Church as Suicide Prevention

Every suicide is a tragedy. Particularly and uniquely, they are tragic as individual ends to individually beautiful images. Outside the death of an infant or child, I cannot think of a more tangled web of sorrows and regret. But that’s one of the reasons I’m thankful that God gave us the Church. The Church has a tremendous opportunity to function as suicide prevention at a time when “deaths of despair” are reaching epidemic rates in my generation alone. 

The Philippian Jailer in America

In my state, the average suicide rate is one person every eight hours. Three people a day is a horrific prospect. That said, 77% of adults in Missouri profess to be Christians. I’m approaching this as a confessional Protestant. In my state, 77% of the population claims to be Christian and yet three people a day commit suicide. I wonder if one could help the other.

I know that not everyone who says they are a Christian know what Christians believe or attend a church with any regularity. But what if churches could function as suicide prevention? Christians are prone to depression and dark thoughts (myself among them), but what if the communities of faith were vigilant in the detection and the prevention of suicide in their own spheres of influence?

In the book of Acts, chapter 16, the apostle Paul and Silas are imprisoned in jail in the Roman colony of Philippi because they were proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. Around midnight, the other prisoners are listening as Paul and Silas are singing hymns when a massive earthquake hits. But there’s a miraculous element to the quake in that the doors are opened and everyone’s bonds are loosed. The jailer wakes up (because who can sleep through an earthquake?) and sees that the prison doors are open. And what does he do? He prepares to commit suicide. 

Knowing that shame, unemployment, and probably death would be waiting for him with the sunrise, the Philippian jailer draws his sword and is prepared to fall upon it. In a single moment, he is utterly devoid of hope. He has no chances of making it out of this situation on top. Maybe he was having a bad day. Maybe he was on his last strike. We’re not told. But his immediate response to a hopeless situation is to end himself. But then what happens?

Acts 16:28- ” But Paul cried with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” And the jailer is converted and baptized. Now, I know that, in context, “we are all here” referred to Paul and Silas and the other prisoners. But it strikes me that this is the perfect word for the Church towards those who struggle with the darkness and contemplate snuffing out their own lights. 

What if the Church were to call out, with a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we all here”? In my time as a youth pastor, I’ve seen teenagers wrestle with depression. Some have fought daily and triumphed. Some have rolled the stone away, only to be crushed under its weight in a weak moment. Some have cut themselves to feel something, even if it’s pain and shame. Many have starved themselves to feel valuable. I’ve seen death claim the image of God. And who knows how many countless others totter on the edge, doing the dark math of a cold cost-benefit analysis? 

Do not harm yourself, for we all are here. We are all here. The scared and scarred, the addicts and the recovering, the self-righteous and the prodigals. We are all here and we are here for you, to support you and hold you and shield you from the night. So do not harm yourself. If the Church is the Church, you are never alone. Never without hope. The dawn will always break upon you in the arms of Christ.

Do Not Harm Yourself

If you are considering ending your life, immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 and just start talking.And then find a church. There are multiple ways to find a local church that will love you and take the time to be there with you:

The Church can be priceless shelters of prevention and you need only reach out.

We Are All Here

Reach out. If you feel that someone is fighting against the darkness, reach out. Even if are utterly untrained, just say something. Trained professionals can always (and should) be contacted later. But the first step is to keep your eyes open and be the Church enough to see how someone’s really doing.Depression often wears a smile. Don’t be fooled by the masks. Make sure that your church is a safe place where people can admit that they are not doing well and that they sometimes consider removing themselves from the equation. We are all here- those who cry without knowing why and those with shoulders to cry on. Christ died for all.

Do not harm yourself, for we are all here. And we are all here for you.

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The Marginal Church

If American Christianity returns to the margins, it might help the American Church. Jesus was born in the margins, as was his Church. And the Church has usually flourished (or at least improved her health) in the margins of society. This is not a call to embrace victim status, but a reminder of the hope and resilience of Christ’s Bride.

Democratic candidate, Beto O’Rourke, caused a stir last week by stating, without hesitation, that congregations and religious institutions that “oppose same-sex marriage” should lose their tax exempt status. Smarter folks than me have already piled on the think pieces and I have no intention of adding to the noise. If the polls are to be believed (and when have they ever been wrong?), O’Rourke won’t be sitting in the Oval Office in 2020. However, it got me thinking. Election years tend to make me ponder the apocalyptic. What if we were to lose tax-exempt status? Aside from how devastating that would be to our churches and colleges (not to mention to traditional mosques and synagogues and charities), I wonder if some good would come of it? Might it not return Christianity to the margins, where it has always done well?

