Big Papa.

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In a world of unique individuals my father might have been the uniquiest. He was a high roller who hit it big. Twice. He also hit rock bottom. Twice. Unfortunately that last hit was a doozy. After that, Phoenix’s highest-flying realtor mostly “worked” from home. First it was online gaming. Later the stock market. Which, come to think of it, might be the same thing.

We all have our own unique vantage point on other’s lives. Many knew my dad as “Marty the realtor”or “Marty the campaign manager ” or “Marty the original Suns season ticket holder” or “Marty the scratch golfer.” Some knew him as “Marty the card player” who, when he felt hot became, “Marty the high roller” on a comped flight to Vegas. His grandchildren knew him as “papa.” But everyone, everyone knew him as “Marty the forwarder of factually dubious spam.”

My dad was a paradox: An extroverted recluse. A curmudgeon with a heart of gold, a man who wore his vices on his sleeve, but hid his virtues under a Grumpy Cat exterior. My father was a virtuoso reaction provoker. You could not spend more than 5 minutes with my father without both loving him or hating him.

Usually at the same time.

When I was a child we would vacation at Pajaro Dunes, a lovely semi-private beach. But as my dad aged, he reverted to the NY kid who longed for the hubbub of the boardwalk. He began to holiday on Mission Beach, the West coast’s answer to Coney Island. He rented on the promenade. Always with a second story balcony to watch girls and talk smack to the fellas. Men in their 70’s don’t talk smack with the young boardwalk Turks. But no one told my dad that. They didn’t dare.

In the mornings on the boardwalk he would greet the world with vocal renditions of Sinatra, Bennett, and Hoagie Carmichael. Picture the boardwalk at 8 am on a midweek July morning: A few fit joggers & bikers power by. Locals kibitz over coffee. Hung over college kids stumble home. But mostly families that stayed up too late are trying to grab a few more moments of shut-eye. And there, on the balcony above it all, is my retirement-aged, 260 pound, shirtless, chain-smoking Italian father belting out “Fly me to the moon,” overpowering Sinatra on his massive boom box.

No, it wasn’t good.

And of course he knew it.

In my 49 years I cannot recall a single incident in which my dad was not the center of attention. I’m not sure he intentionally sought attention. He was just a smidge larger than life.

Ideas were important to my dad. He had them. Articulated them. Argued them. He won every argument. Usually because his idea was persuasive. When it was not, he reverted to a technique of oratory I call “vocal Darwinism” – survival of the loudest.

Words were important to my dad as well. He used them often – either in the declarative or the exclamatory. If you used a word wrongly you would receive a lesson on its Latin etymology, delivered in the declarative exclamatory.

Inside of my father’s home, where the lion spent the lion’s share of the last 25 years, the most common words addressed to him began, “O Papa.” The “O” could be pronounced with shock, joy, fear, dismay, gratitude, or exasperation. As in “O, Papa!” when he went out of his way to help one of us, or when you caught him, a man in end-stage congestive heart failure, sneaking an entire box of sodium enhanced prepackaged spareribs for breakfast. Most of my father’s favorite words cannot be said in church.

My dad was an Italian. A genuine New York, swarthy, swag-wearing, chain-smoking, looked like a mafia Don and sounded like one too, Italian. In case you would like to be an Italian, there are 3 essential words you need to know. My dad made sure we knew them: Capish (understand), Stai Zitto (shut up), and Luie Monjagovol, an untranslatable expression useful for all occasions…mostly for those rare times when you could not use any of the words my dad really preferred using…the ones you cannot use in church.

My father was extremely funny. And sarcastic. Unfortunately, sarcasm often goes over one’s children’s heads…and when it does it often carries decades long consequences. For example, when I was seven and writing the obligatory post-Christmas “Thank you” notes, I made the mistake of telling my dad that envelopes “taste bad.” He said, “That’s because the glue is carcinogenic.” I was always learning important things from my father, like how to pronounce “carcinogenic,” and that envelope glue was a dangerous yet unregulated substance. I didn’t lick envelopes until I was a high school junior. I was working as a Suns’ ballboy when one night Ron Lee, a highly personable Suns guard, half-licked a ticket envelope and handed it to me to finish. I licked my finger and used that to complete the wetting of the envelope glue. I looked up and the entire team was staring at me. I had no idea that they were wondering if I was a racist for not licking an envelope after a Black man. With full conviction I informed them, “Licking envelopes is stupid. Y’all are going to die of tongue cancer!”

