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 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 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 3: Belated Advent Reflections

I’ve always wanted to write some thoughts about Advent but can never find the time in the month of December. Too busy! Here’s some non-seasonally appropriate content for today.

I hate to admit but I’m always taken off guard by the season of Advent. Every year I begin the season with determination to wait in hope, but by the middle of the month of December, the high expectations I perceive from congregation,  those that I place on myself as a church musician, and on top of a ton of extra hours of work when I’d rather be spending time with my family, I find myself worn down.

Is the purpose of Advent, as Fleming Rutledge believes, to “take an unflinching inventory of darkness” (pg. 173)? She sternly warns against seeing Advent as a time to ‘prepare for Christmas,’ and urges the church to fully enter into the darkness to see just how bright the light of Christ is. The medieval church did not focus on Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love like we do today, but rather death, judgment, heaven, and hell. “The idea was—and is—to show how the light of the birth of Christ appeared against a backdrop of darkness, depravity, and despair” (pg. 238).

But is the Medieval church right? I can’t imagine the looks I’d get from our staff and congregation if I urged us to consider swapping in death, judgement, heaven, and hell for our advent candle themes. It seems exactly opposite what people want to be focusing on during the holidays.

In grad school I was taught to keep Advent distinct from Christmas, and to resist the hurrying of the cultural Christmas season spurred on by commercialism and consumerism. I can’t help but agree – there seems to be little focus in December about Christ’s second coming.

Let’s take a step back for a second. Should, at certain times, the church focus on the future coming of Christ and the coming judgement of the world? If it’s in the creed, which it is (He shall come again to judge the living and the dead), then I believe the answer is yes.

But how? Preaching of ‘hellfire and brimstone’ is today a trope on how not to preach. And speaking of darkness seems not only unnecessary, but not required – we all know there is darkness in the world. We can’t avoid it. We don’t need to be reminded. A whole month of darkness, hellfire, judgement, during our culture’s most joyful time of the year doesn’t seem counter-cultural in a good way, but paints the church as a grinch who doesn’t want any joy.

But perhaps since the culture is well aware of the darkness all around us, I have a feeling that it would be very different and quite possibly very powerful, to shepherd the church by actually helping us consider these “four final things” of death, judgement, heaven, and hell in the light of Christ’s second coming. If we begin (and Advent is in fact the beginning of the church year) with the end in mind (Christ’s second coming) we frame all those nasty things in between in light of his victory. To prepare we must be looking at Christ more closely – remembering how we place our “hopes and fears of all the years” in him and him alone.

But how we prepare is equally important. Rutledge warns that an emphasis on ‘preparation’ is that preparation puts the emphasis of the season on human effort rather than God’s mighty work. I have heard this from parishioners. We need help ‘keeping Christ in Christmas,’ just like the secular world does. If we constantly feel the coming of Christmas as “stress with a deadline” than a season of preparing to receive joy, we’re missing the point. In fact, the gift giving should really be saved for Epiphany! What we want to do is treasure the gift of Jesus. Let every heart prepare him room!

Lent Log: Day 2

“But we will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us, to reach even you. For we are not overextending ourselves, as though we did not reach you…” (2 Cor 10:13ff)

Paul talks a lot about boasting. As someone who struggles with pride (which is expressed more often in self depreciation than boasting per se) I find his statements about boasting confusing. Paul, in this passage, does boast in the area that God has given him influence. The famous verse later (“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord,” reference to Jer 9:24) seems to be a good rule – boast in the things God is doing that are great.

But what does that look like? It’s so easy to cross the line from “boasting in the Lord” to “boasting in the success of my ministry.”

Boasting with regard to the “area of influence God assigned to us” reminds me of a life principle I try (and often fail) to hold on to. Focus my energy on what I have influence over, and, (here’s the hard part) let go of the areas I don’t have influence over. Working in a church, there are many areas I do have influence over, and many areas I do not. Boasting in areas that I don’t have influence over would imply that at some point I tried to take or gain influence in these areas, perhaps extending myself outside of my lane. That never has gone well for me in the past.

By staying within my area of influence that God has assigned to me, I hope to reduce anxious feelings. Paul understood this. “And apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches” (2 Cor 11:28). Paul also speaks a lot about being anxious. If I want to, I could worry about all sorts of things that the church is not doing well in, but I think God is telling me through these verses to simply focus on the area he has placed me, and boast in the good work He is doing right there.

Lent Log: Day 1

In past years I’ve taken to fasting from social media or listening to music in the car during lent. I don’t really do social media anymore these days (if you want to quit the facebook habit but still need to go to the site every once and a while for a group or some notifications I can’t recommend more “quiet facebook” – it basically blocks the news feed) so I don’t feel the need to “fast from social media” to draw closer to God. What I do need is more reflection in my life. More pausing to listen to God.

During Lent I try to ask myself “God, what are you saying to me?” I try of course to do this year round, but the season of Lent is a reminder nevertheless; an invitation to take a practical step in my life of faith.

So instead of fasting, instead of ‘giving up’ something for Lent, what if I got back to this blog thing as a tool to draw me closer to God. Sometimes it’s hard to reflect simply in prayer alone, and I’m not a fan of keeping a personal journal. It’s just not the tool that works best for me. Perhaps this tool (for all the millions of readers of my blog … /s) will help me reflect on what God is saying to me this season.

40 days of posting. Here we go.