10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 2

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’ll be doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “This is a beautiful and compelling truth; now how does it apply to our everyday lives?” I would be a rich man.

Not that trying to figure that out is a bad thing. When, for instance, groups of friends get together to discuss the Bible or theology, one expects such questions to arise naturally–it’s all part and parcel of trying to understand how our lives are implicated by what the Scripture commends.

BUT.

When I hear preachers, especially in their sermons, ask that question: “Now how does this apply to our everyday lives?” I want to run out of the building screaming. I once told my staff that if they ever–EVER–heard me say such a thing in one of my messages, they should shoot me on the spot. An aggressive bit of hyperbolizing, no doubt, but my seriousness was sincere. And here’s why: to ask that question is to totally misunderstand the nature of God, the world he loves, and the good news the Church tirelessly proclaims.

For underneath that question is a sort of Enlightenment, dualistic mentality most aptly stated by the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing, who several hundred years ago said this:

Accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason…That, then, is the ugly, broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make the leap.

In other words: there is an uncrossable chasm between the vicissitudes of history and the so-called “necessary truths of reason”–the things that all people, everywhere, must necessarily believe.

I hear Lessing’s “ugly, broad ditch” at work in the “how does this apply to our everyday lives” question–it seems that we also are operating under the assumption that what the Bible and theology are MAINLY doing are describing some ethereal, pure, spiritual world, which here and there, you know, sometimes touches our material, impure, unspiritual world, and that it is the job (and man, it is a hard job!) of the preacher to try to bridge the gap in their preaching.

HOGWASH I SAY!

The thing that one immediately notices when reading the biblical text is that it has almost no interest in disembodied “truths” about God. Instead, it thrusts us right from the outset into the welter of life–“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” This is no abstracting discussion about divine impassibility or omnipotence, but a narrative in which we will see how the glory of God, indeed the designs and purposes of God, are made manifest in space and time. This total lack of interest in abstractions is carried straight through the entirety of the narrative, where all of life is seen to be the arena of Yahweh’s interest and power. In fact, it’s almost embarrassing to note the level of interest Yahweh takes in human life. I laugh every time I read through Deuteronomy 23 and the instructions regarding what to do, for instance, with one’s excrement. A very routine and ordinary task is given a theological dimension: “so that Yahweh will not see anything indecent among you and be displeased…” HA. And on and on like this it goes… power, money, sexuality, joy, pain, children, disillusionment, eating and drinking… all of it is brought underneath the gaze of our loving God.

And of course, ever since the Everlasting One became a man, the Lessonian ditch has been completely destroyed. In the God-Man, heaven and earth, nature and supernature, ideas and history, have been indissolubly wed. The truth that is made manifest in Jesus our Lord is forever about the lives we all live, in all of their beauty and grit and complexity, before the face of our Lord and Maker. Nothing is excluded.

This talk of “applying truth to our everyday lives” can really only exist in an environment in which it is assumed that there is an ugly world of materiality that God has come to save us from and into a pure and blissful world of disembodied spirituality that we will live forever in. But man… seriously… the resurrected Christ, according to the Gospel, asked for a piece of fish and ate it in the presence of his disciples. This is what resurrected existence looks like–it includes and dignifies every bit of ordinary life, even as it transcends it, as the cube includes and transcends the square. It does not leave it behind. Neither should our preaching.

That is at the heart of my frustration. It is a misunderstanding of how this whole thing works, which thankfully scholars are beginning to see on all kinds of levels. I’m reminded of the so-called “New Perspective on Paul” debates, in which questions of the venerable Reformation doctrine of justification by faith are set within the important socio-cultural questions of the 1st century, in which Jews and Gentiles in the church are trying to figure out who gets to have table fellowship, and under what circumstances. This is about life, folks!!!

Not, of course, that it’s always obvious just how our lives are implicated by this or that bit of biblical text. Some texts (one thinks immediately of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount) make it easy. Others (like, say, the first chapter of Hebrews) take a bit of work. But if one starts with the assumption that this is about life, you usually won’t go too far astray, and your preaching will take on BOTH a theological/biblical depth AND a poignancy vis a vis “real life” that it probably wouldn’t have had otherwise.

There are at least two implications I can think of that come out of this:

First, if you begin to think this way, you’ll approach your preparation differently. Instead of trying to figure out the theological meaning first and then going onto to its practical application (again, think Lessing here), you’ll probably find yourself asking about meaning and life concurrently. I remember years ago doing a series on an utterly ethereal book, Ecclesiastes, and during my study, every single time I felt like the passage in question threw light on something (anything) or reminded me of something (anything), I would write it down in the margin of my notes. A story, a memory, a quote, something that happened with my kids recently, something I saw in the news… I mean whatever. And the funny thing was, the more I wrote those things down, the more energy my biblical and theological study gained. Pretty soon, as I crossed effortlessly between the world of Scripture and my own world, I stopped seeing them as separate worlds altogether, and suddenly the connections started to flow. We weren’t talking about the Bible anymore, with “life” over here on the other side… we were talking about all of it, together, under the gaze of God.

