Category: General

In Defense of the Mundane and Monotonous

In Defense of the Mundane and Monotonous

My typical response to the monotony of life–that is, to the humdrum, seemingly-insignificant, mundane, day-in and day-out routines that so often bore me (and perhaps all of us) to bits–has been to disregard it as anything good, just, or holy. When a person lives in a field that is sprinkled with the less-than-desirable blooms of regularity and monotony, the grass always appears greener on the other side. Find something more exciting, more entertaining, we think, something that has the lure of a deeper and more flashy spirituality. Much of American spirituality is indeed built upon the enticement of change and spontaneity. And, oftentimes, these are incorporated into the church and its services and, from there, labeled and understood by the church as “holy.” It is true that, for much of us worshipping from within Western church culture, we have come to view monotony as “unspiritual” and have, as a result, traded it out for spontaneity as the only “spiritual” alternative.

But, in defense of what I might term holy monotony, let me demur a bit in what follows.

I have kids.

Three of them. And because of these three blessings, our house is full of happiness–it is a cradle of fun, excitement, laughs, astronauts, princesses, baby dolls, lightsabers, as well as, to be sure, the regular flow of tears and fears (from both kids and parents alike).

Ray Romano was correct when he said that having children is a lot like living in a frat house: nobody sleeps, everything’s broken, and there’s a lot of throwing up. His point, I think, is so humorous because it can be universally validated by parents everywhere. He hits on something all parents experience, namely, the messiness of parenting. And it is a monotonous messiness: We are constantly finding toys and trinkets in the couch–along with candy, gum, and other sticky (messy) stuff. When kids are young, there is no let up. Monotony. But it is a holy monotony. Every loving parent will readily tell you that, despite the (constant) chaos and the (regular) hardships that come with parenting, they would not trade it for anything else. Give them the world, and they would throw it back. We parents love our kids. We parents love our work. Few would put it exactly this way, but every parent would agree with its basic sentiment: parenting, even with the monotony and mundane nature of the work itself, is nonetheless holy work.

In the course of learning what it means to raise kids, as well as becoming the parent I want to be (as opposed to, at times, being the parent I actually am!), I have learned much about the significant role prayer plays in the process. As a result, I have come to develop a habit, one that I carry out without fail, every night before I go to bed. Each night, once the kids are fast asleep, I walk into their room, give them a brief passing gaze and then bow my head to pray. The prayers vary, though they are always built upon one thing: gratitude to God. I pray with a sincere thankfulness for the gift they are. I am undeserving, and I know it. Yet God is scandalously giving, and I will know that too. I pray without fail. Regularly. Monotonously. Their bedroom, littered with dolls and lightsabers, is holy ground for me. With the same reverence and regularity as the high priest who would do his holy work in the Holy of Holies, I do my holy work–every night, in the same way, around the same time, in an ever-sacred monotonous sort of way.

All of this has taught me something special about the reality of worshipful monotony–both individually as a Christian and corporately as a member of the Body of Christ, not least as a shepherd of a local congregation.

Let me speak as a pastor, then.

There is a tendency to divide churches as being either “liturgical” or “non-liturgical.”  These are helpful descriptions, I suppose. Some churches are less-inclined to follow a set and established and traditioned pattern of worship than others. For some within the so-called “free church movement” (speaking quite broadly and generally), liturgy is not adhered to all that much. It is, after all, considered to be too mechanical and formulaic, and hence, unspiritual. Such churches value spontaneity over and against regularity. And those who worship from within this tradition do so at times from the mindset that to diverge from a spontaneous-centered pattern of worship is to somehow “quench the Spirit.” I often hear that, “If we do things too regularly in our services, then those things (communion, for instance) will lose value and meaning; we must never cement ourselves, then, into a regular pattern worship–we must avoid such unspiritual, liturgical structures.”

I once thought this way, too. But then I heard a pastor (a Baptist at that!) say one time, “The Spirit can be just as much in the planning as he can be in the spontaneity.” With those words, I was awakened to a fresh understanding of worship. Could non-spontaneous and patterned worship be holy? I definitely think so.