My dad’s name was Martin Ubaldo Marino. I once asked him why he always wrote “Marty.” He told me “Martin Ubaldo” was long and WOPy sounding so he had it legally changed. I saw him write “Martin U. Marino” on something last year and asked him when he changed his name back. He had no idea what I was talking about.

I live in fear of what other great fictions await my discovery.

My dad was the strongest man I knew. As a kid I would hold onto his neck as he swam underwater tw0 complete lengths of our 1970s era swimming pool. I could barely hang on due to the water resistance. It must have taken tremendous strength to propel his large body and with my drag through the water. I would let go on the first leg to come up for air, dive down again, and catch him again on his way back.

My dad broke racial barriers long before it was fashionable. In the late 1960s, Phoenix was a very Anglo city. The first time I laid eyes on an African American was in my house. Asleep. Connie Hawkins had flown into town to look at homes and was tired. So my dad, who sold the early Suns players their homes, brought him over for a nap. Back then professional sports were divided not by management and labor (they all made about the same money), but by color. My dad and trainer Joe Proski socialized with White and Black alike. It took me years to realize that they were the only ones doing that. He never mentioned “justice” or “reconciliation.” He just lived it.

If we did something hard-working or noble my dad said, “You’re a good man, Gunga Din.” I lived to hear those words.

Here is an event which summarized neatly my father as a dad and grandpa: He beat us to the hospital for our daughter’s birth. Then he entertained himself and the hospital staff by loudly and extensively hazing us up and down the maternity ward for being, “late to our own child’s delivery!”

Boys always learn the important things in life from their fathers. Here are the…

Top 10 life-lessons I Learned from my dad:

1. Tools are something you buy…but you hire someone else to actually use.

2. Do stuff you don’t like because you love your kids: Bouncing a Lincoln Continental all over Northern Arizona forest roads to take two teenagers fishing comes to mind. I cannot imagine anyone more out of place in a forest than Marty Marino.

3. Everyone gets to win in a deal. My dad was a very upright businessman. When some friends hatched a get-rich quick scheme that would leave a someone with a loss, he shook his head disapprovingly and barked, “The job of a salesman is to make sure NO ONE gets screwed, Matt.”

4. Care for people. One Christmas he was ordered to “tone it down” by the Salvation Army. When he drove up to the house and saw how poor the family was, he loaded the whole tribe into his Fleetwood Brougham and took them on a shopping spree at a warehouse store.

5. It’s better to be kind than nice. My dad was not a nice man. But he was remarkably kind. He would come to your aid no matter how dumb a situation you had gotten yourself into. But, boy, would he ride you about it the whole time.

6. Your gifts can be a stepping-stone or a tombstone. The same pride that made my dad a legendary real estate agent also made him too proud to return to it. My father taught me not to be a victim of my gifts.

7. You can save a lot of money by making your own cigarettes…but money is all you are saving.

8. For a man for whom religion was a regular target of his sarcasm, I learned a great deal about faith:

-He taught me to read the Bible beginning in the Gospels. I had started the Bible twice and got bogged down in Leviticus both times. Who starts a book 2/3 of the way through? I thought. My dad taught me that it is really a collection of books, and that the New interprets the Old.

-I learned to stick with it. On three occasions I thought about quitting the ministry for something that would pay better. Each time my dad beelined to my house to talk me out of it. “Why would you do that?” He asked. “You were made for this.”

-I learned that what we say and what we mean aren’t always the same thing. Last month, my father, the vocal atheist, called me concerned about a lack of faith by my nephew. The conversation was both funny and profound…

Dad: What are you doing?

Me: At 6:30 A.M. on my day off?

Dad: You aren’t sleeping are you?

Me: Not any more.

Dad: Do you know that  ____ doesn’t believe a GD thing about Jesus Christ. Can you believe that? I mean… JC. Who doesn’t love Jesus, GDit. What the H! Everyone loves Jesus Christ. Even I love Jesus Christ! And I do, dammit, I love Jesus Christ. GDit. And who doesn’t believe anything? C. I mean really NOT believe anything? What the H!”

Me: Dad, Have you considered contacting Guinness? You might have set a new record for blasphemies in a conversation for Jesus.

Dad (after a most out of character apology for his word choice): You need to do something about that! You need to talk to him! (He was a master of the declarative exclamatory.)

Me: Dad, you have spent 30 years mocking faith. And you are surprised that he took you at your word? I have always known you had a secret thing for Jesus, you protested too much. You should really have that talk. Be honest. Let him know that, although you have big issues with the church, that you actually think quite highly of Jesus and it bothers you that he doesn’t.