Secondly, if you begin to think this way, you will probably stop privileging “propositional” content over “narrative” or “personal” content in your messages. Again, such a privileging is Lessing’s “broad, ugly ditch” at work. I am under the impression that most of our formal training for preachers, especially that given in traditions committed to the authority of Scripture, operates under the assumption that the most important thing for the preacher to do is simply explain or announce the disembodied “truth” at work in the passage, and then use a personal story here and there to “apply” the truth or make it more personal. I understand that, but also think it’s bad form insofar as it obscures the truth that, again, the gospel is already-always, first-and-foremost, about the actual lives we live before the face of God. So a steady dose of narrative is not mere adornment. It is in fact the place where the glory of God shines through in great depth and clarity. When we begin to talk about our marriages, our kids, our neighbors, our jobs, relationships, ISIS, police brutality, hunting, fishing, coffee, and country music… we are talking about the very things that God in Christ came to save from eternal degradation. We SHOULD be talking about these things, stringing them together in tiny narratives that open windows to eternity. After all, by and large the Scripture itself is a narrative. Not a disembodied announcement of God’s love, but a gracious and soul-stirring “Once upon a time” that invites our little lives into the grandeur of God’s story, dignifying and transforming every little “once upon a time” that gets pulled up into its sweep.

All of this helps address, I believe, the concern raised by one reader last week who said:

I ideally desire practical application from the passages I pick/am asked to preach on. Sometimes [I find myself] running into incredible frustrations when the applications don’t seem very life changing to me, but more so a biblical lecture increasing head knowledge.

If you approach preaching in the way I’m recommending, this frustration will start to dissipate. For there will be less and less “how does this apply?” going on in your preparation–a question, again, assuming that there is “truth over there” and “our lives over here” that only meet once in a great while. Such an assumption is totally false. We are not trying to “fit” God or his truth into our lives. For when God became man, we were forever barred from trying to figure out how we are going to fit God into our lives. God has “fit us” into his life. Every bit of our finitude is radiant with divine splendor, if we have eyes to see it.

(If you’re in the Boulder, Denver, or COS area, you should join me for this–http://www.denverseminary.edu/resources/initiatives/preaching-cluster-groups/. I’ll be leading one. Really reasonable rates. Let’s learn to preach better, together!)

10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 1

(NOTE: This blog is part of a series of posts I’ll be doing on lessons I’ve learned on preaching over the last 10 years)

If you pushed me and said, “Andrew, what is the single biggest, the single most important thing you’ve learned about the craft of preaching over the last ten years?” at first I’d bluster about for a bit trying to tell you that there are all sorts of important things and it’s really hard to artificially say which is more important than the other, since in so many ways they all rise and fall together… and then if you were really persistent and kept pressing the issue, I’d have to answer this:

You’d better, at an absolute minimum, have a clear idea of what it is to preach… what a sermon is, what it does, how it functions within the life of the community of faith.

Failing to have a clear grasp of this, your preaching is likely to careen wildly between motivational speech (for those so inclined), theological or biblical history lecture (for those so inclined), angry rant (hahaha, also “for those so inclined”–you know who you are), pep-rally talk (they’re so exhausting, aren’t they?) or insipid, cliche, Christian greeting card drivel (ouch, and once again, you know who you are).

In my early years of preaching, I’d say that my sermons tended to be some combination of theological lecture and angry rant. Though the sands of time have largely eroded my memory on this point, I have a vague recollection of patting myself on the back in congratulations for being “prophetic” in my preaching, when in point of fact I was an immature egghead with a chip on my shoulder who had no idea what a good sermon actually was. The result of this was preaching that didn’t help people very much, and often wore them out. And though I didn’t realize it at the time, when folks would come up to me after messages and say, “Man, I love your passion” or “Wow, you really are smart”, as often as not that was simply their way of being nice to a kid who had a long way to go (and was probably the only person in the room who didn’t realize it… ugh).

Over the years, time, experience, and some measure of study have taught me that at its heart, the sermon is none of the things I listed above.

  • Though it includes motivational elements, it is not a motivational speech
  • Though it includes teaching moments, it is not a theological or biblical lecture
  • Though there are times when prophetic passion erupts, it is not an angry rant
  • Though here and there you will need to do a little “pep rally” talk, it is not at its core a “mobilizing the base” moment
  • And do I need to say anything about Christian greeting card drivel?

Instead, I have come to the firm belief that at bottom, the sermon is this:

It is a WINDOW into an alternative reality–one based on the claim, and all that goes with it, that “Jesus is Lord.”

When I get up to preach now, I stand there knowing that what the community of faith demands of me are words that will remind them of how the world really is now that God has established his reign in the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The reason the community of faith demands this of its preachers is that more often than not, this is difficult to see, and therefore our lives tend to slip into other narrative construals of reality–that Death has the final word, that America is God’s chosen nation, that God doesn’t love me, that reconciliation is impossible, that justice will never be realized, that my guilt will never be assuaged… etc etc etc.

These narratives, you understand, literally PULVERIZE people’s lives, trapping them in stories that are fundamentally unlivable. What the preacher does, then, is the preacher stands up, and out of the vast resources of the Scriptural tradition (which provides the fundamental linguistic elements that the preacher will creatively construe), tells the truth that it’s all false. In announcing the kingdom of God, the preacher is exposing the lies that are driving people’s lives, ripping them to shreds, sapping them of strength and energy. With great love and passion, the preacher is saying, “Peer into this alternative reality. Imagine yourself into a world that is saturated with the goodness and justice of God. Know yourself afresh to be one who is loved, called, chosen, bought, forgiven, and promised an indestructible future in God’s good world through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. You don’t have to live in the lie anymore.

That, brothers and sisters, is preaching. It is standing up in a tradition that reaches back to Moses and Isaiah and finds its consummation and climax in Jesus of Nazareth and saying, “The reign of God is here. Change your mind, and believe yourself into this shocking good news.”

