What Can We Learn From the Mars Hill Shutdown?

Mars Hill Church began as a small gathering in Mark Driscoll’s home in 1996 and soon became one of the fastest-growing churches in the country. But the church that was praised just last year as one of the “Top Churches to Watch in America” has been the subject of much controversy lately, stemming primarily from its hyper-masculine, strongly opinionated founding pastor. The Puget Sound Business Journal recently ran an article stating that there are rumors of Mars Hill declaring bankruptcy (the Puget Sound region of Washington was home to several of the church’s locations). Even if such rumors are false, they are indicative of the dramatic decline in both popularity and organizational stability the church has seen in recent months. On January 1st, 2015, Mars Hill Church will officially dissolve. Continue reading What Can We Learn From the Mars Hill Shutdown?

You should be especially nice at church: an examination of Galatians 6.10

“So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6.10)

This verse strikes me as being counter-intuitive. First of all, shouldn’t we do good to everyone equally? Secondly, if we are to do good “especially” to some, shouldn’t they be nonbelievers? The church is a place where people already recognize the goodness of God. I often think that since a person is saved, they are secure in their knowledge of the goodness of God, and there is no pressing need for my actions to serve as a reflection or reminder. On the other hand, I often feel a compelling need to point nonbelievers to God’s goodness by my actions, so that they too can become secure in God’s goodness. I can recall many times in which I have been more inclined to do good to a nonbeliever than a believer, simply because I want to win the nonbeliever over. When we see a world full of hurting, hopeless people, it becomes easy to be apathetic regarding your behavior around Christians and be more concerned with doing good to those who are lost. Yet, this way of thinking and accompanying behavior is not quite right.

To make sense of this command and readjust our way of thinking, we should start by examining the verse more carefully and then considering it in relation to Paul’s other teachings. The beginning of this verse, unfortunately, is easily overlooked. Paul writes, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone”. Paul is not calling us to neglect anyone in our good deeds. Paul is calling us to live with a mindset that leads us to do good to everyone whenever the opportunity arises. This verse is at the end of Galatians – a letter which emphasizes justification by faith and not by works. Paul teaches that we are not saved by good works. It is futile to try to save yourself or another by doing good. The reason we do good is because our Father is good, and we are created in his image. In other words, we ought to do good because we have been created to do so. When God use a good deed to be a reminder or a reflection of his goodness, then it is bonus.

With the proper reason for doing good in mind, let us consider Paul’s teachings on the church in 2 Corinthians. Paul’s letter indicates that church, as a whole, must be the starting place for the expansion of the Kingdom. Throughout the epistle, he discusses of the church’s obligation to share. The church must share in sufferings, forgiveness, and even material wealth.
In the context of sharing material wealth, Paul writes:

>Your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. (2 Corinthians 9.14)

This is a tangible example of the sort of good that needs to be done within the church. We “do good” when we provide for our brethren; this could mean bestowing forgiveness, loving-kindness, or tangible goods. Likewise, our brethren ought to “do good” to us as well and provide in the places where we are lacking. When the church family does good to one another there is fairness and fulfillment. If we take Galatians 6.10 seriously, then members of the church should feel complete in forgiveness, love, and strength. Then, we can better serve to be a light in the world. Think of a stone lighthouse, in which the stones are the members and the whole structure is the church. Each stone lends its strength and stability to the others. Together, they make the structure strong, and are able to provide light to those out at sea. It is necessary that each stone is present and lending all of its strength.

As we consider Paul’s command to do good, we must keep in mind the proper reason for doing good. We bear the image of the Highest Good, and our actions should manifest this. However, by the grace of God, our good actions can also serve to transform those around us. This is what Paul is getting at in the latter half of Galatians 6.10. Ultimately, we do good because we can and should. However, when we do good especially to those in the household of faith, we are being used by God to form the beacon of faith that shines out into a world of lost souls.

Book Review: “Let Us Keep The Feast: living the Church year at home (Holy Week & Easter)”

Doulos Resources recently released a series of short books outlining seasons of the Christian liturgical year. Guides for Advent & Christmas and Lent & Epiphany are currently available for purchase, and future editions will be released later this year. I just finished Holy Week & Easter, which is available for pre-order.