I have come to believe that there are at least two problems with the idea that a regular, liturgical pattern of worship is bad. First, every church has a liturgy. I always chuckle when I hear non-liturgical believers bemoan and deride their liturgical brothers and sisters. After all, and ironically, even non-liturgical churches themselves have a regular pattern of spontaneous worship. Theirs is simply a liturgy of irregularity. It is not that they do not have a liturgy; they do. It is just that they have not yet come to recognize it.

Moreover, in my days of looking down on those who would, say, choose to pray pre-written prayers (as opposed to the more “spiritual” act of spontaneously making it up on the spot), I now, looking back, discover my past self to have been in a bit of hypocrisy: for even I, when asked to pray publicly over a meal, would mutter the same exact phrases and words each time. How many times, over and over again, have we heard our non-liturgical Christian brothers and sisters pray prayers like, “Father, bless this food to our body, and our body to your service. Amen.” If you ask them to pray over the next meal the next day, the prayer will usually take the same form. 

In similar ways, even in the free churches, liturgy exists (however unnoticed). To say nothing in regard to their sincerity, even those more independent spirits who bemoan and eschew patterned and tradition-based worship cannot escape the fact that they, too, have their own preferred pattern of worship and are likewise part of a tradition. Even if their tradition is a tradition-less one, they are still part of a continuous fabric of effective-history–what the Germans call Wirkungsgeschichte. One’s history and tradition are operative and effective in how one goes about life, interpretation, and even worship patterns. In the end, much grace needs to be extended to all worshippers in various Christian traditions without the boast of having supposedly risen above being in a tradition. A person can no more ignore the fact of their embeddedness within a tradition than one can separate being wet from wetness.

Second, the argument against liturgy as being “non-spiritual” because it becomes too regular assumes, at its core, that all monotony is necessarily unholy. Prayer times with my kids have taught me differently. My own pattern of worship at home is built upon the opposite assumption. That is to say, I believe that the regular, monotonous, and seemingly “mundane” repetition of the same prayers each night for my children give witness to the fact that, truly, there is nothing unspiritual about routine and, by extension, liturgy itself. Just because liturgy and monotony can be (and has been) abused in the past does not mean it is inherently bad in the present. I look forward to my monotonous prayers each night, for they are holy prayers to God on behalf of my kids. Holy prayers. Holy monotony. 

So what does all of this mean? I am barely in my thirties, and yet the longer I live, and the longer I (as a pastor) guide people to recognize the grace of God operating in their everyday lives, the more I have come to realize that true spirituality is not about evading the monotonous character of life, the mundane nature of living, or the humdrum patterns of parenting, working, or worshipping. We cannot escape liturgy, for it is who we are. It is better, I think, to embrace and worship in the mundane than it is to attempt to escape it. It might be wise to look at the ancients on this one. For in our modern world where life takes place in such rapid, ever-changing fashion–in a time when speed is considered a virtue, spontaneity a spiritual idol, and the mundane holy work of parenting robbed of its inherent holy status–it might be relevant to recall the ancient poets, especially when they speak of how God remains “the same” and how his “years have no end” (Psalm 102:27). 

They remind us that God is the constant in an unconstant world, that he is the Unchanging One in a world so obsessed with the next best thing. God is the steady (monotonous!) Rock of Ages. The poets’ words might prove to be a needed shock to a world full of unsteady people who have lost their ability to perceive the holiness of their mundane and monotonous work.

Perhaps our individual and corporate worship patterns could stand to be re-shaped to better, and more accurately, reflect God’s own unchanging, constant, and steady character? 

Four Meditations on the Lordship of Christ

My Bible study habits tend to vary—sometimes I plow through chunks of Scripture, sometimes I bite off a small verse and meditate on just that verse for a few days, sometimes weeks (Ps 119:15). (There’s no formula that needs to be universalized, I don’t think, since we are all unique.)

