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Lent Log Day 22: Liturgy is an Anchor to the Soul

It’s no surprise to readers of this blog that I believe that liturgy (which is to say any practices, actions, words, or habits that we do with regularity) has the power to shape our hearts. As our world is turned upside down, our thoughtful liturgical practices will help us remain connected to God and serve as an anchor in very turbulent waters.

We’re doing church virtually now – a “practice” that I’ve always resisted because I feel it shapes our hearts more as consumers or passive viewers than as active participants. But in God’s providence we’re all watching church on screens now, so what choice do we have but to make the most of it.

People have been overwhelmingly appreciative of our efforts to get things running smoothly online. Someone in my small group mentioned last night (via a zoom call, of course) how nice it has been to walk through the Church’s liturgy together. Even though it’s carried in a different vessel of the computer or tv screen, the content remains the same, and it’s to him very grounding and assuring. I couldn’t agree more. Through singing and reading scripture and praying together – especially repeated things – we see and read into them even deeper meaning than what we’ve seen before. I know this firsthand from allowing the liturgy to wash over me while walking through a divorce. The words became somehow more true, more meaningful, more real for me. This pandemic is in many ways similar – it’s easy to say “God is my refuge and strength” when all is well. Quite another proposition to say that during Coronavirus. It is my belief and my hope that by saying and praying such words from your heart when things are well, we can with God’s strength, say them the same way despite whatever is going on around us.

So in many ways, the church should continue doing what it always does – proclaiming Jesus as the way of life, health, peace, forgiveness, and the only true and lasting reality we’ll ever know. My job isn’t any harder. It’s just gotten a bit different.

 

 

Lent Log Day 17: The New Normal

My 100th post on this blog! Huzzah!

Who knew when I started this daily posting habit that I’d have such a curious and unknown world full of things to write about. But here we are in the middle of a global pandemic. We are not gathering in groups of more than 10, we’re tele-commuting, and basically everything is cancelled. (Favorite tweet so far: “Never thought I’d be giving up this much for lent!”)

At the church we’ve moved to a live-stream and video recorded services only. So now my weekly work is filled with website updates, communication updates, video recording projects, and tech setups. Churches around the country are trying to adapt as quickly as possible to this new normal. For many, including us, it’s live streaming and video recorded content. This is a great way to continue leading people in worship right in their homes. We did it last Sunday here:

Our friends at L’Abri are also offering live-streamed morning prayer every day on their facebook page:

 

But while all this live streaming is great for the time being, I’m also beginning to realize that whenever this all finally passes, we’ll be forever changed by the weeks or months spent not meeting on Sundays. It’s actually testing our hearts to see if we really understand the true purposes of worship. I’ve seen some people commenting on facebook, “I could get used to this!” I earnestly hope we don’t get used to this – that we long to be united in worship and fellowship in the flesh, not just virtually. I also wonder how much sustained engagement we’ll get after weeks or months of live-streaming only. It’s a lot easier to watch church and make breakfast, listen to the prayer and scroll through instagram when sitting on your couch.

When we began live-streaming, I resisted greatly because the medium itself teaches us that worship is about consuming content, not offering your heart. I never wanted our virtual worship to replace our in-person worship gathering. It’s a lot harder (but don’t hear me wrong – it’s not impossible!) to offer your heart while sitting in your pajamas on your couch.

But I do think this is a test for us. I think we need to figure out ways to lead and engage people’s hearts through the virtual format and it must look different than a normal Sunday service. Innovation will happen. It has to*. After all, the words “virtual” and “communion” don’t seem to belong in the same sentence. This is actually an opportunity to teach some heart-shaping habits. Liturgy can be an anchor for us in this time of uncertainty. More on that tomorrow.

 

*I’m grateful for leaders who write thoughtfully about the role of the church and how to pastor people during this pandemic – see this article.

 

Lent Log Day 14: Things are getting weird

Glad I’m still writing to give myself a bit of an outlet to process all the crazy things happening on God’s good earth right now. I cancelled choir rehearsal tonight, and am also house-sitting / dog-sitting for some friends out in Framingham, so I’m feeling pretty lonely out here.

I have noticed in all my interactions with people that everyone is simply trying to process this massive uncertainty and talking about it together is certainly a good way to help process. The fact is so many of us have no idea what is happening, but we all process this information differently. Some process by repeating (or sharing on social media) the news they are hearing, and interpreting it for their lives. Others are more quiet, trying to digest everything that’s coming in and making guesses as to what will happen next. Some are criticizing leaders for not making clear leadership decisions.

The point is everyone processes this uncertainty differently. I am talking to this cute dog and skyping with friends and family.

