Good Friday: The axis of the cosmos

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You may have wondered why an execution is known as, “Good” Friday.

Here is the spoiler: Jesus went to the cross to be able to say three words: “It. Is. Finished.”

The early church believed Jesus was crucified on March 25th. Further, they believed that, since re-creation happened on March 25th, the first day of creation must have happened that day as well.

The early Christian’s view of time was much loftier than the later idea that time revolves around, Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord.” The original idea of Jesus’ followers was that the cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe around which the entire cosmos rotates. It wasn’t that the earth was the center of the universe. It was that the cross is.

I was a Young Life leader for 25 years. Young Life focusses on explaining Jesus to the high school kids who don’t go to church. Every semester YL leaders do a talk on the crucifixion. One Monday night 140 high school kids were shoehorned into my friend Rawleigh Grove’s living room, as I gave the “cross talk.” Regardless of what you have heard of high school kids interest in the things of God, I can tell you that all over the globe hundreds of thousands of high school kids are hanging on every word of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. After the message kids sat in stunned silence. Except for one kid, a church kid named Josh. Josh jumped up, ran right up to my nose and said, “I’ve been in church my whole life and I have NEVER heard this. My dad was a youth pastor, my mom a Sunday school teacher, but I’ve never heard this. Why has no one has EVER told me this?

Without really thinking I said, “I don’t know. Maybe we are so busy telling you what not to do that we forget to tell you what Jesus did.” That was (accidentally) a pretty good answer. But, Josh says, “I don’t know about that.” He turns and practically runs out the door saying, “I’m going Starbucks.” He rips open Rawleigh’s front door and yells over his shoulder, “It’s the only place still open for me to tell people what Jesus did for them!” The door slams and Josh is gone.

…For the first time Josh knew what Jesus did on the cross in detail. And for the first time, Josh knew that Jesus did it to satisfy a debt that only God could pay…Josh’s world began to pivot around a new axis: the immovable cross of Jesus Christ.

Centuries before Jesus lived, Isaiah passed along (in Isaiah 52 and 53) what God told us Jesus would someday do – Why he would go to the cross. In the Good Friday Gospel reading (John 18:1-19:42) Jesus told us how it panned out – “It is finished.”

Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I am finished.” He didn’t say, “Oops.” He didn’t say, “three cheers for the attempt.” Jesus said, “It is finished.

Jesus’ “it” was nothing less than the salvation of humanity, the opening of relationship with God for you. Forgiveness of all that stands between us and the Father. The relationship of a lifetime for all eternity freely offered, the opportunity to join God’s high and holy mission to redeem a lost world. That is what Jesus finished on a hill called Golgotha, on a cross between two thieves. The universe rotates around that event.

Isaiah said, “Kings shall shut their mouths.” And Jesus thundered, “It is finished.”

Isaiah said, “He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows;” And Jesus said, “It is Finished.”

“He was pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities.” It Is finished.

“His chastisement brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed.” That too, finished.

“The iniquity of us all was laid on him.” Finished.

“By oppression and judgment he was taken away.” Done.

“Cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” Finished.

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him; and put him to grief.” That as well is finished.

Because of him “many shall be accounted righteous.” Finished.

“He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors.” Finished.

“He bore the sins of many.” And guess what?” That, too, is finished.

And while the world grew quiet, Satan stood up in hell clapping. And Jesus, with perhaps the faintest hint of a grin, shook his head, “uh uh.” And said, “It. Is. Finished.” And he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

And now, ever since that day, regardless of what you see, or hear, or think, the entire cosmos pivots on the axis of the victory won on the immovable, finished, cross of Jesus Christ.

 

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Big Fat Liars: Politicians and the ‘gators in our souls

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I asked the oldest people I know. None remembers a time like this. A time when everyone else is a liar. Deception surrounds us. We once had news. Then biased news. Now we have fake news. Or as Mark Twain, quoting Benjamin Disraeli said, “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damnable lies, and statistics.” Except there is no evidence Disraeli ever said that. Our favorite quote about lies might be a lie.

