An Advent Story

Getting to light the Advent wreath during the service was always a highlight of the Christmas season. Advent was the only time when a candle saw the light of day in Monroe United Brethren Church, and it had four! (Well five when the big white one was placed in the middle of the Advent wreath.) I was the oldest in my family, so I got to carry the candle lighter down the aisle, a sibling on each flank, during the opening hymn to light the Advent wreath. There was always a lot of anxiety involved with the task. It was important to walk slowly, to hold the candle lighter steady, and most importantly to light the correct candles! I never got the privilege of lighting all the candles. Such tasks were reserved for the pastor’s children, but participating at all was a great honor for a young boy.

Not all the kids in the congregation were able to rise to the occasion. I remember one such time when a young comrade took up the task of lighting the Advent wreath, but mistakenly lit all the candles! It was only the third Sunday in Advent, so one candle was supposed to be left unlit. The whole congregation watched in horror as he preceded to light the fourth candle a week early, rendering it ruined and no longer white-wick new. The poor preacher was forced to execute a maneuver traditionally reserved for the theatre and magic shows; quickly licking his fingers, he pinched out the flame of the fourth candle, wincing in pain.

Of course, thinking back on it now, the horror we experienced that day was nothing compared to the horrors that the Israelite people experienced during their years of exile. The stories of exile still ring loudly in my ears, even to this day. Men thrown into a fiery furnace or a lions den because they refused to do things that were contrary to their convictions. And those men were lucky because they served in the court of the king. The stories of the everyday Israelites in exile will forever be lost to history.

And to think, the story of Advent is the story of those people. Waiting for their William Wallace, the person they called “the Messiah” to come and save them. The Messiah was a guy we didn’t talk much about in church. It wasn’t until many years later that I began to put everything together. The Messiah was the person that God promised would come to save the Jewish people. Their prophets talked about him, their poetry talked about him, they couldn’t get enough of him. He was supposed to be their liberator, just like Moses liberated them from their first exile in Egypt, but I learned there was more: The Messiah was also supposed to be a descended of the great Israelite king, David. The shepherd boy who killed Goliath and murdered his mistress’ husband. Israel’s prophets talked about how a new king would rise from the roots of the kings of old. That the Spirit of the Lord would be with him, and he would lead Israel back to the times when the promised land flowed with milk and honey.

I can remember learning about that too, the promised land flowing with milk and honey. VeggieTales even sang a song about it. But it wasn’t until I got older that I understood the blessings of the promised land were from God. Sure, the land was fertile, but God was the giver and the grower. His faithfulness to Israel brought them blessings, even when they didn’t deserve it. Eventually the milk and honey dried up, because Israel forgot God, but the promise of the Messiah was a reminder that God never forgot Israel. Some day he would rise up his Spirit endowed, son of David to rescue Israel.

Here we were, fussing over a candle, when we were supposed to be waiting like the Israelites. Waiting, like them, for the Messiah to come. As it turns out, that is the story of Advent. Like the Israelites in exile, we are supposed to be waiting for the Messiah to come.

And the Messiah did come, and we celebrate his arrive at Christmas. (I guess Christmas isn’t about Jesus’ birthday, but the birth of the Messiah–but that’s a different story!) But then the Messiah left, and after he left his followers began to realize that he didn’t do all the things that Israel’s prophets promised he would do. At first, this confused them, but then they began to put the pieces together. Jesus had left, but he was coming back. He was going to finish what he started when he returned. Advent then also became a waiting game. We, like the Israelites in exile, are waiting for the Messiah to come. We wait to celebrate the Messiah’s birth–Christmas–but we also wait for the Messiah to return.

Israel’s story has became our story. We–the people of the God, the followers of Jesus–are now the ones in exile. Held up in little communities all over the world, awaiting our king’s return. I’ll never forget that Sunday when the preacher pinched out the mistakenly lit Advent candle. It brings me great joy, but I’ve come to understand that the story of Advent is more than candles and wreathes and purple and blue. It’s not just a story, or a memory; its our story, and our living memory. We are exiles, refugees, awaiting the return of our king and savior.


