Advent Words 3: Light

Jesus, we are told, is the “light of the world.”  This light is intimately and definitionally related to the life that he is and that he brings.  John declares: “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).  That is, the positive character of Jesus’ existence – unmitigated life – that has now come into our midst is intended to illuminate the human condition, for it is light (his life) that makes things visible.  To taste his life is to quite literally to see.  The dead are, not surprisingly, also blind.

This morning I woke up before the sun came up and headed to the basement for morning devotion.  I decided to take a candle with me… to light it as something of an Advent candle and enjoy its gentle light as I prayed.  The room where I went was pitch black.  I lit the little candle, and then sat back in my chair, across the room, looking at the light and thinking about how prominent a role “light” plays in the biblical story.  It is one of the most complex symbols used in Scripture… so it’s rich fodder for meditation.

In particular, I was struck by how “a little goes a long way” when it comes to light.  If I had wanted to, I certainly could have lit a bonfire in my basement.  For obvious reasons, I did not.  The little light was sufficient.  It illuminated the entire room, bringing the colors, textures, and space of the room to my vision… and now at my disposal, I could make use of the room exactly as it is intended to be used.  With just that little light.

Then I thought, even if I were in a much larger room… an auditorium say, this little light would go a long way.  Even more so, the darker the room, the further the light would go.  Weird how THAT works.  The darker the dark, the brighter the bright.  (I think we’re on to something here.)

Now to my point.  The “light” that John refers to is not Jesus’ morals.  Not his teaching.  Not his doctrine.  As illuminating as those things ARE, they are not themselves the light.  HE is the light.  As Jesus will say elsewhere in John, he didn’t come to SHOW the way to Father, he WAS the way to the Father.  He didn’t come to TELL us the truth (although he certainly did a lot of that), he WAS the truth.  And he didn’t come to SHOW us the life, or EXPLAIN the life to us, but to give it – himself – to us.  He is the “is” that we’re after.  The ground and substance and scope of Reality.  When we encounter Him, we are at rock bottom “is-ness”.  He is life, he light… He IS.  And we are called to partake of Him.  And when we do, we partake of his life, we begin to see.

Christianity certainly needs to sound a clear moral word on the vexing issues of our day.  And we certainly need to make a case for the reasonableness of our claims.  And we definitely need to engage the big political and human questions that present themselves to homo sapiens.  But this afternoon I am struck by the thought that if we BEGIN there, something will be lost.  We are not called merely to morality.  Not called to be MERELY homo sapien (“knowing man”) or even homo moralis (“moral man”), but homo vivant (“living man”).  We are called to life.  And when we begin to taste the life, a little goes a long way.  There is a world of difference between the mere moralist, dogmatician, and humanitarian, and one who knows the heart of the Father, who has tasted his endless life.

Henri Nouwen wrote:

I have the impression that many of the debates within the church today… take place on primarily a moral level.  On that level, different parties battle about right or wrong.  But that battle is often removed from the experience of God’s first love, which lies at the base of all human relationships… Dealing with burning issues without being rooted in a deep personal relationship with God easily leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of self is caught up in a given subject.  But when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative.  (In the Name of Jesus, 46-47)

Tasting the Life, drawing near to Him, and through him knowing the Father (“anyone who has seen me has seen the Father), will help us see.  Christianity is not ethics.  It is not “the knowledge of the tree of good and evil”.  It is Jesus.  It is life.  Through him we know what is good and evil.

In the opening chapter of Genesis we read:

1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

How interesting.  God’s first work is bringing light.  Everything else follows from that.

Taste and see that the Lord is good today.

Advent Words 2: Waiting

I love this verse… from the early chapters of Luke:

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. (2:25)

We hate waiting.  For anything.  Especially as Americans.  “Instant” is everything.  The future must be now.  Everything at my disposal, in my grasp, at my fingertips… YESTERDAY, please.  Microwave dinners, fast food, “on demand” movies and “instant queues”.  We can’t stand waiting.  We are without patience.

