If you've ever wondered how little you know about God, then you should talk about God to a group of ten-year old boys. Describe the infinitely complex God with an acronym. Explain salvation with a word search. Give them free reign to ask questions. Children are great sparring partners. You don't know as much as you think, I promise.
Over the last four weeks, I sat around a table with a group of cub scouts who have put aside their pinewood derby to hear something about God. Here's what I've been reminded: Christians aren't born; they're made. Christianity is as strange as it is comfortable. It's irrational and commonsensical. It describes, prescribes, and upends. God lies just beneath the surface of everything and everyone, but we don't realize it until we've been given eyes to see.
I've also learned that children are terrible theologians, contrary to popular belief. To be fair, they'd also make terrible surgeons and lawyers. We’re mistaken when we assume that knowledge of God comes completely naturally. Theological wisdom is earned alongside wrinkles from restless nights of wrestling with God and community. Now, that's not to say that kids don't occasional surprise us with tidbits of profundity and delight us with even greater cuteness. Take this for instance: we were reading the Lord's Prayer when one of the boys lifted his head from the Bible to exclaim that he 'hallowed' out a pumpkin on Halloween. Not exactly. Though, it's a great pun. I told him that he made the pumpkin 'hole-y,' not ‘holy.’
Language is a terrible, confusing method for communication. It informs as much as it misinforms. But it's the best we've got.
Now, how do I explain holiness to a boy who hasn't learned fractions or read about the Israelites exodus from Egypt?
Some theologians have suggested that becoming Christian is like learning to speak a new language. Christianity shouldn't come naturally and it's unintelligible unless you've learned the lingo. Part of what it means to be holy, after all, is to be set apart. Do we know the language? I’d estimate that most Christians are semi-fluent at best and often illiterate. The problem is that many Christians have forgotten the language of faith. Worse, we’ve traded the language of Christianity for a distorted language that's shaped by culture and country instead of Scripture and tradition.
Christians cavalierly toss around a whole host of churchy words that sound familiar, but are as foreign as Greek (because they kind of are). Here's a working list: salvation, reconciliation, sin, justice, righteousness, born-again. All of these words sound like the kind of thing Christians should say, and often say, despite having any idea what these words actually mean.
We're saved without knowing what we’re saved from (or for). Or, suppose the congregation is lowering a body into the ground and someone hugs you and says, "peace" (and not 'God's got another angel in his choir'). That word is meaningless unless you’ve been trained to know that Christ has created peace between everything on heaven and on earth. Or, imagine someone says to you, "I don't believe in God." Who is God? It's significant to understand which God you believe in and which one they don't. It’s likely that you don’t believe in their god, either.
Words have the power to create, to bring the dead to life, but are meaningless if they're not used and understood within a community. How can we speak and understand without a shared vocabulary? We can't. And if you can't explain your vocabulary to a ten-year old, then you don't know the language.
I spent one of the sessions with my scouting disciples learning how to pray (which is Christian-speak for 'talking to God') through the Lord’s Prayer. One of the boys asked me about the word 'kingdom.' I told him to think about Lord of the Rings. What were the kingdoms like in that story? Now, consider this kind of kingdom: a boy tells his father he hates him, runs away from home, and takes everything his father owns. He wastes it all on riches (or a Nintendo Switch) and good food (or pizza). He's broke and homeless when he finally wanders back to his father. His father runs out to meet him on the road and embraces him with a hug and a kiss.
God's kingdom is like that.
Though, I still catch myself thinking that the kingdom of God will be inaugurated by William Wallace riding in on a white stallion. God's kingdom is only sensible in relation to a particular story, a larger narrative, and a rich tradition. We need to spend a lot of time reading Scripture, worshiping, and conversing with more fluent Christians for our language to become second-nature.
Does this make the church a members only club, excluding others with their esoteric language? Not necessarily. It's a statement about the way that language actually functions. When I was in high school everyone told me, 'Sniders talk the same.' We have the same cadence, mannerisms, and sarcastic flair. Here's what's even stranger: words have nuance and a variance in their meanings. The word 'maybe' actually means 'no.' ‘Good job’ can also mean ‘I love you.’ And the word 'sure' is closer to 'I'd love to!' I was never surprised by our linguistic similarities. After all, we lived together. If you spend enough time with the Sniders, you might start talking like one, too.
