Saturday, November 27, 2010

Advent--and Advents

Evangelicals have historically not done Advent, but when we have, we’ve done it, well, wrong.
Advent is a season of the Church calendar, which, in the aftermath of the Reformation, many Protestants ceased observing.  Not that there was much wrong with the Church calendar, except that protestants stopped capitalizing the word “church,” referring as it did to the One Holy Catholic Church, which Protestants no longer acknowledged.  There were many churches, not One.  So we tended to avoid all things that even smelled Catholic, including the Church calendar.
It was kind of a baby and bathwater thing.
When Evangelicals came on the scene, they were part of the anti-calendar group.  Christmas and Easter were celebrated, but more as events and not as seasons.  And the seasons of Advent, Epiphany, Lent were out, along with special days like Trinity Sunday and the different feasts.
It wasn’t until after Pam and I were married that we were part of a Baptist church that had an Advent Wreath, which I thought was pretty cool.  And soon after that I noticed other Baptist churches observing Advent.  I learned that it was a period of waiting for the Christ-child to be born, an anticipation which was fulfilled on Christmas Even when the Christ Candle is lit.  So, I learned, Advent is a month-long season of preparation for Christmas.
What I learned was wrong.  Oops.
I should have known just by looking at the word itself.  “Advent” doesn’t mean waiting; look it up.  It in fact means that the waiting is over.  Advent means onset, beginning, arrival, and strictly speaking refers, not to the birth of the Messiah, but to the onset of the Kingdom of God.  True, the coming of the Messiah was seen as a necessary part of the Kingdom’s arrival, but not as the sum total. 
It’s no wonder that we messed up the observance of Advent, because the Kingdom of God is by-and-large absent from Evangelical theology and teaching.  Evangelicals teach about Heaven after death, but when teaching about the Kingdom of God tend to do one of two things: equate the Kingdom of God with Heaven, or treat it as a temporary earthly sojourn, an in-between time that is better than what we have to put up with now but not as good as what we get when we die and go to Heaven.  But that’s not exactly how Jesus treated it.  Jesus preached the Good News of the Kingdom of God, not the Good News of Heaven.  And there’s a difference.
The in-betweeness that Jesus taught was that time between when something begins and when it is completed, and no part of the Kingdom of God is ever seen as temporary.  The Kingdom of God is eternal, and not just eternal in the heavens but eternal on earth as well.  When it comes in its fullness it won’t just be for people who have died and gone to Heaven, but it will be for all flesh and all Creation—animal, vegetable and mineral, the heavens and the earth.  A vision of the future in which the only place where God’s will is done is after we die and go to Heaven is contrary to Jesus’ prayer that God’s Kingdom would come and his will be done on earth as well as in Heaven.
It’s actually not proper to talk about The Advent, because there are not one but two advents: the first coming of Christ, and the second coming of Christ, but once again the emphasis is on the Kingdom of God.  In the first Advent, the coming of Christ signifies that the Kingdom of God is, to use Jesus’ phrase, at hand.  It’s beginning, it has arrived—not fully, no, but look around and see that it is breaking out all around you.  The second Advent signifies the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.  It is no longer at hand but fully present; no longer coming but actually here; no longer arriving but arrived.
So the celebration of Advent is a yearly reminder, not that we live in a between-time of earthly existence before heavenly reward, but rather that we live in the mean-time between the initiation of the Kingdom of God and its final and eternal fruition. 
Bernard of Clairvaux spoke of three Advents.  The first is when Christ came to humankind as a human; the third is when he comes again to reveal what is right and what is not, what belongs in the Kingdom and what doesn’t fit.  (This is what is meant when the early Christians said that Jesus was coming again to judge the world; not, as is commonly taught, that he came to condemn some and save others.)  These are historical realities that all will experience.  But the second advent, according to Bernard, is when Jesus comes into our hearts.  This advent is open to all but reality only to those who are able to receive it.  And all three advents are necessary for the Kingdom of God to come in fullness in a person’s life.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Questions and Answers

