Warring Desires and Self-Denial

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In the season of Lent, many Christians (myself included) choose to fast from some type of food, drink, or activity as an exercise in spiritual discipline as a preparation for Easter.

Historically in the church, Lent has been a season of preparation for baptism–the final push for catechumenates (Christian converts in training) was a fast that ended in an all-night vigil and a glorious baptism service on Easter morning. Christians who had fallen out of fellowship with God or the church would also fast during Lent and were re-admitted into the fellowship of believers at Easter.

Today many churches don’t usually restrict baptism (or repentance) exclusively to Lent, but it is still a great time to practice self-denial as we prepare for the highlight of Christian celebrations (Resurrection Sunday). These practices have tremendous spiritual benefit. Self-denial helps us remember that Christ is Lord and we are not slaves to anything, especially to those things that we so naturally go to for comfort. We remember that we are weak and that we desperately need the help of God’s Spirit to walk this Christian journey–a power that Christ’s Resurrection has purchased for us. It is an act of war against our flesh, that sly and sticky force within us that wants so desperately to rule our lives.

But this aggression seldom goes unanswered. I find that when I fast, no matter what I fast from, the desires in my heart rebel with great force. This always surprises me (although it shouldn’t). Whether I’m denying myself sweets or television or social media, I invariably start to notice the restlessness of my heart rear its ugly head. I didn’t think I cared so much about the thing I gave up…until I started to say “no” to its beckoning cries. The things that seek to take first place in my heart begin to bare down with white-knuckled desperation. Then I remember I’m fasting…this is Lent…and it all starts to make sense.

This is the nature of many spiritual battles in our lives. We don’t notice them until we are right in the thick of things. Without disciplines like fasting we are all like the frog in the pot, slowly and ignorantly boiling to death in our own desires. When we say no to the things that seek to rule us, we are remembering that Christ actually rules our lives (and the universe). Spiritual disciplines snap us awake and help us see reality.

This is one of the reasons I love worship. Worship orients us to reality, as the psalmist writes about in Psalm 73. He, like so many of us, gets fed up with the (apparent) effortless and consistent success of wicked people (v. 4). The voice of arrogant scoffers is overwhelming at times…especially in an election year. The psalmist almost gets lost in his frustration until he goes into God’s house and sees the truth: they are destroyed in a moment (v. 19) and those who are far from God will perish (v. 27). What was the turning point? Worship. Drawing near to God broke the cycle of bitterness and frustration and helped the psalmist remember that the highest good is to be near to God (v. 28). It doesn’t get any better than that.

So a word of encouragement: If you are (trying to) practice self-denial and are finding some surprising thoughts, desires, or habits rearing their ugly head this Lent season, take heart: Christ has won the battle! Saying no to little gods can be a challenge, but nearness to God is worth the fight.

 

 

Image credit: Getty Images, http://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/sport-spare-time-boys-at-a-tug-of-war-1933-vintage-property-news-photo/542940737

The New Clericalism

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I’d like to follow up my previous post with some more thoughts on where we find ourselves in history as North American Christians. I believe that our time closely resembles the time of the reformers, and because of that the church is in need of some prophetic voices. Thankfully, they’re out there if we know where to look (and listen) for them.

James White, one of the most prolific and respected scholars of Christian history, notes that in the middle ages monastic life was the center of social stability (James White, A Brief History of Christian Worship, 77). In the medieval period, the church experienced an explosion of growth for several reasons. Crusades, conquests, and colonization caused the spread of western civilization to farther reaches of the known world. In these newly formed communities, to use White’s language, the monastery was the center of society. Monasteries were guardians not only of faith and devotion to God, but of education and learning itself.

The positive side of monastic life was that monks had one occupation: worship. Their lives were spent in constant prayer, meditation, and devotion to God. The monk’s average day would be dominated by prayer and study, with monastic orders assembling for prayer at all hours of the day and night (times decided by the monastic prayer “offices”). This lifestyle produced a wonderful devotion to God but was unrealistic for most people outside the monastery.

The monastic life developed into the founding many cathedral schools and universities. Again, White sums it up well: “The thirteenth century saw major contributions of scholastic theologians in helping the church to make up their minds about what Christians experienced in worship” (White, 77). White continues by saying that, despite the development of doctrines concerning Christian faith and sacraments, the negative side was an emphasis on the intellect in Christian and sacramental practice. The way was being paved for the coming age of Enlightenment, where Reason and Intellect reigned supreme.