Let Us Keep The Feast: living the Church Year at home (Holy Week & Easter) postures itself as a beginner’s guide to the (Western) liturgical year and traditions surrounding these seasons. Starting with a general introduction by editor Jessica Snell, the book is divided into two main chapters: “Holy Week” (written by Jennifer Snell) and “Easter” (written by Lindsay Marshall). In addition to outlining historical and global traditions as well as ways to involve children and community members in the season, the authors include Resources sections at the end of each chapter, listing various readings, music, and prayers related to Holy Week and Easter. These lists are a lovely taste of how these seasons have been celebrated over time, functioning both as a sort of educational survey of seasonal expression and as a suggestion for materials that can supplement the celebration of Holy Week and Easter in one’s church.

The authors highlight some important truths about Holy Week and Easter, as well as Christian tradition in general. Jennifer Snell, in her chapter on Holy Week, speaks of the need to slow our busy schedules in order to fully experience these seasons. In her introduction, Jessica Snell says that “Christians developed seasonal devotional practices that helped remind God’s people of God’s mercies,” affirming the importance of being mindful of these seasons’ significance to the Christian history and faith and how traditions and rituals aid such mindfulness. The authors rightly emphasize active participation in liturgical seasons, particularly within the context of one’s church. Jennifer Snell says it well in the quotation that sticks with me most: “No private devotion can substitute for the corporate journey to Easter in the company of your church.” Easter is more than a single Sunday service in the year; it is, as the authors continually point out, a season that is the focal point of the Church year, just as Christ’s resurrection is the focal point of the Christian faith.

I am by no means an expert on church history and tradition, but based on some research into topics I was less familiar with (and after running a few things by my seminarian husband), the book’s historicity seems to generally hold up (but again, I can’t make any truly authoritative statements in this regard). For other non-experts like myself, the book seems to be a good starting point for learning about various aspects of Western Christian tradition and a potentially good jumping-off point into conducting further research, if readers should desire to do so. The book’s success in this regard could have been even greater if the authors had included more citations of church history texts. It’s possible the authors (understandably) wanted to avoid an overly academic tone, but more prolific historical citations would have enhanced the authors’ credibility and provided additional historical resources for readers to explore. The Bibliography does include some historical works, but most are only directly referenced once or twice; even including a more comprehensive list of historical “Works Consulted,” or something similar, would have bolstered the book in this area.

I came away from the book feeling that the authors should have more clearly stated (even in the form of merely one or two sentences) that their focus is on Western Christian traditions and practices; while some Eastern church practices are mentioned briefly, the book primarily presents Holy Week, Easter, and the cycles of the church year through the lens of Western Christianity (that is, Roman Catholicism and denominations derived from it, such as Anglicanism, Lutheranism, and Presbyterianism). This is implicit in the text, which, as one example, often references the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, but readers who are unfamiliar with church history or any sort of liturgical tradition may not make that inference.

Unfortunately, the book contains some typographical errors; nothing egregious, but enough to be noticeable. For example, the title of a book cited, The Origins of the Liturgical Year by Thomas J. Talley, is printed correctly on the Bibliography page but incorrectly when referenced in the text itself. Even the name of the book, as printed on the cover, does not match the book’s name as printed on the title page or front matter page: on the cover, it’s “living the Church Year at home,” while on the other pages it’s “celebrating the Church Year at home.”

Beyond these critiques, the book offers important insight into the history of celebrating the seasons of Holy Week and Easter, and it also provides inspiration for how and why Christians of all backgrounds should work to internalize and cultivate in their daily lives an active participation in the liturgical seasons.

Beauty is Passing, Perhaps still Important

Immanuel Kant said, “Two things fill the mind with ever increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” The beauty Kant saw in the starry sky impacted him deeply and moved him to wonder and awe which are the same traits we use to describe our  worship for God. For the Church, beauty shouldn’t only be used for superfluous adornment but as strong cultivators of the feelings which help us worship.


