Monday, April 14, 2014

Reflection on the Festival of Faith and Writing

Last week my wife and I attended the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

More accurately, I tagged along with my wife, who is a writer (you can see some of her work here) and an English and writing professor at Bethel College (Indiana), as well as with several students and a few other professors from Bethel (which also happens to be my alma mater).

This was my first time at the festival, but my wife has attended several times. It was, in a word, inspiring.

For three days we were immersed in a community comprised of Christians from all tribes and traditions of the faith and who are committed to thinking deeply about their faith and engaging the important issues of our day thoughtfully and creatively through their art.

I heard fantastic talks on things ranging from the intersection of discipleship and Christian faith with our stewardship of the land and environment, to the power of story and words in writing toward justice, to pop theology and cultural analysis, to writing spiritual memoir and the place of doubt in our faith, to perhaps the ultimate question: What is the good life and what does it look like to pursue it, or more specifically, the question asked by Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, What does flourishing life look like in light of Jesus Christ?

I felt at home in this community of writers, poets, pastors, and theologians, among others. It was like a little taste of heaven for three days.

I laughed. I cried. I was moved deeply. I was challenged to think deeper and better about my faith. I was reminded through a few of the sessions and readings how too often I'm oblivious to the suffering of others and how wrapped up in myself I tend to be. And I was inspired to stick with it. To keep writing. To keep probing. To keep wrestling. To keep thinking.

I (stupidly) only took notes the last day. Here are some of the thoughts from various presenters that impacted me:

Theologian Donna Bowman reminded us that everyone is a theologian and a critic. The trick is to be an informed and thoughtful one!

As thoughtful and informed theologians and critics, we can help bring a more informed perspective and help correct misguided and less charitable readings and interpretations. This is an important task, especially in our day of soundbites, slogans, and reductionist caricatures.
"The theologian must not only remain faithful to the past [i.e. received tradition], but also faithful to the moment [i.e. contextualization]." (Donna Bowman)
Theologian Miroslav Volf presented a paper on "The Ends of Our Lives" in which he was probing into the question of what is the good life and how does one pursue such a life?

Volf critiqued the failed secular thesis that religion is outmoded and outdated and that society would increasingly become completely secularized, devoid of all religion, because God would simply be superfluous.

He then presented statistics showing how the world is actually growing more religious, not less. And he offered some suggestions for why that might be the case.

At the root of Volf's thesis is Augustine's famous opening line in his Confessions about the restlessness of our hearts until we find rest in God. Volf believes this is intrinsic to what it means to be human. And furthermore, this is the foundation of all the major world religions, whether they speak of God or not.

All religions, Volf said, have the idea the Transcendent and they stand or fall on how well they connect people to the Transcendent and what it means to live a good and meaningful life in light of the Transcendent.

Of course, the really interesting conversations begin when we start asking what is meant by "the Transcendent", for there is a diversity of views across the major world faiths, and Volf doesn't shy away from this reality.

Nevertheless, all the major world faiths are pointing beyond themselves to a higher and deeper reality that invites its adherents to think deeply about the meaning and purpose of life and to live a good life in service to something bigger than yourself.
"Chasing consumeristic highs, we rarely reflect on the character and purpose of our lives ...  We seek to satisfy our desires without reflecting on what is desirable and why." (Miroslav Volf)
Writer Anne Lamott was one of the keynote speakers at this year's festival. I've not yet read any of her books; yet being the key term. Because after hearing her speak for a plenary session and then later in an interview/conversation, I was mesmerized. She's brilliant, hilarious, and deeply compassionate.

Anne talked about a lot of things. She's clearly at home as a story teller. She writes, I learned, a lot about suffering. "We're Easter people [living] in a Good Friday world," she said.

Somehow her seemingly disparate meanderings as she talks weave themselves together into a tapestry that makes profound points and could just as easily leave you laughing or crying, but always thinking and always challenged to be more compassionate and loving toward others.

Anne has been writing every day for forty years. I got the impression it's the same time every day -- early first thing in the morning. She dispelled any notions that the writing life is sexy or romantic. It's painful, excruciating, hard work that requires you simply put your butt in the chair and keep at it. Day in and day out, month after month, year after year.
"The only way you can find artistic spiritual freedom in this world is through structure and discipline." (Anne Lamott)
Richard Foster has become the spiritual formation guru of sorts for evangelicals who are discovering (many for the first time) the ancient spiritual disciplines and the classical writings of the great spiritual fathers and mothers of Christian faith.

Foster reminded us that we need to be free to be silent and to not speak or write. Indeed, the first task of writing, said Foster, is neither to write nor to read, but rather to listen. Listen for God's voice and his "wonderful, terrifying silence." Then be free to write and speak when the time is right.
"Get into a rhythm of the cosmic patience of God. Then what needs to be said will come in due time." (Richard Foster) 
Finally, writer Rachel Held Evans was another keynote speaker at this year's festival. Rachel is the type that you probably either love or hate. I love her. I read her blog regularly and, even if I happen to disagree with this or that point, I find a deep resonance with her critique of the conservative, politicized evangelical Right. So do a host of others.