I don’t know if that conversation ever happened.

9. Number nine takes a little setup: My father went to great lengths to avoid exercise. If he had a religion, it might have been named Exercise-avoidance-ism. This religion had at its theological core the doctrine that “every human is allotted a certain number of heartbeats at birth and that if you want to waste yours exercising, that is your business.”

So, #9, I learned that his theory on “the conservation of heartbeats” was flawed.

10. Speaking of flawed, the worst day of a kid’s life might be the day he finds out his dad is flawed. And my dad was quite flawed. However, one of the best days in a man’s life is the day he finds out that his flawed father is still quite human and, in many ways, quite holy. One day last summer he and my stepmother came over unannounced and told us that she had beaten cancer.  They had never told us that she had cancer-it might have been the only secret my father ever kept. That day, the only time in my life that I saw my father cry, he threw his arms around my stepmom, squeezed her hard enough that we feared for her safety, and blurted through his tears how much he loved her and how lost he would be if anything happened to her. I will never forget that day. It told me my dad was growing…becoming more alive, even as his body was obviously not.

As I thought about a memorial to my father I realized, “This will be the first time someone has ever gotten the last word on Marty Marino.” But as a Christian, I don’t actually believe that I have. So I will just say, see you later, dad. I love you and miss you already.

Martin Ubaldo “Marty” Marino

Nov. 11, 1934 ~ March 14, 2014

(Originally posted 4/7/14)

What should Christians do the day after an election?

(Originally posted four years ago today. Still appropriate.)

Imagine my surprise to wake up today and be informed by my Facebook feed that for slightly less than 1/2 of America the apocalypse is upon us. While, at the same time, for ever so slightly more than 50% of America, we have just insured our temporal salvation…at least for four more years.

My 2300 Facebook friends are mostly Christians. How did we, the followers of a messiah who repeatedly refused to be a political deliverer, decide to look for salvation through the vote? How does a group, whose original identity was the anti-empire exclamation: “Jesus is Lord!” end up equating our political system with religious truth? Our original creed was a stark rebuttal to the “Caesar is Lord” mandated to be shouted as the emperor was carried through Roman cities. And yet today we look to the empire for our salvation.

We would do well to remember the message that Peter preached, “Salvation is found in no other name under heaven.” (Acts 4:12)

We have a missio-dei, a mission of God that transcends any secular mission. It is a mission of thought, and mouth, and hands and feet. Imagine this: What if every Christian invested the dollars we spent on campaigns and candidates on the poor, the downtrodden, the alien and sojourner…the unborn and the young single girl carrying them?

What if we borrowed a page from the playbook of the early Christians? In 362 C.E. the commitment to society by Christians was so obvious that when Emperor Julian launched a campaign to revive paganism he realized the enormous challenge he faced in trying to win people’s affections back from the devotion of Christians. “When the poor happened to be neglected and overlooked by our priests, the impious Galileans observed this and devoted themselves to benevolence. They support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us.” [1] The church nursed the sick, cared for widows, orphans and elderly. We even buried the dead, both Christian and non-Christian alike.

Even the beneficiary of yesterday’s vote, the President himself, realizes that we are placing too much either on him or opposed to him when he pointed out that “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for!” I would say that actually is another. A Nazarene carpenter.

But what should we Christians do the day after an election? Go back to being his hands and his feet. Live, serve, preach, pray, give, go and grow.


[1] Stark, Rodney. Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome. New York: HarperOne Publishers. (2006), 31.

Distorted Mirrors: What Our Candidates Tell Us About Ourselves

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Photo credit: cnbc.com – Getty Images

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I’m doing it. I am adding to the word count on the two people Americans are most tired of talking about. Fret not, though. I won’t bore you with my opining on their political positions, policies, or personal lives. I just want to ponder for a moment what our candidates’ very public moral and ethical question marks might say about where we are as a nation.

Consider a few previous presidents…

  • After a historic religious revival[1], a revolution, and inventing government “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” we picked a leader of self-restraint. One who stood for virtue and honesty. George Washington reflected our values.
  • In 1860 a single injustice cast a pall over America. We elected a single issue President with the resolve to oppose that injustice. Abraham Lincoln reflected our values.
  • In the 1930’s, with the economy crippled by the Depression. America chose a president who was crippled, yet courageous. Franklin Roosevelt reflected our values.
  • In the 1950’s, wanting to stand up against the spread of communism, we elected the general who won WWII. Ike reflected our values.