Isn’t it maddening when a person answers a question with another question?  A time or two is all right, but when they do it all the time, it can be quite frustrating.
So add this to the reasons that Jesus can be quite frustrating.
I read somewhere that in the gospels Jesus was asked 183 questions and only gave 3 answers.  Now, I’m not going to take the time to check the math, but I’m pretty sure that the point is accurate.  Jesus seemed to have all the answers yet was reluctant to dish them out.  I don’t think it was because he was a truth-hoarder, wanting to keep it all to himself, nor because he intended to lead a mystery religion like Gnosticism in which only the insiders had access to the truth.  So why didn’t he ask fewer questions and give more answers?
I think one reason is that he believed that the most important truths weren’t hidden but in fact were rather self-evident.  Let’s face it, summing up the Law with “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself” isn’t rocket science.  In fact, he wasn’t even the first one to say it; he was quoting two very well known scriptures, Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18.  Every one of Jesus’ hearers knew these verses.  Other rabbis cited them as summaries of the law; Jesus wasn’t breaking new ground here.  In the first chapter of Romans Paul makes it clear that spiritual insight isn’t hidden but can be clearly seen: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”
Therefore Jesus wanted people to see that they didn’t need a rabbi or Pharisee to impart to them great spiritual truths that were hidden from view.  Open your eyes, he is saying, and see what has been self-evident all along.  He was notoriously known for telling down-to-earth stories that did not answer questions as much as provoke thought, and then he trusted people’s ability to hear his stories and reach some startling conclusions about the kingdom of God. Jesus believed that farmers and housewives and tax-collectors and lepers could imagine, think, and reach conclusions. He believed in the human ability to discern. Jesus knew that developing discernment in others was far superior than giving them point-blank directions.  Some individuals wanted Jesus’ ready-made answers to their dilemmas, and usually went away disappointed.
But I think that Jesus wanted more than just for people to think for themselves; he wanted people to think differently.  Few of life’s dilemma’s can be solved by ready-made answers.  People aren’t machines, and neither is life.  It is invariably unpredictable.  I have an inherent—and I believe healthy—distrust of people who come to me with silver-bullet solutions to my problems.  I have found that life is much too complex for simple, one-size-fits-all answers.
But here’s the real kicker: I think that Jesus wanted to get people away from the idea that the kind of truth that matters, that really, really matters, is the kind that can fit into an answer to a question, regardless of whether that answer is simple or complex.  The truth that really matters can’t be put into a propositional sentence like a math formula, a doctrinal statement or a creed.  At best, propositional answers can only point to the truth; ironically, by pointing to the truth they are not in fact propositional statements but metaphors that head us in the right direction.
As I’ve done many times before, I remind us that Jesus didn’t say, “I know the truth” but “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
There is a kind of knowing that involves facts, information, solutions, and reasoning.  But there is another kind of knowing that doesn’t involve any of that—and that is when you experience the truth.  I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, but I’m pretty sure that reading about it and knowing all the facts there are to know about it can’t compare to being there, and that once experienced, words are not only insufficient, but unnecessary.
To experience something is to enter into something of a relationship with it.  You know it, even if you can’t quantify it.  And even if it’s not logical or doesn’t make sense to anyone else, it makes sense to you.
This is relational knowledge—“I am the truth,” Jesus said—and it isn’t subject to the categories of logic, the scientific method, or inerrancy.  And if God is an animate Being—a Person—then it is the way that we must come to know him.
And until we know this, we don’t know nothing. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Need for Contemplation

I’m not one to underline, highlight, or otherwise mark up my books as I read (for reasons I won’t go into here), but every once in a while I have to do it when I come across something I want to remember.  Such was the case yesterday as I was reading a chapter out of A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren, a book I’m reading as part of a study group I participate in. 
It’s not that the section is particularly well-written or full of deep theological insight, but rather that Brian reminds me of something that I know but often forget—or just flat out ignore.

Through the years I have noticed that among the people most dedicated to missional activism, you find either (a) people burned out because of the difficulty of the task, or (b) people who have best learned to undergird their activism with contemplation, with quiet resting, with finding God in the center of normalcy—including the normalcy of struggle and hard work.  Contemplation isn’t only for passive, withdrawn people, but also for active, involved ones.