When I was a kid I used to mark time by watching Loony Tunes cartoons.  A half-hour program consisted of three ten-minute segments.  If I had to wait an hour for something, I knew I just had to watch six ten-minute chunks.  An hour seemed like an eternity.  To have to WAIT… it absolutely made my skin crawl.

This morning my internet went out.  I do most of my work online.  This is a problem.  The day started out optimistically enough.  Getting entangled in the abyss of Comcast’s customer service quickly wrecked my entire morning.  MY LIFE WILL NOT WAIT FOR ME, I fretted.  Bills, emails, deadlines, projects.  It will catch up.  Pile on.  And then what?  Pain.  Waiting is out of the question.

But perhaps I am missing something.  Luke seems to make the connection between Simeon’s waiting and the presence of the Holy Spirit.  “He was WAITING for the consolation of Israel, and the HOLY SPIRIT WAS ON HIM.”

Weird, I think to myself.  Because waiting seems like absence.  It seems like a painful void.  Simeon, and all Israel with him, is WITHOUT the consolation they so desperately longed for…  waiting for a future promised but not yet given.  Oh the pain of that place.  You know it well I’m sure.  Waiting for a job, for a relationship to heal, for our souls and minds to heal, for our bodies to heal, for a situation to turn around, for a church to grow, for kids to come home.  Waiting… oh the pain of it.

And yet… for Luke… Simeon’s waiting was not (as for us) painful absence.  Rather, it was pregnant with presence.  Simeon’s waiting was pregnant with the Spirit of the very God whose promises Simeon longed to see fulfilled.  Not absence.  But presence.  Not void.  But fullness.

I love that.  Waiting is hard… we imagine in the waiting that God is elsewhere.  Hence the Psalmist’s cry, “How long O Lord!”  But Luke knows what we impatient ones don’t know… that God is very present in the in-between.  In the quiet days and hours and minutes and months and years and moments of quiet longing for a future promised but not yet in hand… he is there.  Immanuel.  God-with-us.

In the waiting.

“We wait in hope for the Lord…”

Advent Words 1: Communion

Why are we here?  What are we made for?  What does it mean to be human?  And how can we be more fully alive in our humanness?

In one way or another, those are simply the questions that human beings ask.  They are the questions of existence.  Why?  What?  What for?  Are such questions answerable at all?  Much of our activity springs from a groping-after answers to those questions.  We build things and then break them.  We start relationships and then end them.  We lurch from one experience to another and then disavow them.  We try new religions and religious experiences on for size and then write them off as mere sentimentality.

The Biblical response to those questions is stunning for both its depth and simplicity:

We did not merely spring into existence as a result of random processes… rather, we were made

And not just made, but made by Someone, for a purpose

This Someone, the Bible claims, is all goodness and love

Which means that we were made by Love, in Love, and for Love

That is to say, we were made by, in, and for relationship.  Communion.  Friendship.  Being-with.  Being-with God.  Being-with each other.  Such a state of affairs is what the Bible is referring to when it uses the Hebrew word Shalom, “peace”…  Shalom is not an absence.  Shalom is a presence.  Or rather, a Presence.  It is when human beings are situated rightly in God’s world, related rightly to themselves, to each other, to God’s world, and finally to God.  We flourish in and through our right relatedness to what is around us.

It is a peculiar tragedy of our Western intellectual heritage that we have often been prone to define our existence otherwise.  The 6th century Christian philosopher Boethius once said that man is “an individual substance of a rational nature.”  But that is not even close to being true.  Nor is it an apt foundation for understanding how to appropriate our humanness.  When I think of an “individual substance of a rational nature”, I think of Data from Star Trek.  Data had all the markings of humanness, but was painfully sub-human at best, incapable of true emotion.  A bipedal computer at best.  So close to being human and yet at the same time so pitifully far from it.  When I think of human beings created in the “image of God”, I think of something much warmer, more wonderful, more mysterious, more plural.