Many have fretted about what so and so’s beliefs and leadership will do to our future. But it seems our leaders don’t shape our beliefs as much as reflect them back to us.  If so, do you like what you see when you look into our collective mirror? While this may be cringe provoking, especially considering Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump’s historically high unfavorable ratings, is it possible that our candidates are simply our values and our behaviors staring back at us?

Perhaps we need to ask some hard questions about our ethics…how morally upright is our thought life and media usage? What about our conspicuous consumption…and fears…or the effects of millions of us cutting corners and winking away little dishonesties. What about the anger? Moses told the people, “Your sins will find you out.”[2]

Perhaps our candidates are just the public face of our private selves being found out?

We are fooling ourselves to think our candidates are “them.” The cartoon character Pogo famously said, “We have met the enemy and he is us!” Surely our candidates moral peccadillos are, at some level, a reflection of our own weak moral knees and the fact that we no longer seem to spend much time on them.

What should one do when looking into a mirror and not liking what is looking back? Surely the answer is not to try to alter the mirror, but to fix what the mirror is reflecting. Perhaps the place to start is in the privacy of the voting booth. When you go into that booth Tuesday, I encourage you to see the candidates for what they are: Flawed humans who are a little too much like you and I for comfort. Say a prayer for each of them. Say a prayer for your nation. Then cast yourself upon the mercy of God. And when you leave that booth, go and love and serve, nurture and nourish each and every person you meet. That way, when we look into the voting booth shaped mirror four years from now, we might feel a little better about what we see looking back.

*“Where are we?” Link to Sermon containing this idea. Text: Hebrews 11:1-11

[1] The Great Awakening

[2] Numbers 32:23

 

A Beautiful Mess: Can worship be contemporary AND liturgical?

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“What is a high church guy like you doing worshipping in a contemporary service like this?” It sounds like an ecclesiological pickup line, but her implied question was, “Liturgical and contemporary? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” Here are a few ruminations on the subject of contemporary/liturgical worship by someone with a strong appreciation for chant and incense…

“Contemporary” worship, or “worship” understood as a block of contemporary songs, led by a musician and backed by a band, is a very late arrival, unknown before the charismatic renewal of the late 1960s. Prior to this, Christians either worshiped in the pattern of Word and Sacrament developed over the first four Christian centuries, i.e. “the Mass,” or in the pared down  “regulative principle” worship developed in the sixteenth century by our Reformed and Anabaptist brethren. The “regulative principle” says that only what can be prescribed from scripture is to be present in the church’s worship (such as readings, prayers, singing, preaching, and communion). The older traditions had a broader understanding, the “normative principle.” In the “normative principle,” whatever is edifying, as long as it is not explicitly prohibited (like cense, incense, and musical instruments to name a few) is fine. The charismatic renewal, taking the normative principle and running with it, brought a completely new idea: Worship that mimics current cultural performance forms…with historic theology even if no historic forms are present. This was a redefinition of worship, not as “scripture and sacrament,” but as “song then sermon.” Gone was the complex pattern of reading, praying, proclaiming, and responding to the Word, with singing the Word woven throughout. In were songs that sound like the music on one’s Spotify, grouped together in a “song set.” A contemporary worship service, since it has both feet in the current culture, is expected to have an element of “freshness.” In fact, if a “contemporary” service does not change playlists, genres, and instrumentation, before long it is no longer “contemporary.” It simply becomes a more recent “tradition.” Therefore, contemporary worship is umbilically tied to the contemporary Christian music industry, its’ source of new material. This goal of this form of worship is to allow the Holy Spirit to “speak” to the emotions. It is led by a song leader functioning as worship leader.

Anglicans may not be better worshippers than other Christians, but we probably think about it more than others. The Episcopal church, founded by Queen Elizabeth’s shoehorning of Catholics and Reformed Protestants together and telling them to pray the same words, have the freedom to embrace a wide spectrum of practice. Given our origins in state mandated, “Can’t we just all get along?” it should be no surprise that worship in the Episcopal church is informed by all three streams of Christian worship tradition: Word, Sacrament, and Spirit. In worship, Anglicans believe we are to be formed by God’s Word, fed at God’s table, and filled with God’s presence. Those three streams can come together in a worship service that can be without music, or undergirded by organ and choir, or driven by a band. That is why it seems to be perfectly appropriate for worship to be informed by the charismatic stream of the church. “Filled with God’s presence” is, after all, one of the three streams. The sad and frustrating part is that relatively little of contemporary worship seems to include being formed by God’s word, and nearly none, fed at a Eucharistic feast. Rather, worshippers get an “application based message” and (snark alert) the table of narcissism containing a loaf of “tear off a little Jesus-to-go.”