It’s unlikely that we’ll ever master the language, anyway. And this why we should become like children. Part of what it means to be a child is to admit that we don't know how to talk. Luckily, children pick up new languages pretty quickly. They are imaginative, willing to be wrong, and gracious enough to laugh at their folly. In other words, they're usually teachable, which is not often true of adults.
Here’s the point: language helps construct a reality. Our entire lives will change when we learn to speak like Christians. There's a grammar to the faith that's been developed throughout years of study and proclamation, misspeak and correction. In the Christian syntax God is always the subject and we are but a letter in a word. Grace can be an adverb that modifies every movement in the sentence. And there are plenty of commas for us to pause in silence before another phrase is written. If we are lucky to be a part of a phrase, it will placed in the company of millions of others all over the world.
One last thing:
"Open your Bibles to the very center," I told the group of smiling boys.
"To the book of 'Plasma'?" one kid asked.
It's actually called the book of Psalms. Be careful with those poems. If you read them enough, your life might become one of them.
One of the greatest plot twists in life is waking up and realizing that friendship is hard. It’s incongruous. Nothing heretofore has suggested that I might find myself sitting on the couch alone with no time or energy to go out for a drink, even as an introvert.
Childhood was the golden age of friendships. They were easy and plentiful--full of afternoons in the woods, swing sets, and gangs of bicycles patrolling the streets. My adolescent years were invested around cars in the high school parking lot, in church vans, or on open fields with soccer balls and frisbees. All of this escalated until I went to college and lived among another person’s dirty laundry, but oddly organized DVD collection. Friendships are arguably the most efficient curriculum for the self-discovery that leads to maturity. Find someone to pose difficult questions over burnt coffee and greasy hash browns, and then who will walk with you until you discover the answers (which are usually more difficult questions).
Friendships were not a part of my life, but life itself.
Then, you enter your thirties.
I still have great friends and I hardly ever wish for new ones. I only wish that I would tend to the ones I have. The problem is that friendship requires space for another take up residence in your life, and that space has already been filled with other competing goods—usually kids and sleep. Or, sleep because of kids. My priorities have changed. For instance, playgrounds have become cool again. The workforce is also a culprit. Friendships are terribly inefficient because they require time around kitchen tables, and time is in short supply. Life is complicated and busy enough without another person’s issues.
Acquaintances, on the other hand, are perfect because they’re undemanding. You know, the coworkers who are fun around the office, but will thankfully disappear when you take a new job. There’s the person who will meet you at the playground (remember, they're cool again) to complain about children. Others might even share an interest in hoppy beer or esoteric theology written by dead white men. If you're lucky, they'll like both. These people are great to have around, if only as a form of capital—a service for utility and pleasure, or what Aristotle calls imperfect friendships. But few of them will come to love our peculiarities or care to learn what keeps us up at night. (Spoiler: their names are Pax and Eden).
And yet, we also need people to share more than parenting hacks, our lament over politics, and an affinity for Duke basketball. What about the friends who are comfortable enough to share (mostly) everything, including being together in silence? The people who are, as Augustine says, sweet beyond the sweetness of life?
I’ve discovered that we’ve got our priorities all backward, or that we’ve forgotten what we learned so early on in life—there is no growth apart from another human being. Friendship is more than an escape from life; it’s the very substance of living well. Aristotle also wrote that “Without friends, no one would want to live, even if he had all other goods” (EN 8.1). And that’s why the most meaningful parts of my life happen around a table, when my kids are sitting in another person’s lap, and the rest of us open ourselves to see and be seen. It takes work. But it’s good work because the American Dream’s promise of success and self-sufficiency is accompanied with twin vices: loneliness and emptiness.
Aristotle also believed that friendship was a virtue, or at the least, requires virtues to be sustained. I think he’s right—friendships don’t spontaneously mature without proper care. It takes forgiveness to see past another’s posturing, masquerading, and inability to return text messages. Or, how about the patience it takes to send another text message, anyway? There’s the benevolence to drop off a care packages of soup when one can’t get off the couch. Endurance will reignite a lapsed relationship after years of dormancy. Hospitality can open the doors of your heart for a stranger to step inside regardless of risk and mistrust. Most of all, how about the sacrifice to see another person’s well-being as your most important priority? That can't be natural.
Turns out that friendship is the best pattern for becoming a Christian—to love and be loved by God and one another. The reverse must also be true, that Christianity bestows the kinds of virtues necessary to sustain a friendship. After all, what is Christianity except becoming a friend of the world?