More Than a Memory

How important is food and liquid to our bodies? Pretty important, right? We can’t live without both. Food provides our body with energy, and liquid is important to pretty much every function our body carries out. Without a constant supply of these important nutrients, our bodies are unable to function well, and if we go without access for too long, they cease to function all together. Nutrients are crucial for the nourishment of our physical bodies.

We learned the importance of nourishing our bodies long before we understood the biology and chemistry behind nourishment. Most of us probably still don’t know much about the science, but that doesn’t matter, right? We know that we need to eat and drink to live, and we don’t forget to teach this important part of life to our children and grandchildren. Getting kids to eat food—especially healthy, nourishing food—is a daily struggle for many parents and grandparents, but we constantly engage with the struggle because we know it’s best for our children.

Now, we all know about physical nourishment, but what about spiritual nourishment? Humans aren’t just physical beings; we are also spiritual. The mystery of humans is that we are a hybrid species of the physical and spiritual. We are made of matter, but God breathed into us the breath of life that opens us up to the spiritual world beyond what we see and feel in the physical world. This part of life is puzzling to say the least. The spiritual part of us longs to be more than just another creature on earth. We long to create, to discover, to know and be known. Our spiritual lives converge with our physical bodies to make up our whole person.

Why all this talk about our spiritual life? Because we often forget about it. We forget that we need to consider our spiritual health as well as our physical health. Many people can appear physically fit while remaining spiritually ill. How do we care for the spiritual part of our bodies? There are several aspects of this, most of which we will discuss in subsequent articles. However, there is one part of spiritual health that I do wish to discuss briefly. Nourishment.

Just as nourishment is the foundation of physical health, nourishment is the foundation of spiritual health. What, you might ask, can we consume that will nourish our spiritual lives? We need not look further than John 6. In this chapter, Jesus encounters a crowd who continues to follow him because, according to Jesus, he has fed them. In the course of discussion, Jesus encourages the crowd to work for food that endures to eternal life. Through a series of questions, Jesus makes clear that he is telling this crowd that they must come to believe that he is the Son of Man sent by God if they wish to join in the work of God’s eternal kingdom. Within this discourse, Jesus makes one very important point. Namely, that he is the bread of life, and that,

Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever. -John 6:54-58

What do we learn here about spiritual nourishment? That when we receive communion, we are doing more than just remembering Christ’s death, instead we are also consuming the bread of life that is the very nourishment for our souls. Spiritual nourishment begins with communion. Many Christian traditions have lost this crucial theological insight. When we come around the Lord’s table, we are doing more than remembering. We are providing our spiritual beings with nourishment. This mystery of communion is puzzling, there is no doubt about that. Yet, it is comforting too. Jesus is at work in us in ways we cannot even begin to understand. Sustaining us and always reminding us that he alone is the source of life.

What is the church?: Part 1

The Norm

Sunday mornings during my childhood were spent at church. Every Sunday, it seems like. I swear that I can count on one hand the number of times my family missed church growing up. Of course, I’m probably recreating a memory that is unrealistic. There were certainly times when my family was absent from our pew–those of you church people know what I mean. But still, my family’s usual protocol was to be in church on Sunday morning.

As I think back on my church experience, my young impression of church was that it was a place where we went on Sunday mornings. There was a preacher. There was Sunday school. There was monthly music club. There were older kids who got to sit in two pews near the front together. There was much to do at church. The lawn needed mowed. The fellowship hall needed to be set up for carry-ins and cleaned up after. Someone had to make the power point presentations.

In all of this I understood church was a place. It was about going somewhere on Sunday to listen to a sermon and sing some songs. It was about Sunday school and youth group.

For must of us, this still is church. It’s a place we go on Sunday mornings. Maybe we also go a different day of the week too. For those of us who attend trendy churches, we might also attend a small gather of “church” during the week. Those gatherings might be called community groups or connect groups or–for the uncreative–small groups. In all of these cases church is still a thing we go to. It’s a program or service or an “experience”.