In the intersection of theory meets practice, at St. John the Divine, we have traditional liturgical services and contemporary liturgical services. You will notice they both have “liturgical” in common. For us, it is important that our contemporary services be contemporary while remaining scriptural, liturgical and sacramental.  In other words, we are intentionally embracing all three streams. We are not simply chasing the contemporary culture. Liturgical worship, based around Word and Table, is meant to be formational and sacramental. It puts words on our lips, and thoughts on our hearts. It allows us to participate in worship, not just through the singing of words unheard over other’s amplified voices, but through movement and joined prayers. It both preaches the Gospel, and feeds us on the living presence of the God made flesh in Holy Communion. So we use contemporary music and instrumentation, but we maintain the ancient Christian pattern of worship.

But more than liturgical, three-streams worship, whether contemporary or traditional in musical genre, is sacramental. Sacraments, if you remember your confirmation class lectures, “are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 857). A sacrament is not merely a picture of something, they actually create what they portray. In the same way kissing does not just demonstrate your love for your special someone, kissing them actually creates more love as you do it. So sacraments too create what they signify. Baptism brings us into the Kingdom of God, it is not merely a portrait of it (Romans 6:4, Colossians 2:12). And Eucharist is the meal of the eternal presence of God. It does not just look back to the Last Supper, or just look forward to the marriage Supper of the Lamb in the end of time (Revelation 19), it brings us to the eternal now of Jesus Christ, each and every time we participate in it. In the Eucharistic feast, time and eternity meet.

So we blend the musical genres of the current culture within the ancient container. A liturgical contemporary service, with one foot in the ancient church and one in the culture is values driven (around liturgy as formational and sacrament as reality) and data supported.  It asks, “What things in our culture work with  our values and theology?” Here are a few interesting cultural trends we are seeing:

-Higher tech and higher touch (greater use of technology, yet more personal).

-Respectful yet comfortable in style (including teaching how and why we worship).

-Increased use of art and artfulness (no longer church in a “big-box”).

-Use of symbols: Crosses, tables, baptismal, kneelers…things that say “holy space” to those looking to experience faith.

-Worship as a whole-body experience: sitting, standing, and hand raising…but also kneeling, crossing, and bowing.

-Use of lighting to give variations in vibe and mood during the service.

-Using the Christian year to immerse the family of God in the story of God.

-A wider variety in our musical offerings, what Paul calls, “hymns, psalms and spiritual songs.” (Eph. 5:19) And a wider variety in vocalizations and instrumentation. (You might get an oboe or viola or a mandolin and a djimbe.)

The “what” though, is not nearly as important as the “why.” We will continue to shift and nudge things to remain connected to our culture while staying faithful to our scriptural, liturgical, and sacramental values. In doing so, we are attempting to honor God by praising his name (Ps. 145:21), while creating biblically faithful, outward facing disciples who reach the next generation with the Good News of Jesus.

Why I dropped church and joined The Church

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A German Mass during WWII

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*A repost from 2013 as I think about contemporary liturgical worship this week.

I came of age outside of the faith. At eighteen God found me. From that day forward, and with a love that was not my own, I have not been able to help but love Jesus back and work for the welfare of others with the overflow of that love. Yet, even with all that love, I am sorry to say, I did not love church. Oh, I liked the idea of church. I liked lots of people at church. But no matter how hard I tried, I just didn’t like church.

At least not until I discovered The Church, as in, the Church historic. In historic Christianity; orthodox, catholic and reformed, I found something larger than I. The Church, described by the Creeds, nourished by the Sacraments, defined by the Scriptures, and led by the Holy Spirit through the 3-fold ministry, is something one can stand lashed to when the storms of life come. I first came to value Christ’s bride when I wandered into an expression of it that immersed me in a different and embodied narrative: the grand story of God’s creation, fall, redemption, and working toward final justice.