God, we should remember, is no “individual substance of a rational nature.”  Not at least the biblical God.  Our God is no solitary being standing aloof in some far corner of the universe.  No, our God is plural.  He is Three.  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit living together in perfect communion (here is the “One” of “Three in One”) from before all eternity… loving, giving, delighting in, serving, rejoicing in the face of each Other.  And we, the Scripture claims, out of the endless surprising delight of Triune love, were created in precisely THAT image.  We were not made to be solitary creatures.  We were made in a for relationship.  From before all eternity, we are called to Holy Communion.  With God.  With each other.  Here is our truest humanness.

No surprise then that John opens his Gospel with the stunning declaration that “The Word became Flesh, and pitched his tent among us…” (John 1:14)  Like the Holy Presence that indwelt and journeyed-with the people of Israel through their wanderings in the wilderness, so now John claims the impeccable Word has donned our humanness and made his home among us.  He sought the deepest communion with us, by sharing in what we are.  And he will never lay that humanness aside again.  He will always be one of us, for us, God with us.  His ministry can be looked at from one angle as the playing-out of God the Creator’s relentless desire for grace-filled, welcoming, redemptive, restorative communion with human beings.  Tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, younger brothers, older brothers, Democrats, Tea-Partiers, the Taliban… Jesus welcomed them all, without discrimination.  And his welcome transformed.  He was the Divine desire for Holy Communion IN-FLESH… in-carnated.  He welcomed all.  He welcomed us still.

It is my conviction that our longing for communion is a powerful, if sometimes faint, trace of the image of God in us.  It is why we marry and have kids, why we seek roommates and make friends, why we gather in bars and coffee shops to chew the fat and laugh about the stuff of life.  We don’t want isolation.  We want a realization of the image of God in us.  That is, we want communion.

Advent, if it is anything, is that.  It is the reminder that that impulse towards communion is right and good, and that if we’ll let it, it will be a signpost towards faith.  One person said, “Right at the depth of the human condition, lies the longing for a presence, the silent desire for a communion. Let us never forget that this simple desire for God is already the beginning of faith.”

Let your longing for communion lead you home…

Advent-ures… the Great Journey Begins

Sometime near the end of seminary, I became convinced that one of the missing pieces of our corporate and individual spiritual formation in the evangelical church had something to do with the Christian calendar.  I had long since bought into the idea that we human beings are “storied” creatures, meaning that we don’t live our lives on the basis of a handful of propositions, but rather we live our lives through the stories we believe in and construct for ourselves.  My identity as an “Arndt” has a lot to do with a whole bunch of stories I’ve collected and stitched together about the Arndt family down through the years… and when my family gathers together around my parents’ dinner table during the holidays in Wisconsin, we don’t reinforce that identity by telling each other “propositions” about what it means to be an Arndt.  Rather, we tell stories.  Stories about my little brother Rob eating Kraft Singles in the closet (great tale)… about John and his so-called “Cloont Ear” (another really funny one)… about Anna and the day she tried to run away from home in the middle of winter and, forgetting to put shoes on, only made it to the neighbors house… and about my dad, and how his relentless desire to beat his sons at basketball causes him to, um, modify the rules of 2 on 2 here and there.

The same is true in every family.  And this story-telling is not an idle activity.  When families stop gathering to tell stories, or when the story gets soured, the family ethos slides into oblivion.  So in our families we fight for “better stories”, in order to keep the culture of the family in tact and on track.  We are “storied” creatures.

In any event, my conviction was that the evangelical church had become under-storied in many ways, or even worse, we had allowed ourselves to become storied by a whole bunch of stories that have nothing whatsoever to do with the Biblical story… our narrative identities had been more formed by the stories of materialism, upward mobility, militarism (might makes right) American triumphalism, pluralism, and the like, than they had been by the story of what God had done in Creation, Cross, and New Creation… and that one of the most potent instruments for reclaiming that sense of narrative identity was to begin to take the Christian calendar seriously again as a primary modality for spiritual formation, for the Calendar simply is the Christian story.  To worship, reflect, and pray around it is to situate ourselves in Divine History, Sacred Time.