Note here the schism that is created by a society of people who have nothing to do but study the scriptures, pray, meditate and think about all things theological. Add to that schism the gap between the educated and the uneducated, a gap that was wide indeed in the middle ages. You can see why worship became a spectacle to be observed rather than an event to participate in.

Before I get too far into criticizing modern education as we know it, let me point out the obvious: I wouldn’t be writing this (and you wouldn’t be reading it) if these developments in education and literacy hadn’t occurred. So for that we must be grateful. Further, the contemporary equivalent to medieval monks might just be scholars and ministers, people who, in the eyes of the general public, have “nothing better to do” than to “sit around” and pray, meditate, and study. If so, I’m part of that group.

So I am by no means condemning education or a religious devotional life. I would simply like to call into the question the gap that this creates between “us” and “them,” the ones who “get it” and the ones who “don’t.” The constant flow of the gospel is inward to our devotional and educational life, and then outward to the cultures in which we live.

The heart behind the reformation was to close this gap between the educated (and religious) “elite” and the “common” person. Thus Luther and others argued for a worship service (mass) in the common language, for songs in the language (and well-known tunes) of the people, and most importantly for the scriptures in the language of the people.

The reason I believe this is needed once again in our time is because of what I’m calling “new clericalism” happening in the church today, gaps between the “religious elite” and the “common” person. This happens on two levels. One level is the Christian subculture of “Christian-eze,” language and products that are meant only for consumption by people on the “inside” of that subculture (Christians). Perhaps at a certain point in our history the Christian story was pervasive enough for this not to be divisive, but that time is passing. Christendom (the widespread acceptance of/knowledge of/practice of Christianity) is ending in America, and many would say it has already ended. We need to restore the lingua franca that helps real people know what the real God is really saying to them.

The second level of this clerical divide happens within the church itself, with the proliferation of so many “professional” pastors, speakers and musicians. Again, I want to be careful here because I am a huge fan of excellence and quality. Let me be clear: We should work our tails off to sound great when we sing and play and to communicate effectively and powerfully when we preach. But isn’t there a point when the divide becomes so great it becomes unreachable? If our sermons, sound or music is so polished, precise and sterile is seems more robotic than human, isn’t there a disconnect? Consider the difference between putting a quarter in one of those antique self-playing pianos and hearing someone play a piece using their developed skill. Mistakes? Maybe. Heart? Definitely. Despite the latest (or oldest) “robot with a soul” film, robots can’t be people. Unreachable runs the risk of being unreal to people’s real lives.

So what I’m arguing for is a way of being Christian that models the incarnation. Jesus came and “took on flesh,” wrapping himself up in the language and way of life of people. I want to see a restoration of these “common” preachers, speakers and musicians. This means working hard to reverse the all-too-natural human tendency to create a divide between “the stage” and “the people.” Singing in church isn’t a concert, so we ought not work so hard (or spend so much money) to make it one. Preaching isn’t a spectacle of your skill as a scholar or speaker, it is in fact worship. Bob Webber writes, “Preaching, of course, is what we do in worship. We proclaim God’s story, remembering his mighty deeds of salvation” (Webber, Ancient-Future Worship, 177). I think we need more men and women who represent God with excellence but with authenticity and a closeness you can feel and touch. Isn’t this what was said of the disciples when they stood before council in Acts 4, that they were common men touched with the power of the Holy Spirit? By the Spirit’s power, let’s close the gap.

The New Illiteracy

6a00d83451d81c69e2016303b25796970d-400wiIn the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, protestant reformers turned the tide of Christianity.
Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others boldly stood up and spoke out to influence change in the way the Christian church operated. One of the complaints of the reformers was that people who attended worship didn’t understand anything happening in the service. At that time the Catholic mass was in Latin, so unless you spoke Latin (and hardly anyone did outside of the clergy), you were there to basically observe the worship events and receive a vaguely understood “blessing” of some kind.

If you know any church history, you know that many of these errors were corrected through the translation of the mass, the Scripture and the songs into the vernacular language of the people. These reformation efforts have resulted in several centuries of people coming to church and at least having the ability to understand (access) what was going on.

Historians please forgive me: I am painting with very broad strokes for the sake of time. But here is my point: I believe that we are once again, like the reformers, living in a time of what I will call a “new illiteracy.” We have some work to do to overcome this obstacle.