When I say, “the margins”, I mean the segments of society that are powerless, voiceless, and despised. In first century Roman Palestine, the margins included:

  • the poor
  • the needy
  • the widow
  • the orphan (and children, generally speaking)
  • the sojourner
  • the refugee
  • the outcast (lepers, disabled, demon-afflicted)
  • those in prison
  • the persecuted

If the American Church were suddenly pushed back into to the margins, would she be alright? Well, yes. She would. The gates of hell will not prevail against her. But I think she would also do well (even as she suffered) because her Lord was born in the margins, she was born in the margins, and she has grown well in the margins.

The Holy Family in the Margins

Just as the Israelites “were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex.22:21), Jesus spent time as a refugee fleeing to Egypt with his parents. Jesus was a displaced person (Matthew 2:13-15). John Chrysostom observed that Jesus was homeless “even when he came in swaddling clothes. Thus you see even at his birth a tyrant raging, a flight ensuing, and a departure beyond the border. For it was because of no crime that his family was exiled into the land of Egypt. Similarly, you yourself need not be troubled if you are suffering countless dangers. Do not expect to be celebrated or crowned promptly for your troubles Instead you may keep in mind the long-suffering example of the mother of the Child, bearing all things nobly, knowing that such a fugitive life is not inconsistent with the hidden ordering of spiritual things. You are sharing the kind of travail Mary herself shared. So did the Magi. All of them were willing to retire secretly in the humiliating role of fugitive” (Chrysostom, The Gospel of Matthew, Homily 8.3).

While we shouldn’t seek or pray for persecution, when if comes, we are in good company. “When you flee in Egypt, you come to these steep ascents of faith and action. You face a tower, a sea and waves. The way of life is not pursued without the waves of temptation” (Origen, Homilies on Exodus 5.3). And it was because Jesus’ family fled as refugees from King Herod’s infanticide that Jesus could one day, voluntarily, seek out the cross and not flee death, but taste it for all of us.

If we are to be of the margins, we are not going anywhere Christ has not been. And neither, for that matter, would it be new ground for us.

Born in the Margins

Most Christians in the world live in or near the margins of the world. But a particular comfort for the American church is look back at the early church. According to the historian Rodney Stark, by the year 350 there were an estimated 33 million Christians in the Roman Empire. That’s 56.5% of the Empire that claimed Christ as Lord. By the end of the first century, Christians made up 0.01%. By the end of the second century, they made up 0.36%. Emperor Constantine skewed the numbers for us after this, but the Church was certainly a marginal people early on. Some historians even put the percentages lower than Stark does before Constantine.

Nevertheless, as Alan Kreider points out in his excellent research:

  • “Christian numbers were growing impressively in the first three centuries.
  • This growth varied tremendously from place to place. In certain areas (parts of Asia Minor and North Africa) there were considerable numbers of Christians. But in other areas there were few believers. And some cities, such as Harran in Mesopotamia, were known to be virtual ‘Christian-free’ zones.
  • By the time of Constantine’s accessions, the churches not only had substantial numbers of members; they extended across huge geographical distances and demanded the attention of the imperial authorities.”

A cynic might suggest that Constantine hitched his chariot to a winning horse as he saw Christian populations exploding. At any rate, before it was made legal, Christianity was flourishing (though not everywhere) even though it was despised as atheistic, incestuous, and secretive (see Justin Martyr’s First and Second Apologies). But that’s alright. We’ve done well in such environments.

Thriving in the Margins

Like a flower growing up out of a sidewalk crack, Christianity seems to increase through confines. From the modern example of the Chinese church growing even as the government destroys their buildings to the distant past, she has grown with an almost reckless exuberance.

After the death of Stephen in Acts 7, a massive persecution breaks out against the Christians in Jerusalem. But what happens? What happens when you blow on a dandelion and the seeds scatter all over your yard. Acts 8 begins by telling us that as the persecution spread, so did the church.

In Tertullian’s Apologeticus, he says that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” “We not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood (Heb.12:4), but we have no had cause yet. If anything, we have cozied up to power in a manner reminiscent of those religious leaders who feared to lose their position and their place (John 11:48). But Christianity thrives in the margins, not in bed with the state.