So for the next several years I took the calendar very seriously.  I used the Book of Common Prayer to order my devotional times around it.  At the church where I first served, Sanctuary, we constructed worship spaces around the calendar.  We wrote devotionals to help people engage the calendar.  We preached around the calendar.  It was awesome, rich, beautiful, and very formative.

This year, however, I hardly put any thought at all into those concerns.  With many pressing personal and corporate issues at the church, I barely had time to “gear myself up” for the approaching cycle of Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter.  With a sense of resignation, I thought, “Well, we’ll get back on it next year.”

Until this morning…

Yesterday, as has become traditional in our house on the day after Thanksgiving, Mandi and I set up the Christmas tree.  It was a marvelous day of leftovers, relaxation, and yuletide goodness (I have no idea what “yuletide” means).  After getting the tree together, we lit it and spent the evening playing with the kids and watching TV with the Christmas tree providing the necessary ambiance.  It was nice.

This morning I woke up, and as is typical, in my bleary-eyed semi-wakeful delirium, I stumbled over to the coffee pot – a journey which took me past the Christmas tree.  I looked at it for a second, and then thought, “You should be on.”  So I plugged it in… and was subsequently blindsided by a rush of emotions.  As I stared at the lights, all a sudden I felt a torrent of expectation.  And it dawned on me that in many ways, this morning marked the first leg of a journey that I’d come to know and love quite well.  A journey that takes us all the way to Great Lent and Easter Sunday…  A sort of “advent-ure” back into the story of how God has invaded (and continually invades) the world with his redeeming, reconciling, en-fleshed love.  Mind you, I have no idea what the “meaning” is behind the lighting of the Christmas tree, but for whatever reason, when I lit it this morning and stared at it, I kept thinking that somehow I was doing it for Jesus… turning the lights on in anticipation of the Light to come… “Come Lord Jesus” rang out in my soul.

So now I’m completely stoked.  The journey to Easter Sunday begins for me today.  Hope, longing, prayer, waiting, reflecting, anticipation, worship, worship, worship, worship… I absolutely love having a spirituality that’s anchored to the calendar.  It gives my praying, hoping, loving, waiting, reflecting, and worshiping a sense of structure, order, and stability… and keeps it moving (as always it should) towards resurrection.

Oh boy.

Anyhow, I hope you go to a church that takes the calendar seriously.  And I hope you’ve found ways personally to order your spirituality around the calendar.  It will work wonders in your soul.  Five years ago, when I was at the beginning of this journey, a good friend of mine, David Whited, who was already himself many years into his own personal quest to reclaim the calendar, told me a story of how when he was once in a rather dark moment of his life, he heard the bells ring out from a nearby church for Ascension Day and remembered, “That’s right.  He’s ascended.  All will be well.”  I recall listening to that story thinking, “THAT right there is the reason I need to be doing this… to help tether my soul to what is true rather than what is false… to order my hopes, desires, fears, and anxieties towards the kingdom.”

The kingdom.  Resurrection.  Ascension.  New Heavens and New Earth.  That’s where this is all headed.  That’s what this is all about.  Several years ago during Advent I blogged out a series called “Advent words”… daily reflections on whatever it was I happened to be thinking about for Advent that day.  I think this year I’ll do it again… with no agenda other than to openly reflect and be surprised by where the Spirit takes me.  After all, Advent is nothing if it’s not the quest to remember that God is a God of stunning surprises, not least of which is our very existence.

With much to be grateful for, and much to hope for, and much anticipation… I hope you’ll join me in the journey.