Don’t get me wrong, I am indebted to the church of my conversion. The godly men and women of that movement introduced me to faith, fed me on the Scriptures, and challenged me to serve. Now, though, in The Church I am no longer adrift in a world that is a Jesus add-on to a life of my American culture’s creation. In The Church, I am connected to the original eleven “sent-out ones” by touch and by teaching. In the church of my conversion, “The gates of hell,” did, in effect, “prevail against it” from the close of the canon until the Reformation, or maybe the Second Great Awakening, or, for some, the coming of the evangelical explosion of the 1980s.

The Church is rooted in history, unchanging, with worship patterned after that of the earliest Christians. Lancelot Andrewes described The Church of The Great Tradition as bound by “One canon, two testaments, three creeds, four ecumenical councils, over five centuries.” She clarified those creeds in the Reformation. Her lay and clergy were the missionaries of the Awakenings. In this Bride, the Holy Spirit is gloriously alive and balance is maintained in public worship by praying the safe, vetted words of The Church. In The Church, the old theological battles are not forgotten, so they do not need to be refought.

I realized that I could never truly connect with the relevant church simply because it was so like me – feeding me a steady diet of myself: my wants, my preferences, my music. It was all so “relevant.” I came to realize that I actually needed church to be UN-like me: to be transcendent. The Church is unconcerned with “relevance.” It cares not for my preferences. When I ask it to change it grins gently and asks me to change instead. In The Church, when one panics about something and accosts the clergy at the door, the chances are good the priest will say, “We have been in God’s presence in the liturgy. How about we enjoy that for a bit? Call me on Tuesday.”

The Church is maddeningly un-fearful. It is not subject to politics or fads. It does not do focus groups and market research. It is not trying to impress me, win me, or woo me. Instead of bending to my whims, it seeks to conform me to the image of Christ through immersion in patterns: daily in the Scriptures, weekly in Sacramental feeding of the Thanksgiving meal of the family of God, and living out God-time in the Christian Year. As a man of flesh, these patterns marinate me in the Gospel, bringing forth flavors in my life I never imagined.

In church I could write my own wedding vows. In The Church, self-made wedding vows, narcissistic holdovers of the 70’s, are not on the table for discussion. The Church calmly says, “Our job is to be conformed to God’s will and God’s words, not our own, so we will use the vows that have withstood the test of time, thank you.”

Many genuinely love the relevant church. I am sincerely glad for them. But for the growing group for whom church-lite leaves them hungry, for whom the four songs and a sermon liturgy delivered by latte-toting pastors in skinny jeans is holding up as well as a Walmart shirt, there is an alternative. That alternative is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. It follows a pattern that was old when Justin Martyr described it in his Apology in 150 CE. It is both sacred mystery and deep discipleship, a mystery in which the words and movements all tell a story. And, ultimately, shape lives into the image of Jesus.

A few questions for discussion:

If you are a “relevant church” person, do you love church? Or are you giving up on it? If so, why?

Are you one of the people that goes to an expression of The Church that has a plethora of service options. (One of the Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox churches that offer services along a continuum from chanted 1700 year old liturgies to modern “relevant” models.)  If so, do people move between the service offerings?

Are you in one of growing numbers of modern churches experimenting with ancient liturgies? If so, how is that going?

Watching our Culture Die: Where the secular culture went wrong and what Christians can do to help. 

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We have all become spectators of our culture. It is fascinating and disturbing – like the accident you cannot avert your gaze from.

Are things as bleak as they appear?

One way to get perspective on a culture is to look at the stories that society tells its’ young adults…

  • In the 1930s, 40s, and 50s the story we told was the Western. The Western featured a universe in which one moral man in a white hat stood strong against evil.
  • In the 50s and 60s, the world became more complex. Our best-selling story was The Chronicles of Narnia, featuring a magical alternate universe where children escape evil, and goodness wins out.
  • In the 90’s, Harry Potter flew in with his magical parallel universe. In Harry Potter’s world, evil may be around us, but we are being defended against the dark arts.
  • In the 2000s a new tale was in vogue: Vampires. In the vampire narrative the evil is us, and we live by sucking life from others.
  • And, just when you thought it could not get worse, today’s popular narrative is zombies. There were 8 zombie movies in 2015. 11 will be released this year. In the cratered civilization of the zombie, The Walking Dead pursue us in order to violently compel us to join them.

Consider the dystopian psychological projection of our culture and ourselves that we are buying and feeding to our young when our national narrative is the Zombie Apocalypse.

Cultures survive on shared narratives: common language and worldviews, well-established purposes. In America at this moment our “shared narrative” has been lost. One evidence we have lost our story is our social outrage. Everyone is angry. Consider the catchphrases of the summer: “Black lives matter.” “Blue lives matter.” “All lives matter.” The reason we shout, “lives matter” is because they don’t. Our shared narrative is so broken we can’t even agree on so fundamental an issue as who “matters.”