The thing that I think we must grasp as preachers is that in the economy of salvation, God does very little, arguably almost nothing, apart from the verbal announcement of his reign. Amos 3:7–“Surely the Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” God, whose Son is literally called his “Word”, his self-expression, makes worlds available through words. He overthrows empires, brings down kingdoms, frees the oppressed, and liberates slaves, all through human speech. As Walter Brueggemann puts it so well, in discussing the oracles of salvation in Isaiah chapters 40ff:

The news is theological, but it is world-changing, with both a permit and a requirement implied. Note well, that if the Jews go home, it will be because they accept the world that is available to them only on the lips of this messenger… (Cadences of Home, 47)

We messengers are called to this–to employing all of the resources our speech to construct alternative modes of understanding for the people of God so that they can leave every dehumanizing Egypt and Babylon they find themselves in. Week after week, we summon them saying, It is time to go home!

This, of course, will help put all the other bits of preaching in their proper place. We will often motivate, we will frequently find ourselves needing to instruct on the finer points of theology or biblical history, we will sometimes kick into a passionate rant, we will on occasion find ourselves rallying the troops… but all in the service of and within this core call: to open up a window into another reality.

Once you begin to understand preaching in this way, one of the “practicals” that you’ll likely notice is that your sermons will become cleaner, clearer, and often shorter. Though I’ll be getting into those items and more in following posts, for the time being I’ll just say that if and when your preaching is done in the service of opening up windows, as we’re saying here, you’ll find that there will be a lot of things you once thought (or were told were) important in preaching that no longer are.

As an example, my time in seminary had me convinced that really good sermons thoroughly “explained and applied” each and every item in a given text of Scripture. Because I was really committed to biblical preaching, I felt a profound weight of obligation to translate every passage, do thorough word and background studies, etc etc., and then bring the better part of that to bear on the message, explaining, illustrating, and applying every little detail. It didn’t take me very long to realize that because the text of Scripture is fundamentally inexhaustible, it was an unreasonable goal to think that my preaching should even adequately “explain and apply” each bit of text I was asked to preach on.

A better goal, when dealing with discrete bits of Scripture, I soon learned, was to try to understand the heart of God as revealed in this or that text… to ask how it throws open a door to the kingdom, how it’s unique vantage point flings wide one of the windows of eternity, letting the fresh breeze of God’s infinite love pour in. If I could connect with THAT, then all the other elements would find an organizing center.

Good preachers understand this and have honed an ability to execute messages that give people a glimpse of an alternative reality. People walk away having had their imaginations drawn, even if just for a few minutes, into the possibility that life under the reign of God in Christ could be different… and those moments hold the power to change everything. Change perception, change reality.

So the next time, preacher, you’re begin preparation for a sermon, do this: in the midst of all your study, brainstorming, mind-mapping, praying, and whatever else it is you do to get ready, ask yourself this question–“How is this text a window into the kingdom? What is it inviting people into?” If you can identify and articulate that with clarity and passion, you’ve at least cleared one important hurdle to giving a coherent and compelling sermon.

What about you? What have you learned? What kinds of questions does this raise for you?

10 Years of Preaching: 10 Lessons

At the beginning of this year it dawned on me that 2015 marks my tenth year of preaching (more or less). That’s a funny thing to me, because, as I mentioned yesterday in my post about turning 34, I do feel like in so many ways I’m just getting started in life. And that applies to my preaching as well. The “ministry of the word”, as they call it, is one of the central callings of my life (so far as I can tell), and in my heart I feel as though I’ve only lately “left the Shire.”

But ten years of doing anything is nothing to sneeze at, and when I look back over those years, I realize that I’ve learned some really concrete lessons that guide how I do what I do on a (mostly) weekly basis now–with the result that I am able to hold this ministry with ever greater clarity, power, conviction, and most of all, joy.

Those of us who labor in this ministry know that for all the rewards it can give–seeing moments of insight erupt on people’s faces, watching lives transformed, seeing people set free, delivered, and enabled to more faithfully live the life to which they have been called–it can also be extremely disorienting, frustrating, and sometimes downright demoralizing.

Some of that, I think, just goes with the territory. One is reminded of the great prophets of Israel–fellas like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel–whose preaching, according to YHWH, was not likely to result in accolades but rather scorn. “Afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted” sounds wonderful in theory, but when you get down to it, it can really wear on you. Thus YHWH’s challenge to each of them: “Do not be afraid–I am with you.” The occupational hazard of preaching, which none of us can avoid, if we are to be faithful to God, is that the repeated exposure inherent in the task of preaching can leave us feeling raw and vulnerable. We need to know that God is with us, and then stand up, yet again, and speak in his name.

Some of the disorientation, frustration, and demoralization, however, boils down to a whole bunch of practicals. When I started preaching 10 years ago, I found that despite having a raw gift, which was affirmed often and by many, it was the practicals, which I had not yet grasped, and that for the most part only time and experience could really teach me, that were repeatedly tripping me up. Not having a clear grasp of what preaching really was, not knowing what kind of a life I had to live to hold the ministry of the word, not understanding what went into effective preparation, not trusting that preparation when I actually got up to preach, etc etc… my preaching was pretty “hit or miss” in those days, as it always is for those who are just setting out to preach, because of my failure to grasp those things and more.