Rachel, who like Anne Lamott, is also very funny, brilliant, and deeply compassionate, was vulnerable about her own insecurities as a writer, even now that she's famous. She also talked humbly about some of the hard lessons she's learned (and continues to learn) about rocking the proverbial boat. "Don't just rock the boat for the sake of rocking it," she said. Excellent advice.

She also touched on our motivations for writing and being artists. Do we hope to become famous? Do we think that when we get that book deal we'll finally be happy and all our dreams will come true?

They won't and we won't, she assured us. Another hard lesson born out of her own experience.

Instead, it turns out that the act of writing is it's own reward, regardless of and perhaps even in spite of, what good things may come your way upon publishing and becoming more publicly recognized.
"The scandal of the Gospel is not who it keeps out, but who it lets in." (Rachel Held Evans)
If you're a reader, writer, and/or artist and you've never attended the Festival of Faith and Writing, do so! It convenes every two years on the beautiful campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

On Writing

I've always enjoyed reading and writing. My favorite class in elementary school was reading and then later in high school it was English. I devoured books as a kid and wrote stories. Lots of them. I even attended to a few young author's conferences.

Writing was an important part of my life from an early age.

When I first went away to college my declared major was exercise science. Being an athlete, I thought I wanted to be a personal trainer. (Hello? I never liked science class and in exercise science you take LOTS of science! Heck, I just wanted to work out.)

After taking a freshman comp course and then an exposition in writing course where the assignments were to read great books and write about them, I quickly changed my major to English. Mike Dolzani became my adviser and my first professor-mentor who encouraged me. To this day he probably has no idea how deeply he impacted my life in those formative years. (Dr. Dolzani, if by chance you are reading this, THANK YOU!) 

I knew I wanted to be a writer. Maybe an English and literature professor too. But definitely a writer. I was even working on a piece of creative non-fiction back then, though I wasn't aware of the genre at the time. I stayed up late into the night, tap tap tapping the keys of my laptop as the words poured out of me. Looking back, they were silly vignettes. Mostly about experiences with my friends, our drunken exploits, and the drama of our lives. I guess we all start by writing what we know.   

One thing I've learned is that life rarely turns out like how you think it will. I never finished my bachelor's degree in English. My father had been sick since I was a sophomore in high school. But no one could figure out what was wrong with him. During my freshman year of college, doctors did a heart cath on my dad and discovered he had cardiomyopathy. His heart only functioned at 17 percent capacity. 

It was a cruel twist of fate. A fluke, really. No high blood pressure. No high cholesterol. None of the typical heart disease issues. A virus had attacked his heart and killed the muscle. It happens. And unfortunately it happened to my dad. Doctors said he would be dead within two or three years. They were wrong. He lasted seven. 

I left college near the end of the spring semester of my junior year to come home and help take care of my dad. I think there were only two or three weeks left in the semester. I remember packing my red, two-door Ford Escort hatchback with the black trim on the sides and clean, grey interior. I loved that car. 

It was a sunny but cool day. The sky was deep blue and with a hint of grey overcast looming from Lake Erie. The sweet smell of spring was in the air. It was the promise of new life. But instead it felt like the end. 

My friends and I cried as we hugged and said our goodbyes. This was before everyone had cell phones, before Facebook, Twitter, Skype and FaceTime. Returning home, five hours from school in another state, might as well have been the other side of the world. 

In my heart I thought I'd be back. And while I did manage to visit friends back on campus a couple times, I never did make it back as a student. I never finished my English degree. I still regret that. Not the decision to come home. I've never regretted that for a moment or had a second thought about it. But I do regret never finishing the degree.

Despite not having a degree, I was able to get a job as a reporter at a local newspaper. I worked my way up and then got hired at a larger local paper. Although I wasn't writing the great American novel or anything remotely close to what what might be considered literature or creative writing, I was getting paid to write. 

I loved chasing a story. The deadlines. The pressure. Seeing my byline, especially if it made front page of the section, or on a few occasions, front page of the entire paper. For a few short years it was glorious. And sometimes not. 

Eventually I moved on to other things. I worked construction. I worked in the parts department of an RV manufacturer. And I finished my degrees. Three of them over nine years. I worked full-time and went to school part-time. 

All of that seems like another lifetime ago now. Was that me? Did all that happen to me? Did I do those things? Who was that person? I'm not sure I know. 

Life happens. Life changes us. Choices are made. Providence takes us in new directions. We find ourselves doing things we never thought we'd do and perhaps never wanted to do. But the whole time we're becoming who we are. 

Like Annie Dillard famously said, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives ... What we are doing with this hour or that one is what we are doing."

Today I'm a pastor. How the hell did that happen? Long story. Maybe I'll tell you someday. Here's a secret, a confession maybe: I never wanted to be a pastor. I never thought I'd be a pastor. 

Except maybe I did. Maybe I was a pastor-in-training all along, the seemingly disparate strands, false starts, missteps and mishaps of my life forming me and shaping me into who I had been all along but without consciously realizing it. Maybe I was a pastor before I was ever officially called a pastor. Maybe I was a pastor before I ever knew I was a pastor. It seems so now.