Conclusion

Will the church in America lose her tax-exempt status? Will we lose our religious liberty as the country continues to bow to Venus in worship? Will our sense of conviction and character crumble as we seek to clutch at our fading influence? I don’t know. But if the track record of Christ’s Bride is any indication, she will be fine. And it’s not because she is inherently bulletproof. It is because her Lord conquered death. And though I do not welcome it, I think we will be alright in the margins. That’s where this all started, after all.

The Social Gospel is Reformed

Let’s face it: Evangelicals of a conservative nature sometimes feel uncomfortable with issues of “social justice.” I remember once, upon suggesting that white Christians could be helped by reading the works of African American Christians, a local pastor told me, “Well, screw that! Just preach the gospel!” While his might have been an extreme reaction, I don’t think his sentiment is uncommon, especially among non-denominational evangelicals. If we simply preach the gospel, those injustices will work themselves out as hearts are transformed. At least, so the reasoning goes.

Aside from the fear of misplaced energies and distraction, there’s also the association of “social gospel” with those faithless liberals and mainliners. Doesn’t care for the poor and the oppressed a confusion of the fruit for the root? Isn’t that what derailed American evangelicalism after the 2nd Great Awakening? If we would be faithful, surely, we must simply focus on doctrine and let the implications of the gospel providentially have their affect.

It’s on questions like this that I am thankful to be a Reformed Protestant. Herman Bavinck, the great Dutch theologian and father of Reformed theology, delivered an address in 1891 to the Christian Social Congress in Amsterdam pithily titled General Biblical Principles and the Relevance of Concrete Moasaic Law for the Social Question Today Drawing on the third use of the Law (moral use), Bavinck demonstrates that God’s people are called to ministries of mercy.

Loans to the poor were freely and willingly given in ways that wouldn’t crush them (Dt.15:7; 24:6; Ex.22:26). Wages were paid on time (Dt.24:15). The vulnerable (widows, orphans, the poor, the stranger) were treated justly in court (Dt.14:7; Ex.22:21-22). They have rights to glean after the harvest (Lev.19:9; Dt.24:19) and to entire harvests during the Sabbath year (Lev.25:5). The disabled were not mocked (Lev.19:14; Dt.27:18) and the elderly were honored (Lev.19:32). Conscious of the New Covenant, Bavinck reminds us that God’s law has now been written on our hearts, not only on tablets of stone.

Lest we yoke him under an anachronism and suspect him of being a social justice warrior, Bavinck rightly states at the outset that “the first order of the day is restoring our proper relationship with God. The cross of Christ, therefore, is the heart and mid-point of the Christian religion. Jesus did not come, first of all, to renew families and reform society but to save sinners and to redeem the world from the coming wrath of God.” Yes, and amen. He understands the gospel. But now that that’s made explicit, what else needs to be said?

“Redemption does not set aside the differences that exist thanks to God’s will but renews all relationships to their original form by bringing all of them into a reconciled relationship with God.” The poor, Christ said, we will always have with us. The gospel doesn’t flatten society into an egalitarian utopia. And that’s where justice is called for. Bavinck observes that while relationships are renewed, disparities are not eliminated. Therefore, there will always remain a large place for mercy ministry and for social justice.

He ends his address with this beautiful summary:

“In the same way that Jesus the compassionate High Priest is always deeply moved by those in need, so, too, directs his follows especially to clothe themselves with the Christlike virtue of compassion ([Mt.5:43-47]; Lk.6:36). Having received mercy from Christ, his followers are expected in turn to show mercy to others (1 Pet.2:10; Mt.18:33). It is for this reason that the church has a distinct office for the ministry of mercy.”

The wonderful thing about unlocking the resources of the Christian tradition (and the Reformed stream is not necessarily unique in this) is that I don’t have to fret about whether the gospel and justice are mutually exclusive. I don’t have too poo-poo mercy because it is merely or only an effect of the gospel. It is not merely an effect. It is a command and an expectation and a mode of being for the Church. Which wing of the airplane is more important, the right or the left? We need not be forced to choose the gospel over against the social obligations of God’s people. They go together hand in glove.

In Defense of Unread Books

What’s the difference between a hoarder and someone who buys books and keeps them stacked like termite mounds in the basement? This isn’t a joke. I’m actually wondering.