Andrew

He Still Has Scars, Part 1

I recently had the great privilege of visiting Network Coffee House down on 14th and Pearl here in Denver.  NCH has been open for 30 years.  It is a coffee house for the homeless, of which there are many in that neck of the woods.  Every night, from 6-9pm, the homeless can come on in, grab a cup of joe, and sit around tables chatting with other folks, some homeless and some not, like normal human beings.  No one trying to minister to them.  No one “benefacting” (not a word, but you get the idea) at them.  No one trying to “help” them.  Just togetherness.  Presence.  Relationship.  Beautiful.

In a room above the coffee house there is a makeshift chapel.  A pulpit, a sort of “altar”, a projector and screen, a few old pews and a couch that smells, well odd to say the least, strewn about for seating.  Every Tuesday night a small group of folks gathers to sing, ponder the grit of life in light of the grit of our Story, interact a bit with the “friends” downstairs (the homeless), and take communion.  “Honest spiritual formation in hard places” is their tagline.

My visit to this Tuesday night group happened on the last night of an 8 week long meditation on the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8).  The group had been pondering the story from all angles over the course of 8 weeks, letting the Spirit expose the ways in which that story plays itself out over and over again in each of our lives.  On this last night, they played a clip from a movie called The Stoning of Soraya, in which a middle eastern woman is stoned by her community for a crime she committed.  The clip was 12 minutes long, and brutally hard to watch.  Afterwards, one of the leaders gave a short reflection, and then the group was dismissed for an hour to either walk the streets and meditate, or simply to go downstairs to hang with the “friends.”

When the hour was over, the group reconvened and then immediately broke into groups of 3 to discuss what the film clip stirred up in their souls.  The leader who gave the reflection was in my group, and so when it came to be my turn to discuss, I related the film to something he said in his reflection… or something I thought he said, rather.

“You know, I think the thing that really impressed me in watching the clip,” I started in, “was how untenable it is to live a life where we’re so ready to throw stones at each other… and that really comes back to something you said (I was looking at the leader at this point) in your reflection when you asked, ‘How can we stop throwing stones at ourselves?’  Because it seems like only when we stop condemning ourselves will we have the capacity to stop condemning others.”

The leader stopped me.  “I think you heard me wrong,” he said.  “I didn’t ask, ‘How can we stop throwing stones at ourselves?’  What I asked was, ‘How do we come to grips with the fact that we throw stones at ourselves, and embrace the love of God for us despite that?’  That’s a very different thing.”

I’m sure he didn’t realize it, but that little comment caused a sort of earthquake in my soul.  It was weird.  I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  “How do we come to grips with the fact that we throw stones at ourselves?”  Not, “How do we stop it?”  But, “How do we accept it… and let God love us in it anyway?”

In John 20 we learn that the resurrected Christ still has scars.  “Put your hand in my side”, he says to Thomas, “Stop doubting and believe.”  Thomas responds, “My Lord and my God.”  Jesus’ woundedness created faith.  Weird.

Lately it’s occurring to me that there might be something there.  Why in the world wouldn’t God have covered over Christ’s afflictions?  Why not expunge the memory of that grueling night before the Sanhedrin, Pilate, the crowd… Golgotha?  Resurrected, yes.  But the wounds, the scars… they’re still there.  Why?  John is even more explicit in his Apocalypse when he continues to refer to Christ, the glorified, resurrected, powerful Christ as “the Lamb, looking like he had been slaughtered… sitting on the throne.”

He still has scars.  He still bears his afflictions.  They are not eradicated by Resurrection.  They are changed by it, to be sure.  But not eradicated.

I’m sure there’s something profound for our spirituality in that insight… and it’s to that that I’d like to turn in the next few days.  I hope you’ll join me.

“And if God is for us” Pt 2 – MUST READ, especially for Bloom peeps, house churchers, and family that knows about our situation of late

So, we’re like jumping up and down with elation over here at the Arndt household… let me tell the tale.