However, some churches would question the use of physical beauty believing it hinders rather than helps. With this mindset, beauty becomes a distraction when the worshiper stops paying attention to the meaning behind the object and instead focuses on the object itself. This is the sin outlined in the second commandment which says, “you shall not make for yourself a carved image…you shall not bow down or serve them…” The temptation to worship the beauty found in the creation rather than the creator is a real danger and for some believers, physical beauty fails to cultivate proper worship.


The Bible recognizes this danger and warns about the snare of physical beauty telling us, “Man looks at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart.” Our human tendency gravitates toward prioritizing outward beauty. Physical beauty is easy to value since it’s present and tangible, but we are reminded, “Charm is fleeting and beauty is passing.” To find worth in beauty only for its present benefit is to then only find value in a brief and temporary satisfaction.

While it’s prudent to recognize these potential  dangers of beauty, it’s also important not to dismiss it altogether but realize it can play a significant role. In the appropriate context, the use of beauty should never become the forbidden graven image, a created object worshipped in the place of God. Rather, beauty is used to guide and increase the worship of God. This is why some churches include stained glass windows as part of their decor. The purpose of the stained glass is not to distract from God but to direct our attention to God through the resulting feelings of wonder and awe.

If the beautiful images found in nature and in man’s handiwork are able to generate worship, it’s also possible for the beauty found in man to also point to God. In fact, perhaps the type of beauty found in man best reflects the person of God since we were created in His own image. The danger is not beauty itself, but the temptation to over-value physical beauty. Physically, this means it is possible for us  to dress up for church to respect God but also as a means to generate worship of God through the beauty of our clothes.  


Ultimately, the better reflection of God is found in the beauty of our spirit which is why Peter says, “Do not let your adornment be merely outward — arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel — rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit.”  In comparison to the earthly beauty which perishes, the loveliness of our souls displays a far greater enduring spiritual beauty. While it is good to cultivate and appreciate material beauty, ultimately we must remember our focus should be centered around glorifying God through the cultivation of the imperishable beauty of our spirits.




Death, Thanksgiving, and the Resurrection

“Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” — St. Silouan the Athonite

I’ve been thinking a lot about death lately. An acquaintance of mine is a widower, and while I knew previously that his wife died several years ago, I only recently learned how: she suffered a sudden and massive heart attack. This woman was in her early thirties and in good health, and she died shortly after giving birth to the couple’s first child.

It’s easy for me to think of tragedy as something very distant and other. Tragedy happens to people on the news. It is sad and horrible, but always in a somewhat abstract way.

It’s easy to put my faith in statistics and regular exercise and my daily vegetable intake.

It’s easy to believe that because I am young and reasonably healthy I have a lot of life ahead of me.

Of course, if asked point-blank, I would not say that I expect to live to a certain age or that my life will go exactly as I hope and plan it will; no rational person can say that with certainty. Tragedy teaches us that life is very uncertain. Yet my underlying attitude comes out in my words: I joke with my husband about “when we’re old and gray;” I muse about parenting strategies and baby names in preparation for “when we have kids.” I use language of certainty when I speak of the future.

Like so many things in a young person’s mind, I often and far too easily relegate death to the far-off “someday” category. It will come when I’m old and after I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set out to accomplish. Perhaps I don’t believe this completely or even all the time, but in some small corner of my heart, I believe that death will come when I’m ready for it.

And so, it seems I have built an altar to my hopes and dreams, to what I expect out of life and what I think I deserve. I rely on a good diet and good luck for a fulfilled life, and in so doing I ignore the reality of death and tragedy, which really boils down to ignoring God and my need for him.

A former priest of mine used to respond to the question, “How are you doing?” with the statement, “Thank God.” That is, regardless of the circumstances in his life at that moment—whether joyous or tragic or somewhere in between—he responded in this way to practice continual thanksgiving. This is a good reminder of what our baseline should be as Christians: thankfulness to God for every good and perfect thing, and, more importantly, thankfulness for his unchanging goodness and mercy despite our current life circumstances.

After my priest’s example, I am trying to change the way I talk about my life. I speak of the future in terms of God’s will instead of my own plans. Rather than saying, “When I’m an old woman,” I’ll say, “Lord willing, when I’m old.” It’s not bad to hope for good things, but it is bad to idolize our desires and expectations.  We must remember who is ultimately in control, placing our faith in God’s sovereignty and grace above all else, especially when life doesn’t go according to plan.