Solomon said (to the “amen’s” of countless generations of students), “Of the making of many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Ecc.12:12). This is one of the most bewildering and, dare I say, even offensive verses in the Bible. Of the making of many books there is no end. Praise the Lord! That means that of the buying of many books there is no end. And of the reading of books there is no end. Solomon, it sounds like you’re describing paradise.

Now, of course, Ecclesiastes is a back and forth between two ways of looking at life. You can look at life “under the sun” and what you see is what you get. That can make life tiresome (even in studying what you love). Or you can enjoy life “from God’s hand” and look along the sunbeam (as Lewis would say) back to the source of the gift and, thereby, see everything else properly. And Incidentally, that’s why the phrase “nothing new under the sun” isn’t a truism for how a Christian should see the world, but rather, how the folly and exhaustion and diminishing returns of a life without God is repetitive. But if nothing else, his mercies are new every morning (Lam.3:22-23).

But I digress. Back to my hoarding problem. Or is it hoarding? Is it because I need to have a plethora of books? (“Jefe, what is a plethora?“) No. When I changed professions this summer, I gave away or sold about 30-40% of my book because of storage space and it didn’t kill me. And yet, three months later, here I sit with lovely, wobbly skyscrapers of knowledge climbing to the ceiling around me. I’m flanked at my desk. I’m surrounded from behind. They loom over me from above.

And while I sip from twenty or thirty books on a monthly basis like some sort of lazy hummingbird, I know that I will never read them all. But that’s not the reason. Why do I have so many unread books? Why will I (without doubt) buy or trade or borrow more unread books?

I love meeting new people. It increases my empathy. It expands my experience. My favorite C.S. Lewis book is An Experiment in Criticism. In it, he talks about the interaction of multiple writers. “But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

I love the pleasure of potential. Why is the waiting for Christmas better than Christmas day? Longing and joy mix together in a glorious anticipation that is invulnerable to letdown. There is a sweetness in an unread book because it could be the next Wind in the Willows to me. It just might be as good as Supper of the Lamb.

I love not being the smartest person in the room. This is an implication of Lewis’ above point. Wendell Berry is a wiser man than I am. Augustine was a genius on par with Plato. Don’t even get me started on Tolkien. But if I can experience life through the eyes of Tom Sawyer or Lucy Pevensie or Martin the Warrior, then I can also learn from them. I can be kept humble while I hear what Gandalf has to say. I can take notes as Dumbledore opines about true greatness. I can beat my head against the wall as Karl Barth shows me how I’m wrong even if I know he is also wrong.

So, as long as I can have a handful of change, it’s a good bet you will find me in a use bookstore. The allure is so strong and I can now justify it with at least three reasons. These stacks might grow a little higher yet.

Of Banquets and Blowhards

You Are Cordially Invited…

I hate RSVPs. Invitations, as a concept, make me uncomfortable. On the one hand, I don’t like being singled out. I never have enjoyed eyes upon me. And then, there’s the inevitable sting of envy. “Oh, Mary Sue is having her thirtieth baby? Well, that’s great, why won’t she just share!” or “Oh, Bobby Ray is graduating from high school? Why didn’t he ask me if I wanted to graduate from high school, too?” They’re little reminders of what’s not in front of me and that bothers me.

But the worst part about invitations is the decision of whether or not to go. Will I miss out on something else by attending? Or will I miss out on attending because of something else? I might not know anybody at this shindig. I’ll have to buy a gift? Oh, it’s on a Saturday. Yeah, Saturday’s are the days when I don’t leave the premises. Sorry. That’s why, for a certain breed, cancellations are wonderful. Even if you absolutely love the person who invited you out for coffee, if they have to last minute cancel, it’s the temporal equivalent of finding $5 under the couch cushion.

Y/N?

I’ve been spending some time in St. Luke’s Gospel, in chapter fourteen, and I notice that a word keeps popping up. In twenty one verses, it shows up in various forms a total of seven times. My training (and also common sense) immediately tells me that word matters in the text. And it’s the Greek word kaleo ( καλέω ). It’s not quite the same as an RSVP because, in that case, you have the option to attend or not. Kaleo is a summons. There’s authority behind it that qualifies it as a summons. It’s deployment orders for a reservist. It’s an audience with the king. It’s a parent telling the child to come here now. It’s less a suggestion than it is a reality.