 

Many evangelical churches operate on this assumption: people are repulsed by religious language and religious tradition that they do not understand; thus we must formulate our ministry and programs around what they can understand. This of course comes from a wonderful desire to make church accessible, and it is a work that must be done. Christian worship must be contextual to be effective. But, like any good thing, we can go too far. When taken the extreme, this desire to “meet your audience” results in what has been called the “attractional” or “seeker” model of ministry. While there are many denominations that have been formed around this approach, much of the church in America has been affected.

For example, I have attended many churches with services like this: you walk in to a worship space and there are some announcements on screens or music in the room; there is a song set sung about/to a certain “you” and “your love” and how it “never lets go;” more announcements; a forty minute “talk” about how to live a better life as a parent/citizen/worker; prayer and offering; dismissal (“have a great week!”).

I am at risk of sounding overly critical here, but this is not my intent. I do not mean to disrespect or discredit my fellow laborers in the ministry of the gospel. There are many positive traits to this style of ministry and many who have come to faith as a result. My criticism is meant to identify an assumption that is being made in this model.

Perhaps a limited analogy will help: Let’s say ministers are math teachers. If we assume students don’t like math but are still forced to come to math class, our job as math teachers would be to make math more interesting, more applicable to the lives of our students (so far so good). But if we stop talking about addition, subtraction, equations and fractions, hoping our students will pick up math skills by osmosis, we start running into trouble.

Back to ministry now. Should we assume that people know who this “you” is that we are talking about and singing about or that they will eventually figure it out? Can we assume that people understand why this group has gathered in this place, or what it means to follow Christ as a disciple? I’m not sure they do.

I fear that, just as in the time of the reformers,  church-goers do two simple things: they come to observe what is happening (the production) and to receive a blessing of some kind (this blessing may be a piece of advice on how to be better at “x,” or a positive feeling as a result of the experience. This is evident by the common post-church conversation, “what did you get out of it?”).
People need to have the gospel intelligently told to them, the story of God who creates, redeems and recreates the world (and the entire cosmos), in a language they understand (their context). If that’s not happening, we in ministry shouldn’t feel like we are succeeding, no matter how many people show up.

As America becomes an increasingly secular society, it seems clear to me that what is needed is not less of the language and ritual that makes Christian worship distinct, but more of it–a LOT more.

When we gather for worship, people need to understand why we are here – that God has made us a people in Christ and we gather as a response to his call and command. People need to know who this “You” is in the songs that shows us love and accepts us as we are, that it is none other that the Triune God of the Bible – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and that this love that He has shown came through a brutal and tortuous cross that killed God’s only Son. People need to know that they have a part to play in this gathering, in the telling and unfolding of this great story, and that when they leave they aren’t simply scattering to random places to “do their thing,” but are actually sent out by God to do his work in the world. How will they know unless we tell them? We need to say the why, the what and the who, and we need to say it over, and over, and over again.

I am not an advocate for returning to religious abuses or empty tradition. But we are living in a time of rampant and increasing illiteracy to the things of God. Not to mention that as Christians we are “prone to wander, Lord I feel it,” and need to be reminded of these things just as much as the next person. My prayer is that as ministers we are diligent to KNOW the Story and TELL the Story as we gather to DO the Story in worship.

Advent 3: What ARE We Waiting For?

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Welcome to week three of Advent. In this series of posts I’ve been exploring some of the themes of this short season of Christian year that is designed to prepare our hearts once again for the celebration of Christmas. Hopefully these thoughts will stir you to some deeper reflection this Advent season.

In the last post, we talked about Advent being an invitation to put ourselves into the place of the people of God just before Jesus was born. Think of all the years of nothing from God but silence. There must have been some people anxiously waiting, some confidently expecting, and I’m sure many who had lost all hope.

That sounds like it could be true of us today don’t you think? Many people are anxiously waiting in what feels like endless darkness for a light to shine in. Some are confidently expecting deliverance. Many are hopeless and wandering.

Even though we don’t talk much about it, Advent is a season to expect the two aspects of Christ’s coming – both his first coming as a baby in Bethlehem and his second coming (or “second advent”) to rule and reign as the conquering King of all kings. Most of the time we neglect the second in light of the first. But the fact is that we are still waiting, that Christ will come again. And this is really good news for waiting people.