There is a high burn-out factor in what are called the helping professions—nursing, social work, drug and alcohol counseling, etc.—and ministry.  The problems are complex and never ending, there is a high failure rate, and the compensation is low.  I’m not talking financially, although that is certainly true for the helping professions; but success in the helping professions is often not easily defined or measured, is too seldom seen, and even then it usually comes in small, incremental steps.  And when a person does it as a volunteer, as many very dedicated people do, the burnout rate is extremely high.
I am writing this to a group of people that, by and large, are more committed to volunteer activism than the average citizen.  I know many people in our congregation that give many hours to the ministries of this church, and I know a great number of people who give selflessly outside of the church, whether as a volunteer at Waverly, visiting nursing homes, teaching adults to read, or helping young couples build strong marriages.
You do great work, often unseen, with no compensation, and sometimes with little appreciation.  You work with a child to help them to read, but your efforts are subverted by the child’s difficult home situation.  Or an adult decides that learning to read is just too difficult, or takes too much time, or it’s just too late, and they stop showing up for appointments.  You work with a young couple for a few months but in their youthful naiveté they don’t understand how difficult marriage is, and in a year or so they are separated.  And sometimes, when people fail to live up to their expectations, they blame you.  You didn’t help them enough.  It’s your fault.
It happens all too often.  And you wonder why you keep trying.
Burnout is usually treated just as McLaren suggests—you look to your relationship with God, you go deeper there, to find that your satisfaction is found in God, not in some ill-defined notion of success.  And in deepening—or even rediscovering—your relationship with God, you find the peace, the satisfaction, and the appreciation you so desperately need.
The problem comes when you treat the practice of contemplation merely as a treatment for burnout, and most treatments end when the condition is cured.  Contemplation takes time, but more than anything, at its core it is the ability to do nothing in the presence of God but enjoy His presence.  And for active, get-something-accomplished people, that’s difficult to do.  When the pain is severe enough they’ll do it, because they have little choice; but remove the pain, remove the urgency, and they fall back into their activist habits of go, go, go.
McLaren reminds me that the discipline of contemplation is not merely a treatment for a condition, but a necessary condition for anyone who gives—not so much of their time or their money, but of themselves­­.  It is the discipline that helps you to find your joy in your relationship with God, and allows you to bring that joy into the difficult and often joyless conditions in which you feel called to serve.
It’s the difference between your serving driving you to seek a relationship with God, and your relationship with God driving you to serve.
The former leads to a continual pattern of burnout and relief, burnout and relief.  The latter leads to a life in which joy is more a resident in your life than an occasional visitor.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


This weekend was spent working on necks--guitar necks, of course.  I'm in the carving stage--taking a rectangular piece of mahogany and turning it into something that feels natural cradled in the left hand.  This is one of the really fun parts of building a guitar, the part that makes you feel more like an artist than a builder.  It's sculpting to a certain degree.  Factories can use CNC (computer-numerically-controlled) routers to carve multiple necks at a time that are exactly the same, with tolerances that measure in the hundredths of inches, but even if I could afford such a unit for a small shop--and they cost $2-3k--I wouldn't want to miss this part.

It's part science, and I use math and geometry to guide the removal of material.  Here's a link to how I do it.  Last night I finished shaping Quigley's neck before moving on to Austins, but was struck by how in this process of creating the perfect neck, you need precision instruments.  I have a ruler that measures down to 1/64ths of an inch, and a caliper that measure in the thousandths of inches, and I use them to get close to perfection.  

But to achieve perfection, I have to use the most precise instrument of all--my finger.  There's a certain point when everything looks good to the naked eye, and this is the point that rulers and calipers can take you.  But players don't talk about guitar necks that look good, they talk about necks that feel good.  You can take a good-looking neck and run your finger up and down it, and you'll feel things you can't see.  

A slight bump.  
A minute unevenness.  
A little irregularity.  
Maybe just a place on one side of the neck that feels different than the same place on the opposite side. 

Small things that take little to remove but make a huge difference in playability, because a neck that feels good relaxes the player, and tension is the enemy of effortless playing.

It may seem that music is about sound, but only superficially; music is about feel, on many different levels.

Near the end of his life, Antonio Torres, considered the father of the modern classical guitar, was asked by his friend Juan Martinez Sirvento share his secret. He wrote in response:". . . my secret is one you have witnessed many times, and one that I can't leave to posterity, because it must with my body go to the grave, for it consists of the tactile senses in my finger pads, in my thumb and index finger that tell the intelligent builder if the top is or is not well made, and how it should be treated to obtain the best tone from the instrument." 

The most sensitive measuring device is not made by humans, but by God.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