It’s translated as “invitation” in most English Bibles, but that’s because Jesus is telling stories about wedding feasts and dinner parties while at a dinner to which he was invited. But in those parables, God is the one behind the invitations. And so, they should be seen more as summons. And one’s response to such invitations isn’t a matter of preference, but of obedience.

I’ve been reading Alan Kreider’s excellent book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, and in it, he talks about the types of people that were attracted to Christianity and what that “invitation” to taste the wedding feast looked like in the first handful of centuries after Christ’s ascension. Jesus, in Luke 14, tells those who would host a dinner to invite the poor and the crippled and the sick (v12-14) because that’s what God does (v15-24) when he summons people to the kingdom. The proud and powerful make excuses and dodge the invite (in disobedience and indifference). They bluster and bloviate about why they can’t be there. And the underclasses, instead, get to go to the feast.

Kreider notes that much the same thing actually happened. He notes that Celsus, a great enemy of the faith in the 2nd century, complained about us because the gospel appealed to “wool-workers, cobblers, laundry-workers, and the most illiterate and bucolic yokels.” These were the scum of the earth that brainwashed children and “stupid women” with their doctrine. These were people, in early Greco-Roman culture, who were voiceless. They were the pavement of society. And yet, they were largely the ones that checked “yes, my lord” on the summons.

Just As I Am

They didn’t pretend to be something they were not. Unlike Cinderella, they weren’t magically dressed up in pretentious niceties so that they could appear like they belonged at the party. They come from the highways and byways so that God’s house may be filled. “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk.14:11). And the humbled were exalted by being summoned. The expenses of those who were unable to repay were covered. And we can never pay God back for calling us to himself. Instead, we simply offer that same summons to others. And how they respond (exalting themselves or humbling themselves) is between them and the host of the banquet.

Rood Dreams

The killing tree.

Roman crucifixion was a brutal and barbaric punishment reserved for slaves and thugs. And it is that cross, that holy instrument of torture that was set aside for Christ, for my salvation.

Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed” (1 Pet.2:24).

Around 750 A.D., an anonymous poet wrote a piece called The Dream of the Rood. “Rood” is the Old English word for “cross.” It’s a remarkable telling of the crucifixion from the point of view of the rood.

The author highlights the shame and the glory of that killing tree. Jewels and blood adorn it. It was tragedy and triumph all together. Today is what the Lutherans and Anglican call “Holy Cross Day.”

It is the tree of glory on which almighty God suffered for the many sins of mankind and for the old deeds of Adam. There he tasted death, but still the Lord rose again with his might power, to the benefit of men” (lines 68-70, para.10).

Enjoy.

This World is Not (Yet) My Home

I enjoyed the movie, O Brother Where Art Thou, when it came first came out nineteen years ago. I still like it a lot. I’m halfway through the Iliad with the Odyssey next on my list as far as classics go. It was a beautiful blend of old South Americana and mythology. Not to mention, the music was excellent. Alison Krauss is the heartbeat of American music.

But as I’ve read the Bible and read the fathers and Reformed theology, some of the lyrical themes of that wonderful movie’s soundtrack no longer sit right in my craw, beautiful as they are. “I’ll Fly Away.” “The Angel Band.” “I Am Weary (Let Me Rest).” So much of that beautiful soundtrack is dotted with old poems about “going home” and finding final and eternal rest in a heavenly home. That’s appropriate for the movie because it’s loosely based on the Odyssey, a story about a man trying to get back home.

And yet, if we can’t feel at home in this world anymore because we’re just passing through, what good is this world? What real need do we have to care for it if God is going to burn it up (as a certain type of theology promises). I once heard a popular preacher (speaking about global warming), “If you think it’s hot now, wait until Jesus gets a hold of it!” There are few more wicked sentiments I can think of for a man of the cloth to proclaim from a pulpit. It implies that the Creator is somehow chomping at the bit, eager to obliterate everything good that he made that was stained by sin.

And I’ve heard it geared towards teenagers as well. Take this world and give me Jesus. I’m not home yet. This is not where I belong. There could more harmful things to listen to on the radio. But this is just a more modern repacking of “I’ll fly away” and “this world is not my home.”