It sounds a little strange, but the pre-Christmas season is a time to remember once again that judgement is coming. It’s east to think only of the first coming of Jesus, but we need to let our hearts be arrested once again by the sobering reality that he will come to reign once again as the righteous Judge. This life as we know it is only temporary, and true life is still to come.

I think judgement gets misunderstood quite a bit in our time because it is seen as predominantly negative. But God’s judgment will be a good and glorious thing because it means the restoration of all things, liberation from the curse of sin forever, the institution of God’s righteous rule every sphere of life. Evil will not have the last word. Judgement won’t be all about casting evil into fiery depths (although that is part of it).
The King will come to reign and there will be peace and joy an safety and no more death.

Yes, judgement is terrifying to those with no hope, with no robes of righteousness to cover their rags (Is. 61:10, Matt. 22:12). But for those in Christ judgement is a glorious thing. Why? Because we have been judged already in Christ. Christ has taken our punishment and our judgment upon himself. We don’t have to fear judgement because for us it has already taken place on the cross. All that’s left for us is to welcome God’s coming because we know we stand beneath the righteousness of the Perfect One who was judged on our behalf.

The second advent of Christ stands in such a contrast to the first, and yet it will be the culmination of what began in Bethlehem. St. Augustine of Hippo wrote:

The first coming of Christ the Lord, God’s son and our God, was in obscurity; the second will be in the sight of the whole world. When he came in obscurity no one recognized him but his own servants; when he comes openly he will be known by both good people and bad. When he came in obscurity, it was to be judged; when he comes openly it will be to judge. 

The first advent of Christ was in a lonely corner of the world and was known to few. His second advent will be in the sight of all the world, and there will be no question about his kingship.

So in this season, I invite you to take time not only to look back to the stable and the anticipation of the Messiah’s birth, but to look forward with anticipation for the restoration of all things, the Great Wedding Feast, and the reign of the King of Righteousness. It gives his first coming a whole new meaning when we remember that the Baby born in a manger isn’t just a cute story that we tell every year. He was born for a purpose, born to live and die and rise victorious over sin and death… But that is not the end. He will return with radiance and glory to reclaim his bride and his whole creation. We stand in the in-between of the two Advents, and every year at this time we remember we have much to look forward to. God’s story is unfolding –and the best is yet to come. The birth of the Christ-child is beautiful, but it is just the beginning of his plan of redemption.

Advent 2: What Were We Waiting For?

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Welcome to week 2 of Advent, the season of waiting. In this series of posts, I’m going to explore a little bit about this curious little season of the year just before one of the best times of the year (Christmas).

The crazy thing about Advent is that it is separate from Christmas in that it is a celebration of waiting for Christ (Christmas is the celebration of Christ coming). So as much as we need to slow down at Christmas time, in Advent we actually slow ourselves…in order to wait for Christ. Go figure.

There are lots of reasons for this, but one of the most important is that we want to put ourselves in the place of the waiting world that Christ was born into. We bring ourselves once again into the place where we acknowledge our need for the Savior to invade our darkness. Just like the people of Israel had become numb, distant, hopeless, and uninterested, so we can drift in our dependence on God. We need a Savior to come, we need him to invade our lives in fresh ways. Those moments when God shines a piercing light through the blackness of the night are what we are waiting for.

It’s easy to skip over the context of the event that shook the world in that little town of Bethlehem and get right to the story. But those blank pages in between the testaments represent a long period of waiting for God to speak, to act, to do anything really, that would prove he was still there. The long-awaited Messiah was supposed to come, supposed to unite the people of God and restore Israel’s former glory. But there was silence. There was nothing but waiting for over four hundred years. That was darkness.

But into the darkness a Light came, but it wasn’t the light that many expected. Israel expected a king, a ruler, a warrior who would break the bonds of the evil oppression of Rome and set up Israel as a political superpower. But the King they got was a baby, born in a stable, who lived a life of relative obscurity until his final days of ministry. Even then he was rejected by many as a lunatic.

Isn’t that true of us as well? We wait and expect God to deliver us in some grandiose way, to break through and BOOM! all of our problems are gone. But instead he comes in the quiet, in the little things, in the mess and disarray of crying babies and carpentry.

So in this Advent season, I encourage you to look for Christ to come once again into your darkness, and maybe in unexpected ways. Waiting in line at the store – is it a gift? What about traffic? What about the simple beauty of the Christmas songs you’ve heard a million times? We can find him in our waiting.