The Story we Used to Share

Western civilization was once undergirded by a single coherent and widely accepted story – the Christian story. The narrative is that God, sovereign over all, created the world and everyone in it as a special and unique creation – The Christian narrative is that each of us, by definition, matters. Humans, in the Christian story, have the freedom to walk in the revealed truth of God’s providence, or reject the truth and live in a false-self of our own creation. It is a profound story: A God so good and wise and strong, that he dared give humans the gift of freedom…even if that gift would need to be redeemed at the cost of his own son. That son would then offer himself, as the Prayer Book says, “a full, perfect, and sufficient, sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”

Our Story has Become Nonsense

Unfortunately, as we have systemically and legally purged God from our narrative, our story makes less and less sense – without the foundation our house crumbles in the storm. Our vacuum of narrative leaves us with two options: We may substitute the story of our place in God’s kingdom for another world-view. Unfortunately, most competing world religions simply do not place the same value on the dignity of the human person. Or, following current fashion, we may construct a narrative of our own invention. In their book Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah and Richard Madsen label the picking and choosing of religious bits and pieces to manufacture a world-view, “Sheila-ism” after Sheila Larson, a woman they interviewed who followed “her own little voice.” The only problem is that being the captain of our own destiny didn’t work for Adam and Eve. Eventually it didn’t work for Sheila either. And, as we can’t help but notice, it is not working for our friends and neighbors.

Why not create our own narrative?

First of all, my right to fashion my own story presumes a responsibility on your part to approve of my invention. And, when we remove the authority of God, we have no place to appeal for what is good except majority rule. Morality then becomes the tyrannical bullying of whomever has the votes – making the individually constructed stories inherently coercive. Second, our rage screams that narratives of our own invention simply do not provide lasting satisfaction for the human heart. We were not designed as discrete moral agents. The one who is perfect love, and made us for himself, woos and wins our hearts to union with Him. Once captivated, we look back to find God has made straight the paths of our lives as we have entrusted ourselves to his mercy.

This story explains the way things actually are: That God is for us not against us. That we are not our own, we have been bought with a price. That, as Augustine said, “Our hearts are always restless till they find their rest in thee.”

Occasionally those sharing the story of God become confused and mistake the enemy of the story to be those who would silence the story. But if you notice in the New Testament, the enemy is not other humans, even those who persecuting and killing God-followers. The enemies to human thriving, the Scriptures tell us, are the world, the flesh, and the devil. All three war against humanity by creating alternative false narratives.

The Struggle is Real

The key is to put down the binoculars and get involved. The secular culture will ask for more of what you are already doing. They will ask for reparations and labor. The church is already giving money and effort far in excess of any other group in the culture. And we will continue to do so in gratitude for the grace we have been shown by God. But when they ask for “more” you have permission to remind them of the old definition of insanity as “doing the same thing but hoping for different results.” However, instead of sitting on the sidelines watching, though, I would encourage you to build relationships with those outside of our bleacher seats and find those you can share the story with. As the relationship grows you will hear them say, “The sky is falling.” Look them in the eye with confidence, and with great mercy say, “No, it is not, but your story is – You are watching the death of the story of the self-made life. There is another story, friend. A more sensible one. A story that has transformed everyone who has ever received it.”

Friends, if we change the narrative, we will change our culture. But we have a much more pressing matter: eternity itself hangs in the balance. When we share the Good News of Jesus, when we bring friends to church to be immersed into Christ and learn to feast at the table of Thanksgiving, we change more than our culture, we change eternity itself. And that is the task the followers of Christ can least afford to leave unfinished.

Story Bearers

The call to the bearers of the story, the Church, was summed up nicely several years ago in the movie trailer to the first Lord of the Rings. Over exciting footage appear the words, “Fate has chosen him.” More exciting action, then the words, “A fellowship will protect them.” Yet more footage and the words, “Evil will oppose them.” All three are true of the church: Fate has chosen us. A fellowship will protect us. And evil will oppose us.

…But then the trailer closes with the spoken voice of the princess Galadriel, “This task is appointed for you. And if you don’t find a way, no one will.”

The cultural collapse shouts the dire need of the great narrative of God in Christ. Our unique contribution is to be a band of merry Gospel proclaimers, joyfully singing the story of the goodness of God to our friends and neighbors. As Galadriel said, “This task is appointed for you. And if you don’t find a way, no one will.”