In his memoir, The Pastor, Eugene Peterson describes his own circuitous journey of self-discovery to full-time vocational ministry as a pastor. He writes, "I had never planned to be a pastor, never was aware of any inclination to be a pastor, never 'knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.' And then -- at the time it seemed to arrive abruptly -- there it was: Pastor" (2).

When I first went to college they told us during freshman orientation that no matter what our major we would probably change careers five or six times. Being a pastor is my fourth career move. I've been a pastor longer now than anything else I've been in my adult life.

Through it all one thing has remained constant: I still write. I also still read voraciously. And the writing. And the writing. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Much Ado About Noah (for Nothing)

Many Christians are up in arms about the Hollywood blockbuster epic "Noah" released in theaters this past Friday. The film, starring Russell Crowe and directed by Darren Aronofsky, is a film adaption (and interpretation) of the biblical story of Noah (found in Genesis 6-9).

The outcry from (mostly) conservative, fundamentalist-leaning and evangelical Christians loyal to the political Right has been swift and substantial, calling on fellow Christians to boycott the film. 

The criticisms and critiques have ranged from personal attacks on Aronofsky for being an atheist (whether he is or not, I have no idea; but even if he is, what's that got to do with anything?!?), to a supposed "liberal environmentalist agenda" the film is supposedly pushing (because apparently Christians shouldn't be concerned about the environment . . . say what?), to some version of it-just-doesn't-really-follow-the-Bible (more on that below). 

Let's break this down a bit. 

One article I read argued before the film's release that Christians shouldn't see "Noah", accusing Aronofsky of being an open "card carrying atheist" and the movie as being a "totally un-Biblical approach" to the "Historical Account", ultimately suggesting that "you have to wonder, is this atheist just seeing if he can make fun of the Bible and get Christians to pay for it?", among other criticisms. 

This is a classic case of what they call in logic 101 poisoning the well and an ad hominem attack -- both strategically (but fallaciously) aimed at getting an audience to ignore and dismiss a claim or argument (or in this case, a movie). 

So what if Aronofsky, who was raised Jewish, is an avowed atheist? What does that have to do with whether or not he takes a biblical story and turns it into a thought-provoking, creative, and entertaining film? 

That's like saying the Left Behind movies are awful and should be boycotted (and in my opinion they are awful and should be boycotted for numerous reasons!) simply because they are based on books written by self-professed Christians and directed, cast, and comprised of actors who are Christians. 

Obviously they don't have an agenda, right? 

The fatuity of this type of criticism and attack is what gives Christians such a bad name to a watching a world. We really need to do better than this in thoughtfully engaging the culture. 

What of the criticism that the film is pushing some supposed "liberal environmentalist agenda"? 

I can't for the life of me figure out why conservative Christians (primarily on the political Right) who make such a hullabaloo about taking the Bible seriously and literally seem to fail to take seriously and literally the clear God-given command and implication in Genesis 1 and 2 (and found throughout Scripture) that human beings are to watch over, care for, preserve, and protect God's creation. 

Caring about the environment and God's creation isn't "liberal." It's actually about as biblical as it gets. Read your Bible. It's in there repeatedly. 

Finally, the vast majority of the criticism and critiques against the film boil down to some version of it-just-doesn't-really-follow-the-Bible. 

Several responses. 

First, it's a Hollywood MOVIE. There's going to be creative license.

Second, doesn't it follow the basic contours of the biblical story? 

Let's recap the main plot points of the story in the relevant chapters of Genesis:
  • God sees the pervasive wickedness of humankind (including a strange mention about apparently fallen angels) on the earth and that "every inclination of thoughts of their hearts were only evil continually" (Gens 6:5b). And so God decides to judge humankind by sending a flood to totally destroy every living thing.
  • Despite the wickedness and corruption over the entire earth, Noah is righteous and finds favor with God. So God speaks to Noah, informing him of his plan to destroy everything. But Noah and his family, along with a pair of every living creature (male and female) will be saved by Noah building an ark for them to ride out the storm.
  • Noah builds the ark and he, his family, and the animals safely ride the storm out while every other living thing is destroyed in a global cataclysmic flood. 
  • Eventually the waters recede, the ark comes to rest on some mountains, and Noah and his family, along with animals, exit the ark and are commanded to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. There's a fresh start and a new beginning.
  • God provides a rainbow, a reminder of his promise to never again destroy the earth and all living things through a global flood. 
  • Noah gets drunk, his son Ham sees him naked, his other two sons cover him, and Noah and Ham have a massive falling out.
All in all, I'd say Aronofsky's "Noah" is a relatively literalist rendering of the biblical story in terms of the primary plot and most of the details provided in the biblical text.

Does he go beyond what we have in Genesis 6 through 9? Of course. As Aronofksy notes in this interview, any film adaption that has Noah talking, names his wife or the wives of his children, goes beyond the biblical narrative. The details in the biblical story are pretty sparse.