This is how Greek philosophy got its fingers around the gospel’s throat and never really let go. On the one hand, the Epicureans (“eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die”) saw our bodies as cruise ships to be enjoyed until they shipwreck on the shallow reefs of indulgence. But on the other hand, the one that grabbed onto Christianity, the body was a prison from which the soul needed to escape. That’s what the disciples of Plato believed. Don’t indulge the body. Indulge the mind. Ignore the body. It’s evil and untrustworthy and too much like the animals. What matters is reason (the Logos). Feed the mind with knowledge. If you gain enough knowledge, you feed the soul and the soul is what matters.

Plato said that all the physical things you see are like shadows on a cave wall. There’s a fire behind you, but you can’t see the fire because you’re chained up in the cave and you can only see the shadows on the wall that the fire is casting. According to Plato, all physical reality is made up of shadows. They aren’t important. What really matters is the thing that is casting the shadow- the hidden thing, the thing that you can’t see. That’s what matters. In the words of Master Yoda, “Luminous beings are we. Not this crude matter.”

A good Platonist, Yoda was.

Plato believed that the young should be taught to welcome death, neither to regret nor lament it. Does that sound familiar? I’ve heard and seen too much nonsense about Christian funerals as a flavor of celebration. Grieving with hope gets replaced with the celebration of liberation. Plato believed that death is good, something to be greeted like an old friend. Why? He believed that because he believed death is the moment when the immortal soul is set free from the prison of the physical body.

Plato viewed death as a jailbreak for the soul. Biblical Christianity views death as the last enemy to be destroyed. What happens after death? Well, Plato said that judgment is based upon deeds. The wicked go to hell. But the righteous souls fly away to join the stars. Does that sound familiar? Socrates famously said upon his deathbed that the real “me” was not the corpse he would leave behind, but that which is inside the body before death. He said a human is a “little soul carrying around a corpse.”

Platonists believed that the virtuous joined the stars at death. They became stars. The immortal souls are implanted into human bodies (male, the superior, and female, the inferior) and the main task of the soul is to master the desires and emotions of the body: pleasure, pain, fear, rage, etc. Those who do that well enough go and join the stars.

Some prison breaks involve more pandamonium than others.

And so, if you believe the body is a prison and death is the jailbreak, why would you believe in a reality in which you are reunited with your prison? No prisoner wants to go back to the jail he just escaped. That’s why Plato is not very helpful in understanding the incarnation or the resurrection. Plato would certainly not have wanted to live out eternity in a physical world.

The Stoics, for instance, believed that at the end of the present age, everything would be dissolved by fire, and the whole order of the universe would end. Does that sound familiar? The Greeks didn’t want to live in a physical world. They wanted the physical world to burn so that they could have spiritual bliss.

Looking for truth in Alderaan places.

Epicureans said that death is the end of everything. Yolo. Carpe diem.

Platonists said that death is the beginning of everything. Don’t fear the jailbreak. Be ready to fly away.

If the world is Epicurean, the Church has become Platonic. In the first case, the resurrection is disbelieved as ridiculous. In the second, it is reduced as a irrelevant, a secondary curiosity that simply make our faith distinct. And on both views, this world is not seen as a home. It’s seen as a buffet to be used or an enclosure to be destroyed.

And yet, I understand the impulse to those songs. I understand the homesickness. But that other world for which we are made is a world that will one day come to this world so that “heaven and earth be one.” This world is not yet my home. But it will be. That’s my hope.

Do We Need Rome to Truly Be at Home?

I love my Roman Catholic friends and family deeply and I disagree with them sharply. And I think that’s a classically Protestant stance to take. After preaching a sermon in which I called Roman Catholics “our friends,” a good brother in the church took me aside and mildly rebuked me for that phrase. It might communicate, he told me, that we don’t have many great differences with them, that we’re one big family that occasionally shouts across the room at each other. But again, I think I can hold deep love and sharp disagreement in both hands. And I think I’m well within the Protestant and catholic (“universal”) stream of the Christian faith in doing so.

When you read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, he takes a rather generous approach to Roman Catholics (even if does call the pope “Anti-Christ”). While he wouldn’t go so far as to call the Roman Catholic church an actual “church”, he concedes that there are vestiges of God’s Church that remain in those parishes.

Book IV, chapter two, of the Institutes is one of the clearest and most elegant defenses of the oneness and wholeness of the Church. There are certain Roman Catholic doctrines that I simply cannot hold to (their Mariology comes to mind). But Calvin shows us that the Reformers actually stand rooted in the Great Tradition, and it was Rome that took the wrong turn at Albuquerque. As a result, I don’t feel the need to swim the Tiber and go “home to Rome.” As a Protestant, I never left home.