The Return

From time-to-time churches look to mix-up the “norm”. Often these mix-ups attempt to be a return to the past. These churches look to get back to the basics. An example is house churches, which have become very popular. These groups often view their movement as a return to the way church was intended based on the New Testament.

The house church movement is just one example of many movements that have sought to return to the church practices and structures of the New Testament. The return isn’t about the practices or structures, it’s about the ideas behind them. Getting back to the New Testament. Returning to the way that church was intended.

This is all good, but when we think about a New Testament church, we miss something important. We miss the story. We miss that there isn’t just a New Testament, but also an Old Testament. Some have even called it the First Testament (see John Goldengay’s translation of the Old Testament for example). Together the Old and New Testaments tell the story of God.

Exclusively New Testament churches miss a big part of the story. Because of this, they are incomplete. I understand that this is quite a claim, but it’s something that I want you to start thinking about.

How might the Old Testament inform our understanding of what the church is? Let’s take a look.

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality

I’ve recently re-opened a book I read in seminary written by Peter Scazzero. The book’s title is Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It’s Impossible to be Spiritually Mature While Remaining Emotionally Immature. Scazzero’s main point throughout the book is simple enough: humans cannot obtain spiritual health without also obtaining emotional health. Much more could be said about this, but for now I want to leave you with some food for thought. In the second chapter, Scazzero lists what he sees as the top 10 symptoms of emotionally unhealthy spirituality. Here is that list (see pp. 24-37):

1. Using God to run from God.

2. Ignoring the emotions of anger, sadness, and fear.

3. Dying to the wrong things.

4. Denying the past’s impact on the present.

5. Dividing our lives into “secular” and “sacred” compartments.

6. Doing for God instead of being with God.

7. Spiritualizing  away conflict.

8. Covering over brokenness, weakness, and failure.

9. Living without limits.

10. Judging other people’s spiritual journey.

Do any of the items on this list strike you or possibly rub you in the wrong way? Maybe your emotional health needs some work. Never considered the importance of emotional health in your overall spiritual health? Maybe this book is for you.

It’s started me down a path from which I’ll never return.

Making Advent more than a Celebration

Advent is the season when we prepare for and anticipate the birth and return of Jesus. Just like expecting parents prepare for and anticipate the coming of a child, Christians get to prepare for and anticipate the birth and return of Jesus during Advent. And just like expecting parents—who buy baby clothes, stock pile diapers, decorate the nursery, update their health insurance policy, and believe it or not head off on a babymoon—there are things that we can physically do to prepare for Jesus’ birth and return too. Here is a list of simple ideas that can be adopted during Advent (December 2-24) to help our body, mind, and soul prepare for and anticipate the birth and return of Jesus.

1. Take the Advent wreath home this year.

One great way to prepare for and anticipate the birth and return of Jesus is to have a home Advent wreath. Home Advent wreaths are a great way for families, couples, or individuals to get into the preparation and anticipation mood during Advent. After dinner is a great time to light the Advent wreath and open an Advent devotional. This is a great way for the whole family to get involved in the preparation.

2. Pick up an Advent devotional that stirs your preparation and anticipation.

Devotional material compiled specifically for the Advent season is another great way for families, couples, or individuals to prepare for and anticipate the birth and return of Jesus. Even without an Advent wreath, devotionals are a great way to add something to life that causes pause and reflection. There are tones of great Advent devotionals out there. This year I’m working through Christmastide: Prayers for Advent Through Epiphany from The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle. Other devotionals for the Advent season include Come, Let Us Adore Him: A Daily Advent Devotional by Paul David Tripp, Advent for Everyone: A Journey with the Apostles by N. T. Wright, and God Is in the Manger by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. The local Christian bookstore will surly have many titles in addition to these from which to chose. Pick one up today!

3. Follow a specific Bible reading plan.

Some people prefer the good old Bible to devotional material. If that’s you, Advent is a great season to follow a specific Bible reading plan. This need not be complicated. This year the Revised Common Lectionary follows the Gospel of Luke as it recounts the life and work of Jesus. Why not read through the Gospel of Luke this Advent season? Other options are to read through a different book of your choosing, to follow the readings of the daily office (click here table of readings), or to follow a reading plan compiled by a variety of Bible apps on your phone/tablet.