This past Saturday, my church celebrated Christ’s raising of Lazarus from the dead. I was moved by one of the Scripture readings during the service, from the book of Hebrews:

“Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we may boldly say: ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear. What can man do to me?’…Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” — Hebrews 13:5-6, 8

In just a few verses there is such a profound and overarching message: that we must be content with what we have, for the greatest thing we always have is a God who will never abandon us, and that is all we could ever need.

While ignoring the reality of death and tragedy can be detrimental, I am not promoting the opposite extreme of being so consumed with the notion of death and mortality that we become hopeless and fail to live our lives well. Rather, we must be mindful of death, our weaknesses, and other realities that ultimately illumine our continual need for God and his grace. The Jesus Prayer, inspired by the parable of the tax collector in Luke 18, is a powerful aid for such mindfulness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.”

My contemplation of death seems appropriately timed, as we near the end of Holy Week and rapidly approach Easter Sunday. Soon, the Christian world will celebrate Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Death has been defeated, and while it is still a terrible reality of this life, it is not our end. Our mortality and our shortcomings remind us to be humble, but, as St. Silouan says in the quote above, we must not despair. This is not to say that tragedy and suffering are to be dismissed as insignificant; Christ himself mourned the death of Lazarus, which points to how death is unnatural and against God’s will. Death is a horrific thing that tears apart a human’s very being. But thanks to Christ, we have hope beyond death and despite tragedy and suffering, as our savior tells us:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” — John 16:33

Thank God.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

The Seventh Day

“To set apart one day a week for freedom, a day on which we would not use the instruments which have been so easily turned into weapons of destruction, a day for being with ourselves, a day of detachment from the vulgar, of independence of external obligations, a day on which we stop worshipping the idols of technical civilization, a day on which we use no money…is there any institution that holds out a greater hope for man’s progress than the Sabbath?” – Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath


This past summer, I found myself in a lot of cathedrals. I traveled to Switzerland, France, Spain, and England, and in each place I saw tall turrets and brilliant glass windows. I quickly learned that experiencing the outside of a cathedral is not the same as experiencing the inside of a cathedral. The outside is colossal and glorious and allows you to see where the cathedral exists in space compared to all that exists around it. The inside is colossal and glorious in a different way. It is darker, holier. In it, your senses adjust to the sacredness of the space. The scents and sounds are different, the air is cooler, and there is no direct sunlight. Rather, all sunlight is filtered through stained glass windows wherein you see your Savior and His story. He is brighter than you, and you are aware of it. When you are in a cathedral, you are in a sacred space: a space built by man but dwelt in by God. This is the Christian tradition.


While the beauty of sacred spaces can be appreciated in itself, sacred spaces only fully affect us if the time within them is sacred as well. Abraham Joshua Heschel, Jewish rabbi and activist of thetwentieth century, speaks about the sacred thing that God built before man ever built the cathedral. In The Sabbath, Heschel points out that there was a designated sacred time before there were sacred spaces. This sacred time was the seventh day, the only thing God created in the beginning that He called “holy.” Sabbath—or Shabbat, as it’s called in the Jewish tradition—is like an incorporeal cathedral. It is a sacred architecture assembled not in space but in time.


During Shabbat, it is the participant who decides to make Shabbat holy. This is very different from sacred space. The sacred spaces we gather in (like cathedrals) are, in part, designed to help us adopt the right posture towards God during sacred times of worship. Yet in holy spaces, I fidget and my mind wanders if I have not learned to regard time correctly. Although sacred spaces invite you into sacred thoughts, if you have not learned to value time as sacred as well, you likely will not feel the need to actively give up your internal quarrels or evil thoughts. We can enter into sacred spaces while hiding these profanities so that they are invisible to everyone else. However, it is much more difficult to enter into sacred time while harboring profane thoughts. For Shabbat to occur, the participant must actively give up enemies, quarrels, and work. Worry is laid aside; war ceases. Shabbat is an internal commitment to keep the seventh day sacred, and it is this internal commitment to sacredness that enables us to fully experience the affect of external sacred spaces.