All the same, the past few days I have been meditating upon four words: “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Phil 2:11). I found myself needing to meditate on these words, soaking them up, breathing them in and out and back in again. Why? Because I know these words; I know them all too well. That’s the problem, in fact. Having heard them for years, they have grown to sound trite and cliche. I have said, “Jesus is Lord,” probably a thousand times. (I have probably said them more than that; I’m a baptist preacher, after all.) These words are fundamental words for all Christians, for they embody the truth of our most basic Creed—that the man, Jesus of Nazareth, is the true Lord of all. The church universal has proclaimed this message since the beginning; I would do well not to let them become yet another tired cliche.

The thing with words is that, when they become important and timeless, they become familiar. And the thing about time and familiarity is that these two often give birth to indifference. As someone who believes that holy Scripture is a divine speech to people, I must not let an attitude of indifference take over—not least in regard to an important Creed such as “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Yet, I found that to be the very issue: Am I indifferent to the divine proclamation that, indeed, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’?” I’m not responsible for anyone, except for myself. Therefore, that question remains immensely personal. That is why I have determined to revisit this Creed by way of a journey through meditation and contemplation (a journey inspired by Craig Bartholomew’s wonderful new book on hermeneutics). I want to share, briefly, a few things from that journey below. Specifically, I want to share what this Creed means to meWhat has God said with this statement to me? And furthermore, what am I to do with it? I pray that this is encouraging to you on your journey with God as well.

1. That Jesus Christ is Lord means that I am not. If Jesus of Nazareth is Lord, then it follows necessarily that no-one else is. And that includes myself. Every person must grapple with the agony that comes from surrender (shall I be honest: it is agony, isn’t it?). Indeed, I must grapple with this reality. The Christian faith is one of the white flag. Jesus called it a daily death (Luke 9:23). Paul called it a “death,” too (Rom 6). Surely of all people, he would know all about death. As Saul, traveling to put others to death, he found his own Self dying at the sound of the divine Voice, a divine Speech addressed to him. This is the personal reality that I, and you, face. There is no compromise, only surrender. For as much as he loves me (John 3:16, 2 Pt 3:9), he has never once lowered his terms of surrender in order to be reconciled to me. His terms are repentance and trust in Christ as Lord. He will not be pliable to my demands, to my image, to my liking. He will be Lord over me. He will not be molded or crafted or fashioned to my whims. He will be Lord over me. Saul must die; so must I. The beauty, furthermore, that must not be forgotten is that for every death on a Damascus Road, there is also a rebirth. For every baptism into death, there is a resurrection to life (Rom 6:5). To say that “Jesus Christ is Lord” is to deny that I am and to affirm that he is. In my dethroning the Self, I am recognizing the established truth that there is One greater who is enthroned in the heavens, Jesus of Nazareth. The great temptation is that I can be lord; the great truth is that this lie is enslaving, for I cannot be lord. I have failed at all such endeavors. There is but one Lord, and he is Jesus—a liberating truth for exhausted mortals like me.

2. That Jesus Christ is Lord means that worry and fear is vain. There is no purpose to worry, no matter what type of worry one worries about. Whether I worry about failure or fret over the unseen or the might-be or the going-to-be, all worry is vain. Whether I fear devils or man or beast (sometimes these three are the same person), fear is still pointless. If Jesus Christ is Lord, then that means all others are not. All others are, really, “non-Lords.” Why should I fear the non-Lords? Why should I grow anxious over the threatenings of mortals? It is unreasonable to allow non-Lords the right to lord themselves over me. Moreover, to give trembling fear to non-Lords is to steal from Jesus Christ, the true Lord. Worry and fear, pointless activities, are shown to be spiteful blasphemies. After all, to fear non-Lords is to say, at the same time, that the true Christ Lord cannot save me. But he can, and he will. All who believe so will never be put to shame (Rom 10:11), nor should they fear or worry. Just because there is much to fear and worry about does not mean there is a good reason to do so. Why? Because Jesus Christ is Lord.