Scripture could be read as the story of God’s befriending of the world. It’s the grafting of our stories into God’s eternal love story with the world. God’s heart is for friendship, and not because it’s compulsory or beneficial, but because it’s true and beautiful. I think this is why Jesus called his disciples friends: “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends” (Jn. 15:15). It was a surprising move. God could have left us aloof as servants, or even as subordinate children, but has instead invited us into all the love and pain that resides in God’s own heart.
God had all the time in the world to eat with sinners, to take bread and fish and feed a multitude, to set a table for those who wished to linger in his presence. It was a terrible deal. These poor and marginalized peasants could never reciprocate the gesture. The cost to benefit ratio was lousy. It resulted in death. And yet, Jesus reminded us that, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn. 15:15). Here, Jesus shows us the kind of sacrifice that threatens the purely economic character of our relationships which sees people only for their usefulness or future benefit.
Friends are worth dying for.
Friendship may be a virtue particularly necessary for a culture that’s ripe with depression, partisanship, and busyness. Aristotle thought that friendship should be the primary human institution, and that the overall health of a society could measured by its conditions to sustain friendships. When considering our society’s addiction to fast food, to technology, and long work hours—we may be on life-support. Though, there is hope, if only because God became friends with us.
The church exists to form a people who would have no reason to be near each other, unless there was a God who calls us friend. That’s Christ’s body. And part of the church's mission is to remind us that our lives can’t be lived alone. To be clear, church doesn’t always appear to work. Many churches are cold, individualistic, and as exclusive as country clubs. But I haven’t given up on the hope that we might allow ourselves to be a people that rejoices when a stranger rejoices and suffers when a stranger suffers. It won’t always make our lives easier, but it might fill them with friends.
I end up around a table with friends most weeks, and it’s not usually by accident-at the church, a house, a restaurant. Oftentimes, I want to be there, but it’s equally often a chore. I’d rather get the kids to bed on time, put on pajamas, and fire up Netflix. I’ve learned, though, that friendships don’t spontaneously organize. If friendships are a habit that might make us into better human beings, then they must be written in a little box on a calendar and practiced (even when your general hygiene is put on the back burner). Now, that may sound a little depressing, but it's also true.
I guess what I’ve learned is that friendship is a spiritual discipline, or a means to abide in God by abiding in another. If this is true, then there’s always reason to gather with another and lay down your lives. After all, it might end up saving it.
Three years old is a bit premature for a first existential crisis. My family was visiting Yaya and Grandpa, my wife’s parents, when my daughter spotted a picture of my wife from middle school. There was Danielle, sandwiched in between her two brothers, all of whom looked noticeably younger. They were really only children.
“Where was I?” said Eden.
This wasn’t going to end well. Jean Piaget wrote that children in this ‘preoperational stage’ of life are so egocentric that they have a difficult time perceiving a world that doesn’t contain them. Seems to me that some of us never quite make it out of that stage. I knew this and I still smiled as I walked right into the trap.
Well, you weren’t born yet,” one of us responded. I’m not sure whether it was my wife or me. It doesn’t matter. I do remember the way Eden’s head so slightly dropped and how the little wrinkles formed around her eyes as she squinted in confusion. Someone once asked Augustine the same question about God: “What was God doing before he made heaven and earth?” Augustine replied, “He was preparing hell for people who pry into mysteries.” That’s as good an answer as any, but unfortunately it’s inappropriate for my three-year old daughter.
My wife, who was grasping at straws, said, “Well, you were with the stars.”
Look, it’s instinctive to try and protect kids from the harsher realities of life for as long as possible. We know it’s not right, but it’s not terribly wrong. Aren’t we all just star dust, anyway? Not really. It’s cliche and sentimental, but she’s a three-year old who can’t read. It didn't work. Unfortunately, this vague answer about being with the stars didn’t appease her. Why do three year olds insist on better answers than so many adults?
She said, “I was in the dark. Alone? I don’t want to be in the dark! I don’t want to be in the dark! I don’t want to be in the dark!”
So much for the soothing lull of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.’
Here’s what’s worse: a couple weeks later I caught her drawing pictures of herself in the stars. I asked her how it felt to be with the stars. She said two words: “It’s sad.” This is a terrible and heart wrenching thing for a parent to observe. It was as if she was drawing a portrait of hell—an existence that’s only dark. A life that’s only isolation.
What should we have said?