Shabbat celebrates time, not space, teaching us how to have a proper relationship with time. The result of the fall is a broken relationship between man and himself, God, and all of creation. We must learn how to correct our relationship to all aspects of existence again, including time, which is an aspect of existence that we often misuse. Driven by our desire for success, Americans often consider rest as merely a means to increase productivity throughout the week, failing to see rest as an end in itself. To Heschel, however, Shabbat “is not an interlude but the climax of living.” When we enter Shabbat, we enter into a glimpse of eternity, or as Heschel calls it, “eternity in disguise.” During Shabbat, we cannot pick up our worries and quarrels as we would on a normal day. We are commanded to enter into rest, and that rest reminds us that our earthly cares are just that—earthly. They cannot follow us into eternity, and if we enter Shabbat correctly, they cannot follow us into Shabbat, either. Shabbat is peace in action among man and everything else. For one day, we do not fight the earth, fellow man, or God. The only thing we fight during Shabbat is our own desire to do, a desire that often stems from the idea that doing is what makes us worthy or whole. Once we fight ourselves out of doing, we can realize that just by being—being God’s child, an heir to the kingdom, a new creation—we are worthy. Work is important to the Christian life, yes. But we must remember that it is God who makes us worthy and whole, not our work.


The cathedrals I found in Europe are merely one testament to how much we’ve done to preserve historically sacred spaces. We have done much less to preserve the ancient practice of sacred time. Imagine if the number of sacred places on earth were converted into sacred days during which we could experience the peace of the kingdom of God. Rest and peace can happen outside of a cathedral. We can fill the entire world with the sacred peace of Shabbat.


A Time to Weep

Ecclesiastes 3 tells us “to everything there is a season” and the current season we are in is Lent. But most of the conversations I’ve had about Lent miss the underlying meaning of this season and focus only on what’s been given up. While Lent does incorporate the practice of giving up, also called fasting, the underlying purpose of Lent is to set apart a time for the purpose of grieving. So when I’ve been asked, “What are you giving up for Lent?” I’m not upset because I know one part of Lent is the practice of fasting, but another part of me also feels the loss in failing to connect fasting to the overall purpose of entering into a time of grief.

From the conversations I’ve had about Lent, grief and fasting are not often linked together, and this is understandable. At first glance, the acts grieving and fasting seem fairly distinct; one focuses on sorrow while the other focuses on self-discipline. However, Lent does not separate these practices but intertwines them. So what is the link between grieving and fasting? One answer may be that both grief and fasting allow the believer to learn how to let go of things belonging this world and to learn how to hold on to things belonging to God

Before diving into the link of grieving and fasting, it is important to first clearly understand what each process entails. Grief is not just an emotion but the recognition of loss, and while the specific examples of loss may vary, the characteristics do not. Loss is a combination of the inevitable, painful, involuntary and disorienting, and while we can’t control loss, we can control our response. When responding with grief, change is directed by the reason for grief. If grief is centered around the self, loss causes despair since it can only focus on what has been lost and the inability of man to reclaim. But when we grieve in the context of the Christian life, loss teaches us to face our mortality, values, and fears. For the believer, this lesson from loss is possible since life is not contained only on this earth but is sustained for eternity from God. Thus for the believer, grief should not cause us to spiral inward and downward but should instead lead us outward to express, embrace and explore.

While grief involves the emotions, it is also not a short or passive experience but a strenuously active processing of loss. This is because part of the Christian life is the long-term process of learning how to acquire and how to let go. Job reflects this process when in his grief he declares,

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”  Job’s cry stems from the knowledge that his life was not grounded in what he possessed or what he lost but rather founded on his relationship with God. This perspective exemplifies the Christian grief which recognizes the loss on earth but simultaneously understands our lives ultimately rely on God.

So during Lent, fasting similarly reminds us our sustenance isn’t found in what we gain or lose but in the eternal relationship we have with God. Often times, fasting is merely seen as a way to practice endurance or self-discipline. However, its deeper meaning is revealed through abstaining from one form of sustenance such as food which then points to the greater sustenance of another such as God. The remembrance of and reliance on God through fasting then allows believers to focus on the renewal of a relationship with God. It’s a self-imposed loss which similar to grief should not cause us to turn inward or despair but should instead lead us to explore and embrace the relationship we have with God.