I’m noticing that we all crave community. I feel myself getting anxious not only of the spread of the virus but of the social isolation. I missed having choir tonight. I will miss meetings and things being cancelled. I’ll miss seeing people. I suppose we’ll rely on technology to help us feel connected. I’ll get better at reaching out to people on the phone just to say hi and chat.  “The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen 2:18a)

So let’s stick together, however possible. Make sure you’re reaching out to friends. Talk about how this is hard. Talk about your anxieties and loneliness. I think we’re supposed to.

Lent Log Day 13: The Two Day Rule (or, perhaps, humanly imposed limits)

Turns out it’s a bit hard to keep up writing every weekday during lent. I skipped yesterday and was about to skip today but then remembered a video I saw on the “two day rule (note there are ads in the video).” It is born from the reality that habits are easy to start, but very hard to maintain consistently.

In my last post, divinely imposed limits, I talked about how sometimes in ministry we have to remember to stay in our lane, and not over extend or over invest with our time or energy or emotion.

But what about a humanly imposed limit?

A humanly imposed limit, (one could call this a “ritual” or “practice”) is something we hold ourselves to and live by, no matter how we feel at any particular moment. Rituals or practices are tools for building consistency and, as the video explains, are the antidote to procrastination, doubt, and fear (see this post on rock climbing, doubt, and fear)

Consistency is the antidote to the resistance of doubt.

The two day rule is simple: If you skip a day, it’s not a big deal, but once you skip two days, that’s no longer a habit but a one time job. For any habit you are trying to build, whether it’s working out, practicing the cello, reading the Bible, or (in my case), blogging every day in lent, not allow yourself to take off more than one day in a row.

Because we don’t want to be slaves to achievement and try to brute force our way into good habits. Going to the gym every day is hard if you’ve never gone before. The two day rule allows you to skip a day if you’re feeling tired. You can even skip multiple days in one week as long as you never skip two days in a row.

I think this is brilliant. Hope it helps us with our lenten (and life-long) disciplines.

Lent Log Day 11: Divinely Imposed Limits

…We do not boast beyond limit in the labors of others. But our hope is that as your faith increases, our area of influence among you may be greatly enlarged…

Where do you boast? Perhaps a better way to ask the question is, “what makes you proud?” Paul is speaking in this passage in defense of his ministry. I can certainly relate to having to ‘defend my ministry’ to those who have reasons to critique it. We’re all armchair quarterbacks, really. Anyone who is in ministry knows that critiques come quickly and sometimes without much thought. In the eyes of some people, we never seem to be doing enough, or maybe simply that we could be doing so much better if only we did this one more thing.

But I think the point being made here is that Paul’s ministry is by ‘staying in your lane’ (I wrote a bit on this on day 2), we can keep the focus on the ministry to the people that God has assigned to us. It’s certainly overwhelming for me to think of all the things I could be doing, and am not. I could be recording that next worship album. I could be composing or songwriting. I could be preparing more leaders for small groups or training more discipleship mentors. But divinely imposed limits seem to be healthy and important for our flourishing. Our last Men’s gathering included a talk by Matthew Wilson titled “Taking Ownership while Giving Glory to God” (listen here), and spoke right to this idea of limits. Drawing from Aristotle, Matthew views virtues as the fine line of balance between two extremes. Temperance is the balance between the extremes of gluttony and asceticism; of over indulgence and under indulgence.

In regards to ownership, we can become overly invested  (over-attachment) or under-invested in a particular project. For many of us, the dangers of over investment are easier to slip into than apathy or underinvestment. The results can be painful and catastrophic. Emotions run higher, and we (I) can forget about the people we are working with under a single-minded focus on a project. We can be jerks.

A healthy ownership of a project, ministry, or job, is found when a balance is maintained between over and under investment. For me this means doing the next right thing and not worrying any more. I would imagine that as we complete projects or launch and grow ministries, God gives us more responsibilities, but this does not mean chasing after new responsibilities in order to gain recognition on our own terms.

“‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.’ For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.” 2 Cor 10:18

Lent Log Day 9: Rock Climbing progress – still afraid of falling.

I’ve been rock climbing for a bit over a year now, and am surprisingly still sticking with it. I’ve never been one to go to the gym, but for some reason this kind of gym keeps me coming back for more. I would never lift weights but I guess I will lift my own weight up a wall a few times for fun. It helps that they change up the routes every week.

The reason I like it so much is that it works your mind and body on multiple levels. Obviously there’s the physical strength component. Fingers are stronger, callouses form, arms, back, and shoulders all feel more sturdy. But it didn’t take long for me to figure out that strength alone was not going to get me to the top. The second component to good climbing is balance and body positioning. After a few months I realized that using one leg as a counterbalance (a technique called ‘flagging’, rotating your hips into the wall,  and focusing on getting your feet in just the right place made it a good deal easier on your arms. That’s cool.