 

 

Game Shows: The True Cross in a “like” culture.

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Have you noticed how fuzzy the idea of “truth” has become? Things are no longer “true” in any objective sense. They are, as Stephen Colbert said, “truthy” – true enough…ish. Sort of. Our social media usage illustrates this. We no longer live our lives. We curate them, packaging the bits we want others to see. We crop out the ugly for public attention. The “like” culture has blurred the line, not just between truth and “truthy,” but also the line between actual life and media. This blurring may have been started by Alan Funt on the old tv show, “Candid Camera.” Candid Camera played jokes on ordinary people, and when the joke was revealed, host Alan Funt would pull off his disguise and deliver his catchphrase, “Smile, your on Candid Camera!”

One of the people to fall victim to Alan Funt’s blurring of real vs media was Alan Funt himself. In 1969 Alan Funt was on an Eastern Airlines flight to Miami when the flight was highjacked. The highjacker held the stewardess at knifepoint and demanded the plane fly to Havana. When passengers noticed Alan Funt seated near the highjacker, they began to applaud. When the man disappeared into the cockpit, Funt tried to explain that this was not television.  According to the Radio Lab October 15, 2015 podcast episode, “Smile My Ass,” when the passengers didn’t buy it, Funt attempted to enlist a priest sitting in first class to explain the situation. The priest didn’t believe him either. They took him seriously, though, when Cuban military boarded the plane. When we resort to packaging our own truth, how are we to know what we can actually believe in? This is where the Feast of the Holy Cross comes in…

The year was 326. Constantine, who became emperor in the wake of Diocletian’s “Great Persecution” (303-311),  was betting his empire on upstart Christianity. Unlike other religions, the Christian faith depends, not on creed or philosophy, but upon a historical event: the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. The Christian message is that death has been conquered and humans reconciled to God through the sacrifice of Jesus (2 Cor 5, Col 1:22, 1 Cor 15:1-8). But Constantine needed to know if the story was true. He sent the one person he could count on to go see the Holy Land and confirm or deny the historical reports: his 78 yr old mother, Helena. Helena arrived in Jerusalem and found no tomb. Emperor Hadrian had destroyed Jesus’ burial place two centuries earlier and built a temple to Aphrodite on the location, inadvertently marking the place of Christ’s passion in perpetuity. When she asked whether or not the events in the New Testament actually happened, surely she would have met others her age who would say things like, “Well, my great-grandpa was healed by Jesus, does that count?”

Tradition tells us that Helena had Hadrian’s temple torn down. In the rubble they found three crosses left over from before the destruction of Jesus’ tomb in 130 CE. Consider that 130 date: a century after Jesus’ resurrection, a mere 3 decades after the death of John, the last living apostle. Legend has it that to identify “the true cross,” Helena had a sick woman approach the three artifacts. Upon touching the third she was healed. The “true” cross was left behind to adorn a church Helena commissioned to be built on the site. The Feast of the Holy Cross, celebrated on September 14th, marks the bringing of that cross outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre the day after the church’s dedication (335 CE) so that the community could see it. The cross was removed when Muslims conquered the Holy Land in the crusades, and bits of it were distributed all over Europe. By the 1600s John Calvin would remark, “if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load.” Helena also saw the place of Jesus’ birth, the location of the feeding of the 5000, and many other sites of Jesus’ life, marking them with state sponsored Roman churches.

Was Helena’s cross the “true cross”? Who knows. Are the fragments distributed around the planet pieces of that cross? Probably not. But the Feast of the Holy Cross does tell us that the places Jesus walked are there – as described in the New Testament. There were worshippers, people whose lives were still being changed by the power of Jesus’ actions on the cross, still gathering where their great-grandparents had been gathering since the resurrection. And, especially in light of repeated persecutions, there is no reason for people to have begun gathering and commemorating in those places were the stories they told their children not true.

In this age when the line between truth and truthiness is blurred, there is another old game show that is a better model for us: Groucho Marx’s, You Bet Your Life. The truth is that you and I can bet our lives on Jesus Christ and his great acts of salvation on our behalf. And while we don’t have any kind of a sure claim to the “true cross” we have rock solid knowledge of a Gospel that is true. The places described in the Gospels are as described in those Gospels, because the Gospels are the narratives of dependable witnesses.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”   -‭‭1 Corinthians‬ ‭1:18‬ ‭ESV‬‬