Grieving is difficult and at times overwhelming but it is also a process which ultimately allows for growth. While growth can be found amidst loss and grief,  “we do not grieve as others do who have no hope.” Likewise, when we fast, we don’t fast eternally but in preparation for feasting. Instead, we learn how to properly give things up with the belief they will eventually be replaced with things far better. So in this season of grief, let us patiently and somberly grow in the process of loss but let us also be encouraged in the hope of what is to come.

Family Matters: A Biblical perspective one’s duty to the family

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.26).

These are the words of Jesus, spoken to a crowd of his followers. This is a severe and perhaps surprising assertion. One would not expect Jesus, who demonstrates perfect compassion and love, to ask his disciples to show hatred towards their families. This demand does not seem to fit in with the behavior that is expected in the Kingdom of God. To complicate matters, Paul says in 1 Timothy that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1Timothy 5.8). Paul’s statement is also harsh, but what he says seems to contradict the words of Jesus. Yet, with a deeper investigation, these seemingly opposite claims can be reconciled.

When Jesus says his disciples must hate their family members, he is not giving instructions on how to treat one’s family, but rather communicating the cost of being a disciple. He concludes his talk saying, “therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14.33). He means that the cost of being a disciple of Christ is a heavy one. It requires the complete renunciation of oneself. We are to serve God and God alone. This does not mean that we ought to hate our families, but it does mean that we have to renounce our duty to them. The severity of Jesus’ statement is genuine. He is reminding us that one cannot enter into the Kingdom of God half-heartedly.

Paul statement on the family is actual instruction for the church. The family is an institution created by God. It was designed so that members could care for each other. In fact, proper care of one’s family is necessary for the thriving of the church as a whole. Regarding church leaders, Paul writes, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1Timothy 3:4-5) To be effective in the church, you must first prove to be faithful in the small things. We are called to care for our families before we can extend our reach to the church and to the world.

Jesus and Paul are speaking of two different aspects of the Christian life. Jesus is talking about the weight of the decision to follow him. Paul is giving guidance of how we ought to live once we have given our all to Jesus. Combining the messages of Jesus and Paul, we can conclude that when we renounce our family, we receive an even greater responsibility for them. To become a follower of Christ, we must surrender all. Yet, we take on a new lifestyle when we choose to follow Jesus. We are expected to behave differently. We now put God above all, and in doing so, recognize everything that all we have belongs to him in the first place. Jesus reminds us that our families are not actually ours. Family is a gift which was graciously bestowed upon man by God. Thus, we must care for them, adhering to the structure and order that God has designed. Of course, this cannot be done without love, compassion, and attention to our loved ones. When we are faithful in this task, we can also serve effectively in God’s church. It remains our responsibility to love our families as Christ loves us.

Living a “Christ-Centered” Life is Nobody’s Job but Your Own

I recently saw an online advertisement for a Christian university. The banner across the top of my webpage featured smiling students and, following the name of the school, the tagline, “A Christ-centered education.”

This advertisement, like those for many other Christian universities, implies that Christ-centeredness is an intrinsic part of their students’ education and, more subtly, that attending a Christian school is the best way to have a “Christ-centered” education.

This got me thinking, because it’s simply not true.

I spent the first three semesters of my undergraduate education at a private, Christian university. I learned and grew a lot over that time, and I still have fond memories of attending the school and maintain friendships forged there. However, I chose to finish my education at a public, state university, so I’m able to compare my experience at both types of institutions.

To be sure, attending a Christian college or university is a fine choice for many students. It may be the right kind of environment some need to cultivate and discern their faith, and I’m sure many alumni of Christian schools can claim the same benefits from their education that I found at a secular school. There are stories from all sides—those of students who attended Christian schools and later strayed from the faith, those of students who attended secular schools and found God, and everything in between—and I’d be very interested to hear some of those stories. This is just what I’ve learned from my experience.

So, back to that advertisement: at best, it is quite misleading. Implying that a “Christ-centered” education is best attained by attending a Christian school is the same as saying that a “Christ-centered” career can best be achieved by working for an expressly Christian organization.

