“May You Find a Light: Advent Volume 1” by the Brilliance… BUY THIS THING!

“We are storied creatures…”, so the theologians and philosophers tell us. It is a distinguishing mark of our race that we make meaning through the stories we tell. We stitch together narrative tapestries in order to make sense of our lives, to give them coherence, and to articulate our sense of destiny and of our place in the cosmos. To begin a sentence with “Once upon a time” is indeed no small matter.

The enduring power of Christian liturgy is precisely in that, for the liturgy tells the Story of Christ as the true account of our lives, and it is through the liturgy that we come to ever-fresh and deeper understandings of who we are and how we “fit” in the cosmos, of our nature and destiny as human beings. To begin a worship service with “Once upon a time” is likewise no small matter.

There is a case to be made that the absence of a robust liturgical expression is part of what accounts for the listlessness of North American Protestantism at the start of the 21st century. Increasingly, we find ourselves “de-storied” and lost in the universe, captive to the forces of individualism, consumerism, and nationalism… all of which inevitably lead us to meaninglessness, despair, and ultimately death. We need a better story.

It is for this reason that we can be deeply grateful for the emergence of a new breed of Christian artists and bands who are taking our nature as “storied” creatures seriously and putting forward a sort of “new liturgy” which both honors the past and points the way forward into the future – a future in which the Story of how God has come to save us in Jesus is the story that defines our lives and sets the agenda for our mission at the twilight of late modernity.

The Brilliance is one such band, and their most recent album “May You Find A Light: Advent Volume 1” is a beautiful example of the new liturgy, calling us again to make meaning by situating our lives in the deepest mystery of the universe: the Incarnation.

So go buy it.  Enjoy it.  Savor it.  Be challenged by it.  And may it enrich the season for you.

Grace and peace…

Andrew

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With Gratitude… And Beyond

Luke records a fascinating encounter between Paul and some pagans in Acts 14:

8 In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. 9 He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed 10 and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” At that, the man jumped up and began to walk.

11 When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, “The gods have come down to us in human form!” 12 Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker. 13 The priest of Zeus, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.

14 But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 15 “Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them. 16In the past, he let all nations go their own way. 17Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” 18 Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them.

Outstanding.  Paul’s view was that God had left a testimony of himself among these pagans.  And that testimony was the fact of his kindness in sending rain and crops and food and joy-filled hearts.  Paul says to them – “Duh.  That was the God of Jesus Christ.  Render to Him what is due him and stop worshiping these dumb idols.”

Elsewhere Paul wrote (Rm 1),

20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.

The slide into human futility begins with a failure to give thanks to the One “from whom all blessings flow.”  That is why it is so important for us, as a matter of spiritual discipline and hence spiritual formation, to regularly and publicly “name the goodness” that has come into our lives as a gift from God.  Which is what we did this past weekend at Bloom.  After eating (an absolutely fabulous!) Thanksgiving dinner together as a family following our gathering, we had an “open mic” time of thanksgivings in which we gave folks in the community a chance to come up and tell what the Lord had done for them.  It was a marvelous time.

I have to say, the thing that I was most amazed by and pleasantly surprised by in listening to these “testimonies” was the role the community of faith (and in particular, our community of faith) played in these stories of hope and healing and redemption.  We in no way engineered the moment to be self-serving.  But as it turned out, the intersection of the community with these people’s stories was part and parcel of the good work that God did in them.  And how wonderful that was to see.  Our guiding vision as a community is that we would be a “garden of resurrection” in the middle of a culture of cynicism, despair, and ultimately, death.  That we are becoming such a community in such tangible ways fills my soul in ways that are impossible to describe…

And so it is on that note that we begin to turn the corner into Advent – the beginning of the long pilgrimage to the Empty Tomb, the frontier of God’s new world, and the Man who stands on the edge of that frontier, Christ Jesus, the Last Adam, the Firstborn of a New Humanity, our hope.

Some probably (still) wonder why we lay such a heavy emphasis on the Christian calendar in our community.  I respond by saying that I know of no other way to keep our lives so firmly rooted within our identity as participants in Sacred History than by rehearsing the Story, in its manifold implications for our lives, over, and over, and over, and over again.  For the Story is not MERELY “story”… it is also “script”… the “norming norm” through which our lives gain coherence, meaning, purpose, and direction.  Madison Avenue and the Pentagon would like nothing more than to have our lives lived on their clocks.  The Triune God, by contrast, is constantly inviting us out of secular time into his “time”, his “clock”, so that we can become more fully “his people”, faithfully embodying his saving love and gracious purposes for humanity in all the places in which we find ourselves “sent”.

So… I’m looking forward to making the pilgrimage again.  I hope you are too.  May your life, your heart, and your imagination be again gripped by the Story.

Come Lord Jesus.