My conviction is that this ministry can and should be both rewarding, and effective. As one who shares in it, I have a real love in my heart for those who labor each week in the service of the word and desperately want to help them. At its best, preaching is beautiful and compelling. At its worst, it is oppressive, confusing, and frustrating. I’d like to help those of you who feel called to this ministry come to a clearer grasp of what you’re doing so that your preaching rises to the level of the beauty of God’s kingdom–which, after all, our preaching is meant to open up a window into.

So what we’ll do is this…

Each week, I’ll write one or two short (500-700 word) blog posts on a lesson I’ve learned, and include along with each post a “practical” that you can think about or start to try to put into motion in your own preaching. I’d love to hear from you–so if you have questions, feedback, comments, or things you’d like me to weigh in on vis a vis preaching, I want to hear it. (Who knows? Maybe your own feedback will turn into one or two of the lessons.)

What I’l ALSO do is host Periscope sessions here and there where I’ll talk live online about some of the stuff we’re discussing here. Which should be pretty fun.

(A DISCLAIMER: the “lessons” I’ll be posting will be more or less “at random”–stuff straight from my heart. I’m not going to try to impose an artificial structure on it; rather, I’ll just reflect on what’s become really important to me. So if you’re looking for a comprehensive “theology of preaching” or something, this ain’t the place :).)

I’m looking forward to this. If you know anyone who you think would be helped by these posts, make them aware of this conversation and bring them over. Hopefully we’ll all learn something along the way.

Peace,

Andrew

On Turning 34: A Birthday Reflection

I turned 34 yesterday. Weird.

There was a time in my life, not long ago perhaps, when 34 seemed old. A very long time away. I’m not altogether sure what I thought I’d be when I got there, but I would no doubt be old by then. I remember my parents at this age (I was seven or so). Mustaches. Poofy hair. Lax fashion sensibilities. Ford Tauruses. They were the definition of old. Am I that?

I constantly have the experience of meeting people who look old to me and then finding out that they graduated a year before (or after!) I did. It’s disorienting… do I look like that?? I must…

Mandi and I recently went to former Packers quarterback Brett Favre’s induction into the Packers Hall of Fame. On the way over, she said to me, “Do you know he has two grandkids?” I replied, “Do you know he’s only about ten years or so older than us?” “Noooooo….” she gasped, incredulously. Sure enough. Our childhood hero has grandkids, is getting inducted into Halls of Fame, and only has a decade on us.

Old.

When my mom was around my age, she asked my younger brother John, “Do I look old to you?” His reply: “Just your face…”

Ha. OLD.

I’m a romantic at heart, so the idea of letting go of childhood and coming into a full, ripe adulthood is an inspiring one for me. I’m not sure what exactly I thought it would “feel” like to be the age I am now, but this is what it feels like, to me… this is where my heart is:

I’m so grateful for what I’ve accomplished, and still feel like I haven’t done a darned thing. I think I thought at 34 I would be walking around with this sense of, “Man, look at all the cool stuff I’ve done.” That there would be more in the rearview mirror than in front of me. I don’t feel like that. What I do feel is immense gratitude for what I’ve accomplished and where life has taken me… and still feel like I’m just getting started. I hope that I feel that way for a very long time. Kierkegaard once said that the intersection between time and the eternal is not in the present, as many assume, but rather in the moment that is rushing upon us, in the possibility that constantly presents itself anew. Therein is hope. I want more of that. A heart full of eternal possibility.

In like manner, I’m so grateful for what I’ve come to know of God, but feel like I’ve only just begun to explore. That wasn’t always the case. There was a long period I went through where I could feel something like a sad resignation creeping around the edges of my heart, whispering, “It will never get better than what it was.” Those were hard days, and I am glad that they are over. God’s infinity eternally beckons us to more. He is the Far Shore we never reach. The Country we will forever explore. The Name whose mystery eternally unfolds itself. I love God. I want more.

My family is more important to me now than it has ever been. Mandi and the kids. My mom and dad, my siblings, their significant others, my extended family. The older I get, the more stabilizing and orienting and identity-shaping family becomes. Ministry in particular has taught me that firm, stable relationships can be really hard to come by. You fall back on what has carried you. My family has carried me. I love and trust them, and am so grateful for them.

I am less impressed with celebrity than I have ever been. That doesn’t mean I’m not still a little impressed with it :). Just that it’s not as important as it was to me. Knowing “so and so” and being able to say that you’ve met “such and such” a person, and even becoming the kind of person that people might name-drop in a conversation… blech. It’s meaningless. The older I get, the less impressed I am with it. And I’ve learned this: There is absolutely no correspondence between celebrity and truth. I know that now. I didn’t always. More and more, what impresses me are lives lived with full integrity, rooted in the truth.

Which is what I want my own life to be. I am bent on living now, in a way that I’m not sure I have ever been. I want to love my wife and kids. I want enjoy the life I’ve been given. I want to be a great help to the church I serve… and a blessing to those beyond it. I want to keep growing in wisdom and grace, and keep finding my life “hidden with Christ in God.” I want to know and gaze upon the Beauty, and find thereby that my own soul is beautified. I want to live.

Not too long ago I sat down for lunch with an older pastor (and by that I mean a pastor older than me; he’d probably be offended at being called an “older pastor”… ha). His encouragement to me: “You’ve got your whole life and ministry out in front of you. Enjoy it all. Spread your wings. Experiment. Don’t be afraid of living. This decade will be about a profound self-discovery. Soak it all up.”

Good advice. I intend to :).

We Can Do Better Than “Loving Liturgy”

I grew up in an almost totally non-liturgical family and church tradition. “Non-denominational charismatic” is how I’ve often described by background to people who ask.