But…How do you expect the unexpected? I’m not sure, but I think it starts by opening ourselves to God in the little things, and by not hurrying ourselves away from waiting. Don’t drive so hard to the destination that you miss the journey. The journey is filled with all kinds of beauty and blessing. It’s like I read recently, waiting isn’t wasted if we wait with Faith. Look for him, and find him in the waiting.

Advent 1: Who Hates to Wait?

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Who likes to wait? Not me, I can tell you that for sure. I want my answers, my results, my dinner and my coffee and I want it five minutes ago. Patience isn’t something that comes easily for most people.

This past Sunday marked the first Sunday of the season of Advent, the beginning of the church year. You might recognize the term “advent” from the little cardboard calendars that give you a piece of candy every day during the month of December. But Advent is much more than candy. This four-week season leading up to Christmas dates back as far as the 8th century and focuses on the coming of Christ, both in the celebration of the Nativity and in the anticipation of the coming reign of Christ. The word advent literally means “arrival,” and the season is marked by themes of waiting, expecting, anticipating.

I must confess that I find myself pulled in two directions by this brief season. One side of me wants to slow down and detach from the busyness and chaos that inevitably marks the weeks prior to Christmas and to meditate on Christ’s coming to earth and being born in a manger. I want to get all I can out of Christmas by celebrating Christmas during Advent. But technically the focus of Advent is on anticipation itself, the absence of Christ and the desire that he would come and invade our darkness. It’s almost as if we put ourselves in the place of the waiting world in the hours before the angels announced the Savior’s birth.
This forced wait is tricky because we know the Good News: Christ has come and invaded the darkness and shown the light. But there is a “not yet” part to the story as well because it’s also true that Christ has yet to come and apply the fullness of redemption to the hurting world. So we wait.

Now, waiting is no fun I’ll admit, but if we honestly take a look at it we might realize there is some good to it. We live in a culture infatuated with the instant – we love to get everything we want whenever we want it. We all have the friend or relative that is really hard to buy gifts for because they get what they want whenever they want it. They aren’t waiting for anything.

But think about the joy that comes from waiting. When I was young I couldn’t wait for Christmas Morning…then to get out of high school…then out of college…then married…then…the list could go on. It would have been an awful bore to have Christmas every day. I think C. S. Lewis got it right when he said that joy is found in the desire for the thing we long for, no just the thing itself. We actually diminish our joy if we never have to wait.

Have you ever denied yourself something on purpose? This is what the church calls fasting, although it tends to slow things down quite a bit. Saying no to sugar or TV or meat for a while is hard because we want what we want. But oh the sweetness of that steak after the season of waiting.

So let me encourage you to give waiting a chance this Advent season. Don’t rush into the season, pressing your foot so far to the floor that you speed right by all the good stuff. Let waiting be a blessing, knowing that the joy of desire fulfilled is promised to come.

 

The Art of Celebration

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We’re doing a study this fall at our church based on Richard Foster’s book The Celebration of Discipline. I have enjoyed taking a fresh look at some of the ancient pathways to becoming more intimate with Christ. These are challenging and helpful reflections on what it means to live the Christian life.

I had forgotten that one of the disciplines is actually celebration, something that I could definitely use a refresher course in…regularly.

The problem with celebration is that it isn’t practical. I have a very practical mind and I can’t justify doing things just for fun.
Fun, if you really think about it, doesn’t accomplish much. But it is very necessary for our health and well-being, so much so that God makes a big deal of it.

This thought of course brings me back to the fact that worship is meant to be a celebration. I don’t mean that we have to sing happy songs and clap all the time, but rather that it is the nature of worship to be celebratory. Let me tell you what I mean.

According to “Grandpa Bob” (Bob Webber), celebration has three distinct qualities: (1) it is rooted in a past event, (2) it makes that event contemporaneous (brings it from the past into the living present), and (3) it is memorialized with stories, songs, ritual actions and feasting.

I think this is an extremely helpful way to think about celebration. Think about it: what do we do at Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays with family? We remember an event, we bring the essence of that event into our moments together, and we celebrate through telling stories, performing rituals (singing certain songs, making certain types of food or giving gifts) and we have special above-average quality (and quantity) of food. This is what it means to celebrate.

Worship, then, qualifies as a true celebratory act because it meets all of these criteria. In worship we remember a specific event, namely Christ’s salvation and victory accomplished in his death, burial and resurrection. Worship is always rooted in an event, whether it be deliverance from slavery in Egypt (Old Testament worship) or deliverance from slavery to sin (New Testament worship).