4. Add discipline to your life.

We add things to our lives during Advent to help us disrupt our routine. Spiritual disciplines bring pause and (hopefully with enough work) reflection. They are a way to help us prepare for and anticipate the birth and return of Jesus this Advent season. You could practice some sort of fasting throughout the Advent season, take up journaling, prayer, or Christian mediation (intentional reflection upon scripture).

There are many ways that we can prepare for and anticipate the birth and return of Jesus this Advent season. The point is that we need to do something! It’s never to late to begin your preparation and anticipation of the birth and return of Jesus.

How should we consume culture?

We have all heard this before, “Christians are supposed to be in the world not of the world.”

But what does this actually mean?  Is it being “of the world” to go see movies like The Hangover and The Wolf of Wall Street?  What about listening to bands that aren’t deemed “Christian” because they swear from time to time or only get played on “secular” radio stations?

All of these questions can be very difficult to navigate as Christians.  There is so much out there, and many times churches just don’t prepare us to make wise decisions.

One of my aims is to help us pursue truth in culture.  We are constantly being asked to buy into ideas, products, and ways of life, many times it isn’t even our choice–TV ads, Facebook posts, billboards, and even our own friends force-feed culture down our throats–and we need to be prepared to respond.

So, how do we react as Christians?  Maybe it is easier to completely remove ourselves from “secular” culture.  Instead of listening to top 40 radio stations we could listen to Christian radio stations.  Instead of watching movies that come out of secular movie studios, we could stick to “Christian” movies that are “family friendly”.  Did you know that there is even a Christian alternative to YouTube?  Yep, its called GodTube.  We could completely remove ourselves from culture and live in a Christian utopia.

However, is that the best way to live? Around the world instead of in it?  I think there is a better way.  These things that are strictly “Christian” aren’t bad.  I enjoy some Christian music and I thought the Left Behind movies were awesome going up.  However, we need to learn to also engage with the broader culture around us.

How do we accomplish this?  Here are three questions that are a great starting place for engaging with our broader culture. They end up building on one another but don’t miss understand them as a formula.  As we get better at consuming culture, these questions should naturally become part of living out the Christian Life.

1.  What is the content creator trying to communicate?

Every movie, song, book, TV show, and ad has some sort of message.  We need to become experts at recognizing that message.  This isn’t always easy, and there isn’t always one right answer.  However, once we master this skill consuming culture becomes a totally different ball game.  Instead of mindlessly watching Breaking Bad we begin to ask what message the writers are communicating.

In the case of Breaking Bad, we see a man who begins with the hope of leaving his family a little bit of cash after he dies.  Then, by the end of the series, this man has become money and power hungry to the point where human life has no value to him.  Everything is at his disposal when rising to the top.

A possible message is, stop at nothing to get what your family needs.

The next question that is helpful to ask is:

2.  How does the message of the content resonate with my Christian convictions?

The message of Breaking Bad is in direct contrast with the Gospel.  Jesus brought a message of peace and love.  It is better to be poor and close to God than rich and condemned.  Further, our Christian convictions tell us that all humans are made in the image of God.  This places the utmost importance on all of human life, regardless of past sins.

When comparing the witness of Jesus to the witness of Walter White we see two extremes.  Walter will stop at nothing for his family.  However, this eventually drives a wedge between him and the rest of humanity that is irreconcilable.  Jesus’ one goal was to bring humanity together.  He desired to reconcile humanity.  Walter has no desire to value him life outside of the lives of his family.  Thus, the contrast between the two “ways of life”.

Now we have seen how Breaking Bad conveys a message about particular way of living life.  And we have seen how that message compares to the Christian conviction, but we still don’t know what to do with what we have learned.  This brings us to one more helpful questions.