To have a Christ-centered education (or job, or life, or anything), one must be Christ centered.

I appreciate that the goal of many Christian schools is to look at education through the lens of Christianity, but in the end (as I’m sure many of these schools would themselves confirm) that work can only be done by the individual Christian in every aspect of his or her life. The only person who can truly and consistently cultivate my faith is me, by the grace of God. There are many benefits that come from taking Biblical exegesis courses or having academic discussions about the intersection of Christianity and other disciplines, but all of the Bible classes in the world can’t replace a personal discipline to study and learn from Scripture and other Christian writings. No number of mandatory chapel services can replace active membership in a church community.

The church is another important factor in this conversation, because the church is (or ought to be) the linchpin for the Christian’s personal spiritual development.

Christian schools are not administers of the sacraments; churches are.

I doubt that any Christian school would claim to be a replacement for the church. In my experience, most Christian schools seek to augment a student’s spiritual development, serving as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, the unique growth and guidance that comes from the church. However, I want to emphasize that it’s important for all Christians to remember that Christ established the church to be the guardian and administer of the faith, and other Christian institutions are secondary.

Also, as someone who attended both a Christian and a secular university, I can attest the fact that one’s spiritual development is not necessarily better or worse in either environment, nor do the beliefs of professors or peers necessarily have a crucial influence on one’s spiritual or academic growth.

I was honestly afraid to switch from the Christian school—an environment I had been in since the fourth grade—to the secular university, fearing that my “worldly” classmates would immediately judge, attack, or condemn my faith. Instead, I found that my professors and fellow students were, on the whole, respectful, thoughtful, and intelligently curious when conversations about religion came up. Also, interacting with people who hold different beliefs than I do (about God, school, morality, life) was very beneficial, as it gave me better insight into how people who are different than me think about the world. I learned both how we are different and how we are not so different. I learned that non-Christians are not necessarily “out to get” me, making me more open to honest conversations about life and faith, rather than afraid of them. I took classes, completed projects, and engaged in discussions with Christians, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, and more. To be honest, a lot of the time our personal beliefs didn’t come into play.

Learning in an environment that was not centered around religion made me realize that many people simply don’t care about my religion, so I don’t need to be afraid of immediate judgments about me based on what I believe. It also drove home the reality that the responsibility to remain Christ centered in everything I do is entirely my own.

I feel that my personal experience in both the Christian and secular academic environments demonstrates that a school’s professed religion (or lack thereof) does not necessarily impact a student’s spiritual development, and, more importantly, that Christ-centeredness hinges first and foremost upon the individual Christian. You may be mandated to attend chapel, but no one is going to force you to go to church. All Christians are called to participate in the work of their faith and to choose for themselves what the center of their lives will be, no matter where they decide to get an education.

“And When You Fast:” Thoughts on Food in Preparation for Great Lent

‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything. – 1 Corinthians 6:12

As we approach Great Lent every year, a common question pops up in online articles, during coffee hours after Sunday services, and in casual conversations among Christians and non-Christians alike:

“So, what are you giving up for Lent?”

Some may give up an activity like engaging in social media or watching television. Others may pick a single food item, such as candy, or soda, or french fries. It’s good to try and purge things from your life that are unnecessary or overly time consuming, even if only for a temporary period.

But I want to speak of my personal experience in the practice of significant dietary fasting and why I’d like to encourage evangelicals (and all Christians) to consider a somewhat larger-scale food fast this year for Lent.

(Of course, everything I say here is based on my personal experience and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice. Anyone who wants to try fasting or make any significant change in their diet should first consult with their doctor and consider their personal medical and dietary history and needs.)

I was raised in an evangelical tradition, and while I grew up accustomed to the notion of fasting, the extent of my experience with and knowledge of fasting and other Lenten practices was limited to my observations of Catholic acquaintances. I knew that people commonly gave something up for Lent, and many of my (Catholic and non-Catholic) friends talked about giving up something specific and limited, like their favorite junk food. Chocolate was a popular choice.