My parents and most of their friends had been mainliners and/or Catholics with a marginal faith before they encountered God in the person of the Holy Spirit in camp meetings and revivals sometime in the 70s. What was born out of those early interactions with the Holy Spirit was the church I grew up in. Alive, vibrant, full of vitality.

I loved that church and will always have fond memories of it. It gave me my identity, my sense of connection to God, my love for his people. The thing about that group of people was—God was SO immediate and present, and kind. I have vivid memories of being in prayer meetings and worship services where the Holy Spirit went from being a vague intellectual concept to being a sort of aura that you could very nearly see with your eyes, that you could interact with with a sort of tangible immediacy. When my friends and I began discovering our own faith in high school, the energy of our love for God found expression in prayer and worship meetings that we would organize, where God would utterly show up. I’ll never forget some of those times… snot and worship and tears flowing, prophetic words and discerning prayer over each other… hours later the atmosphere would lighten and we’d wonder where the time went.

Oh man… my heart burns just writing that.

Years later I started discovering the liturgical stream of the Church and it began to dawn on me that in so many ways, this was the missing piece of my early experiences of God. For in the ancient creeds and prayers and liturgies, what we had were channels that could take that raw energy of our hearts and direct it into the depths of God. Instinctively I knew, as a charismatic, that liturgy at its best was not antagonistic to the Spirit, but complementary and, even better, enabling of the Spirit’s presence and power.

I say that to say that my love for liturgy was and is always about God, about his Spirit, first. It was, and is, about answering the question, “How do we create handles for our worship? How do we construct theologically and aesthetically rich trellises upon which our raw spiritual passion and energy can grow and flourish? How do we help ensure that our worship is not just zealous, but true, knowing that truth enriches our experience of the Spirit of God?” But see… always about God. About a very real and personal interaction with him that cleanses and changes and transforms. Always. Always. Always about promoting and enabling that, and never about some kind of substitution, where liturgy co-opts longing for God.

Liturgy is all the rage in evangelicalism now. Which is fine. And I think mostly good. For the better part of the last decade or so, I’ve been a pretty damn liturgical guy. I love it. I think it’s vital. I don’t foresee myself leaving it behind for something else. I want to go deeper.

But.

BUT.

The thing that I am so much more aware of now that I’ve journeyed for awhile with liturgy and whatnot is that liturgy is a great enabler, but an utterly horrendous substitute for pure spiritual longing. And even more than that, as a pastor, one of the things I am keenly aware of is that part of the reason that many people like liturgy is because it helps them keep a safe distance from the immediacy of a holy God.

Boom. There. I said it.

I actually think that’s part of the reason that many church leaders like it right now. Because in an age where liturgy is all the rage, you can convince people that you’ve really got something good going on in your ministry, what with your incense and candles and call-and-response prayers and contemplative practices and ancient-future whatevers and high eucharistic celebrations and whatever… and no one these days will question it because having kick-ass liturgy has all of a sudden become some kind of rubber-stamp that God is present and active in a church’s ministry.

What we FORGET, or at least we 2nd and 3rd generation charismatics forget, is that there was something called “dead religion” that many of parents fought like mad to escape. THEY OVER-CORRECTED, no doubt, in abandoning the rich liturgical traditions of their forebears. But their core intuition that spiritual energy could be co-opted by or devolve simply into rote ritual was right on the money. God forbid we should fall into the same trap.

And yet… my impression is that many of us are. We’re forgetting. We’re forgetting the love and passion and desire that drove us into deep places of prayer and worship in the first place, that made us dream about planting churches that would change the world. Forgetting what made us love the liturgy when we first discovered it. Forgetting what and for Whom it was all about. Our Love. Our Light. Our God.

I’m reminded of a really stirring passage out of Lewis’ The Great Divorce (please, yes, I know, I’m on a CSL kick). Two friends—one of the redeemed, and one of the “ghosts” from hell—meet. The exchange is memorable, and straight to my point:

“Come, then,” said the spirit, offering it his arm.

“How soon do you think I could begin painting?” the ghost asked. The spirit broke into laughter. “Don’t you see you’ll never paint at all if that’s what you’re thinking about?” he said. “What do you mean?” asked the ghost. “Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.” “But that’s just how a real artist is interested in the country.” “No. You’re forgetting,” said the spirit. “That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.” “Oh, that’s ages ago,” said the ghost. “One grows out of that…” “One does, indeed. I also have had to recover from that. It was all a snare…Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to the love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.”

I think that nails it straight on the head. And I know… I KNOW… because I have TAUGHT it… that these things need not be in opposition to one another. At our best moments they are not. In principle they are not. And yet the snare that Lewis speaks of is there… the endless conversations around liturgy and effort expended to perfect and continue to craft beautiful liturgy when the truth that we dare not admit is that we’ve lost and are losing the love of God that drove us into it in the first place. We’ve grown timid of God. And so we lead ministries that are increasingly timid of God. And instead of God we give liturgy, instead of the Spirit we give form, instead of Christ, we give contemplative practices. And the timid sons and daughters of God among us, sons and daughters who would love to know but a taste of genuine freedom in the Spirit, are confirmed in their timidity because we’ve substituted structure for the dynamism of the Spirit who calls out to each one of us “Come, reach out, and take the free gift of the water of life…and it will become a wellspring surging up from within you.”

God, I want that again. An upsurge of Spirit that cuts through the fog and the doubts and the cynicism and the ridiculous feeling that we cannot possibly be mature or educated in faith unless we are constantly depressed and struggling with our latest dark night of the soul… I would give everything to see that. EVERYTHING.