Former comedian and Senator from Minnesota, Al Franken, titled a book: “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.” One reviewer in a favorable Washington newspaper review said, “His tendency to mix fact with fiction left me wondering what was true and what wasn’t.” We lie even when writing books about others lies!

Deception is an equal opportunity malignancy. Wikileaks tells us Donald lied about conspiring with Russia against Hillary. And that Hillary lied about conspiring against Bernie. But if everyone is lying, can we trust Wikileaks?

Deception has become so entrenched in our culture it is now a recognized field of academic inquiry. Buller and Burgoon, Interpersonal Deception Theory researchers, identify three motives for deceiving: “avoiding punishment, maintaining relationships, and preserving face.”[1] Or more simply, we lie because we are convinced it will benefit us.

I have noticed in myself a visceral outrage at the lies of those I disagree with politically. But in my saner moments I recall that, “Avoiding consequences, maintaining relationships, and saving face” aren’t just other’s motives. My groups have those motives as well. Our institutions don’t exist on their own. They have the life we give them. Like Frankenstein’s monster, our groups reflect the mess that is their creators. When 9 out of 10 Americans admit to deceiving our partners in romantic relationships, I am either a member of a very small sliver of humanity, or of the vast majority…one in which that tenth American lied.[2] My brain tells me the latter is far more likely than the former.

All human interaction assumes a basic truthfulness with one another…a basic truthfulness we seem to lack.

My wife, in affirmation of this sad truth, says a clean conscience is usually the result of a bad memory. So I decided recently to track my attempts at “deception”: Lies, half-truths and misperceptions. The day was not done before I felt as if I were trying to keep a herd of alligators in a room without walls. As soon as I wrestled one to keep him in, three broke out.

It is easy to point fingers and judge, but each of us knows the urge to “avoid consequences, protect relationships, and save face.”

What is one to do?

Well we could just stop lying. But even if we were to stop whatever grand deception we are contemplating, the drive to avoid consequences, protect relationships, and save face remains. The ‘gators are in there. And they want out.

A better solution is to acknowledge our deceptive hearts. After all, it has been said that a secret is that thing we can’t admit to myself but that most people already know about us. The nature of self-deception is that we are the last to see it.

How does one become aware of self-deception? I ask my spouse and closest friends…my children also. They are more than willing to help me out. I also ask myself, “What do I fear being exposed?” Those reveal our ‘gators. They are in there. I will call them what they are: sin.

Sin always has a cost. “The wages of sin is death.” And it isn’t just me who pays the price sin requires. Everyone we love does along with us. Deception is in us to the depths of our being. It starts with denial and moves quickly to, “Its none of your business.” But it is. As John Donne pointed out, “No man is an island,” and the person we are trying hardest to fake out is ourselves.

If the first step is terrifying – ruthlessly acknowledging our gators, the second is tricky: Not fixing the problem. Guilt wants to round up our deception and drive it out. We go from seeing ourselves as brilliant, to seeing ourselves as broken in one honest instance. And we want to do something about it. But as the prayer of confession in the old prayer book says; “there is no health in us.” Like the thieves on the cross, we cannot save ourselves. Which is actually good news: “The wages of sin” may be “death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 6:23)

Freedom is in Christ, the savior and alligator wrangler of our souls. Alligator wrestling is foolish work. Look to Jesus…to his Cross. Allow Jesus to be the one to drive the reptiles from our souls, then walk in newness of life with him.

Deception is a social creature. It never travels alone. You and I are up to our armpits in alligators. We need help. I find that help in words St. Peter spoke 2000 years ago, “Repent therefore, and turn back…

     …that your sins may be blotted out…

          …that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord,

               …and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, Jesus.[3]

Sermon link to the painfully personal preached version of the premise.

[1] Buller, D.B., Burgoon, J.K., Buslig, A., Roiger, J. “Testing Interpersonal Deception Theory: The Language of Interpersonal Deception.” Communication Theory 6.3 (1996): 203-242.