But the overarching narrative and plot depicted in the film is a very literalist reading of the text. 

Finally, it seems that many Christians upset over "Noah" are uninformed about the fact that Aronofsky also clearly drew heavily on an Old Testament pseudepigraphal text called 1 Enoch for inspiration. This second century B.C.E. composite Jewish apocalyptic text, which strongly influenced the New Testament and early Christianity, purports to have been written by Enoch, the seventh descendant of Adam and Eve who was the father of Methuselah, who was the father of Lamech, who was the father of Noah. 

Genesis 5:24 reports tantalizingly: "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him." Thus, all kinds of stories and traditions developed in Judaism about Enoch, with 1 Enoch being just one, though perhaps the most influential, of three ancient Jewish books attributed to this Old Testament saint. 

Chapters 1-36 of 1 Enoch are commonly called the "Book of the Watchers" because, picking up the mention of supposed fallen angels from Genesis 6:1-2, it tells the story of these fallen angels (called Watchers in Enoch) and how they took wives of human beings, creating a race of giants, and taught human beings all kinds of secrets and advanced technological knowledge that ultimately led to pervasive wickedness and corruption among humans throughout the earth.

Although the Watchers seek for Enoch to intercede with God on their behalf, God's verdict has already been rendered: There will be no forgiveness for these rebellious fallen angles, and the corrupt world is going to be judged by a global cataclysmic flood. 

Later chapters of 1 Enoch describe the birth of Noah and how he and his family will be saved and preserved from this judgment, pointing toward a new start for humanity and all living things after the fury and destruction of the flood. 

So it turns out that, far from being "totally un-biblical" as many Christians claim, Aronofsky's "Noah" is creatively steeped in the biblical narrative and the ancient non-canonical Jewish texts, interpretations, and traditions that arose around the story and related characters. 

Aronofsky, it seems to me, masterfully and creatively weaves together these ancient stories, texts, and traditions in a sort of modern midrash (see also here and here for more on midrash) aimed at getting his audience to think about good and evil, mercy and justice, vengeance and forgiveness, goodness and beauty, and the importance of our free choices in determining these outcomes. 

Indeed, perhaps Old Testament scholar Peter Enns said it best in a recent relevant Tweet and Facebook status post: "For those still upset about 'Noah', try this: the movie isn't about Noah." In the comments thread Enns elaborated: "I think it's about humanity, violence, retribution, what is God up to, and second chances."

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Christian Year Spirituality: Retelling the Story

There are many ways we mark time: the days of the week (and the hours and minutes that comprise those days), the seasons of the year, holidays, birthdays and anniversaries, the school calendar (a big one for parents!), sports seasons, the Hallmark calendar. We could probably think of more.

Marking time in these ways is a natural, even necessary, part of our journey through life. They keep us cognizant of and attentive to important things like our child's birthday, our wedding anniversary, the start (and end) of the school year, opening day for baseball (or the kick-off of whatever your favorite sport is), and a host of other things.

Within this natural rhythm there are times of celebration and times of sorrow. Times for spring cleaning and times for storing away for winter.  Times that are busy and full of hustle and bustle, and times that are more relaxed.

"There is a time for everything," says the wisdom teacher in Ecclesiastes. Indeed.

As important and necessary as these various ways of marking time are, there is another way of marking time that, if we allow it, can spiritually form and shape us, keeping us attentive and attuned to the things of God: Christian year spirituality.
Christian year spirituality is a way to mark time by recalling and retelling the story of God's redemptive work accomplished through the person and work of Jesus Christ. 
It's a subtle way of reminding us that there's something bigger going on in the world and in our lives than who won the World Series, who's playing in the Super Bowl, the best deals for Black Friday shopping, and scurrying to buy chocolate and flowers for that special someone on Valentine's Day.

In Christian year spirituality we don't just retell the story. We're invited to enter into the story, allowing the story form and shape us as followers of Jesus. The story reorients us around the reality of the cosmic redemptive story that God's unfolding in history, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and the vital part we're called to play as agents and ambassadors of God's kingdom in the unfolding drama.

In his book Ancient-Future Time Robert Webber explains it this way:
"Christian-year spirituality is nothing less than the calling to enter by faith into the incarnation, the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s saving action is not only presented to us through the practice of the Christian year, it also takes up residence within us and transforms us by the saving and healing presence of Christ in our lives" (26). 
The idea of marking time through the sacred rhythm of God's redemptive work in history and retelling the pivotal stories of God's redemptive work and provision is deeply rooted in the Old Testament and Jewish heritage of Christian faith. (See Exodus 22; Leviticus 23; Numbers 28 and 29; and Deuteronomy 16 for the liturgical cycle of the annually appointed Jewish feasts).

By the time of Jesus (who lived as a first century Jew), Jewish worship revolved around set daily prayers, weekly Sabbath gatherings (and gatherings at other times) to hear Scripture, sing, and offer prayers, and a yearly cycle of festivals and special days that retold the story of God's mighty acts of salvation and provision on their behalf.