Nevertheless, Calvin thought that Roman Catholics could very much be true Christians for two reasons. First, he believed Baptism and the Lord’s Supper remain what they are, despite the people administering or receiving them. But secondly, besides the “marriage rings” of the covenant promise we have in the sacraments, his own strong providence keeps his people from completely perishing from Roman Catholicism. When buildings are torn down, the foundation can remain. In the Protestant Reformation, God “allowed a fearful shaking and dismembering to take place.”

So, there are genuine believers in Roman Catholic churches. But Calvin went further than most evangelicals are willing to go today. He thought that there were entire Roman Catholic parishes that were made up of true Christians. Just as in apostate Israel, there were faithful groups of Jews (Israelites from the heart), so in Rome there were true believers, even whole churches. God deposits his covenant people all over the world and in places ruled by other religions. In other words, just as Christ has his elect among the Muslims and the Hindus and the Jews, he has his beloved Church scattered among the Roman Catholic church.

In one word, I call them churches, inasmuch as the Lord there wondrously preserves some remains of his people, though miserably torn and scattered, and inasmuch as some symbols of the church still remain—symbols especially whose efficacy neither the craft of the devil nor human depravity can destroy. But as, on the other hand, those marks to which we ought especially to have respect in this discussion are effaced, I say that the whole body, as well as every single assembly, want the form of a legitimate church” (IV.II.xii.).

So, whereas a devout Roman Catholic might look at me and sadly declare me lost, I would look at a devout Roman Catholic and think, “Yeah, you could be my brother or sister.” So, I have no need to cross over to Rome. I just need to love them and wait for my God to claim his own within Rome.

Calvin knew that he stood in the Great Tradition of the catholic (meaning, universal) Church when he resisted papal authority and conceded salvation to any of God’s elect under that papal authority. And in doing so, Calvin wasn’t in danger of breaking the unity of the Church.

Calvin knew the fathers well, and followed Augustine in saying that Church unity was held together by two chains: agreement in what sound doctrine and brotherly love. As Augustine put it, heretics break the first chain with false doctrine and schismatics (dissenters, stirrers of strife) break the bond of unity, even as they hold the same faith. But the point is that united love must reset upon united faith.

This is right in line with the apostle Paul (Eph.4:5; Phil.2:2,5). Cyprian, the 3rd century bishop of Carthage, put it beautifully:

The church is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strong trunk grounded in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although a goodly number seem out poured from their bounty and superabundance, still at the source unity abides undivided.…So also the church, bathed in the light of the Lord, extends its rays over the whole earth: yet there is one light diffused everywhere. Nor is the unity of the body severed; it spreads its branches through the whole earth; it pours forth its overflowing streams; yet there is one head and one source.

All members of Christ’s Bride have this connection with each other, whether they were saved by grace in a Protestant church or a Roman Catholic church. So, I don’t need to be a Roman Catholic to be at home in the Church. The Church persists, whether God places her people in Rome or elsewhere.

Light sunlight through a prism, branches from the tree, and like streams from the spring, the one faith of the Church unites us in Christ. And the Church is then able to spread light and fruit and water to those who hunger and thirst in darkness.

“I believe in one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”

*Clarification: I believe that salvation is contingent upon repentance. True Christians come to a saving knowledge of Jesus through faith alone by grace alone in Christ alone. Protestantism stands in concord with the early church in proclaiming this.

Hobgoblins in Winter

There’s a certain value in tears. Life in the vale is sweet, but so often salty. There are times when the sun is full and the air is warm and even the nights are full of honey and moonlight.

But we cannot always live in those perpetual springtimes. Especially after great tragedies or relentless circumstances, we find ourselves in “the winter of our discontent,” even while our hair is more pepper than salt.

I’ve heard believers in Jesus say that depression is simply an issue or evidence of unrepentant sin in your life. Just read more Psalms and double down in your prayers, and the melancholy will lift. I can’t decide if such an understanding is cruel or only naive.

But going on four years now, I’ve found it’s more like a grey hobgoblin, a mixture of neurochemistry and one sorrow treading upon the heel of the first. Eventually, he slides off your shoulders, but it’s only to slink away to find a cozy shadow. It’s not to beat a panicked retreat to the abyss, never to return again. I have developed multifaceted strategies for prevention, but the best real time treatment, I’ve found, is to not leave the house and just go to bed.