[2] Cole, T. (2001). Lying to the one you love: The use of deceptions in romantic relationships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships18(1), 107-129.

[3] Acts 3:19-20

Envelopegate and Ash Wednesday

 

 

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You have seen the video – the awkward moment when producer Jordan Horowitz, Oscar in hand, finds out his film has in fact not won. How must it feel to read another’s name as he graciously handed over the coveted statue? In a moment, every producer’s greatest triumph instantly rendered tragedy.

Imagine yourself on stage at Hollywood’s pinnacle event, having finished your acceptance speech to your peers, and finding inside the envelope that another would go home with your win. Hold onto that agony and imagine how much greater the sorrow to discover one day that what our culture has sold us as a win, won’t, in fact, be inside the envelope. What a blow it would be not to receive the prize. Since one day each one of us will stand on the precipice of eternity, it is fitting to consider what the world tells us “wins”…

  • Possessions: You’ve seen the bumper sticker. “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
  • The prettiest wife or power husband. Eventually father time catches up with us all. No amount of power can add to our days when a bad diagnosis comes. As Jack Kinard joked, “I used to be who’s who. Now I’m who’s he?”
  • Progeny (our kids). We work so hard to raise them…But living through our children is a recipe for their harm, often leaving them, in the words of Derek Zoolander, “disappointing younger versions of ourselves.”

I won’t offer argument against trusting in the world’s system, merely listing them exposes their inability to give the ultimate “win.” But if possessions, beauty, power, popularity or progeny don’t get the trophy, what will? After all, we don’t want to get to the final banquet and find we are holding the card for another’s celebration.

Ash Wednesday is that day each year set aside to think about our own mortality: our own funeral. We don’t much like to think about it, but we all know that one day our bodies will be admiring the lawn from the underside – that a day is coming when the ashes on our foreheads won’t have been made from burning last year’s Palm Sunday branches after the Shrove Tuesday supper. Contemplating the final banquet of our lives is uncomfortable, but it is holy work.

Thinking about our end ought to come easy to those of us who set goals-it is the ultimate long-range planning. It makes sense to make sure we are headed the right direction. How frustrating that Jesus critiques our attempts at living right on the journey. Jesus warns us that even our religiosity: our praying, our fasting and our giving is often done to be seen by others, heard by others, and praised by others.[1] How sad that Jesus needs to warn us, “when you give, don’t sound a trumpet.” He is pointing out how easily our charity becomes charade. Then he warns, “when you pray, don’t pray to be seen by others.” How easily our prayer becomes self-promotion. He presses, “when you fast, don’t look all spiritual.” How effortlessly our fasting becomes flaunting. He cautions us not to hoard because of how quickly we trade his lasting treasure for tomorrow’s trash. Jesus holds up the mirror and pulls down the mask on our self-absorption.

It would be easy if “evil” was somewhere out there. But as Alexander Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy pieces of his own heart?”[2]

Solzhenitsyn’s diagnosis is exactly what Lent is: a chance to destroy those pieces in our own heart which oppose God. To root out in us that which wants to be God. To pluck up in our hearts that which continually thinks we can save ourselves.

Ash Wednesday is remembering that our need for a savior is not just a theory. It is an objective reality. I am not as good as I want to believe. Lent is 40 days of turning from…the bible calls that “repentance.”

But Lent is also 40 days of looking toward. Toward, not just to our final deliverance, but our deliverance here and now. A deliverance that only comes when we recognize our need…recognize, as the prayer book says, “that we do not come to this thy table O Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” (BCP, 337) Thomas Merton said, “The source of all sorrow is the illusion that of ourselves we are anything but dust.”[3] But staring at our inability is the ultimate act of hope when it drives us into the arms of the one who is able.

The season of Lent that begins today is 40 days of anticipating the great acts of God on our behalf on that old rugged cross that first Easter. As a church family, we will use our Lent being shaped by a rhythm of prayer. Often we think of prayer as a 911 call, “only use in case of emergency.” But God wants us to trust, rely and depend on him moment by moment. That is why we will pray four brief times per day. We will flip the script from fitting God in around the edges of our lives, to fitting ours in around his. Remember, though, Jesus’ warning, that if we at all begin to get good at this, we will start doing it to be seen by others, heard by others, and praised by others. We are just that easily thrown back into our idolatry of the self. We won’t get it right. But we will give God more of us than he has right now. And it will be fantastic.