Here are a few examples of the annual cycle of feasts which Jews observed and that retold the story of God's redemptive work and provision in their history:

  • Passover (remembering the Exodus and deliverance from slavery in Egypt)
  • Festival of Unleavened Bread (remembering how God brought the Israelites out of Egypt in haste) 
  • Festival of Firstfruits (recognize God for his provision and blessing)
  • Festival of Weeks, also called Pentecost or Harvest (thankfulness for God's blessing of the harvest) 
  • Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur (special day of sacrifices to atone for the people's sin and to purify the holy place) 
  • Feast of Tabernacles or Booths (commemorating the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land
The BIG THREE (Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles) required annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the celebration and observance. While distance and cost prevented many Jews from attending all three in Jerusalem, many tried to at least make the pilgrimage for Passover. This was apparently the custom of Jesus' family. In Luke 2:41 we read that "Every year Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for the Festival of Passover." A small but important clue (among others in especially the early chapters of Luke's Gospel) that Jesus' family were pious Jews and that Jesus was no doubt raised immersed in the faith and story of his people. 

The early church took this rich Jewish heritage of marking sacred time and retelling the story of God's redemptive work and adapted it to the new thing that God had done through the person and work of Jesus Christ. 

So, for example, instead of weekly worshipping on the Sabbath (Saturday -- the seventh day of the week), almost immediately Christians began gathering for worship on the Lord's Day (Sunday -- the first day of the week and the day of Jesus' resurrection). 

Further, starting in the earliest centuries of Christian faith and developing over several hundred years, a liturgical calendar and cycle of feasts and special days developed marking the pivotal moments of Jesus' life such as his birth (Christmas), the journey toward his final days and death (Lent and Holy Week), his resurrection (Easter), and his accession back to the Father with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost). 

This cycle of sacred time retold the story of salvation accomplished through the person and work of Christ. 

Webber explains it this way:
"The simple, unadorned purpose of the Christian year is to proclaim the gospel of God’s saving deeds with Christ, especially in his death and resurrection.
"The Christian year represents the historical unfolding of the life of Christ and his sure return. One may observe that Advent deals with the coming of Christ; Christmas his birth; Epiphany, his manifestation to the Gentiles; Lent, his journey toward death; the Great [Three Days—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday], the last days of Jesus’ earthly life; Easter, the time to celebrate his resurrection; and Pentecost, the time to experience life in the power of the Holy Spirit ... 
"Piety is then based on this pilgrimage throughout the year … The spiritual purpose of celebrating God’s saving events is to be formed by Christ, to die with him, to be raised with him, to be born anew, and to live in the hope of his resurrection and return" (Ancient-Future Time, 30, 31). 
Christian year spirituality is an invitation to immerse ourselves in the cosmic redemptive story God's unfolding in history, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ. When we enter the rhythm of marking sacred time through the story of Jesus, we're reminded that there's a bigger thing that God's up to in the world than many of the things (some good and necessary, some not so good or necessary) that vie for our time, attention, and money.

Christian year spirituality also subversively helps redirect our focus to Christ and his kingdom and the part we're invited to play as agents and ambassadors of his kingdom as we walk in the way of Jesus for the good of the world.

Finally, it's an invitation to locate our own story within the bigger story of God's cosmic redemptive drama. As Eugene Peterson has said, "God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves."

For it's only in God's story that our story finds it's deepest sense of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment.

Monday, March 10, 2014

What is Lent?

What is Lent? Isn't that something only "Catholics" do? 

Hardly. 

Yesterday was the first Sunday in Lent. I began a teachings series at the church I lead that will immerse us in key stories from the life of Jesus over the next several weeks as we prepare for Easter.

While in a previous post I mentioned our Ash Wednesday gathering and my journey into embracing Christian year spirituality, I thought it would be helpful given my ministry context to take a few steps back and work toward answering this fundamental question: What is Lent?

For many folks who, like me, who grew up in a free Bible church or evangelical church tradition (or some combination of those), Lent is at best foreign and strange, and at worst seen disparagingly as something only those "Catholics" do. 

(Sorry to my Catholic brothers and sisters! We Protestant free church folk can be very insensitive and ignorant sometimes! Please forgive us!)

Yes, Catholics do observe Lent. But so do the various branches of Eastern Orthodoxy, Anglicans, Episcopalians, and a host of other Protestant church traditions and denominations.

Interestingly, there's been a rediscovery of and resurgence of interest recently in liturgy and Christian year spirituality among many people with a "low church" and "free church" background, particularly among younger people who are part of contemporary evangelical churches and new church plants -- no doubt thanks in part to the work of the late theologian Robert Webber and his advocating a return to what he called the Ancient-Future faith.

At it's most basic level, Lent is a 40-day period of spiritual preparation for Easter. The number 40 is of course biblically significant and symbolic: Moses on the mountain with God for 40 days and nights (Exodus 32); the Israelites wandering in the desert wilderness for 40 years (Numbers 14; Deuteronomy 8); Elijah spent 40 days and nights on spiritual pilgrimage to meet God on the mountain (1 Kings 19); and, most significantly, Jesus spent 40 days and nights being tempted in the desert wilderness (Matthew 4; Mark 1; Luke 4). 