Grace and peace to you.

Andrew

Sacred History and the Joy of Obscurity

“Changing the world” is an idea that gets North American Christians, evangelicals in particular, fired up.  We talk about winning the world for Jesus (with no clue what that would look like or what we shall do when it is so won); we talk about taking a city for the kingdom (with no clue what that would look like or what we shall do when it is so taken); we rant and rave about getting our country back from “them”, whoever “they” are (with no clue what that would look like or what we shall do once we have gotten it back).  We will change the world.  It is our prerogative.  Our task.  Our calling.  Our DESTINY.

When I was in college (I went to a Christian college), much was made of this idea.  In chapel we were told that if we had great faith we would do great things for God, and in so doing we would change the world.  Perhaps by next semester–if we had enough faith of course.  This had the effect of making me feel as though something was wrong with me, for I was not doing “great things for God”, nor did I have the time to do so.  Changing the world, after all, is a heavy burden to bear when you’re a college freshmen struggling to keep up good grades.

One afternoon, while out for a jog, I found my soul swimming in a sea of anxiety about this whole matter of “doing great things for God” and “changing the world.”  Was it because I didn’t have enough faith that I was not doing those things?  To add to the perplexity, at that time, some clever persons had reversed the maxim from “Do you have faith to do great things for God?” to “Do you have to fail?”  After all, if you didn’t have faith to fail, to take a big risk for God and not see it come through, you couldn’t possibly have faith to succeed.  But of course, I was a nineteen year old with a pile of new responsibilities on my plate.  No “big risks” were forthcoming for me.  I was just trying to survive.

And so, awash in confusion, I ran.  And as I ran, I listened.  And as I listened, I heard the Lord.  His words bubbled up from my soul and wrapped around me like a warm blanket:

Andrew, maybe it’s not so much “do you have faith to succeed?”; and maybe it’s not so much “do you have faith to fail?”; maybe it’s more about “Do you have the faith to be completely and totally obscure?”  To live a life of ordinary devotion to me in the trenches of faithfulness.  To be born, to walk with me – unknown, to do works of love and mercy, and then to die.  Do you have that kind of faith?  If you never led conferences or wrote books or had your name in the headlines, would I be enough for you?

Gladly, the answer that erupted in response was, “Yes, of course.”

We are constantly deceived into believing that “real” history is what’s happening “out there” – in the public square, in the headlines, on the playbills.  And so we desecrate and demean the importance of our (beautifully!) obscure lives.  How long will it take us to realize that SACRED HISTORY IS THE REAL HISTORY, and it is, more often than not, NOT TELEVISED.  In the words of Gil Scott Heron – the revolution will not be televised.

In one noteworthy scene in the Gospels (John 14), Jesus is talking cryptically about his coming death and resurrection, and one of his disciples explodes:

22 Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”

23 Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

How fascinating.  Judas wants a public spectacle.  A public revolution.  A demonstration that will answer all doubts and settle the matter publicly once for all, shutting every mouth.  And how does Jesus respond?  By bringing Judas back to the essence of his calling, his first task – “Love and obey me.  And me and my Father will come and make a home with you.”

Jesus seems to think that Judas’ first task to change the world.  It is his task to be faithful to and love Jesus and his Father.  They will take care of all the other stuff.

Back when the Rob Bell controversy was in full swing, a gal from the church we served at back in Oklahoma messaged me to ask my “opinion” on the book.  I hadn’t read the book, and hadn’t planned to.  Nothing against Rob, mind you.  I just thought the whole spectacle was unhealthy and wanted to distance myself as much as possible from it.  With that in mind, I responded thus:

My opinion is that when the history books are rewritten 150 years from now – and no offense intended here – but when they rewrite history, neither Rob Bell nor John Piper nor any of the current bigwigs in the debate are likely to get even an honorable mention.  Further, I can almost guarantee that this morning, the Vatican is not commissioning a task force to investigate this incredibly serious controversy currently raging among a bunch of all-too-excitable evangelicals.  My advice to you is to read it if you like, and ponder it… and then go back to your post and keep walking with Jesus.  There are more important matters at hand for you and for me than having an “opinion” on Rob Bell or John Piper.

Our little, ordinary, obscure lives matter.  And they matter not “with reference to” the things that make the headlines, whether within or without the Christian world.  They matter because they are part of God’s Sacred History – which is of course the REAL history.  The history that neither Rome nor Babylon nor the Pentagon nor Madison Avenue nor Orange County nor Colorado Springs nor the Vatican tends to pay much attention to.  After all, while Rome thought that what it was doing was the most important thing in the world, a virgin was being visited by an angel… and the REAL HISTORY was underway, God’s victory was moving forward, in ways that Rome would only realize quite late – several centuries later.