We don’t talk about it in the Church. Evangelicals, in particular, get nervous around it. Depression is one of those sadnesses that Christ will undo someday. But until then, we must learn keep each other warm in the winter.

I Have a Confession.

Jack has this awesome essay collected God in the Dock in which he looks at the phrase “miserable offenders” in the Book of Common Prayer. It’s a stark pair of words that comes from the general confession portion of the Morning and Evening Prayer liturgies.

But Lewis asks, is this morbidly introspective? All this confession and gloomy naming of sins, isn’t it all just the sad pathologies of repressed and guilty people working itself out through religion? Not at all, he insists. It’s actually healthy. The alternative to not looking your own sin in the face is to constantly have your nose in the sins of others. Lewis says it’s like the difference between the pain of having a tooth that needs to be pulled and the pain of the tooth having just been pulled.

He then offers the text of the Ash Wednesday collect at the end of his essay. It’s a beautiful prayer that is worth repeating in full:

“Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

 That is the prayer that begins the season of Lent. And how can we worthily lament our sins if we mumble over them in a fuzzy, vague sense of not living up to our full potential? We face the full truth that we are, despite our best efforts, “miserable offenders” that need forgiveness. This is not just a Lenten discipline. This is a daily practice. Or at least, it should be.

What’s refreshing to me is that Jack practiced this. While he was careful not to prescribe it in his public writings, he himself went to confession. It might surprise Protestants to know that the Church of England has procedure for confession. But unlike in the Roman Catholic system, the Anglican priest proclaims what God has done and reminds the penitent of what the gospel says.

Lewis used the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, went to confession weekly, and took an annual retreat for a few days as part of this worthy lamenting. All this seems fairly dry and rote to a great many evangelicals, I’d bet. Anything “liturgical” must be dead and boring and lifeless.

But one of my favorite passages in Jack’s writings is in his little Letters to Malcolm (a book which horrified his friend, J.R.R. Tolkien). Every church service, Lewis argues, has a structure of acts and words. Even if it’s just announcements, three songs, and a sermon, that’s a liturgy. But what about the structured rhythm of day-in, day-out church calendar days playing out over and over again in the same way? Can any confession nestled in such mechanical practices be genuine?

It can be as genuine as learning to dance.

“As long as you notice, and have to count, the steps, you are not yet dancing but only learning to dance. A good shoe is a shoe you don’t notice. Good reading becomes possible when you need not consciously think about eyes, or light, or print, or spelling. The perfect church service would be one we were almost unaware of, our attention would have been on God” (Letters to Malcom, p.12).

Once the movements and the words become part of you, part of your habits and your heart, the Holy Spirit begins to play the melody while you dance the rhythm. God uses those simply practices of confession and prayer and responsive reading and kneeling and singing and who can say what else.

Corporate confession, private confession to a pastor or trusted friend, a prayer whispered or screamed to the Father- these things are far from rote and mechanical. They are as shot through with life as the four seasons painting a forest awake through a whole range of natural, daily, and yearly patterns and systems.

Whatever your spiritual rhythms or your liturgical tradition, confession is like coming up for air. It’s the disciplined joy of coming in from the cold. It’s firelight in the dead of winter. I remember before I became a Christian, I would mumble a quick incantation after I knowingly sinned. I would curse (often only in my head) or say something hurtful and then I would immediately say, “Father, forgive me.” A dead heart, asking his genie for a little relief from his guilt.

But what a different picture we see in St. Luke’s Gospel, where that prodigal son “comes to himself” in the pig sty. He prepares this very moving speech in which he essentially confesses and worthily laments himself to be a miserable offender to his father. But he doesn’t even get to finish his confession before his father showers him with eager affection.

He hates nothing he has created. He is the God of all mercy. And as Henry Newman rightly observed repeatedly through his career, one of our main tasks is to rest in our status as the beloved. We are the beloved of God, lavished with his great love because of the merits of Jesus Christ our Savior and King. While we confess our specific sins specifically, while we are still a long way off, our Father runs towards us.

It’s not an exercise in self-flagellation or repressed guilt or dealing with our woundedness. It’s the turning from darkness and being wrapped up by the hearth. It’s the knowledge that you are loved even those who have miserably offended the one who loves you so relentlessly. It’s the nonsensical nature of grace.