By the third or fourth century the tradition had developed in the church to use this 40-day period leading up to Easter as a period of instruction (catechism) for new believers in preparation for their baptism on Easter morning and acceptance as fully functioning participants in the church community. It was also a time when those who had been estranged from the church (for issues like church discipline) were welcomed back into the community -- a picture of restoration in line with the restoration and new life that comes as a result of Easter. 

Typically, marked as a season of reflection, repentance, and renewal, Lent invites us to journey with Jesus through key moments in his life and ministry, culminating in his passion in preparation for the new resurrection life that Easter brings. 

While we rightly celebrate Easter as the central event of Christian faith, we miss something if we forget that before there can be resurrection there has to be death. The path to the empty tomb leads first through Gethsemane and Golgotha. 

Lent reminds us of this sobering reality and the cost of our salvation, while at the same time reorienting us to recommit to live as faithful disciples in the way of Jesus for the good of the world. 

In his book Living the Christian Year, Bobby Gross explains it this way:
"Each year the season of Lent asks us to embrace a spiritual gravity, a downward movement of soul, a turning from our self-sufficiency and sinfulness. In such quiet turning, we are humbled and thus made ready to receive from God a fresh and joyous grace ... Lent is sobering, but it leads to Easter!" (127, 128)
And so Lent is an invitation to a journey -- a journey immersed in the story of Jesus and in which we're challenged to take a spiritual inventory of our lives as we prepare for the promise of new resurrection life on Easter.

The Ash Wednesday liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer offers this invitation to observe Lent:
Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became a custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and mediating on God's holy Word. 
Self-examination. Repentance. Prayer. Fasting. Self-denial. Reading and meditating on Scripture.

Those sound like essential spiritual disciplines; no matter what tribe, tradition, or brand of Christian faith you belong you. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

To Lent or not to Lent: Embracing Christian Year Spirituality

Last night I helped make history. Literally.

With the help of our associate pastor, some great folks who volunteered to read scripture, and someone volunteering to run sound and PowerPoint, we led a small gathering in the first ever Ash Wednesday service at Hillside Missionary Church -- the church where I currently serve as senior pastor.

At least, to the best of anyone's knowledge who was there, including a few of our older saints who've been part of the HMC family long before I was born, it was their first ever Ash Wednesday service.

(And here's a secret: It was my first time leading one!)

It was a truly lovely and moving worship gathering. While we did not do the imposition of the ashes (baby steps!), we largely followed the liturgy for Ash Wednesday in the Book of Common Prayer, with a few of our own twists and turns added.

Beautiful in it's simplicity, we gathered, heard Scripture read (lots of Scripture!), prayed (silently and corporately together), and had times for silent refection.

After the main Scripture readings I offered a brief explanation on the history and meaning of Lent, inviting people into the journey of walking with Jesus to the cross. We have to die to self before we can truly live in the way of Jesus, and this is an ongoing, daily, even moment-by-moment intentional choice and process (Luke 9:23-24). Lent is about repentance and renewal -- recommitting ourselves to walking in the way of Jesus and allowing His story to form and shape us as agents and ambassadors of God's kingdom.

More prayer followed, including the beautiful but convicting Litany of Penitence, followed by a scriptural pronouncement of absolution from sins (I adjusted this part from the BCP). Then we concluded by singing Be Thou My Vision and I offered the priestly blessing from Numbers 6 as a benediction.

I've written here and here, as well as in other posts, about my "low church" background and journey into discovery of the riches of what the late theologian Robert Webber called the Ancient Future faith.

I was raised in a fundamentalist Bible church. It was a tradition which trained me to be largely ignorant of and at best skeptical, but more often, at worst, critically opposed to any hint of "high church" liturgical practices. That stuff was just "dead ritual", "works righteousness", or (often said with a note of arrogant triumphalism as if "we" had the corner on the real truth) "too Catholic."

Thus, even into my early 20s I had no idea about the Christian Year and the sacred rhythm of time that invites us into the cosmic redemptive story that God's unfolding in history. (If only I'd read Leviticus back then, perhaps I'd gotten a clue how important time and sacred rhythms are to God! See this excellent piece from a "free church" tradition guy who makes a case for observing the Christian Year based upon the biblical story, including alluding to Leviticus.)

But I also sensed that something was missing. There had to be more than what my entire church experience (and most everyone I personally knew at that time) had been to that point. Having no real idea what I even meant or what I was seeking, I began what I called "a search for the sacred."

It was quite a journey and process. One I'm still on. But I discovered it. The missing piece. The thing that has and continues to enrich and form me spiritually, expand my perspective and understanding of the kingdom of God, and connects me to something so much bigger than me and my limited experience of Christian faith. It's a convergence of the ancient past, present and future; always beautiful, meaningful, Scripture-saturated, and profoundly theological: Christian Year spirituality and liturgy.

What is Christian year spirituality?