3.  What would life be like if we bought into the message of the content?

This question does two things.  First, it places us in the position to contemplate life according to the message of the content in contrast to the message of the Christian conviction.  Sometimes the messages converge while other times they diverge.  Both can be equally helpful in our Christian life.  The value in this is seeing how the Christian life is different from the world’s.  Of course, we all know this, but seeing pieces of culture demonstrate the differences is valuable (more on that in the next paragraph).  What may even be more valuable is seeing pieces of broader culture proclaiming the truth found in God.  These proclamations may be inadvertent, but the imprint of our creator is embedded in his creation; as Christians, we can find his witness in culture and proclaim it to the world.

Second, it gives witness to the ways in which the world tries to live.  When the message of culture diverges from the message of the gospel we can better understand how those round us live.  We are then able to better positions ourselves to be effective witnesses in the world.

It doesn’t take much to see that the message of Breaking Bad diverges rather quickly from the message of the Christian conviction.  So, when we ask ourselves how life would be when pursing money and power, we can see that the pursuit never ends.  No matter how much we want, we never get enough.  Once we have positioned ourselves to understand this, we can witness to the value that Jesus brings to all things in life.

We can’t escape culture.  Many times we don’t want too.  However, if we are going to be consumers, then we need to be smart consumers.  I believe that the gospel depends on it.

[Photo Credit]

The Condition of Human Pursuit

(This was the original post after I renamed my blog. Before this cite bore my name, it was called “Pursuit”.  I had one other blog before “Pursuit” hosted by blogger. I’m not sure what that blog was called. While I still agree with the sentiment of this post, I’m sure I would write it differently or not at all today. There is something about this post that is just boring… Why write a blog post about the named of a blog? Why not just start writing?… I guess I needed something to write…)

As humans we all pursue something.

The question is, what?

For many in our culture, fame is a noble pursuit; the desire for the masses to know your name. To be honest, this is also a pursuit of mine.  Even though I package it up nicely as this goal of wanting to be influential in as many peoples’ lives as possible, it is still a pursuit to be famous.  For people to hear my name and know who I am.

For others, their pursuit may look different.  Maybe they pursue money.  Maybe it is love… or happiness.  I believe happiness is the root of all of our pursuits.  Even though they manifest themselves in different forms, all appear to be connected to happiness.

When you stop and think about it for a second, it is interesting that all of our goals and desires come down to the desire for happiness.  However, as those who have reached their “desired goal” can testify, once you get the fame or the money or the love, you want more.  When is there enough?  Well… never, seems to be the answer that our society tells us.  Those with fame want more.  The richest men and women in the world want more.  Men and women in love aren’t happy with one lover so many go outside of the relationships hoping that they will find “real, lasting” love there.  All our pursuits find their root in happiness and our happiness seems to feed off of the want for more.  Once we have gotten the more, we want even more than before.  Weird how that works, right?

What it all comes down to is this, our pursuit of happiness is an epidemic.  We are slowly destroying ourselves and the world around with our need for more.  This isn’t just a people problem either.  The church also suffers twisted pursuits.

What is my point?

To give some new direction to our pursuits.

I believe that we were created to pursue happiness, happiness found in community.  Community with one another and our creator.

I write to point us towards this community of love and affirmation.

Within this blog you will see me post on many different things but my goal is always to move towards the cross and our pursuit for knowing our creator more.

Please join me.

Rob Bell, Visionary or Heretic?

(Edit, September 21, 2018. I wrote this review some five years ago. While I would no longer defend Rob Bell, I am proud of this review so I’m leaving it up. If you’d like to discuss why I see Rob Bell’s theological framework as dangerous, feel free to contact me in the comments below.)

This post originally appeared April 11, 2013.

Well, as promised, here is my review of Rob Bell’s newest book What We Talk About When We Talk About God.

This review is broken up into three sections:  In the first section I will give a brief synopsis–an overview of the book’s movements and main points.  The second section will be my space for comments and personal insight, and the final section will be where I will suggest some possible applications and moving points that the book could create.

I. What’s going on?

The big question that Rob is wanting to answer can be summed up as follows: Is God like an Oldsmobile?

Or, in other worlds, is God old fashion? Has humanity outgrown our need for God? Was God relevant to life at one point but now no longer needed because we have things like science and government?