This is not to say, of course, that part of our task is not to “change the world.”  Jesus’ parable of the leaven and his teaching that we shall be “salt and light”, among other things, run decisively in the other direction.  We are agents of change.  It is just to say that the WAY we change the world is not the WAY the world conceives of “changing the world.”  It is crucial we see this, lest we eviscerate our lives of the dignity afforded them by the God who really does “hold the whole world in his hands.”

Your life has dignity.  So walk with Jesus.  Humbly, faithfully, fully.  You are part of a sacred revolution that will not be televised or co-opted by the media.  Believe it.  Live it.  ENJOY it.

Grace and peace.

Why We Gather Pt 4: Encountering “The Word”

What is it we think we’re doing during the preaching moment at Bloom?  What’s going on?  Theologically, how do we understand what’s happening?  And how does that connect to and serve the work that God is doing in our midst?

These are important questions, not least because – let’s face it – the “state of the pulpit” is not exactly great these days, and as with respect to our worship (see this post), without a clear and theologically informed working framework for understanding what we’re doing when we stand up (or sit down, whichever you prefer) before God’s people, we’ll surely miss mark.  Further, it is my conviction that if our framework is unsound, over time the pressure of preaching will ultimately damage us preachers – not because it’s a lot of work per se (although there is a fair amount of work involved), but because when work is done and weight is lifted from the wrong “position”, invariably we’ll pull a muscle or two.  (Thank you Edwin Friedman for that insight.)

With that in mind, here’s what’s going on in my head when I stand up (actually, I mostly sit down 🙂 ) to preach:

1) I begin with the premise that God is a speaking God, and that his speaking matters.  The Scriptural narrative opens with the living God speaking his “word” into the primeval chaos – “Let there be light! And there was light…” His speech apparently does things.  The Psalmist declared, “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, the starry host by the breath of his mouth…” (Ps 33).  The “word” of God appears to be the main means by which Creator God does things.  No surprise then that the Hebrew word for “word” – dabar – means both “word” and also “thing.”  God’s word is not a vaporous suggestion.  It is ACT.

So what is it we’re doing when we preach?  We’re gathering around the Creator God’s speech, his “dabar”, trusting that as the chaos of our lives is spoken into by His Loving Voice, His “order” will come and life will take root in all kinds of beautiful and surprising ways…  We trust that “Genesis moments” are never far off when the people of God assemble to hear God’s voice.

2) I move from there to the premise that God speaks not just generally (Creation) but specifically to his people, and that this speaking is the absolutely indispensable foundation for their life.  In the same way that the Creator God spoke into the chaos and brought order, and in the same way that this God spoke to the dust and brought out Adam, so, the Old Testament record tells us, did God speak and bring forth his people.  That is to say, Israel (and us) is a “word”-generated, “word”-sustained people.  In receiving his specific “word” to them (I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of Egypt… You are my treasured possession… You shall be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation… etc etc), Israel daily receives anew her identity from Yahweh and so is given the resources to live faithfully into her divine vocation.

In Deuteronomy 6:4 Moses says “Hear, Israel!  The Lord your God, the Lord is one…”  Hear!  Shema!  Listen up!  Daily as Israel recited that prayer, she would be reminded that the “first word” of her life – shema – was one that beckoned here to attune herself to the divine voice.  How fascinating.  That the first word to Israel was not “go and do this!” or “stop doing that!” or “knock that thing off!” but “listen…”  Israel is begotten in the word of God.  From that word she receives her identity.  She rises from the dust as a second Adam.  And when she fails to attend to the word, she slides into chaos, dust, exile.

So what is it we’re doing when we preach?  We’re calling the People of God to turn their ears back to the One who has redeemed and delivered, begotten and commissioned them in love to be a kingdom of priests in a world that knows not God… we’re reminding them of WHO and WHOSE they are.

It’s amazing to me how easily we lose sight of this.  In the quest to be “relevant” we wind up making preaching about something other than what it seems to me it clearly MUST be about if we’re going to stand any chance of being the faithful people of God in the world.  Invariably our preaching winds up being glorified motivational speaking which inevitably goes to fund our basically narcissistic, consumeristic, individualistic, godless, American Dream-centered lives. (Ahem.)

That is not to say that our preaching shouldn’t be “relevant”… not at all!  It is simply a question of what our preaching is “relevant TO”… I think that faithful Christian preaching strives to be relevant TO our fundamental identity as the people of God, which will obviously be manifest in a variety of ways – how we talk, shop, eat, pray, worship, serve, work, parent, engage politics, etc etc etc.  So I’m ALL FOR RELEVANT.  Provided we understand it right.  But if our preaching would pass without problem as a TED Talk, then something is wrong.

