“The Shepherds Go Back to Work and … ” – Advent 2014 Post 3

I find myself always talking about the Post-Christmas blues. I think it’s because I feel that “holiday hangover” and see it in others. It’s the “Christmas has happened, now what are we supposed to do?” look.” I imagine how the shepherds who were told about Jesus’ birth felt shortly after. “This just happened, now what are we supposed to do?”

It has always baffled me that the angels did not announce the birth of Jesus first to royalty, political figures, the ancient 1%, not even to the religious establishment (including the ones that were righteous). Instead, on the night of our Savior’s birth, God sent angels to announce the good news to shepherds. God has not only kept an eye out for the ordinary people but has often invited them to enjoy the first-fruits of the most amazing moments in history.

I imagine what it was like for those shepherds. But it feels helpful to wonder how the shepherds felt prior to the angel’s visit. I wonder about all those long, cold, dark nights. They must have looked into the sky and wondered if there really was a Yahweh and what if there wasn’t?

Then one one odd night an angel appears and says “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” There’s an angel. And he’s speaking my language. He told us to not be afraid and he just referenced King David, our exiled nation’s greatest king, and just announced the birth of the Messiah. This angel knows our history. Yahweh is real and he has our prayers.

Filled with awe and wonder, they ran to meet the Christ-child and were among the most celebrated visitors on that amazing night. Others showed up, there was a bright star, fulfilled Messianic prophecy, angels sang Hosanna, there was a lot of celebration, and then … it was time to leave. Everyone probably woke up a little tired the next morning.

The shepherds went home, shared their story, then went back to work. If I was one of them, I imagine I would have kept an eye out for another angel. Maybe this would become a new thing? After a month, I’m sure the shepherds felt all was back to normal, the newness of it all faded a bit and the miracle of the moment would have lost some of its power.

What does one do after an amazing life-altering event? We ask ourselves this after milestones, sought-after achievements, mission trips, and just about anything that demands we examine our lives and make the changes that align with this newly encountered revelation. But after the feeling goes away, the motivation for making the change feels less urgent. Which then causes us to doubt the wonder of the experience. We ask ourselves, “Did I just get carried away?” We answer, “No that was real!” Then we interrogate ourselves, “Was it really real?? What exactly did I see?” “Am I not prone to exaggeration, especially when I am completely bored out of my mind when watching sheep on a dark, cold night??”

We deconstruct our experience. Which in the long run, I find to be a good thing. Because if there is anything worthwhile, answering the doubt will be needed if one is going to truly place the hope into and making significant life changes.

So what does a shepherd do upon returning back to work? Do they have post-Christmas or New Year’s resolutions? I doubt they were very inspiring. “This year I resolve a 50% reduction in wolves eating our sheep this year!” And what does the shepherd do on the anniversary of seeing the Christ-chilld? And what does the shepherd as the years turn into decades? After the high of a life-changing event, you might go back to your life but you don’t really go back to normal. If “normal” was living a life unsure if there is a God who really hears our prayers, unconvinced that there really is a purpose to all of this, unaware that there really is a salvation, a deliverance, a hope that awaits, then that there is no going back to that type of normalcy.

I believe the shepherds go back to work and I believe they woke up to a new reality. I believe those long, cold, dark nights were felt different. The sheep still smelled, the work was underwhelming but life was now charged with the reality found in the fact, that God came near. He came near because He too hated what we hated, the evil, the injustice, the oppression, the death and all the pain we find. He came near because He loved the things we love – joy, peace, love, and life.

Take steps deeper into the reality God invites us to is better than the high we often seek after. What most of us want is not a new job, shepherding is shepherding and the difference between being a farmer or a fisherman or a solider or a carpenter is probably not that much better. What we really want is to live in a better reality and that’s the beauty of Christmas. In the coming of Jesus, there is a reality that we get to taste now until we can fully realize when we are one day fully living with God in His glory.

Well, that wraps my Advent/Christmas reflections, I hope you found something helpful in them and that you had a Christmas. It’s the beginning of a new reality and I hope we get to experience more of this in the new year. Grace and peace.