I loved God, and was utterly enamored with his Spirit, before I loved liturgy.

I will not lose that.

Not for anything.

I hope that you, especially if you’re a pastor, can say the same. Liturgy by itself will not and cannot transform the world.

But a people hungry for God… full of his Spirit, in ways that are outrageously evident…

It has happened before.

It can happen again.

So be it.

Come, Holy Spirit.

(Mis)Reading C. S. Lewis

Ol’ Clive Staples has always been one of my favorite authors. From the time I first stumbled across a tattered copy of Mere Christianity among my parents’ library in high school, straight through college and seminary, and right up to today, I have always found Lewis to be bold, challenging, inspiring, and breathtakingly clear on some of the most important issues and questions for Christian faith. I have read nearly every book he wrote (most of them multiple times), return to him regularly for clarity, and if I had to pick one author who most nearly captures my own moral and spiritual vision, it would be Lewis, in a rout.

One of my favorite of his works is a book that seemed to experience a new resurgence of popularity in recent years with the release of Rob Bell’s Love Wins, which, as everyone knows, sparked a bit of a fracas within evangelicalism on the age-old questions of universalism, judgment, the possibility of post-mortem salvation, and the like. The book, of course, is The Great Divorce, an absolutely stirring read in which a busload of the damned are given an opportunity to venture into heaven. The tale is utterly profound, piquant, unforgettable… I’ve read it no less than ten times (seriously) but hadn’t read it in a few years, and so decided to give it a run again this weekend. To my great delight, I found it to be more profound (and nourishing for the soul) than I even remembered.

But also, I thought, this book is profoundly misunderstood, misread, and misapplied. In particular, as I read it, I thought of how often I have heard The Great Divorce trotted out as evidence that Lewis believed in things like purgatory and the possibility of post-mortem salvation. From where I stand, it seems to me that the book often becomes a champion of a sort of weak-willed, half-hearted, half-committed universalism where we’re permitted to hold a vague belief that everyone is somehow magically alright in the end (a tolerant and loving position, no doubt). After all, isn’t that what the tale is all about?

Not if you read it closely. A few quotes to make my point, and then a challenge.

From the preface:

I beg readers to remember that this is a fantasy. It has of course–or I intended it to have–a moral. But the transmortal conditions are solely an imaginative supposal: they are not even a guess or a speculation at what may actually await us. The last thing I wish is to arouse factual curiosity about the details of the afterworld.

That quote alone should be enough to put the matter to rest. Lewis is imploring readers to understand that what he is NOT doing, above all, is engaging in some kind of speculation as to the nature of the afterlife. Rather, what he is doing is opening up the reader’s imagination to the nature of reality using this little fantasy as a lens through which to understand the choices the lay at the feet of all humanity—a point he makes over and over again throughout the work.

An altogether excellent example of this in chapter 9, in one of his memorable exchanges with the great George MacDonald (who himself was, or is thought to be anyway, a universalist), he says:

“But there is a real choice after death? My Roman Catholic friends would be surprised, for to them souls in Purgatory are already saved. And my Protestant friends would like it no better, for they’d say that the tree lies as it falls.”

MacDonald replies:

“They’re both right, maybe. Do not fash yourself with such questions. Ye cannot fully understand the relations of choice and Time till ye are beyond both. And ye were not brought here to study such curiosities. What concerns you is the nature of the choice itself: and that ye can watch them making.”

And once again, in his final exchange with MacDonald:

“A dream? Then—then—am I not really here, Sir?” “No, Son,” said he kindly, taking my hand in his. “It is not so good as that. The bitter drink of death is still before you. Ye are only dreaming. And if ye come to tell of what ye have seen, make it plain that it was but a dream. See ye make it very plain. Give no poor fool the pretext to think ye are claiming knowledge of what no mortal knows. I’ll have no Swedenborgs and no Vale Owens among my children.” “God forbid, Sir,” said I, trying to look very wise.

I could multiply examples from the book that continue to make this point, but few are as clear as the ones I have given. And the much larger point here is this: when one reads The Great Divorce with an honest and open mind, the impression one gets is NOT that Lewis is trying to allay our fears about the afterlife and comfort us that all—and all people—will be well. That, I think, is what progressive Christianity is trying to make Lewis say. It is, in my opinion, to co-opt Lewis for the spirit of the age, in which Christianity loses its teeth.

No, what Lewis is doing is altogether different—he is, read within the context of his own moment in history—issuing a prophetic summons and challenge to the spirit of his age. Reality, for Lewis, is not malleable to human whims and fancies. God is not a figment of our imagination. Christ is no mere symbol of human magnanimity and goodwill. The Holy Spirit is not a metaphor for our greatest hopes, dreams, and aspirations. No. No. No.

Reality is as hard as nails

For GOD is the great reality of the universe

And in Christ men and women everywhere are called to bend themselves to that reality, or be lost forever

Lewis was a mountain of a man, who stood like a banner on a hilltop, imploring everyone within the range of his voice (thoughtfully, carefully, winsomely, imaginatively, no doubt) to see through his eyes a burning vision of God, the Holy One, who with and through his Son Jesus held out the only possibility of salvation. The character of his ministry has, from where I stand, almost nothing in common with the caricatures of him so prevalent in progressive Christianity. He cut against the grain, resisted the tide of his time. It is for this reason I think his legacy remains so compelling. Like his contemporary Bonhoeffer, in Christ Lewis found a way to say “no.” He saw what others could not see, in large part because of his deep understanding of the Church’s perennial and everlasting message.

