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.
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.