Rob’s answer is no, but, for this to be shown, he thinks that we need to rework the way that we think about and talk about God.

Rob shows this by splitting the book into 4 sections:

  1. Intro: Chapter 1 (Hum)
  2. Set:  Chapters 2 & 3 (Open, Both)
  3. Backbone:  Chapters 4-6 (With, For, Ahead)
  4. Now what?: Chapter 7 (So)

To keep this section as short as possible (and to prevent me from giving too much away) I will briefly comment on each section.

1. Intro

There is little that needs to be said here.   Typical intro and set up work going on in the first chapter.  And, as usual, Rob’s writing is captivating–I always find myself wondering how anyone can write with such eloquence.

2. Set

This section is where things really start to take off.  I titled it “set” because the two points that Rob wants to make here is the God is open (chapter 2) and God is both (chapter 3), and these points form the base for what Rob calls the “backbone” of the book (section 3).

God is open meaning, God isn’t this closed reality we think he is.  If you are one for quantum mechanics and theoretical physics then this chapter is for you.  Also, this chapter should (and hopefully will) blow your mind (unless you are a theoretical physicist of course).

God is both–close and near.  In this section Rob explores the paradoxical nature of God.  Sometimes we feel like we know God but yet he also seems too far away and mystical–all at the same time!  We can talk about him in words, and yet he seems to transcend all words.  Here Rob also talks about how we even describe our own feelings and experiences.

What Rob is trying to show is that God is open and moving and that he (and life) are both physical and spiritual.  All of this to move to what he really wants to say…

3. Backbone

Here is the real meat of the book.  The main points that Rob is wanting to communicate are the following:

God is with us.  He isn’t some sort of being that is floating in space, but rather he is close and intimately involved in our very existence.

God is for us.  God being with us is because he is for us.

God is ahead.  Not only is God with us and acting for us, but he is also ahead of us guiding our way and bring humanity closer to himself.

4. Now what?

So… what do we do now?  That is exactly what Rob does in this section, and he says it better than I can, so I’m going to leave that up to him.

II.  Thoughts?

This section is less important, so if you want to stop reading here, feel free. However, I would appreciate comments so I can know how to improve my reviewing skills in the future.

What is my opinion?  This book was needed.  It does several important things for Christianity.  (1) It challenges Christians to think about God in relation to some of the cutting edge research in science.  (2) It shows that God may work differently than many of us think.  This includes both Christians and non-Christians alike.  (3) It shows God’s transcendence yet reminds us of his immanence.  What does this mean?  God is above all and beyond all, however, he is also intimately involved in life and sustaining his creation.

If I had to rate this book among other books in pop-Christian culture, I would place it at the top of the field.  Not only does Rob write beautifully, but he also communicates a deeply needed message within American, evangelical Christianity.

This is also possibly Rob’s best book.  I can’t say this with complete confidence because it has been a while since I have read his earlier ones.  It rates up there with Love Wins–maybe not as controversial–but just as needed.

III.  Real Life?

This section may be the most important…or maybe not.

What do we do with this book?  What do we do with Rob Bell?

Well…Rob has been deemed a heretic by much of the evangelical world.  He effectively set himself apart from most of the church with Love Wins.  However, is Rob really a heretic?  I don’t think so.  Without going too far into this issue, I think we need to remember that God isn’t as “black and white” as we think.  Also, the Bible isn’t as black and white either.  This is where Rob comes in.  He is really good at reminding us of this, and in such a beautiful, poetic way!

So…this book.  I think we should share it.  If you like how this book sounds, share my review with your friends.  Even better…buy the book and then share it.  If you don’t want to share your copy, recommend it to a friend.

Rob’s books may not be the best books out there, but they point to something bigger.  A movement…  Not just any movement, but the movement of the body of Christ, his holy, catholic church.  The Western Church must move or we will die.  I know I’m not going to miss the bus, will you?

Hope this has been helpful.  I want to write more of these, so if you enjoyed it let me know.  It will encourage me to read and write more.  Also, please feel free to comment.  I love conversation and would love to talk about these ideas more, especially after you read the book.