But the third and final component, and the one that will be the most difficult for me to improve, is my mind. Two things in particular that can cripple a bouldering attempt: doubt and fear. When I am halfway up the wall, fingers are weakening from fatigue, it’s usually just a little thought that gets into my head, “you’re not going to make it this time” and I quit. (And if you’re worried at this point…quitting just means dropping a few feet off the wall onto the pads.). What’s a worse feeling is the fear. Fear is a good and healthy instinct but there are several times when I’ve really felt it. It usually happens near the top of a route I have never done before, and it often makes me forget to do everything else, namely, breathe and keep going. There are times when I’ve felt the sensation of fear and even after coming down off the wall it lingers with me for several minutes after. It makes the next attempt really hard to start and sometimes breaks my concentration for the rest of the session.

A single minded focus helps. So do other people cheering you on. I personally really like going to the gym without knowing anyone there. I just do my thing and nobody bothers me. Sometimes people do strike up conversations and I happily engage with them, but then they start to cheer me on on the wall, and I feel annoyed from the bit of pressure that I now have to finish this route to impress them. But sometimes it actually helps me do a route that I would have doubted I could complete alone.

Difficult things can be so rewarding when you finally push through and make it happen. For many months I was stuck climbing V0 and V1 routes (routes are rated from V0 – V10). When I finally got to V2 I was pumped. V3s seemed like an impossibility but just a few months ago I finished a V3 and couldn’t believe it. Today V4s seem impossible, but there’s always next week!

 

Lent Log Day 8: Holy Water and Hand Sanitizer

I’ve always wanted to write a post about how some churches have a fount of holy water at the entrance and others have a bottle of hand sanitizer. Today seems like that day.

The former says the world is God’s – God made the material world for us to experience and enjoy and the raw material of water reminds us of his goodness to us (the dab of water on our forehead reminds us of our baptism). For more on this I commend Schmemann’s “Of Water and the Spirit” chapter from his book “For the Life of the World.” The fact that water is placed at the entrance to churches is in part to remind us of the ecclesiological (or, communal) significance of our baptism. It is an entrance into community – the body of Christ, and not solely an individual act.

The latter says the world is dirty –  that we need to protect ourselves and get rid of the germs of the outside world. It is practical, pragmatic, and on the surface theologically neutral – how is using hand sanitizer related to how I enter worship?

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. It matters. Everything we do shapes what we believe. The phrase speaks to the fact that all our actions shape our beliefs, and it’s a two way street. If we kneel in worship, our hearts kneel. If we check our bank account balance every morning, our hearts worry about money. If our hearts worry about money, we’ll check our bank account balance every morning.

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against hand sanitizer and use it frequently when traveling. Obviously things are a bit different these days and I’m using it more often. But I’m actually really struggling with what the church’s response should be toward Coronavirus fears. During flu season, it’s often suggested that we refrain from handshakes during church, and with Coronavirus fears (and actual cases in the US) rising, we’re considering how to modify our communion practices to be more sanitary. Fortunately, for us Evangelicals, we are already well on our way to individual sanitary practices. We have those tiny plastic cups which are better than all drinking out of the same cup (though I learned that using a fortified wine such as port for its germ killing properties served in a single chalice is actually more sanitary and less of a risk than contamination from hands reaching into the same plate or loaf of bread. The mouth is cleaner than the hands.)

While I am concerned with how to best guide the church’s practices safely, responsibly, and taking advice from medical professionals, I’m also thinking about long-term affects on our practices and therefore our theology. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. I read of one church who changed from handshakes to waves and nods during the H1N1 outbreak in the 2000s, and the practice has by popular choice remained.

Shouldn’t we as Christians be the first ones to remain ‘in the world’ because we know that we are ultimately not of it, but belong to God? This is not to say we don’t exercise caution and common sense, listening to the recommendations from doctors and modifying our practices to be more hygienic, but if the world is living in a state of fear (and it seems like it is), perhaps we should open our doors to welcome the weary, not close them. We’ll also live-stream our worship service too :-).

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea…

Psalm 46:1-2

One of our own missionaries remained in Liberia to care for people during the Ebola outbreak a few years ago. Many non-Christians would see this as irresponsible – the recommendation surely would have been to get out of the dangerous area, but he was celebrated here. In the early years of the church, during one such plague outbreak in AD252 Christians were known to be the ones that stuck around to care for the dying. While others fled, Pope Dionysus of Alexandria commended those Christians who remained, writing,

“The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.” (Source)

So I’m not sure what direction this current pandemic is going to go. Certainly let’s pray. Pray that doctors find a cure or vaccine quickly. Pray that Christians would know how to respond to this as disciples of Jesus. Pray that we would not fear. I will use hand sanitizer. I will also remember my baptism.