In worship we tell the story again of Redemption in various ways: through song, personal testimony (story) and the proclamation of the Word of God. This telling of the story brings the reality of God’s actions into the present once again, making his story a part of our experience not just our intellectual knowledge. “Worship does God’s story” as Webber put it, and we celebrate God’s story in worship.

Finally, worship is memorialized through rituals. It isn’t by accident that we partake of the Lord’s Supper together in worship, because it is one of the actions that Christ has given to reenact the drama of the gospel. We celebrate the gift of Jesus when we feast with him at his table, not only in memory of his sacrifice but in anticipation of his heavenly Kingdom and the wedding feast of the Lamb in the age to come.

As I reflect on these things, it helps me to appreciate what worship is meant to be and do in my heart and in my life. But it also helps to bring a different perspective into the other celebrations in my life. As humans we need celebration, we need laughter and we need ritual and we need to be bonded together in a community that remembers. When we gather to celebrate life, birth, death, or anniversaries, or just our bond of friendship it’s more than just an excuse to eat cake or have a drink or buy someone a present. It is part of the fabric of who we are, an essential component of what it means to live life as God intended. Together.

As you reflect on thee things, I hope you will worship with an attitude of celebration and celebrate with an attitude of worship, knowing that God has made us to worship and thus has made us to celebrate – that our joy may be full and his glory may be displayed.

 

Peace,
JV

Called To Be Consumers

I don’t have the best relationship with malls. They’re usually big, crowded, and full of overpriced merch. In high school I can remember hating the mall because it seemed that everyone wanted to go there and strut around like geese holding hands with their significant other. I don’t get as angry when I walk in to a mall these days, but the habitat of the “mall dwellers” hasn’t changed much. I’ll say this, a trip to the mall is a study in human behavior (a people-watcher’s dream day). Shop till you drop.

We live in a culture of consumption. Shopping is a hobby for some, an addiction for others, and an Olympic sport for those patrons of Black Friday sales. All that we have we get by shopping, and the activity fills some kind of void in us that goes beyond the actual transaction of letting go of some hard-earned money to obtain the things we want or need. Shopping is a booster shot to our ego because it represents independence. It’s our freedom to choose. It reinforces our reign of authority in our own lives. Sadly, this attitude of consumption has made its way into the church.

If you’ve ever been “church shopping” or heard someone use that phrase, you know what I mean. We look around for a church that is in our style, our “price range,” and fits our ideas for what should be convenient and yet socially acceptable [I don’t intend here to downplay the importance of diligently searching to find the right fit for you when looking for the a worship community to belong to. I’m referring to the “church hopper” who is always on the lookout for the newest “fashion trend.”]
I’ve heard some pastors preach against consumerism because it’s not a good thing. Reducing things (especially church things) down to how it meets MY needs and MY convenience is a distortion of reality. But it can be a bit of a mixed message when we design so much of we do around the convenience and preferences of our “patrons.” But are we supposed to reject consumerism altogether?

I’d like to highlight an aspect of faith where we are supposed to be consumers, and unashamedly so. In fact, Jesus himself endorsed this brand of consumerism and told us that we must be consumers if we want to have eternal life. In John 6 Jesus makes this inflammatory statement:

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:48-51 ESV)

Now his audience just thinks he’s hinting at cannibalism, which is enough to make them perplexed at best and ready to kill him at worst. But Jesus is making an important point here about how we are to view our relationship with him. He says that he is the living bread, the very substance that sustains life and gives us energy and strength to grow and go through our days. He means that we are to depend on him for our spiritual food just as the ancient Israelites depended on the manna from heaven to feed them every day.

This can be taken in a figurative sense that we go to Christ for our “food” of wisdom, connection and life through his Word. But there’s also a strong connection here to communion. When we receive bread at the Lord’s Table, we hear the words “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven,” reminding us of this truth. As we come and “feed on him in our hearts by faith and with thanksgiving,” we are doing exactly what Jesus told us to do. We are coming to him to get the food that we need to sustain our life.

For me this raised an important question: what keeps me from coming to feed on Christ? When I think about how little I take Jesus at his word, it’s embarrassing. I can’t go more than four or five hours without getting some physical food, but how long do I starve myself between these kinds of meals? Am I afraid to come to him, thinking that I should be able to make it on my own? Am I too proud to ask for help? Or do I not believe the promise that his well will never run dry?