A disciple named Clement wrote to the church in Corinth some 50ish years after Paul wrote his letters, words of wisdom appropriate for us: “let us give up vain and fruitless cares, and …attend to what is good, pleasing, and acceptable in the sight of Him who formed us. Let us look steadfastly to the blood of Christ, and see how precious that blood is to God, which, having been shed for our salvation, has set the grace of repentance before the whole world… Let us yield obedience to His excellent and glorious will; and imploring His mercy and loving-kindness…forsake all fruitless labors, and strife, and envy, which leads to death, (and) let us turn and have recourse to His compassions.”[4]

It is the compassion of God, friends, rather than the efforts of the self, that gives us the gift of the winning envelope. And if there be any name in our envelope on that final day other than the name of the author and perfector of our faith, then we have surely lost. Not just at that final day, but each and every day.

And so, as we allow our mortality to reveal our deep sinfulness, let it remind us to open the envelope and see: “In the category of savior of the world: The winner is…The Lord Jesus Christ!”

[1] Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

[2] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 168.

[3] Merton, Thomas, The Sign of Jonas, p. 27.

[4] Clement, First Letter to Corinth, chapts 7, 8, 9

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The Power of a Personal Story

st-paul-conversionThe Conversion of St. Paul – January 25th

Acts 9, 22, Acts 26

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Most really know St. Paul as “explainer of the Jesus event”- the practical theologian who helped the first Christians figure out how to live their personal experience of the risen Jesus in community. But when someone asks, “Who was St Paul?” The answer that invariably comes to people’s lips is “Apostle to the gentiles!” Have you ever wondered, though, how Paul, a zealous and angry Jewish religion student with a first career of killing the followers of Jesus, became the apostle who took the Christian faith to the non-Jewish world?

The most Jewish guy* in Israel becomes apostle to the non-Jews 

Jesus’ commissioned his followers before he ascended: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) What did the followers of Jesus do with all of that power to witness “to the end of the earth“? Answer: They stayed home. Or at least darn close in Jerusalem.

Persecution spreads them…but only to their own peeps

Eventually the followers of Jesus left Jerusalem and Judea-Samaria, but only because they were forced to leave by persecutions led by Saul, whose Roman name was Paul. “…those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. (Acts 11:19) The Jewish religious leaders presumably felt nervous over possible Roman reprisals from the growing Jesus movement. Even as they ventured outward sharing the story of Jesus, the witness was confined to their own people, other Jews.

Not cowed by pluralism’s call to silence

In the ancient world, as in Western culture today, it was bad form to proclaim preference between religions. Part of Rome’s conquest playbook was that upon conquest, Rome would embrace the gods of the vanquished into their pantheon of gods, and insist the vanquished nation return the favor. Roman religious persecution of Jews (and later Christians) flowed from, what was to them, the annoying Judeo-Christian habit of insisting that there was only one true God and that God wants us to drop all of our little “g” gods and worship “G” God alone. To the Roman it was unthinkable arrogance that a vanquished people would insist on the worship of their defeated deity. It was expected that Rome’s citizens would be broad and inclusive in their religiosity. Everyone was welcome to have their own way, just don’t tell anyone else who to worship – the intolerance of the tolerant is far from a new phenomenon!