That is not at all to make the venerable Oxford and Cambridge don out to be some kind of narrow-minded fundamentalist. He was thoughtful and generous enough, and versed enough in historic Christian orthodoxy to embrace the possibility that some may, in the end, be saved quite apart from a direct knowledge of Christ (though, even so, always through Christ). But so what? I mean, really. That has always been a valid position within Christianity—that God, being good and just will judge people fairly, based on what they knew in this life, in light of the light and truth that they had. It is a sometimes disputed position, no doubt. But always valid. Heck, even Billy Graham, the arch-evangelical, in an interview with Larry King about the fate of those who had never heard the gospel, was quoted as saying, “I can only say with Abraham: will not the judge of all the earth judge rightly?There just isn’t news here. Who cares? His embrace of that idea was just an outworking of his generous and thoughtful Christianity. But it was not, is not, the center of his importance as an apologist for Christianity.

What I think would be better, and certainly more accurate to the historic and literary legacy of Lewis, is to see him (at least in part) as a prophetic figure who resisted the corrosive tendencies within the church and society that he found himself within and found a way, based on the burning and hard-as-nails reality of God in Christ, to provoke people to repentance and faith. His message had teeth, which is why it endures.

Does ours?

Forgiveness and the Risen, Wounded One

“On the evening of that first day of the week,” John says, “when the disciples were together with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ ” John goes on to say that, “After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side…“–a telling statement.

We are urged in the gospel to forgive those who have wronged and injured us. More than that, we are told that our participation in the kingdom depends on it and that in fact one of the ways that we can know whether or not we are standing in the love of the Father is if the grace of forgiveness is flowing through us.

But this is hard, as anyone who has tried to forgive someone who has deeply wronged or injured you knows. For forgiveness implies a casting away. In fact, this is what the Greek word for forgiveness, aphiemi, means: to cast away, to send away. And so it is that when we forgive, that is what we are doing–we are sending the offense away, out of the midst of the relationship. Or at the very least, out of the midst of our hearts, so that it does not stand between us and the person who has wronged us.

Except…

Except that in our actual experience we find that the hurt simply does not go away that easily. For in the very moment of casting it away, as often as not we find that it is still there. The sliver still in our finger. The thorn still in our side. The barb still buried deep in our foot. Try as we may, the fissures opened up in the wounding are still there.

Yes. Yes they are. As the disciples found. The fissures are still there… BUT… they have found a new integration–in the person of Christ.

Like many, I have often found it curious that the Gospel writers draw such attention to the open wounds of the risen Christ. But perhaps this is saying something crucial about the nature of new creation that is inaugurated in Christ the Lord. It does not smash the old. Neither does it “undo” it, pave over it, or erase it, in some simplistic fashion. Rather, it draws the old into it, including and transcending it, eclipsing it, but never destroying it or leaving it behind. The marks of the struggle of the old creation remain, yes; the wounds remain, yes–but perhaps in him what we begin to find is that the memory of them is transformed, so that the song that erupts from the bellies of the redeemed is “Oh Death where is your sting?!

The wounds remain in the new creation. Forever we will worship “the lamb who was slain…” But the sting will be gone, as we will have cast all our hurt, all our wounds, indeed all our lives–into the new creation, into Him. Death swallowed up in victory. The Wounded One forever present to us, as he is present to us now, declaring, “Peace be with you.”

To live “from Christ” // Some thoughts for the first week of Lent

Hey Bloom family (and anyone else listening in) –

If the snowstorm hadn’t knocked out our gathering on Sunday night, we would have met together as usual and I would have had the pleasure of getting our Lenten journey rolling with a meditation on a marvelous little text: Mark 1:9-15–A text that, in my opinion, has great significance on the appropriate ethos for our pilgrimage to Easter.

The story is simple enough. Jesus is baptized. The heavens break open and the Father declares his affirmation of the Son. The Spirit descends. Jesus is sent into the wilderness to be tempted, and emerges preaching and demonstrating the kingdom of God.

If you listen closely, you can hear echoes of a much, much older story–of Noah and his ark. A story in which Creation buckles under the weight of human failure, and out of which a new earth, and a new humanity are born. You might remember that as the waters of the Flood began to recede, Noah sent out first a raven, and then a dove, to see if there was dry land anywhere. When one day the dove did not return, Noah knew–they had found terra nova. History could begin afresh.

Mark’s point seems to be precisely the samein the Dove’s descent upon Jesus, who rises out of the watery chaos, a new earth, and a new humanity are born. No wonder that the first narrative recorded after this episode is the temptation of Christ–the New Man will succeed where the Old Man failed.

The reason that the Church inaugurates the Lenten journey with this story, in my opinion, is in part to safeguard us against thinking that the point of this is simply the exertion of more moral and spiritual effort to make ourselves right. It certainly DOES involve effort, don’t get me wrong. But what the great spiritual masters down through the ages have discovered is that the secret of this whole thing is learning to abandon ourselves to the New Man who has come to dwell in us, letting him exert his life and his energy in us so that our own humanity may rise to the Father. Paul’s words drive the point home: the mystery, the secret, is “Christ IN you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27). From him and through him we find the resources to live in authentic freedom and hope.

