayer is a sharing of the whole self and an entire life with God.”*

Bondi’s words force my mind to immediately jump to the story of Brother Lawrence and his concept of practicing the presence of God.  I appreciate Lawrence’s forwardness and admittance that he struggled with scheduled prayer times and structured forms of prayer.  He often found his mind wandering when praying the hours, and the littlest of distractions would throw any semblance of routine off track.  He realized that he just wasn’t all that great at prayer, at least not formally speaking.  I feel ya Brother…I feel ya.

However, Brother Lawrence rediscovered for himself the concept that one’s work and life could, in fact, be a sort of prayer lifted up to God.  I say rediscovered primarily because he did not invent this concept of prayer, though Brother Lawrence is most often associated with this sort of prayer.  Anyways, Lawrence, as well as Bondi, brilliantly capture this rather non-Western, non-Protestant American concept of prayer as being a living, breathing, organic thing; that is to say, prayer can be viewed as our life and human experience.  Our humanity, our interactions with each other, our formal and informal prayers said privately and corporately, our work as a response to God’s grace is in itself a kind of prayer.

This sort of prayer can be a difficult thing to grasp.  It can also be a difficult concept to accept as prayer.  Many would argue that it’s not prayer at all, and while I most certainly respect people’s freedom to disagree, I would hope that those same folks would respect my freedom to seek communion with God how I choose, especially if they are historically founded modes of connecting with God.  Don’t get me wrong though, I by no means have a solid grasp on practicing the presence of God, which is why I guess it’s called practice, huh?

I say all of this simply to point out that prayer is organic.  It lives and breathes and moves with us because it is a sharing of our very selves, it is how we communicate with God where we are at in our lives and with whatever tools we have available.  Thanks be to God that we can connect with our Creator in an unimaginable litany of ways.  We must constantly remember that God is bigger than us, bigger than our conceptions of prayer, bigger than our petty differences and disagreements about what counts as prayer and what does not.  And ultimately, God is the God of love and grace, the God of communion and reconciliation, the God who constantly yearns for us to respond to divine grace in whatever way possible.  Thanks be to God for being unboxable, uncontainable, and ever-seeking communion with us and with all of Creation.

* Yamasaki, April. Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal.  Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press, 2013.  Page 58. 

02 February 2014

On Prayer, Part One

 “I was able to lay aside my modern assumptions about prayer…I abandoned the notion that prayer is basically verbal petition and praise, and came to see that prayer is a sharing of the whole self and an entire life with God.”

-April Yamasaki (Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal)*

“Prayer is about connecting with God, about having a relationship with our divine creator.  God desires that with us, and because God loves us so much, God actually cares about our trivial wants, our big dreams, and our petty grievances.  This is humbling news indeed.  We can come to God with anything, and God will work with it.”

-Lillian Daniel (When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church)**

I have a confession to make: I am terrible at prayer.  Allow me to clarify a bit though.  I am not terrible at prayer in and of itself.  In corporate worship and in public settings I get by well enough so as not to sound like a heathen or heretic.  I actually enjoy writing public prayers, though I am far from eloquent.

Where I struggle, what I believe I am terrible at is private prayer. I have always fought myself when it came to private prayer, whether it was a matter of timing or location or even the actual content and form of the prayer.  And I would inevitably beat myself up about it.  I felt like I was a bad Christian because I didn’t pray privately every single day.  Heck, I was lucky if I got in a couple of prayers a week outside of a worship service.  I found that it was easier to run from prayer, or to pretend that it wasn’t actually a thing people did until Sunday rolled around or when someone asked me to pray.  Prayer and I have not gotten along all that well through years.

You see, I have a rather sordid history with prayer.  I grew up in the church and in a tradition that placed a lot of emphasis on prayer, but all of that emphasis was on prayers of supplication and repentance.  Needless to say, I repented a lot in my youth and I’m pretty sure I was saved at least a half dozen times (those altar calls and peer pressure will get you every time).  So yeah, there was a lot of repenting done, but the way in which I learned to pray growing up was a sort of “well, while your down there on your knees repenting, you might as well go ahead and ask God for some stuff” type of prayer. Looking at that phrase now makes me wish I could shorten it, but it really does capture the kind of prayer I grew up with.  As an aside, if anyone comes up with a more concise term for the above form of prayer I’ll give you a long-distance virtual high-five.