3. That Jesus Christ is Lord means that he wins. The nations rage, their kings mock and their rulers plot, but God laughs (Ps. 2). Why? Because his son, Jesus Christ, is Lord. He knows that all planning and plotting and fighting and killing on the part of arrogant, earthly powers is to be seen for what it truly is: a profound folly. But it is more than a folly, it is a temporary folly. The powers of the earth rule the earth for but only a season; yet Jesus has a Kingdom that endures through all times (Dan 2:36-45). Ours is a time of a temporary Winter that will soon give way to an eternal Spring. How so? Because Jesus Christ is Lord. No matter the political upheaval in the world—especially in my part of the world—there is one Mover and Shaker who will restore the world anew (Rev 21). My hope is built on this fact: Jesus wins because Jesus Christ is true Power over non-powers; he is the true Lord over non-Lords.

4. That Jesus Christ is Lord means that I must act. I have given myself to Jesus Christ as Lord. Like a scribe, I know those words, kyrios Iēsous Christos, much like I know the ABCs. But for all the memorization, meditation, and contemplation there must be application. Like the Shema, one does not truly hear unless one’s hearing becomes one’s acting. God calls us to hear so that we can act. As divine speech to me, mere musing must find its culmination in the acting. To believe “Jesus Christ is Lord” is a call to move, to walk, to run, to jump, to plead, to rebuke, to love, to proclaim. The Christian life (a life that is founded upon the idea that “Jesus Christ is Lord”) is no private matter. It is not a secret, tucked-away-in-my-room sort of calling. Rather, it is a public endeavor, an outside-the-four-walls-of-the-church endeavor. There are real consequences to such belief. The news that “Jesus Christ is Lord” is public news. Its truth is not restricted to me, nor will it be narrowed to any one group. It’s an announcement that demands an audience. All announcements demand an audience. An announcement ceases to be an announcement when there is no audience; news must ultimately be told. I must find people. Will they embrace Jesus Christ as Lord? I can’t answer that.

But will I? That’s a question I can answer.

And so can you.

A Message to the Oklahoma State House of Representatives

It was a true honor to to have been invited to the Oklahoma State House of Representatives this week as their chaplain. I opened each session/day with prayer, asking for God’s wisdom and guidance to be upon each House member before they began their work on behalf of the people of Oklahoma. Below is a transcript of the short message I shared at the end of the week on Thursday, May 12, 2016:

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Thank you for allowing me to come and serve as your chaplain this past week. It has been an extraordinary blessing to me, and I only hope that my being here has served to be a personal encouragement to you. It is my sincere hope and prayer before God that this has indeed been the case.

IMG_3042I was told that I was not allowed to do two things: Not to go longer than
five minutes and,
 second, that I could not take up an offering. This is a rather huge challenge for me, a Baptist preacher. Don’t worry: I shall resist all such temptations. Joking aside, I do think I have hit on a common stereotype of preachers—namely, a stereotype characterized by being long-winded and money-hungry. Stereotypes are unfair precisely because they are not always true. You, perhaps, are in a position similar to mine. By virtue of your position, your job title, you are stereotyped. I don’t think this is fair, as I am sure you don’t either. After all, stereotyping often proves to be, among other things, discouraging—and discouragement always leads to being distracted from the task God has given us. So the question remains: How do you and I—as servants to people before God—overcome these stereotypes, these distracting stereotypes? The answer, I think, is simple: We must continue to commit ourselves to that which is Good. Scripture says, “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good.”

G.K. Chesterton used to comment about how the word “good” has different meanings. He once quipped that if a man could take a sniper rifle and pick off his grandmother from a distance of 500 yards that one could, indeed, call him a “good shot” but not necessarily a “good man.” The man in question would, no doubt, have been good at what he does, but not at all good in who he is. This is the great challenge before us, isn’t it? Too often we come to focus on the things we do in our jobs to the neglect of the people we are supposed to serve through our jobs. Our jobs were designed to serve people for the sake of people, for their well-being, for their good. This is God’s desire.