The Necessity of the Unlikely Convert

What was God to do with disciples who not fulfilling the call to invite “the nations,” (Matt 28:19-20), a call that, contrary to popular opinion, was not just an New Testament imperative (Is. 49:6). God’s solution was to accost Paul on the road out of the country. He was traveling to Damascus with letters granting permission to take the persecution to those fleeing his pressure.  You can read about it in Acts chapter 9, but the short version is: God finds Paul. Paul doesn’t know what to do with being found by God. He really cannot show up on the doorsteps of those he has been persecuting for help understanding his Jesus experience, so God sends a disciple named Ananias to find him (Acts 9:17). Over the next several years Paul grew in his faith as he circled from Damascus (9:23-25), where early attempts to preach got him into hot water, to Jerusalem (9:26-27), where the disciples were less than welcoming, to Arabia (Gal 1:17), and then back to Tarsus (11:25-26) where Barnabas locates Paul to get him to help teach the faith in a multi-ethnic, multi-social class revival that was occurring in Antioch. (13:1) The Antioch revival is of interest because it is in Antioch, that for the first time, “some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who…spoke to the Greeks also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 11:20) It is also the first time the followers of Jesus were called the pejorative title, “Little Christs” or “Christians.” The breaking down of the Roman social structure by the multi-class Antioch church was stunningly radical. So dangerous it needed to be mocked.

Paul becomes an Apostle

The church in Antioch decides that what God is doing in calling “the nations” to himself (Matt 28:19-20) was so profound that they set apart Barnabas and Paul and send them out to preach (Acts 13 and 14). On Paul’s first missionary trip two things become obvious: they should preach to everyone, because “the gospel is the power of God to all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16), and Paul was the gifted speaker of the two. By the end of the trip they move from being referred to as, “Barnabas and Paul” (13:2) to “Paul and his companions” (13:13).

It is the song that never ends

The story of Paul’s conversion occurs in Acts 9. But it is relayed twice more: On the steps of the temple in Jerusalem (Acts 21:37-22:24), and before king Agrippa (Acts 26: 1-29). God didn’t just stop Paul in his tracks. He replaced Paul’s murderous heart with a heart whose love for those who do not know the mercy of God would not allow him to remain quiet, even if it resulted in the loss of his own life. When God invades our lives we just cannot keep quiet. Happy news must escape the lips of those with happy hearts.

Good Newsing

Evangelism, from the root “Good News” is the simple act of passing along that news. It seems to me that “Good Newsing,” has three facets: a coherent explanation of the faith, the Word of God, and the power of a personal testimony. Which is most important? The Word of God, of course. It is God’s word that is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” (Heb 4:12) It is God’s word that “shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish that which I purpose.” (Is. 55:11)

The power of a personal testimony

Although God’s Word is the living and active instrument of transformation, it is the power of a personal story that gives credibility to the Scriptures. It is our personal story that gives a picture of what it looks like when God is active in someone’s life. Personal story is a simple, yet profound thing. We see it in Acts 26:

I was…(verses 1-12)

Then God…(verses 13-18)

Now I… (verses 19-23)

I encourage you to…(verses 28-29)

Paul’s Story (in a nutshell)

I was…the one who rounded up Jesus’ guys and killed them.

Then God…stopped me on the road to Damascus. He spoke to me. He changed me.

Now I…am different. I cannot stop testifying to everyone, small and great!

I encourage you…“to become as I am…except for these chains, of course.”

Your Story

Each of us who have been accosted by God has a story. Yours may not involve bright lights knocking you to the ground, but each of us who has been baptized into Christ (Rom 6:3, Gal 3:27) have been visited by the same Lord who called Paul to himself. What is your story? When have you sensed God’s presence? When have you been changed by God’s message? When have you been drawn by God’s Spirit?   

I encourage you: Tell your story. Paul’s conversion was a gift that kept on giving. God has a few gifts for you and I to spread around as well. Let’s get to Good Newsing!