Anyways, what I am saying is that the prayer of my youth and the prayer of my young adulthood was narrow and as a tiny vessel upon the constantly changing seas of life, my myopic prayer life could not and would not weather the inevitable storms life brings.  Case in point: my father died when I was 21 years old; he was 47.  Mucinous adenocarcinoma (a type of cancer) overtook him with a viciousness that the oncologists were not used to seeing.  Over the course of roughly 2 years I watched my father go from being a healthy outdoorsy guy in his mid to late 40s to being a frail man who was nearly bed-ridden (though he fought to get up and around every single day).  As his health decreased over time, I assure you there were many prayers prayed and many tears shed.  I watched as people prayed for physical healing, as they tried to pray the cancer out of my father, as they prayed for a medical miracle.  Meanwhile, I simply prayed “Why!?!” “Why my dad? Why a perfectly healthy guy?  Why a good man?  Why why why!?!”

Thanks to the formative and loving guidance and care of a few of my theology professors in college I was encouraged to view healing as something much larger than one’s mere physical response to the miraculous.  Healing could come without a change in one’s physical state.  And healing did come, and a miracle did occur.  Despite all of the hard work of an amazing team of doctors and nurses, and despite the earnest prayer of family and friends, my father still died.  His body just gave up…but he was most certainly healed.  In mind and spirit God’s presence was seen, it was felt, it was palpable.  My father was a changed man.  So there was no healing (at least not as we typically think of it), but there was healing.  What does that even mean?

Here’s what I think it might mean, and Rev. Daniel captures this concept beautifully:  it means that we can go to God, we can connect with God in and through all of our wants and needs and grievances, or just through a simple desire to be with God…to just be.  And God will work with it.  God will work with it in ways that we will never fully understand, but God hears us and loves us and is always always always seeking to connect with us.  God worked with those prayers prayed by my father and those prayed on his behalf, and he was healed.  I know that now…I struggled with it then.  I was angry with people for praying for physical healing.  I thought they were delusional.  But God heard all of our prayers, and though the response was not what many folks wanted from God, God nonetheless responded and my father was healed.

And this is where I struggle, when all is quiet, when I am alone with myself and I have the opportunity for personal prayer.  I know about many of the various forms and methods of prayer.  Many are quite wonderful and transformative, but I am terrified of falling into the realm of supplication.  I am terrified of treating God like a vending machine, of sticking my prayer in the coin slot, pressing “B1”, and expecting what I want to come out.  I am terrified of confusing God for Santa Claus, submitting my Christmas list of prayers and expecting to get what’s on the list.  I just know deep within my very being that this is not who God is.  And because of my fear, I am afraid to ask God for much of anything.

I know full well that Scripture states “ask and it shall be given…”, but this is a prayer concept I have seen and heard repeatedly abused and I am prone to not do the same.  So I end up steering well clear of the topic other than to ask for God’s presence (which certainly isn’t a bad thing, right?).  And with that, I ask for God’s peace and presence as I conclude Part 1 of this two-part blog entry.  God bless!

* Yamasaki, April. Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal.  Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press, 2013.  Page 58. 

** Daniel, Lillian. When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church. New York: Jericho Books, 2013.  Page 40.   

15 December 2013

A Turn of the Chair

“It takes just a second, but that’s my spiritual discipline—turning my chair to be available for God.”

-April Yamasaki (Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal)*

The simple, seemingly trivial act of turning one’s chair in order to be available to God…how absurd!  And yet, how beautifully true!  There is so much in our lives today that distracts us from our relationship with God, from seeking to live as Christ lived, from walking the path of Christian perfection (thanks JW!).  All of the media outlets, the ads, the fear-mongering blogs and talking heads on various news agencies, the sheer amount of crap that companies relentlessly try and sell us, there is so much that gets in the way!  This seems especially so during the season of Advent, the time the Church sets aside in order to prepare God’s people for the Christ, both his coming as a child as well as his coming in glory the second time around.

We get so caught up in Christmas fervor, so bent out of shape when people say “Happy Holidays” (which is technically correct), so angry when the abbreviation “X-Mas” is used in place of “Christmas” (the “X” is a Greek “chi” which stands for “Christ”), so maddeningly wrapped up in the purchasing of all the right gifts and making it to the right parties, etc., etc. that we lose sight of that which we are to be preparing for.  Maybe we just need to turn our chair a bit…

And that’s just the Christmas timeframe.  Let’s not forget about all of the other things in our daily lives that can potentially distract, if not separate us, from God.  Work, family, friends, addictions and negative habits, apathy and callousness, the list is nearly infinite; some of these things are good in and of themselves, and some, not so much.  If we allow them, they can all become distractions just like the windstorm, the earthquake, and the fire was for Elijah as he was waiting to hear from God.  And yet, God came as a still small voice; God came in the quiet, the silence in the void of all that activity.