3) I move from there to the premise that God’s “word” is truly revealed to us in the text of Scripture, so that when we encounter Scripture, we’re encountering, REALLY ENCOUNTERING, the “Word” of God.  It is said that in exile, after the Jewish people had been stripped away from all the visible symbols of their identity as the People of God (land, temple, sacrifices, monarchy, wall, etc), they became, in a way that maybe they weren’t before, a people of the Book, such that when they read the text of Scripture, they saw themselves as interacting directly with Yahweh, in much the same way that they would have had they been worshiping at the Temple (which now lay in ruins).  In their sacred writings, they knew that Yahweh, the Creating and Redeeming God who had called them to be his chosen people, was speaking to them… and working to bring an end to their state of exile.  “Let there be light” would happen again as they encountered the Text.

The Apostle Paul later said – referring to those very writings – that “all Scripture is God-breathed…”  Scripture, in other words, is HOLY.  More than that, it is GOD SPEAKING.  The writer of Hebrews, when quoting the Old Testament, will preface it with, “As the HOLY SPIRIT SAYS…” (Heb 3:7).  “SAYS!”  As in – right now, right here, God is talking!  Where?  THROUGH THE TEXT.  God’s speech is EXPLODING over us.

What a tragedy that we don’t read the Bible in our worship gatherings in this way.  We don’t handle it as holy.  We don’t listen to it as the “now” speech of God over us.  Instead, we DISMISS it as the product of cultural bias and prejudice.  Or we simply “salt and pepper” it into our messages – messages that, were Scripture left out, could STILL BASICALLY STAND ON THEIR OWN.  Or, and maybe this hits closer to home for some of my readers, we analyze the text into oblivion.  We take this living thing, this “Word” of God, put it on the operating table, and slice and dice it till we KILL IT.  In your quest to be an “expository” preacher (whatever that means), for GOD’S SAKE, don’t KILL THE TEXT!  Don’t analyze it into oblivion.  Have some spine and ANNOUNCE IT!

One of the primary reasons we practice Lectio Divina in our house churches is because we want to cultivate a posture towards the Scriptures at Bloom which easily and naturally apprehends them as the Living Word of God.  That is to say, there is no fundamental spiritual difference for us between what we do during Lectio and what we’re doing when we preach.  The only thing that changes is that during the preaching there’s a person who’s been pondering the mysteries of the text all week and leads us as a community through an experience of those mysteries by lovingly and faithfully declaring them over us, inviting us to embrace them as a lived reality.

So what is it we’re doing when we preach?  We’re encountering the Scriptures as the Living Word of God to us NOW.

4) All of this culminates with the premise that God’s “dabar”, his Word, has become a Person who lived, died, rose, reigns, and is coming again (John 1).  That is to say, no preaching deserves to be called “Christian” which does not derive from or lead to Christ.  One recalls the marvelous scene in Luke 24 where Jesus, walking with two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus, “interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things said concerning himself” (v. 27).  One gets the impression that Jesus is doing MUCH MORE than just proof-texting himself with certain isolated “messianic” prophecies and whatnot.  It seems what he’s doing is deeper, more subtle than that.  It’s like he’s picking up the whole of the Old Testament, slipping it on like a garment tailored specifically for Him, and saying, “LOOK!  ME!  IT FITS ME AND ME ALONE!  THIS TEXT WAS ALWAYS A GARMENT MADE FOR ME!  I AM THE POINT!”

The foundational “word” of Christian preaching is always the “Word” himself, Christ Jesus, his Person and his Work.

But Luke tells us more.  Apparently, while the Risen Christ was giving this Bible lesson to his disciples, they were “kept from recognizing Him” (v. 16)  Wild stuff.  It wasn’t until this moment that things began to come together:

28 As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. 29 But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. 32 They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

And then later:

44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

How fascinating.  The Scriptures, the Person, the Meal.  In the convergence is revelation.

I think that on some subconscious level, maybe more like an intuition than anything else, Luke 24 is in my mind whenever I get up to preach.

We’re going to engage the Scriptures” I think to myself, “and every page SCREAMS His name, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see.”

Further, “The One of whom we speak is HERE, with all His power to save and redeem and deliver, if we have ears to hear and eyes to see… He is PRESENT among us… God help me announce HIM!

And,” I think to myself, “we’re headed to the Meal” (we take Communion every week).  “Lord, lead us to the Cross and to the Empty Tomb, to the Broken Body and Shed Blood, to the Lamb who lives and has conquered…” I groan in my heart.

And oh how sweet it is… when preaching comes from and leads to real “communion” with Jesus.  THAT, to me, is why we preach.

So to my fellow preachers: may God, the speaking God, give you utterance, so that you may lead your people – lovingly, faithfully, boldly – to the Living Christ, through your preaching, OVER, AND OVER, AND OVER, AND OVER AGAIN.

Trust me, they will thank you.

Grace and Godspeed.