Robert Webber describes it this way:

“Christian-year spirituality is nothing less than the calling to enter by faith into the incarnation, the life and ministry, the death and resurrection of Jesus. God’s saving action is not only presented to us through the practice of the Christian year, it also takes up residence within us and transforms us by the saving and healing presence of Christ in our lives” (Ancient-Future Time, 26). 

He goes on to describe it in more detail:
“The simple, unadorned purpose of the Christian year is to proclaim the gospel of God’s saving deeds with Christ, especially in his death and resurrection.
“The Christian year represents the historical unfolding of the life of Christ and his sure return. One may observe that Advent deals with the coming of Christ; Christmas his birth; Epiphany, his manifestation to the Gentiles; Lent, his journey toward death; the Great [Three Days—Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday], the last days of Jesus’ earthly life; Easter, the time to celebrate his resurrection; and Pentecost, the time to experience life in the power of the Holy Spirit …
“Piety is then based on this pilgrimage throughout the year … The spiritual purpose of celebrating God’s saving events is to be formed by Christ, to die with him, to be raised with him, to be born anew, and to live in the hope of his resurrection and return” (Ancient-Future Time, 30, 31).
It's quite literally a journey with Jesus -- a journey which forms and shapes us as we intentionally enter into the cosmic redemptive story that God's unfolding in history, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and consciously live in to the way of Jesus as agents and ambassadors of God's kingdom for the good of the world.

In the introduction to his Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, Shane Claiborne (ed. et. al.) says it this way:
"Participating in the liturgy of the worldwide Christian community, whether on a Sunday morning or at another time, is more than attending a worship service or a prayer meeting. It is about entering a story. It is about orienting our lives around what God has been doing throughout history. And it is about being sent forth into the world to help write the next chapter of that story. Wandering the world in search of meaning and purpose, we may not even realize how desperately we need a story. But we know we've found something priceless when we find ourselves in God's narrative" (11).
God's narrative. The bigger story that makes sense of and provides meaning and purpose and direction for our own stories when we locate them within the bigger thing God's doing and has been doing for all of history. As Eugene Peterson has said, "God is the larger context and plot in which our stories find themselves" (quoted in Bobby Gross, Living the Christian Year, 15). Indeed.

It's humbling to realize that the way "my" tribe does it is merely a tiny blip on the timeline of church history. Christian year spirituality and liturgy subversively teaches me that what God's up to is bigger than me and my brand of Christian faith. It challenges my limited, often myopic, perspective on worship and the extent and reach of God's kingdom. (Yes, God is actually at work and always has been among Christians whose tradition is not like my own!) And it invites me to be part of this thing God's doing that's so much bigger than anything I ever imagined.

For the uninitiated that can be scary and intimidating (it was for me!).

But as I've continued to immerse myself in Christian year spirituality and allowed myself to be formed by the Story, I've discovered a richness and depth, a meaningfulness and rootedness, and perhaps most importantly, a broader kingdom perspective that had previously eluded me.

I'm still on the journey. I'm still in the process. I think I always will be. And I think that's how God likes it.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Social Media and Theology

This winter has been the great Deep Freeze of 2014 for many of us living in the U.S. Two different polar vortexes (yeah, it was a new term to me as well) unleashed dangerously subzero temps for several days closing most everything down. Several blasts of system snow (and lake effect snow in my area) only added to the fun.

Long story short, we hibernated. Yesterday I ventured out of the house (aside from taking our two dogs out) for the first time in four days. FOUR DAYS!

It's a good thing I enjoy sitting quietly reading and watching movies. Not much else to do. As a bonus, I also picked up my guitar for the first time in forever and played. My fingers still hurt.

But mostly what I did during the hibernation was theologize.

First, I read. A lot. Like I said, not much else to do. I read a lot anyway. It's sorta part of my job. What can I say? I'm very blessed to be able to do what I do and I wouldn't want to be doing anything else!

Reading a lot means I'm thinking a lot. And thinking a lot means I need some outlet (especially during a several-days-hibernation!) to get these thoughts out in dialogue with others. My wife can only handle so much of my endless banter.

Enter social media.

Through the wonders of social media (Facebook), I participated in some fun and interesting theological debates and brouhaha's during the deep freeze.

Typically these things start because of a blog post or article someone posts. Then people start making comments and observations about the post. Then people start disagreeing with each other. And then it's on. (My heart is pounding even as I type this).

In the circles that I run in and theologize with, we try to keep it cordial, graceful, and irenic even as we at times disagree sharply with one another. Sometimes the rhetoric gets a bit pointed (in a loving and gracious way, of course). But that's bound to happen when you believe something passionately and (in the case of theology) are arguing about things concerning matters of ultimate truth and significance (at least we think they're important).

But at the end of the day, we're just folks trying to make sense of Scripture, piece together our thoughts in some coherent, cohesive way, share our ideas, convictions and questions, and, most importantly, trying to live faithfully as agents and ambassadors of the kingdom of God.

What's really great about these sorts of discussion threads it is that they connect a diverse and geographically dispersed group of folks, bringing them together for a conversation and dialogue that would otherwise not be possible without the wonders of modern technology and social media.