This is certainly not the only way in which God communicates with us, but it is rather telling that God can speak to us in the quiet found amidst all the commotion…if we would but turn our chairs, opening ourselves to the holy and mysterious, to the God who can speak in the silence.  We have become so accustomed to noise and activity that for many, quietness, silence on our part, can be quite uncomfortable.  It’s uncomfortable for me…to just be…to be present and open to the Lord to speak and act and move and for me to not be doing something.  But sometimes that’s precisely what we need, a little bit of divinely inspired discomfort paired with our willingness to truly listen to God.

Thanks be to God for such an uncomfortably powerful way of communicating with us.  May we be more attuned to the silence, the quiet, during the season of Advent as we prepare ourselves for the coming of our Lord.

* Yamasaki, April. Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal.  Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press, 2013.  Page 35.

12 December 2013

Light in the Darkness

 “Testimony is calling out that you have seen light in the midst of darkness.  Testimony is telling the story about how you met God, even when you have forgotten it.  Testimony is telling the story of a community over time, of a particular people, and how God has intervened.”

-Lillian Daniel (When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church)

So I’ve been deployed now for nearly two months, away from my family and friends…away from home.  On the grand scheme of things, and compared to most of my Soldiers downrange with me, that’s not very long. But it is real and different and ultimately…well, it’s important.  It’s real in that I don’t hear AK-47 rounds being fired off on a regular basis (even if it is in celebration) back at Fort Polk or regularly see tracers flying over the city as I sit in the tree house smoking cigars with the docs.  I don’t walk around in full kit (body armor and combat helmet) on a regular basis back home.  There is not the threat of IDF (indirect fire) back home.  This is real because the fact of the matter is that I am sitting here writing this, this blog entry, in a combat zone…on a FOB (forward operating base) halfway around the world…and that makes things altogether different.  Different from sitting in my office at Fort Polk, different from relaxing in my living room with my family watching Curious George, different from sitting at my dining room table having an engaging theological discussion with my wife.

But in this case different is good.  Different is real and tangible and lived day in and day out here on our tiny little FOB in Afghanistan.  Different means doing my job and my calling, both in garrison and now deployed.  Different is appreciating the little things that bring us joy or simply makes us smile throughout a work day, all the while knowing that home for the time being is a college dorm sized room with a few necessary amenities (bed, desk, drawers, closet, computer, Kindle).

And all of this is so very important.  That’s not to say that everything I’ve done up until this point has been unimportant.  It’s just that I know I’m supposed to be here, to (as the Chaplains Corps motto states) nurture the living, care for the wounded, and honor the dead.

Daniel’s statement, “Testimony is calling out that you have seen light in the midst of darkness” is grounding.  I have far too often heard testimony used to thank Jesus for that sweet parking space at the mall or to thank God that you’re not like all those other sinners.  Such uses of testimony end up being potentially damaging examples of the misappropriation of Old Testament deuteronomistic theology, wherein if you are good God will bless you and if you are bad God will curse you.  As a Christian, how in God’s name is this testimony?

And this is precisely why the whole concept of testimony is based on hope, hope in a God who lives and loves and forgives despite all of our failures.  There is hope in calling out that you have seen light in the midst of darkness, and naming exactly that hope.  There is hope in beginning to remember how God reached out to you and you responded.  There is hope in recalling the history of a people, a community of faith, and hope that the Holy Spirit moves in and through that community and will continue to move in divinely mysterious and transformative ways.

Testimony is simply a declaration of hope in a God who is forever faithful.  That is precisely why it is important for me to be here, right now, on this FOB in Afghanistan.  By virtue of my calling as a United Methodist Elder and Army Chaplain I am to provide help and hope, to love God and to love my neighbor, but to also call out when I have seen light in the midst of darkness, to offer guidance and share testimony.  And as with the task of preaching, proclaiming God’s word, I am both terrified of and intimately called to and engaged by such a significant charge.

Hope.  It really does all come down to hope.  Hope in whom?  Hope for what?  Ultimately, hope that “thy kingdom come[s], [that] thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Hope in daily bread and forgiveness.  Hope that we, both individually and together, can be the people God calls us to be.  Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer.