Most of you that have been following our lives know the story: we decided to go ahead and buy a house (since the housing market was ridiculously good for buying), and got a great deal on a marvelous house.  CATCH: we had just signed a year lease on our rental house, and the break-lease fee was 3 months rent ($3600… yikes!) UNLESS we could find a renter.  If we could get a renter by November 1st, we’d be out free and clear.

Meanwhile, during the past several weeks, we’d been working through Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount.  I had been convicted during that time that many of my prayers amounted to “hedging my bets”.  That is, I often prayed so non-specifically that it was easy to maintain plausible deniability.  In other words, if “it” (whatever “it” was) happened or didn’t happen, it’d be hard to know since my prayers were generally unspecific.  “God, we ask for provision…” and whatnot.  I felt the Lord asking me to get specific.  So I specifically asked for things, and challenged our community to do likewise.

One of the “specific” requests I had been making was regarding our rental house, and it was this: “Lord, I’m asking that you’d have this place filled with a renter for us by November 1st.”  True confession, I even did a little “naming and claiming”: “Lord, we call this house filled by November 1st.”  I’m not sure if it was heretical, but it seemed true to the spirit of Mark 11:20-24, so I decided to do it.

SO, we advertised the house on Craigslist, and showed it multiple times.  No applications were returned to the office.  We re-posted the listing on Craigslist last week, and had a new spurt of inquiries.  Several people came and saw it over the weekend, as we were moving.  And yet, by the time Monday morning rolled around, no applications had been returned.  In my heart, I conceded defeat.  “You win some and lose some” I thought.  I filled out the appropriate paperwork, grabbed the keys to the house, and drove off to turn it in, knowing we’d be some $3,600 poorer for so doing.

AS I’M DRIVING TO THE MANAGEMENT OFFICE, my cell phone rings.  I don’t recognize the number, but I answer nevertheless.  “This is Andrew” I say.  The voice at the other end says, “Hi, we’re wondering if the place on Hazel Court is still for rent?”  “No” I reply, “I’m heading to the office now to turn in the keys.  You’ll have to contact them…” and I give her the number.  I can tell the conversation is nearly over when she says, “Oh, well you showed the house to my mom this past weekend and she really liked it…”

“WAIT!” I return, “Is your mother _______?”  “Yes,” she replies.  She got sick over the weekend and didn’t fill out the paperwork but really liked the place and wants to rent it.

(Did I mention this was AS I’M ON THE WAY TO THE OFFICE TO CONCEDE DEFEAT AND TURN IN THE KEYS?)

So I tell her, “Look, call the management company and let them know you’re interested in renting.  I’ll head over there, turn in the keys, and put in a good word for you.”  By the time I get there, one of them had received a voicemail from the interested renter.  I asked, “So where does that leave us?”  “Well,” they replied, “if she passes the application process, we should be good.”  I call the lady back and tell her the good news.

Several days pass and we don’t hear anything.  This morning, Mandi and I had once again conceded defeat, thinking that since we hadn’t heard, she must not have passed the application process.  Then, an hour ago, I get a phone call from the president of the company:

Andrew, hi, this is _________.  Good news.  So-and-so passed the application process.  She’s coming in at 3:00 to sign the paperwork.  So what we’ll do is, we’ll refund your security deposit, minus the prorated rent for November, minus the lease transfer fee, and minus any repairs or maintenance we have to do before she moves in next week.

I can’t believe what I’m hearing.  Not only are we NOT having to pay out, but we’re actually going to GET MONEY BACK?  ARE YOU FREAKING SERIOUS?  I’m totally astounded.  I quickly blurt out something very diplomatic like “Well, that sounds wonderful.  Please let us know what we can do to expedite the process…” hang up the phone, and quickly run up stairs shouting like an idiot to Mandi, “Guess what guess what guess what!?!?”

Joy, joy, joy.

Thanks for all the prayers everyone.  God is faithful.

(Oh, and PS, we also sold our car today… hurray!)