Most Christians have no doctrine of pre-existence. There’s no rebirth, cyclic existence, or reincarnation. Origen of Alexandria (185—254 C.E.) gave us the most prominent Christian idea of pre-mortality. He taught that God created a limited number of rational beings (logikoi) outside of time, but they fell from their divine contemplation and took on flesh. Thus, here we are. It explains these troublesome bodies of ours. But the church named it a heresy at the Second Council of Constantinople.
If there is any pre-existence, it’s only very relative. Augustine makes a compelling case that the past returns to existence in the present through our memories and the future, through our expectations (Confessions XI.20). We can conjure up events and relationships in our memories, so that they return to existence—albeit imperfectly. In our expectations, we create that-which-is-not-yet in the present moment. And so our expectations create existence, not in a proleptic sense, but as anticipation and hope.
I like that thought—Eden and Pax have always been with me, maybe even existing before me. Eden was settled in the hearts of my parents who must have dreamed of children and grandchildren who were birthed out of their own particular memories and expectations. Until she then became an expectation in my own heart. I thought about these kids most of my life. Sure, I never dreamed of a precocious, blonde hair, and blue eyed live-wire. But I did hope for God to call someone into existence for me—boy or girl, brown eyed or blue eyed, biologically-mine or adopted-mine.
It’s not the same, is it, as true being?
There’s a better answer than this vague sense of existence, though Eden’s too young to grasp it. It’s this: you were created. We are given a beginning, just as there was an initial beginning to all things. It’s a miracle that there is something rather than not-something, even more miraculous that there is conscious life, and an even greater miracle that there is someone like Eden. Or maybe it’s not. God is self-determined and resolved to be Creator. Not out of compulsion, necessity, divine struggle, or a boundless will set to dominate. It’s only love—from the bottom to the top. God’s love couldn't be contained. Nor, could it be locked away in a warehouse. It spilled over into galaxies with stars and planets because God is God. And it keeps overflowing because no one's quite figured out how to make it stop.
It took four and a half billion years, but it finally spilled into you.
Creation is the word we use to name the world and our existence. And it's important. The first thing we can say about each other is that God has created us. We are, each of us, God’s love enfleshed and put in motion. It teaches us how to be human and gives shape to our lives. It instructs us how to be in relationship with every facet of the created order—whether the oceans or mountains, beluga whales or grasshoppers, the neighbor or the enemy. You are gift. And so are they. Never treat anyone, or be treated, as less.
After Eden drew the pictures of the stars I told her that she wasn’t actually with them. I told her something like this: ‘God was making you, but it takes a long time to make babies. Meemaw and Poppa had to love me and raise me. I had to grow up and go to school to meet mommy. Then, we could have you. But that whole time we were thinking about you. You were in our dreams. And in our prayers. We thought about what you would look like, the ways you would talk, and how you would grow. Now, you’re finally with us. God finally made you. God made you at the perfect time (kairos).’
And she replied, “Daddy, that’s ridiculous.”
It is ridiculous. And yet, that’s what makes her grace—a completely undeserved and beautiful gift.
‘We should do this more often because, like, people are happy,’ I overheard after our worship gathering the other week. It’s a shame that we don’t say it every week, or even most weeks, and that it’s a surprise when we walk out of worship muttering 'well, that wasn't as boring as usual.'
A couple of times a year ten of the local United Methodist Churches get together for joint worship. About half of each congregation shows up, but it’s enough to fill an entire sanctuary and leave the stragglers searching for parking. For others, it's a free Sunday off. I get it, because it’s tempting to wake up and smell that coffee and then remain in pajamas. Life is busy. You can get more done if you stay home. I’ve heard that voice before, too. The leaves will get raked, groceries bought, and you’ll still have time to catch the Panthers game.
And yet I have a lingering sense that half of our congregations missed out on something:
Methodists usually teach that church is a verb. You don’t go to church; you are the church—go, do, be. “The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning,” says Emil Brunner. I think that’s right, but there’s still a sense for me that church is also the place where we intentionally participate in the God who is where we live and move and have our being. Worship is the center of our life together—an event where an ancient book of stories, myths, poems, and angry prophecies becomes a vessel for the risen Christ to walk among us, up and down the aisles. A meal of bread and wine reveals God’s presence among us as Christ is re-presented in a sacrament of thanksgiving and hope. God’s love is made visible in our peace—the hugs and laughter.