I didn’t try fasting until I was in college, and I went pretty large-scale, compared to the kind of fasting with which I was familiar. For Lent during my freshman year, I gave up all animal products: meat and dairy, essentially. This is the fast I have kept (not without slip-ups, of course) for Lent since then.

Fasting has taught me some important lessons about my relationship with food. I’ve learned that I use food to to self-medicate, to improve my mood, and to indulge myself when I’m having a rough day.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that when it comes to food, easily and often, I am not in control: rather, food controls me. When I suddenly can’t reach for my favorite comfort foods, I get frustrated, sometimes depressed.

The tagline of many Snickers commercials is “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” with the implication that eating a Snickers bar will help you feel more like yourself. But is it really good for us to believe that we are somehow not ourselves and out of control unless we can always immediately satisfy our cravings and fill our bellies the instant we feel the pang hunger?

An acquaintance once responded to the idea of fasting by saying, “I don’t need to fast because I’m free in Christ to eat whatever I want.” But it’s not good to always eat, or do, or say, or think whatever we want. Acting on every impulse and desire is not freedom.

I’ve also heard people balk at the notion of giving up food in any sense because they simply “love” food too much. If the only reason a person resists fasting is because they truly cannot fathom giving up certain foods, or they enjoy certain foods too much to abstain from them even temporarily, that is no mark of freedom, either. It is more like gluttony. Fasting has taught me that I far too easily turn food into an idol, something I worship and rely on in order to feel satisfied.

I never knew how much of a slave to food I was until I tried fasting.

Another benefit I’ve realized from fasting this way is that it enhances the celebration of the resurrection at Easter. Fasting, followed by feasting, enables us to celebrate with all aspects of our being. Humans are not merely intellectual or emotional creatures; we are physical as well. I think many people like to believe that our bodies are not really part of who we are, or they are at least a lesser part of who we are, but that’s simply not true. God created us spiritual and material, and He cares enough about our bodies to redeem them through Christ’s incarnation and restore them in the resurrection we are promised after death.

After all, if our bodies weren’t an important aspect of who we are, fasting would be no big deal.

Further, by indulging in certain foods out of celebration rather than out of necessity (because we “can’t” give them up), we practice mastery over our food instead of letting food master us.

Fasting also inspires thankfulness by reminding us of the true purpose of food, on its most basic level: survival. When food is no longer about what I want or what sounds good and is instead just about nourishment, I am reminded on a visceral level to be thankful for such nourishment, even when it’s as simple as a bowl of rice and beans or a piece of fruit.

It’s also crucial to keep in mind that fasting is not about maintaining perfect abstinence in order to make ourselves “worthy” to receive God’s grace. It’s about freeing ourselves from any unhealthy relationship we may have with food (or anything else) and finding our satisfaction in God alone.

Food, Faith, and Fasting, a podcast hosted by Rita Madden (a Registered Dietician who also holds a Master of Public Health degree), is a great resource for anyone interested in learning more about fasting and spirituality, as well as gaining some practical tips on the topic. She has some good thoughts on the relationship between hunger and spirituality during a fasting season:

Now it’s important to mention something here, because when hunger goes up, frustration goes up. So when we feel hungry, we also get frustrated. Blood sugar goes down; irritability goes up. So be aware of that: there are going to be times when you’re going to feel frustrated more. Turn to prayer…When you’re feeling hungry, and you turn that hunger into prayer, whether it be at a service or in your prayer corner at home or just taking a five-minute break and just clocking out of your workday and having prayer, this is a good thing. This is how this tool of fasting can help us to deepen our prayer life and our walk in faith.

Again, the practice of fasting helps us master our hunger instead of being mastered by hunger. Instead of turning to food in our hunger, we can turn to God.

This year, I encourage Christians who have never practiced a Lenten fast, or who have never practiced it on a larger scale, to consider doing so by giving up something significant in your diet. Of course, one beauty of the fast is that there is no “right” way to do it; consult with your pastor or priest (and your doctor) to discern what is appropriate for you. It’s okay to start small, especially if you’ve never fasted before.

Try and choose something that will be difficult to give up, because it is largely in the daily work of the fast that the greatest blessings are revealed and that we are reminded to look to God alone for our true satisfaction and sustenance.