“Safe and sound.”  We use the phrase often enough that it’s easy to think that the two words are almost synonymous and that the distinction is a matter of nuance.  But it’s not.
Dallas Willard quotes an anonymous author who gives this striking illustration of the difference: “The steamship whose machinery is broken may be brought into port and made fast to the dock.  She is safe, but not sound.  Repairs may last a long time.”
How many Christians are there who are content to be safe and indifferent to their need to be sound?  The evidence would indicate that there are a lot, maybe even most.  This may be a function of the theology that we have been taught, particularly in evangelical circles with our history of or even birth in a revivalism that emphasized avoiding hell and entering heaven after death.  In this form of the gospel the problem of sin is that it separates us from God, a separation that becomes permanent upon death.  We are in danger of hell, and Christ died to give us an escape, so that the person who “accepts Christ as their personal savior” gets “saved” from eternal spiritual death, and upon death enters into eternal spiritual life.  Accepting Christ means that you are saved—and therefore safe.
There may even be the assumption that, once saved, you are also sound, and nothing else needs to be done except to devote yourself to the task of helping others get safe through Jesus.  But that is clearly not the case, as we can see all too many people who are Christians but hardly Christ-like.  To be fair, I have no problem claiming to be Christian, but the claim that I am Christ-like is not mine to make, so I don’t want to make it sound like I am falling into the trap of judging others without holding myself to the same standard.  Nonetheless, the presence of Christians who are mean, who are divisive, who are bigoted, who are dishonest, who are materialistic, etc., and not just occasionally but characteristically, indicates to me that there is a problem somewhere in our understanding (and maybe even our teaching) of what it means to be Christian.  To be clear, I’m not making an indictment on those Christians who are characteristically mean, for instance, but who recognize it and are actively working to submit to the Spirit’s working in their lives to make them kinder and more patient, but on those Christians who aren’t trying and feel little need to.  They are safe from the fires of hell, so nothing else really matters.  The rest is optional.
But being safe from the after-death consequences of sin is not the same as being healed from the effects of sin.  A foundering ship that makes it to port is safe, but the purpose of a ship is not to be permanently moored to the dock; such a ship is just taking up valuable space.  The purpose of a ship is to sail, and to sail it must be made seaworthy.  The danger of sin is not just to a person’s after-death experience, but to their whole-life experience.  Christ came not just to make us safe, but to make us sound—to heal us from the powerful effects of sin that keep us from living the life God intended us to live.  Sin diminishes our humanity; Christ wants to help us recover our made-in-His-image humanity, which he declared is “very good.” 
We often make a big deal about the discontinuity between our existence in Christ before death and that of our existence in Christ after death: streets of asphalt vs. streets of gold, seeing through a glass darkly vs. seeing face-to-face, diminishing earthly body vs. eternal spiritual body, etc.  What we often miss is the biblical emphasis on the continuity of a person’s before-death existence with their after-death existence.  In fact, Jesus didn’t really talk much in terms of before-death and after-death; read him closely and you’ll see that he talked in terms of life in the Kingdom of God vs. life outside the Kingdom of God.  Those who prepare now to live in the Kingdom—which is “at hand” but not yet fully—will be ready to live in the Kingdom when it does come in its fullness.  They will be sound.  But those who are unprepared when the Kingdom comes “on earth as it is in Heaven” will founder.  They will sink.  In other words, soundness matters.  It’s unsafe to be taking on water when the Kingdom comes.
Salvation is more than getting safe, it is becoming sound, and I believe that a full understanding of the gospel makes it clear that you can’t sign up for one without signing up for the other. 

Thinking that you can be Christian without being Christ-like is neither safe nor sound. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Purest Moment in Sports

This may surprise some of you, but I don't watch sports like I used to.  I didn't watch much of the baseball playoffs, nor the World Series.  Of the teams that I follow, only the Washington Capitals are contenders for the league championship, but I'm only a casual hockey fan with a very rudimentary understanding of the game.  Of the rest of the teams teams that I follow, only Maryland basketball has contended for a championship in recent years (Final Four in 2001, winning the National Championship in 2002).  For the rest of my teams, the last time they contended was the last time they won it: Redskins in 1991, Orioles in 1983, Bullets/Wizards in 1978, Baylor football and basketball--well, the men have never won the championship in either sport, though the men's basketball team went deep into the tournament last year, and the Baylor women's basketball team won the championship in 2005 and played in the championship game last year, losing (like everyone else in the world) to Connecticut.

What I'm saying is that I don't watch much anymore unless I have a dog in the hunt, and my dogs haven't been hunting much lately.

But I always try to tune in when a team wins it all.  There is nothing fake or commercial in the reaction of an athlete in the moments after their team has won a championship.  It's very pure.  It is what they work for all their lives, and some never achieve it, through no fault of their own.

Last night the Giants won the World Series.  I was rooting for the Rangers, but didn't really care one way or the other.  But it was fun to watch the Giants celebrate.  Fox T.V. has done a great job the last few years by having a different camera on each player in the field to record their reaction immediately after the final out, and then showing them one-by-one.  That's just good, compelling T.V. right there.

One moment they are ballplayers, intent on making the next play just like they have done all their lives.  Look at their faces, and you can't tell if it's the World Series game or the 9th inning of a game in April.  The are ballplayers; this is what they do.

The next moment, when the third out is recorded, they are kids again.

Probably my favorite celebration picture is after the Orioles swept the favored Dodgers in 1966 to win their first World Series.  I'd like to think this would still be my favorite picture even if I weren't an Oriole fan.  In October 1966 I was seven years old, and we had just moved to Maryland from Alabama.  I wasn't a baseball fan, and certainly not an Oriole fan.  I was unaware of what was going on in baseball back then.

But look at the look on Brooks Robinson's face, and, good grief, he's got Michael Jordan hops.  Brooksie probably had never jumped that high in his life, and probably never did again, even when they won the series again in 1970 when he had an unparalleled series in the field and at bat and won the Most Valuable Player award.

Pure, unbridled joy.

Very cool.