 

*Phil 3:4-6

10 Principles for Worship that is Both Contemporary and Ancient

 

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“…The Church’s liturgical worship expresses and impresses the personality of Christ upon us.”               -Mark Galli, Beyond Smells and Bells

Contemporary liturgical worship is not an oxymoron. It is a blend of “immersive” worship music within the scaffolding of ancient Christian “participatory” liturgy. Led by a liturgical leader but with music driven by a band, contemporary liturgical worship maintains one foot in cultural familiarity, and the other in the formative, embodied worship of the ancient church. This is a blend of sacred act and contextual music, with art and artful leadership. Worship, in a liturgical context is uniting “ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God’s word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments.”  (BCP 857) Contemporary evangelicalism has realized that one can do most of that without the historic Christian liturgy. But liturgy has more than the emotional function, it has a discipleship function as well. The twofold shape of Word and Sacrament liturgy models the Christian life: we read, sing, pray, and proclaim the word. Then we respond to the word in affirming our faith, confessing our sins, interceding on behalf of the world and being reconciled to one another. Then we present ourselves to Jesus at his table, in celebration of our reconciliation with God. Weekly we are nourished on his body broken, and we imprint the story of Jesus on our hearts following the annual rhythm of the Christian year. So, worship leader friends, embrace the liturgy your parents threw out – There is a baby in that bath water!

But how does one make worship both accessible to a contemporary audience without sacrificing the formative power of the liturgy? Here are 10 Principles for leading services that are both contemporary and liturgical:

10 Principles for Contemporary Liturgical Worship

  1. Start with Love. Too often the contemporary church is providing transcendent pastors and relevant experiences. We were far better off with the opposite: transcendent worship and relevant (grounded, down to earth, invested and involved) leaders. Evangelicals and progressive clergy alike seem to be trading shepherd for celebrity. Start your worship planning with a heart for God and the people God has placed in your care.
  2. Know your audience. Do you have a crowd needing to hear Easter or Good Friday preached? Less educated neighborhoods usually do not do Elizabethan English, but suburban college kids often are engaged by it. Bluegrass worship won’t play in West Phoenix. And Hip/Hop won’t go over well in Asheville. Liturgical worship has familiar words, but Christianity has always been contextualized. Three ways your congregation will be shaped: The faces they see up front, the musical genres you play, and message you proclaim.
  3. Monitor the messages you are sending. Contemporary liturgical worship is supposed to be outsider accessible. Are you using insider vs outsider language? Do you have “reserved” parking, pre-prepared name tags, and other things that paint people into insider and outsider categories? Are you assuming people know how to use prayer books and can juggle bulletins or are you giving directions to their use?
  4. Simplify the liturgical playbook. But do so without sacrificing the internal coherence of the liturgy.
  5. Fuse contemporary forms to the liturgy. Use the musical genres, instruments, visuals and videos from your context. Invite the young and artful to help you!
  6. Embody your worship. Teach the historic faith in word and ritual. The more whole body your worship the better. (Hand raising and genuflecting both have embodied worship in common, so do incense and smoke machines. Use ritual to teach the faith.)
  7. Music is missional. Use the musical genres of those you want to come. Some principles for music:
  • Hymn’s rock
  • Blend genres. Your Sunday music should sound like your audience’s Monday through Saturday playlist!
  • Avoid the Parent Trap: Don’t use their parents’ worship music. No Shine Jesus Shine. Use music written less than ten years ago or more than fifty.)
  • Use your organ! (Djimbe, guitar, violin, flute and electric guitar all sound great with the organ.)
  • Teach how and why to worship.
  • Quality over genre! Good is always good. Lame is always lame. Use good musicians and vocalists…but don’t use them until they are ready.
  1. Message:
  • Preach with passion. People are watching too many TED talks to live through low energy communication.
  • An image driven or story driven sermon is a memorable sermon.
  • Theological! Don’t skimp on the orthodoxy. The fastest growing churches offer stronger content, and ask for higher commitment.
  • Less politically directive, more open. (the Gospel certainly has political implications, but trust the Holy Spirit to tell people what their politics should be.)
  • Know and articulate regularly the simple, life-changing gospel
  • Don’t get caught with a contemporary message. Jesus didn’t come to include us. He came to redeem us. Neither did he come to give us “purpose,” or “Your Best Life Now.” He came to transform us into the image of his son. (Rom 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18)
  1. Vibe:
  • Make it happen. Use darkness and light, video and graphics. You can do a lot in a contemporary space to create a sense of the rhythms of the Christian life. For example, in our gym we do far more seasonal adjustments to our space than we can do in our church’s more traditional space (examples below).  Use the tools of the tradition: Annual art, colors, symbols.
  • The space always wins. You cannot overcome your architecture. For example, a fast preacher cannot be heard in a traditional space tuned for organ and choir with a 1.5 second auditory delay. However, you can use lighting, color and graphics to change alter your space.
  • Service length? Our school and the media have trained a 60 minute attention span into most folk.
  • The liturgy tells stories. Tell them artfully!
  • Don’t fear ancient. In our unrooted, ever-changing world, the church is the one place that should be dependable. You don’t want to be their parents’ church. But you do want to be their grandparents’ church!
  1. Summing it up: Update your music, vibe, and word choice. Not your liturgy or theology. Worship with brain & body. IOW…Preach like an evangelical, worship like a catholic – artfully!