Thanks to the hibernation, I had way more time on my hands than normal. Which means I spent way more time in these discussion threads than normal. I now actually have a file folder on my MacBook containing several over 1,000-word mini theological treatises I wrote for these Facebook debates. Yeah, it got real.

Which leads me to a question: Is social media an appropriate context and forum in which to theologize?

Maybe that's the wrong way to phrase the question because it connotes that to theologize on social media platforms is either right or wrong (and I don't think it's either).

But is it helpful? It is constructive? Is it . . . legitimate?

My wife's a writer and one of her writer friends recently asked (on Facebook), "Does Facebook material count as writing?" He was being a bit tongue-in-cheek as he himself was in the midst of a long discussion thread and so was humorously alluding to his essay in the making.

Nevertheless, it's a great question. In this brave new world of global connectivity via high speed Internet, smart phones, laptops and tablets, social media, ubiquitous blogs, online journals and magazines, and other online media resources and outlets, the way we communicate is changing. The way we take in information is changing. Some might even say the way we learn is changing.

My ministry context as senior pastor of a small local church (under 150 in average worship attendance) is a microcosm that perhaps provides a glimpse into how much things have changed.

The church I grew up in was similar in size. Many of things we did back then parallel what we do today: Sunday morning worship (and Sunday night back then too -- I'm thankful we don't do THAT anymore!), kids ministry, youth ministry, a mid-week prayer time and Bible study. We had potlucks and service days. There were weddings and funerals. All the usual stuff.

The pastor's week was also occupied with many of the same tasks as my own: Prayer and study, meeting with people and various boards and committees, counseling people and providing spiritual direction, responding to crises, handling problems and issues that came up, and in general providing leadership and oversight for the entire congregation.

Certainly there are lots of parallels and things that haven't necessarily changed all that much. And yet there is a whole other world of work, ministry, and interaction that my pastor as a kid never dreamed of. Not because he wasn't a great and smart guy (he was). But because the Internet and social media and all that goes with it just wasn't a thing yet in the church of the 1980s and 90s that I grew up in.

For example, our (again, I emphasize relatively small local church) has a website. We also have a YouTube page where our sermons are broadcast (they are also available on our website). That means we video record, render, and edit the sermons every week. These things are overseen and maintained by our talented and tech-savvy associate pastor (thanks Daniel!).

In addition we have a public Facebook page for the church, a public Facebook page for our youth ministry, a private prayer group / discussion group on Facebook, and a private youth ministry team leaders page on Facebook. All of which have to be (and are) maintained by myself, our associate pastor, and some other great volunteers.

I regularly post quotes on Facebook from things I'm reading, as well as post articles and other blog posts that I think will be interesting and helpful to people I minister to, not to mention thought-provoking and challenging, inspirational and encouraging, or maybe some combination of all those.

I also maintain this blog (though admittedly I don't write here as regularly as I should or would like to).

But this blog and all the quotes, other blog posts and articles I read and "share" to Facebook provide fodder for further thinking, discussions, and conversations that often generate comments that morph into conversations -- conversations challenging us to think more deeply and better about our Christian faith and propelling us to live more faithfully as agents and ambassadors of the kingdom of God.

Finally, while a good portion of my week is spent meeting in person with various individuals for spiritual direction, discipleship, and counsel (and sometimes to sort out problems), I find that I perhaps do just as much or even more spiritual direction, answering questions, offering counsel, and sorting out problems via email, text messages, and private Facebook messages. With smart phones, tablets, and social media there is really no "getting away" from the work unless you simply unplug or choose to ignore it for a while (which I do from time to time in order to keep my sanity).

In short, my ministry context is fully immersed in all the normal, traditional things pastors have always done. Prayer and study and building relationships. Preaching and baptizing and serving Communion. Marrying and burying. Teaching and offering spiritual direction and counsel. These things have always been, and I suspect always will be, primary to a life immersed in pastoral ministry.

But I'm also fascinated that I as a pastor and we as a church family (even in our small church) are equally fully immersed in the brave new world of modern technology and social media platforms. And it's within those platforms that some of our most interesting conversations, theologizing, and searching for answers and spiritual direction often takes place.

It also provides a great (and additional) way for me to get a pulse on the congregation -- the questions people have, the struggles they're facing, and the things they're wrestling with. Indeed, my current sermon series on Hearing God Speak was birthed as a result of one of these fantastic (closed group) discussion threads with folks from my church family. Without that discussion thread (which sprang up rather spontaneously when someone posted about a point in one of my sermons), I wouldn't have known so many people were currently wrestling with questions revolving around God's will and how to detect and discern God's voice and guidance amidst the noise and chaos of our lives. The feedback was invaluable. And I hope the current teaching series is helpful.

I think these various social media and multi-media contexts provide great opportunities for interaction and connectivity. There are also potential dangers and problems (a topic for another post perhaps). But it seems to me that that the potential benefits far outweigh any negatives that exist.

I personally enjoy the interaction with my congregation and fellow pastor-theologian and academic friends on these platforms.

But enough about what I think. What do you think? Join the conversation!