As I’ve grown in faith, I think that I’ve come more and more to grips with this. Just last week I sat with a guy who had listened to my teachings for several years and said (in slight exasperation), “I just want to be able to pray like you do” (meaning that he wanted to be able to pray with confidence that God can and would do the things he asked). I tried to theologize a bit with him about that, and at one point attempted to make it as simple as I possibly could by saying, “You know, sometimes what I try to do–for instance, when I’m praying for someone to be healed–is that I imagine Christ laying his hands on them through my hands. I know that Christ has total confidence in his Father and command over the illness. So I pray through him.”

I am not sure the comment totally sunk in with my friend, but later I reflected on what my capacity to make such a remark represents for where my own faith has come. I remembered how, when I was younger, I would pray for folks and all the while be analyzing the “state of my faith”–whether my faith felt strong or weak. I don’t do that anymore. I don’t feel the need to analyze my faith. At all. Ever. I just pray from the Christ who dwells in me. I trust in and pray through He who trusts his Father. It’s as simple as that.

What I know now that I did not know in my earlier years is that the energy to live any part of our calling well comes from the Christ who dwells in us. Christ does not doubt his Father. Christ does not quail before the Enemy. Christ loves his neighbors and has compassion on the hurting. Christ’s heart breaks for his enemies and begs his Father to forgive them. I can live from that, if I choose. For there is grace for it. He dwells in us. And over time, if I choose to live from that, it will no longer be conscious choice. It will be habit. My “person” will have been totally integrated into Him upon whom the Dove rests–the New Man in the sight of God who makes all of us New Men.

I say all that to say, I hope that you will not make this Lent merely about personal effort. I pray that you will make it about the adoration of the Christ who has come to dwell in you, who is animating your person so that it rises in love and obedience to the Father. If you love him well, and rest in him deeply, and live from him and through him each moment, you’ll find yourself changed. That’s grace. That’s what this journey is all about.

Love to you,

Andrew

PS – If you haven’t yet, be sure to snag my ebook “Only Where Graves Are” on Google Books. I wrote it to be a companion on your Lenten journey. Check it out here.

“Only Where Graves Are” ebook available next week

Hey friends –

I’m super excited to let you know about a project I’ve been working on for Lent this year.

I’ve been talking for years about doing more substantive writing, and several months ago I decided that now was the time. I wanted to work on a project that would be fun and natural, and manageable in its scope, and so I decided to put together an ebook for Lent.

The title of the book is “Only Where Graves Are”, borrowing from the famous Nietzsche quote: “Only where graves are are there resurrections.” It’s ten (modest) chapters long, and each chapter is essentially an extended meditation on the lectionary readings for the key moments in Lent–Ash Wednesday, each of the Sundays, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday.

only_where_1

My hope with the book is that, by serving as a bit of a companion to you during Lent, you’ll find yourself drawn more deeply into the story of how God has come to us in the obedient, suffering, and finally resurrected Christ–who illuminates for us not only who God is but also the nature and destiny of our own humanity. In the adoration of Christ, we find that his story becomes our story.

The book will be available for purchase over at the Bloom website early next week. I hope you’ll buy and enjoy and tell all your friends 🙂

Grace to you.

Andrew

An open letter to our beloved Bloom // On giving the Spirit our “yes”

Good morning Bloom –

Following Sunday’s gathering, in which I preached out of Mark 1 (“a new teaching–and with authority”) and talked about how the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of the rich reality of God in our midst to utterly transform human life–a reality that includes phenomena typically characterized as “charismatic” (signs and wonders and miracles and what have you)–and that God’s desire for his people always is that they would make their way into bigger and deeper “yes’s” to the Spirit’s work so that God would arise in fresh and powerful ways among them, a gal came up to me and said, “You know what really scares me? It’s not giving God a ‘no’, but really giving him that ‘yes’ you spoke of… because giving him my yes includes the possibility that I’ll be hurt or disappointed or let down. If I lower my expectations, it’s easier when God seems to do nothing.”

I felt so much compassion for her, and really deeply resonated with what she was saying. What she was talking about was the risk involved in giving ourselves utterly to God, casting ourselves upon the impossible possibility that maybe, just maybe, it’s all true–that the New Testament may in fact be merely the tip of the iceberg of the total work of God in the world, that there really might be a God who “gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were”, that the friends of Jesus really may be called to “greater works” (whatever that means).

To involve ourselves with such a God and with such a story is scary. The risks are many. We risk disappointment, we risk what can feel like failure; but we also risk the possibility that in all this yielding, the Spirit will drag us out beyond the places of our comfort. We won’t be in control anymore.

I really want that. For me. For us. And I really believe deep down that God has much more for us than what any of us have ever seen or known.  

The beautiful thing about a congregation like Bloom is that we’re capable AT ONCE of holding a ferocious desire for more of God AT THE SAME TIME AS we acknowledge the mystery and complexity of this whole thing. Many congregations can’t do that. And so when God doesn’t do what they thought he was going to do, they find convenient explanations–sin, a lack of faith, judgment from God; you name it.

We’ll never do that at Bloom. We don’t feel the need to explain all of this away, since the truth is that none of us can ever have any definitive notion of why things turn out the way they do anyway. But neither will we back off of longing from God all that he’s capable of giving us. We’ll keep coming at him with pure hearts, like children, expecting his highest and best and then resting in his arms when things don’t happen like we hoped they would.

To me, that is one of the highest forms of faith–being able to sit in the tension, without surrendering once inch of territory on either side of our ache and the mystery of God’s total work.

Anyway. I just thought that was worth saying. I’m so encouraged by all that God is doing in our midst. I hope you are too. Let’s keep running like banshees into the new creation…

Grace, peace, and love be yours in abundance.

Andrew