* Daniel, Lillian. When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church. New York: Jericho Books, 2013.  Page 21.    

19 September 2013


Friends, family, readers and followers...I've clearly been away for awhile.  Or rather, I've been away from the blogging world for awhile.  I guess that's what happens when we find ourselves working long hours week in and week out for months on end.  As many of you know, I am a US Army Chaplain, which is partly where the title of my blog came from.  With that said, I will soon be taking the whole "ministry in the trenches" concept from the semi-figurative level to the actual and literal level.  Instead of trenches, it will be FOBs (Forward Operations Bases), but ministry nonetheless.

To answer the question you may (or may not) be asking yourselves at the moment, the answer is "yes", I am being deployed.  Am I a little nervous? Sure.  Am I a little stoked?  Yes.  Am I going to need to maintain some level of spiritual discipline?  Overwhelmingly, yes!  And that is precisely where this blog comes back into the picture for me.  I never meant to disappear, but now I have an outlet, a way to theologically, emotionally, and spiritually think through things while I am deployed.  I will continue to reflect on various thoughts and ideas that I come across in my readings, but the general nature of the blog may change some over the next year or so as I take time to process and reflect on real world experiences as well (thanks John Wesley!).

I look forward to sharing and reflecting, but also hearing back from y'all every so often.  I ask for your prayers and your well wishes as I embark on this new journey and I ask the very same for my family as they "hold down the fort" while I am away.  And ultimately, I ask that you pray for peace and for God's loving presence for all of our Armed Service personnel, whether they be Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, or Coast Guardsmen.  Grace and peace to you all! 

21 December 2012

The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment

“Nicholas Carr writes in The Atlantic in an article called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” (hint: yes), “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words.  Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet-Ski.””

-A. J. Jacobs – “The Unitasker” (The Guinea Pig Diaries:My Life as an Experiment)*

It’s been a while, I know.  Since I last posted my family and I have embarked on our first Active Army PCS move.  I’ll not go into details, but let’s just say that I’ve been a bit busy with the move, settling in with a new unit, helping wrangle/take care of my son, spending some quality time with my family, and reading when I can.

So without further ado, here goes:

I believe that the lack of depth in serious critical thinking in our society has theological ramifications.  As Christians, many of us skip along the sea of inch-deep theology and simple self-help answers, rather than embracing any sort of willingness to break the surface and struggle with diving deep.  A vast number of Christians prefer to hear, for example, that the Bible means one thing, and one thing only.  Questioning such ideas is declared anathema by numerous churches, or at minimum, one’s faith in God is questioned.  Millions of Christians seek “yes” or “no” answers to questions that are impossible to truthfully answer with a “yes” or “no”.  We seem to want to skim the surface of theology, of our relationship with and understanding of God rather than diving deep into the murky depths of the life of faith in a triune God.

I get it.  Life is not easy.  We live in a complex world filled with natural and moral evils, as well as all the other general complexities that goes with, well, life.  With that said, however, my family and I were driving around some of the little towns that surround my new duty station.  As we were exploring the local area, taking in all of the sites that make up rural Louisiana, we came across a church sign that basically stated that in a world filled with problems and difficulties the church (or maybe just that particular congregation) offers simple answers, that Jesus makes things easier.  I couldn’t help but scoff.  Actually, I’m still scoffing.

Hope and simplicity are in no way the same thing; they’re not even remotely synonymous.  Yes, Jesus Christ offers us hope in the now and the not yet (hopefully) through the church and the coming Kingdom.  But Jesus does not make things simple or easy.  I’d argue that if we were to take Christianity seriously, that if we were to take our faith in God Incarnate seriously, then Jesus makes things, makes our lives, far more complicated and complex.

And this is a good thing.  We should not fear complexity.  We should fear simple answers to complex questions and problems.  As the church, the community of faith, we should be willing to struggle with the complexity of life together, just as millions of faithful Christians have done since the earliest days of the early church.  We should search the Scriptures together, just as John Wesley directed.  We should offer confession and forgiveness to one another.  We should hold each other accountable, but we should never say that the Christian life is simple or easy.  Maybe it has become easy, but its roots, its essence, shows us a beauty and depth far too vibrant and real to ever think a simple “yes” or “no” faith would (or should) suffice.  We must be willing to trash the Jet-Skis and don some scuba gear.

*Jacobs, A. J. The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment.  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009.