We are, first of all, a Sabbath people who worship a God who celebrated on the seventh day. And secondly, we are Easter people with lives built on a resurrection festival. And thirdly, a Pentecostal people of sprawling wild fires, violent winds, and a dove that hasn't found its way back to the cage.
Jesus’ life was festal even if it was also painful, ending in suffering and death. You’d often find him at a table sharing a meal or telling stories about wedding banquets and great dinner parties. That’s why it was fitting for Christian worship to begin as a celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Christians, at the beginning of our existence, weren’t uptight. We gathered on the first day of the week at daybreak, which is the day following the Jewish Sabbath, with bread and wine for koinonia, or fellowship, and song. The rationale is simple—when Christ’s presence is recognized among the gathered, the best response is to celebrate. And why not go hard? We are, after all, subjected to so much bad news the rest of the week that it's nice to have a day to let hope loose.
I must confess that the party template for worship isn’t appealing if you have mild social anxiety, especially when there’s not a bar to get a drink to make the small talk bearable. Parties can be uncomfortable. I assume there are others like me and that it is one reason why attendance drops when we gather with other congregations for shared worship. But God’s Spirit takes the place of alcohol by bringing us together and filling us with joy and communion. Why else would a group of sober friends, and oftentimes strangers, get together to hug, eat, and sing? If it gets real heated then hands are raised, except not to Journey, but to Charles Wesley. Surely, this Spirit explains why outside onlookers thought the early church was drunk on the day of Pentecost.
If we are a resurrection people then one thing is certain: we should throw better parties.
I happen to know that there are a few key ingredients for a good party: the first step is to think about who’s there, what they’re bringing, and the particular season for celebration. We call worship liturgy, or ‘the work of the people,’ because it’s something we join together to create in the Spirit in ‘full, active, and conscious participation.’ Like a potluck, the festival changes depending on who has created what or what has been brought to be tasted. The style of party—whether you have organs or guitars or hymns or Hillsong—won't matter as much as what gifts, attitudes, or needs are brought into the body. All of it is incorporated into a theme, or a season and focus, that gives shape to the time and more generally, our lives together.
Go ahead—plan the party, get the details hammered out, and then the people will take it and create an experience that you could have never foreseen or planned.
There’s a Spirit involved in our worship that can’t be predicted, but moves with the energy of our common life together. God isn’t coercive; God fills sanctuaries and hearts as we acknowledge the presence and make room. We show up with thanksgiving and the Spirit gives us a heart of celebration. But these parties aren’t only about being happy, either. We may arrive grieving a loss and the Spirit will come to us as Counselor. We only need come expecting to see God and each other, and God and each other we will find. Which is why this much is certain: if worship is another obligation or box to check off on our to-do list, then it will become a rote and dreadful thing to persevere. Visitors can sense this. The room is deflated, or what Marcus Borg calls ‘flat-tire’ worship, because all of the Spirit has been pushed out of the room. No one wants to go to a party that’s always a duty to fulfill.
On the other hand, a right experience of God bestows energy that we carry home with us and bring out into the world. Here’s why this is so crucial for us and the others around us: transformation rests on the shoulders of good parties. There’s better mission when there’s better worship. At the end of the service, the pastor stands up with open arms to give a benediction. It’s a blessing and also a rally cry to go back into a broken world that needs healing. Worship demands action. If saints aren’t being made more Christ-like, or if chains aren’t being broken and powers and principalities aren't vanquished, then it’s not a right experience of God. It’s just fairy tales and self-help, or worse—entertainment. The taste of the bread and wine must make us hungrier for real life, which is life as God intends in the kingdom of God. If we have an encounter that moves us and begins to shape our will, then we’re more likely to not just have church, but to do church.
To put it all more simply, bad parties don’t cut it.
We should bring better gifts, a bigger appetite, and an expectation that something good might happen—something we can’t risk missing. We owe it to God who has created a festal life and is inviting us into it. But we also owe it to our communities, especially if worship is a primary place that God changes our wills, sanctifies us, and makes us into the kind of people who transforms the world. Let’s not settle for routine when real goodness and truth might fall on our human hearts and then radiate out into the world.
When folks say, ‘something beautiful just happened,’ then pastors and other leaders of the church should listen. If it’s a better party to gather with the neighboring congregations, then why don’t we do it more often? After all, it’s beauty that will heal our broken world. Let us gather it to create another living performance of God’s drama of (re)creation.
Unless, of course, we think that there’s nothing to celebrate.