Examples of altering a contemporary space seasonally

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Celtic Christmas Eve

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12 Days: Christmas in Bethlehem

 

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Epiphany

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Ash Wednesday

easter

Easter (empty tomb)

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Ordinary Time

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Cathedral

 

 

Four Christmas Gifts that Change Everything

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Photo credit: Google Store – Fake Call from Santa app.

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I first realized the Santa story had holes in 1977. I was in the 6th grade, an embarrassing age not to be in on the gag. My friends, realizing my innocence, enlightened me with the subtlety one expects from 6th graders.

I would not let Santa go down without a fight, though. Pitying the skeptics, I would bring them back into the fold with facts. We gathered around our homeroom teacher’s shoebox sized desk calculator as I confidently pressed buttons. “The world’s population x the 20% who are kids (the machined hummed), divided by 10 hours of darkness (wheels whirled), divided by 60 minutes in an hour (gears spun). Equals.

Confident of victory, I tore the tape from the still cranking calculator…and gasped as the disappointing truth sank in: Santa was delivering 1.3 million presents per minute.

My friends howled. Our teacher, Mr. Fishleder, bit his lip in a passable attempt at maintaining a merciful decorum.

Although I learned what Christmas was not that year, it would be the better part of a decade before I learned of import of the infinitely more remarkable Christmas gift giver:

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

-Isaiah 9:6, NRSV

Peel back for a moment our familiarity with the story…

A child whose names include “Mighty God”? Just to make sure we don’t miss the implications, in the next verse Isaiah circles back and tells us the predicted child would be a king whose rule would have “no end,” lasting “forevermore.” Yet kings don’t rule forevermore. Kings die. “Forevermore” and “no end” are code, code for God himself.

Let Isaiah’s sense-surpassing dichotomous claim sink in: God. Born. Religions generally have the deity lecture from a safe distance. Like Santa. “Hey, you people, straighten up down there. I’m making a list. I’m checking it twice. I’m going to find out who’s naughty or nice.” Other religions seem to me to be about helping people piously work their way to God. But God’s plan is shockingly intimate: “Immanuel.” Which St. Matthew tells us means, “God with us.” Christmas is nothing less than God. Born. The gift of God himself.

Our human inclination is to shrink Christmas to manageable proportions by making it an inspiring fable about being nicer. But if Christmas is only a warm fiction it isn’t inspiring at all. It’s desperately bleak – Our problem, after all, is not that we don’t know how we should live, but that we don’t live how we know we should. Given the havoc we have made of earth, is it possible to let us loose, as we are, in the cosmos for eternity? Let’s be real: Moral perfection for you and I is as likely as jumping the Grand Canyon on a bike “Santa” brought you for Christmas as a kid.

God’s answer, however, is much more heartening: A son is “given.” “Given,” not just “to us,” but “for us.” He was born for us, and he would die for us. Christmas is the beginning of God doing for us, out of love for you and I, what we cannot do for ourselves – forgive us and change us. God himself; born, living, dying, rising…both the perfect life we should live and the perfect sacrifice we cannot give. Jesus the king would pay our ransom and become our victor. In Christ, God made a way across that Canyon. Those two simple words, “For us” make Christmas the gift that fixes the mess humanity has made of things… a way has been made through the wall of our reality, clean across the chasm of our fallen-ness.