In a culture where most of our insatiable consuming is a habit to be curbed, Jesus invites us to an unreserved continual feast on all that he has to offer us. We can come to his table by grace and receive the spiritual food that gives us life. When we draw near to Christ, whether simply in spirit or by faith at his physical Table, we take him at his word that he intends to be the very bread that we eat.

Chances are you could skip that next trip to the mall. The teenagers will walk awkwardly around the food court the same way they always have. Maybe you could use that time to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps. 34:8). If you’re like me, you need to be reminded as often as possible.

Mystery Is Not Relativism

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In some recents posts I have begun to explore/seek to explain what Bob Webber calls the “Ancient-Future faith” tradition. This phrase describes the expression of faith that is pre denominational, creedal, historical, and sacramental, among other things. It is, I believe, just what Christianity needs in our time to meet the needs of the postmodern culture’s cry for knowing and worshiping God in a community of faith.

I believe that we are beginning to see a resurgence in these aspects of Christianity, particularly because of the cultural conundrum we Westerners find ourselves in. Many of the expressions of Christianity, steeped heavily in a matter-of-fact Modernism, have begun to break down and are no longer sufficient to the millennial and post-millenial (postmodern) generations. Returning to the “faith of our Fathers” (and by that I mean early church fathers) helps us to fill the gaps that seem to be left by much of our contemporary Christian practice.

In this discussion we talk a lot about mystery, particularly in the context of how we experience God in worship, both personally and corporately, in very mysterious ways. The Christian faith is full of mystery: the mystery in the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the “wind of God” that we cannot comprehend; what Paul refers to as the mystery kept hidden for ages and now made known as Christ in us, the hope of glory (Col. 1:27); the mysterious experience of Christ’s presence as we partake of bread and wine in the Eucharist; the mystery of the dual natures of Christ as both fully God and fully man. We must embrace mystery if we are to embrace Christian orthodoxy.

But I’ll admit, just like any good ol’ Truth-loving American, too much talk about mystery can make me a little nervous. See I grew up hearing about how I had to “arm myself” with intellectual ammo to defend against those evil people out there who would tell me that truth is relative and God wasn’t real. Instead of using my brain to think a little deeper on the subject, I would simply dismiss these people and their notions as stupid. It wasn’t until I looked a little closer that I understood where “those people” were coming from (just hear me out). Yes, “those people” are really out there and I don’t think they’re right. But they arrived at their conclusions for a reason.

As I mentioned briefly in my last post, the age of enlightenment and scientific discovery had a big impact on Christianity. Thinking, Reason, objective, provable facts, these became the “aces in the hole” in any argument in almost any area of society. We took the principles of mathematics and scientific method, with all their predictability and exactness, and applied it to our faith. The result was a nation of churches that were more like houses of parliament than houses of worship, complete with delegates from all sides filibustering to win their their case.

Now lest we commit the error of interpreting history through our contemporary lens, we should acknowledge that this particular season of Christian history had its purpose in God’s redemptive plan and should not be seen as a total grievous error. The weakness of this time was in what we lost, the ability to embrace of the mystery of God that Christian faith had previously been steeped in. Because we could not explain the mysterious in quantifiable terms, we abandoned the mystery completely. Take away everything you can’t fully understand or explain. It’s better for everyone.

But this couldn’t last long. I believe this aspect of Christian faith in the modern era paved the way for the revival of “Spirit-filled” worship services in the twentieth century. Eventually the predictability and exactitude gave way to a huge onset of “free-for-all” worship (which has its pros and cons). The pendulum swung in the opposite direction.

But before I run off on a lengthy (and poorly constructed) history lesson, let me make my point: Mystery is not the same as relativism. We don’t want to make the same mistake our predecessors made in assuming this connection or we will be doomed to repeat history and lose all sense of mystery and transcendence in our worship. Relativism says that since I cannot understand the truth, there is no truth; Mystery says I do not fully comprehend the truth, but I embrace it with all that I am. Yes, we believe even what we do not understand.

There are people in some circles who are seeking to bring mystery back into the arena of faith (a good thing), but their motive seems to be a reaction against instead of a returning to something that is healthy and historically a huge part of the faith. Embracing mystery cannot be a means to support an unwillingness to submit to God’s truth. You can’t embrace Orthodoxy in a rebellious way. That’s an oxymoron.