Lent Log Day 7: Dust and Mud

Everyone knows that Jesus performed miracles of healing in the Gospels. A closer reading of these miracles reveals that not every healing is the same. Sometimes, Jesus simply says a word and someone is healed. In the case of Lazarus, Jesus resurrects him to life after being dead for four days by simply praying, and then saying “Lazarus, come out.” In John 5, the invalid of 38 years is healed by the words “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” Jesus needs nothing more than to speak, and healings happen.

John 9 shows us one example where Jesus does something more.

After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. “Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing. (John 9:6-7)

Certainly we don’t conclude that Jesus “needed” the raw material of the earth to perform this healing. Just as we don’t think Jesus’ first healing of the blind man Jesus must have done this for a reason. Perhaps he was giving us a sign.

We know that Jesus often does things so that people watching can hear and believe in him (Cf. John 11:42), so perhaps his action of taking mud was to teach the people watching something about his nature.

Consider Gen 2:7:

And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. (Gen 2:7, KJV)

God is creator, and created man from the “dust of the ground.” As he spits in the earth and makes mud, he’s reminding those watching and us of his ‘creator-ness’, and has come into the world as re-creator. Remember, Jesus IS God. He’s not only God’s Son, he’s God in the flesh. He was there creating at the foundation of the universe and is now present with this man restoring his sight. But healing is not only restoration of this man’s sight, it is a signifier of the new creation that is happening through Christ.

Lent Log Day 6: Fast food

“My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you…

Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you

My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips.

– from Psalm 63

The trouble with feasting for me is that in my current station in life feasting has been rarer than I’d like. Actually, this semester has been pretty difficult in terms of getting time in the kitchen. I have been attending evening meetings for (ironically titled) the Great Banquet, which has kept me from spending my Sunday afternoons cooking Sunday dinners, which not only are my favorite sabbath activity and way to unwind after a busy Sunday, but provide me with leftovers for the beginning of the next week. I’ve also been up on the North Shore for class on Tuesdays, out Mondays for Bible study, Thursdays for choir, so there are very few nights each week when I’m actually home to cook!

The result is too much fast food than I’d like to admit, and a very understocked pantry which makes me sad.

So it makes sense that I’m compelled by all these food passages in the Bible. Psalm 63 talks about how our souls are satisfied as with fat and rich food – not fast food, but a slow roasted chicken perhaps. Fat and rich food prepared at home is not only immediately satisfying but I believe the feeling of satiation carries well into the next day. So perhaps God is trying to show us how he alone is the metaphorical ‘chicken soup for the soul.’ Everything else that we seek to satisfy our souls are like fast food – they may meet the caloric requirements, may make us feel good at the moment, but they just leave us empty. Basically, it’s reminding me 1) need to spend more time with God, and 2) need to make more chicken stock.

 

Lent Log Day 5: Feasts

Luke chapter 15 contains the well known parables of lost things – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. I always thought these parables were about how God seeks after us and finds us even when we are lost, but in my New Testament class last week (and in last Sunday’s sermon at TCC), I was shown that each story also ends with the theme of celebration. The shepherd calls his friends and neighbors together to celebrate finding the one sheep, the woman does the same for the coin, and the Father throws a big party when his son returns home. The message of the parable is clear for the Pharisees and scribes (Jesus is telling this parable to them, see Luke 15:1-2)  – don’t grumble about the ‘unrighteous’ who are found by God. Don’t be like the older son, indignant that those who did right all their lives were not getting any special treatment but the “prodigal son” (note that Luke doesn’t use the word prodigal – that’s just the editorial heading) gets a feast with the fatted calf and a new wardrobe: ring, robe, and shoes. The parable is also for us – don’t just be glad for your own salvation but seek out those who have been newly found by God and throw a party. Bring our most lavish gifts to celebrate with any and all who want to celebrate. Not those who we’d expect to see at the banquet – friends and relatives, but the poor and social outcasts. Remember the parable of the Great Banquet was just the chapter before!

The theme of feasting, hospitality, and eating together is all over the pages of Luke’s gospel. Once I started noticing it, it is so clear that Luke really wants us to know that eating together is very important. It’s quickly becoming my favorite Gospel narrative. Because of its emphasis on eating together (Jesus eats with ‘sinners’), it shows that these simple actions are actually very important to God. I like cooking for people and because of passages like Luke 15, I am beginning to see the dinner party as a necessary spiritual practice in my life. So come on over for dinner sometime!