Another way to say all this is that we are called to love. Of course, that word itself has its own stereotype, being packed with assumptions like romance and feelings. But most fundamentally, “love,” at least in the Christian sense, are those actions that look out for the well-being of other people, that look out for their goodThe challenge before us, before you, today is to realize that the position you hold, the title you bear, the honor you carry, is, at the end of the day, only fitting for good men and women.

The three traditional Christian virtues are: “faith, hope, and love.” The first two are wonderful virtues to have. When I see a person of tremendous faith, I am inspired; when I see a person of amazing hope, I am encouraged; but when I see a person of selfless love, service, and self-giving sacrifice, I see true goodness, indeed, true greatness.

I was told that I could not do two things: Go beyond five minutes, nor could I take up an offering. I think I have been faithful to the first, but perhaps I have failed at the second. Thinking about it, I do hope I have succeeded in encouraging you to offer something this morning. I pray that you offer yourselves completely and fully and self-sacrificially to both our Good Savior and to the good people of the State of Oklahoma. May these things be said of you. May they be said of me.

Thank you all so very much; you’ve been very kind. Blessings to you and your families. Please join me in prayer.

“My God, may you give to these wonderful men and women before me, these servants to the people of Oklahoma, the encouragement they need to carry out their task, their duties, their responsibilities. May they never be discouraged and always hopeful. Indeed, may they be united in faith, in hope, in love—in you, for the people. Amen in Christ our Lord.”

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Democracy in an Age of Folly and Passion

In order to spurn some reflection on the state of modern democracy (not least of the contemporary American sort), I would like to submit the following for your consideration.

Democracy only works well when the citizenry is informed and is committed to wisdom and discernment. It works best when we think, research, and use our heads. But unfortunately, democracy has come to function as a mere means for manifesting our momentary desires and fears; elections (in my country at least) are less times of reflection and substance as they are times when we get to speak loudly, times when we can speak rashly before thinking rightly. (No modern presidential debate, for example, can compare to debates that took place in the early 19th century; most moderns couldn’t follow them since they were more substantive than sound-bite centered. The key American Founders were philosophers, not court jesters.) Thus, some (but by no means all) modern presidential candidates often do their best to ramp up fear and rage ahead of elections, and they often get the most press in doing so. Court jesters, with color on their face, easily garner the most attention. Folly is understandably noticeable; the problem is when it becomes electable.

At any rate, one of the great blessings of democracy is that we have the ability to get what we want. Yet, one of the great curses of democracy is that we have the ability to get what we want. What if what we want, that is, what we momentarily crave and lustfully desire, turns out to be…horrifying in the end? When diabetics let momentary cravings for ice cream become the regular ruling factor for every time they eat a meal, they soon get sick and die. So with our democracy: we will get sick and will die if, with every time we get to cast a vote, we do so based on fleeting passion.

Wisdom and prudence beg to be used; passion must never trump wisdom.

The Vision of Trinityhaus

Christianity has a long tradition of emphasizing the life of the mind as an act of worship to God (one recalls great theologians and thinkers such as Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Lewis). However, the unfortunate trend of the past century in many Christian circles has been to forget (or perhaps simply neglect) to carry on this great tradition. Our prayer at Trinityhaus is to reverse this trend by equipping and challenging the church—as well as skeptics and seekers—in such a way that they might consider renewing, not just their hearts, but also their minds to the glory of God.

Trinityhaus exists to provide the church with the resources it needs to be both an intelligent and gracious witness for the Christian Faith. In an era of increased skepticism and secularism, this task is necessary and important. Christians often feel ill-equipped to answer the fundamental questions about their faith, especially when they are posed by an increasingly suspicious culture. As a result, these questions tend to be answered unsatisfactorily or worse, unanswered altogether. Trinityhaus seeks to stand in the gap by training Christians how to make a reasonable defense for their faith and to come alongside the skeptic in a gracious way in order to help them on their own spiritual journey toward Christ.