So let’s be free to embrace the mystery of faith together, not worried that it’s too “out there.”  Our God and our family of faith through the ages can be trusted, because “he who promised is faithful” (Hebrews 10:23).

Christ has died,

Christ is risen,

Christ will come again.

How Did We Get Here? (The Journey to NLFC’s)

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If I asked you, how would you rate the health of the Church in America? It seems to me that  many communal expressions of the Christian faith in America (aka churches) are not doing so well. Some branches of American church have been going about things the same way for decades with little change. Some are on the rise. Others are on the decline. This is sad not only because the glorious Kingdom of God deserves more than paltry efforts and impending bankruptcy, but also because there is so much potential in every one of these expressions of Christ’s body.

How did we get here?

If you’ll allow me some sweeping generalizations and a few oversimplifications of historical time periods and intellectual movements, I’d like to take you through a brief history of American religious culture and describe to you where I think things are headed, at least for some people (myself included). I’m not really a trained historian, and most of this chalks up to my opinion so it’s likely going to be “wrong.” But it helps me to lay it out this way and maybe it will help you too.

Let’s start with church. I believe that the Church in America has gone through at least four stages in the past 150 years or so:

  • Revivalism
  • Institutionalism
  • Rebellion
  • Corporation

In the late 1800s, the young United States had no religious backbone. The country was founded largely because of the desire to have religious freedom, so there was not going to be any religious system enforced by the government. Because of the diverse melting pot of natives and immigrants of every sort, the colonies were a mission field ripe for the harvest. Enter guys like George Whitfield and John Wesley, men who dedicated their lives to seeing the gospel spread through this great nation.

Fast forward fifty years or so, and in the early to mid-1900s you start to see the church as an institution gaining strength. It was as if a bunch of church people got together and decided, “you know what, we have to stop meeting in barns and fields. We need structure, order, consistency.” So you have big brick churches with tall steeples that served as the architectural cornerstones in many communities.

Again, fast forward another fifty years and the nation has experienced a couple of really nasty wars and many people (mostly young) are beginning to lose hope in the institutions of government and religion. It was out of this rebellion against structure and formality that the “Jesus Movement” of the sixties and seventies was born, and all the hippies who played guitar and drums finally had a place to be Christians.

When we look another forty or fifty years down the road, these “charismatic” churches had experienced so much growth that they needed to organize and systematize lest they implode. Instead of returning to the “old ways” of stuffy committees, town hall votes and politics, they decided to embrace more of a corporate business model of the CEO, the org chart and the top-down decision making. This was something sleek, sexy and above all, successful. This is the megachurch, and many have embraced its “seeker” focus and efficiency mantra of “go big or go home.”

If we look at what runs concurrently with these four stages in culture, we can see that the early twentieth century enlightenment thinking gave way to the matter-of-fact dogmatism of Modernity, which gave way to the deconstruction of reality in Postmodernity, which leads us to where we are today, not really sure what to call ourselves.

There are of course really great things represented in all of these movements of time, both in the church and in the culture. But I believe that where we are today has opened up an amazing opportunity for us as Christian ministers of the gospel to embrace and proclaim the ancient, pre-denominational, mysterious and holistic living faith that the Western world so desperately needs. And we can see this in the rise of what Ian Cron calls “Neo-liturgical Faith Communities.”

People are returning to a faith that embraces Jesus as Lord and the Church as his bride; a faith that can be seen the colors and beauty of sacred space, smelled in the flowers and incense, tasted and touched in the bread and wine. Young postmoderns don’t want to be argued into faith (can you do that?), they want to be invited into the story. When we make worship our way of acting out the gospel in these ways, ways that people can see, feel, taste and touch, it communicates to the heart in deeply powerful ways.

So if you have friends or notice church leaders who are suddenly being drawn to the Anglican, Episcopal or Catholic church down the street, I believe that this is why. We’re tired of hanging all of our faith on the show, on pretending to follow the rules, or on the evidence we can somehow prove. We want to be wooed in by a Person who shares in our real, every day lives and redeems them for His glory. We want to see Christ’s victory lived out in community for the sake of the world.

There will probably be another “stage” that comes in fifty years, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we faithfully proclaim and live the gospel in the time that we’ve been given. This is where I believe we are, which is why this is the journey I’m on.

More to come as we walk the road together.

– JV