Christmas is God’s gift of Jesus.

Like any gift, though, God’s gift only blesses us when we receive it. And let’s be honest, receiving gifts is tricky. Anytime we receive a gift we wonder what accepting it will mean. When someone gives you a wedding ring, for example, accepting it has ramifications…

So what does receiving the gift of Jesus bring? I see four Christmas blessings in the names given the Christ child in Isaiah 9:6. Four gifts that have the potential to change everything:

First, in receiving Jesus, we receive the Wonderful Counselor. Why do people see a counselor? For help with relationships – healing in marriages, friendships, and families. The Wonderful Counselor, reminds us of our value. In light of our value, we are freed from emotionally over-investing in others because we need to be needed, or conversely, underinvesting out of fear of commitment. Jesus desires to fill us on the inside regardless of what is happening outside.

Second: He is Mighty God. Are you ever in over your head? In Christ, Mighty God himself is on your side. Jesus Christ does not peddle empty promises – You can count on him when the chips are down.

Third: When you receive Jesus, he becomes your Everlasting Father. Why father? Because through his Holy Spirit sent at Pentecost, God offers intimacy and acceptance, like a great father to his beloved children, by living within you. God came to us, so that we can come to him.

Fourth, Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Peace in Hebrew is the word shalom. More than internal contentment, shalom is society-wide flourishing. Shalom means that poverty, disease, brokenness, and death are replaced with prosperity, health, reconciliation, and life. Individual new birth and inner peace, are your blessings when you receive Christ, but so is systemic shalom – expressed in the here and now by connecting with one another, serving others in Jesus’ name, and confidence against the worst this world can throw at you. The world’s brokenness matters to God, and God has promised the ultimate renewal of the whole earth.

My friends, Christmas is the gift that can change everything. But much more than the Christmas bike of childhood now rusting in a landfill, Christmas is the lasting gift of Jesus Christ, God with us. And in receiving him, God’s offers four gifts: Healing in our relationships, his strength and sure defense, intimacy and acceptance with God, and reconciliation now and peace in the future. And so, I urge you, whether for the first or the thousand and first time, receive God’s gift of love: Jesus. When we receive him, we find we receive, with him, the four Christmas gifts that change everything.

 

Yes, kiddos, there really is a Santa Claus.

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Jolly Old St. Nick was the bishop of Myra, a city in Turkey in the early 300s. We give gifts because he gave gifts – dowries to three impoverished girls so that they could marry. He also built a lighthouse on a dangerous shore out of his own funds, which is why he is the patron saint of sailors. He was one of many brave bishops who carried the scars of Roman persecutions for refusing to deny the resurrection of Christ. Everything was going quite well for Bishop Nick. Then a priest named Arius showed up at a church council in Nicaea singing a catchy little tune he had written about Jesus that was taking the Roman world by storm. The good bishop listened to the words, “There was a time when he was not.” Realizing that if that if Arius’ idea stuck we would have Jehovah’s Witnesses teaching that stuff on our doorsteps to this day, he punched Arius in the face. 

So, parents, the next time your kids tell you they are too old to believe in Santa Claus, raise an eyebrow and tell them they better watch the content of the music on their Pandora, because “He knows if you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good…” Ok, so you probably shouldn’t threaten your kids with Ol’ St. Nick giving them a punch in the face, coal in the stocking will do fine, thank you.

December 6th is the traditional St. Nicholas’ Day (unless you are Orthodox, then it is the 19th). So have your kids’ put their shoes out on the step tonight and fill them up with unhealthy junk while they sleep and tell them the story of the old bishop who started all of this gift giving. Your kids will think you are even awesomer.

*And, as Anjel Ayrer Scarborough mentioned in a comment: “Arian smack down – The reason Nicholas is never depicted in eastern iconography in bishops regalia. Tradition holds that he was disciplined for his outburst at Nicaea and forbidden to wear bishop’s vestments form that point forward.”