The Holy Aura of Chaplains and the Realm of the Sacred

Chaplains perform a variety of functions. Depending on the setting, they counsel individuals and families, advise leadership, teach an assortment of subjects, pray, lead worship, conduct rites and sacraments, assist clients with practical matters and a perform host of other duties.

In some settings, chaplains are recognizably religious. In others, they are hard to distinguish from social workers or psychologists.

I recently heard an address given by the president of a professional organization which board-certifies chaplains. In his speech, he argued that clients should not even know what religious body a chaplain represents. Clients will make assumptions about the chaplain which will invariably get in the way or lead to disappointment. In a way, that makes sense. Those whom chaplains assist do not always belong to the chaplain’s own faith group, either broadly or narrowly. Many are not religious at all.

He also said that chaplains should keep prayer out of the relationship. Again, I understand his point. Prayer doesn’t mean the same thing across traditions, or sometimes even within traditions.

I don’t think, however, that the speaker was correct. I think the people we work with have the right to know who we are and who we represent. If the therapeutic value of the encounter lies at least partly in the relationship, honesty and transparency are important.

Moreover, the word “chaplain” itself carries a religious connotation. Unless you explain it away – “No, I’m a secular humanist chaplain” – to introduce yourself as a chaplain is to claim a religious identity. That identity may be an recognizable faith tradition or it may be a diffuse contemporary spirituality, but it’s still religious.

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Imagining a Different Space for Worship

I envision a worship space that I know I will never see in reality. It’s the product of a number ideas rolling around in my head. Central to my vision is an understanding that worship is a physical act, not just a mental and emotional reality.

Notional-Architecture-for-Worship
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1. In the Eucharist, the baptized join the whole church on earth and the whole host of heaven to sing the song of the seraphim. I take that almost literally. At the table of the Lord, a door opens between heaven and earth so that we can see what Isaiah saw – the Lord, high and lifted up. At the table, we can see what John saw – and the Lamb who was slain at the center of the throne, with all the elders falling on their faces before him.

I envision a worship space that portrays that reality artistically, and which allows Christians to live it kinetically.

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Christian or Jesus Follower

Some American Christians want to disown the name “Christian.” They think it has become politically tainted and want to replace it with “Jesus-follower” or some other phrase. I’ll stick with “Christian.”

In the first centuries of the church’s existence, Rome treated those who claimed the name “Christian” as enemies of the state. Tertullian’s  Apology makes it very clear: the word “Christian” itself was the basis of the accusation. Believers were torn apart by animals and put to the sword rather than surrender the name.  That alone would make me slow to give it up.

The word “Christian” captures the totality of my life in Christ better than “Jesus-follower.” I follow Jesus, but I also worship him, believe his word, give thanks for his victory over sin and death, live in sacramental union with him and look for his return. “Jesus-follower” highlights only one aspect of a Christian’s life.

And when I say that I follow Jesus, I don’t just mean that I follow his teachings and imitate his life. I mean that I offer him my personal allegiance no matter the cost. I put all my time and resources at his disposal and I do my best to stay in his presence. In our culture, most people are going to hear “follow”only in the ethical sense.

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Wesley’s Eschatological Optimism Explains it All

John Wesley believed the evangelical awakening taking place in and around the Methodist movement signaled the beginning of end of human history. The movement of God’s spirit would continually grow stronger and more expansive until Jesus returned. Borrowing a phrase from the Puritans. Wesley described it as God’s “latter day glory.” Unlike previous outpourings of the Spirit, Wesley believed this one would persist until all the world encountered the warmhearted, holiness-oriented Christianity being experienced in the awakening. The Holy Spirit would spread scriptural holiness not only to nominally-Christian Protestants, but to Catholic and Orthodox as well. Convinced by the power of the Holy Spirit and the evidence of truly transformed Christian lives, even Muslims, indigenous people, and followers of other religions would come to believe in Jesus. It was Christian unbelief, disobedience and hypocrisy standing in the way of their conversion. The movement might be slow, face setbacks and often be hidden from view, but God would not stop until the whole world was awakened to true faith and holiness.

As it grew, the movement would transform society as well. Love, honesty, sobriety, chastity, prudence, generosity and health would flow from hearts transformed by the love of God. Changed people would change the world. Scriptural holiness would spread across the land. Even nature itself might be affected; one of Wesley’s sermons states that earthquakes are the result of human sin. When the whole world knows the true love of Jesus, and people live accordingly, then the world will become the place God intended it to be from the beginning of creation. And then Jesus will come again.

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Echoes of Exodus in the Land of the Gerasenes

Mark 5:1-17

In the story of the Gerasene demoniac, Jesus invades enemy territory and defeats a powerful army to deliver people from bondage.

Jesus enters enemy territory in two ways. The land of the Gerasenes was on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was part of the Greco-Roman region known as the Decapolis, or “ten towns.” It was Gentile territory, the land of foreign gods, a place of idolatry. Additionally, the encounter takes place among the tombs, an earthly realm of the dead, so to speak. Here, then, Jesus faced two of God’s enemies: hostile spiritual powers and death itself.

Unsurprisingly in such a place, Jesus finds a man possessed by unclean spirits. The man howled day and night and cut himself with stones. His fellow citizens tried to restrain him in chains – a horrible way to treat mental illness, by the way – but he always broke free. In Mark’s thinking, the man’s extraordinary strength is evidence of supernatural bondage. The man could break his earthly chains; he could not break his spiritual ones.

When Jesus asked the man’s name – always a good way to start a conversation – the demons replied, “We are ‘Legion’, for we are many.” A legion is a Roman military unit consisting of four to six thousand soldiers. Some of my Christian brothers and sisters see this as coded language referring to a confrontation with the political and military power of Rome. I don’t see anything of that sort in the story.  I’ll take Mark at his word; he’s thinking of an army of demons, not an army of human soldiers.

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