Christmas is Over, Now What?: Metaphors, Advent, and Faith – Advent 2014 Post 2

I have really enjoyed our Advent sermon series “Let There Be …”, particularly the imagery and the development of the metaphor of light and darkness as it relates to Jesus’ coming. As much as I love the Advent Conspiracy, it felt due to move through Advent in a different way and I’m confident that many were able to keep the missional dimension of Christmas. Once again, it’s been a meaningful Advent for me. But meaningful means I’ve had to hash it out, throw things at it, process and find something redemptive so here’s a bit of my Advent journaling.

“Light and darkness” are such excellent metaphors of Jesus’ coming. But the over-churched part of me knows how a month-long metaphor could lose its steam as there is only so much you could do with light and darkness, right? All this said, my one problem with the metaphor that I’ve been dragging around all Advent is this – Even after we experience the light of Jesus, we still experience the darkness of the world. What do we do with that?

It’s often been hoped for that upon encountering and receiving Jesus, all your problems disappear. If God needed a consultant, I would suggest this: “Almighty Father, if we’re really serious about filling our churches on planet earth, we should have clear and obvious rewards upon conversion and have incentives as each “believer” continues on. Christianity has it backwards, where you commit all this time, energy, heart and life up front on an invitation with the possibility of some heavenly reward. People who do this are either naive or have great faith but it’s not a doorbuster idea.” This is how consulting works right?

I mean what if upon belief there was no more darkness in your life? Before Jesus, you find yourself oppressed with the darkness of bankruptcy, chronic illness, and broken relationships, then after Jesus, you are experiencing the radiance of financial stability, good health, and true community. That doesn’t feel like we’re asking for too much. I could have easily exaggerated the point and said, after Jesus, we should become perfectly healthy, lottery winning, A-list celebrity. [Read more…]

Rooting For Rob Bell

The Rob Bell show airs tonight on the Oprah Network. And therefore, he is a popular topic of buzz, critique and defense from all sorts of wonderful people.

Since his book Love Wins, he has been a marked man in the evangelical world. I think it’s fair to say he’s deserved some critique for his provocation but in my opinion has also received too much hate as well. A few years ago, he left the church he founded, Mars Hill Bible in Grand Rapids, MI (not to be confused with another), and moved to California to start this show. From what I know, he hit a few setbacks, then he and Oprah hit it off, joined her “The Life You Want” tour, released a book on marriage with his wife entitled The ZimZum of Love, and kicks off his new show tonight.

I say this with all seriousness: I’m happy for him. I really am. And I am rooting for him. I’ve watched a few clips of the new show; the topics so far have been on forgiveness, mediation, and peace-making – topics he has taught on for years. From the little I could see, he doesn’t seem that much different from some of the other formats I’ve seen him present like his speaking tours and various videos. Still, it would do some of us well to remember that Rob is no longer a pastor of an evangelical church – he’s a talk show host on the Oprah network.

This obvious detail is very important to maintain. From what I can tell, the objective of a talk show host is to offer a some sort of consumable feel-good vitamin for the soul (and sell advertising). From what I know, the objective of any good preacher is to offer the redemptive message of Jesus and invite souls to receive and follow Him. It’s a very different job description.

Here’s where it gets interesting: Indeed Rob is no longer a pastor of an evangelical church but we have every reason to believe that he remains a Christ-follower. And this calls me to re-calibrate my expectations of a show that I haven’t watched yet (and may never – I don’t know if I have access to the channel).  The best-case scenario is to let Rob say what he feels led to say. The worst case is … well, in my opinion, a Dr. Phil/Dr. Oz approach. Here’s what I mean.

My first concern is the nature of half-truths. They sound so good, they are the appealing part of the truth, it draws us in and invites us back for more. But half-truths are tempting to use because often the other side of the truth is certainly more difficult to appreciate. Had Jesus used more of them, he would have been been more popular. I love the parts of forgiveness, salvation, calling out the oppressors and the Father’s careful watch over every single hair on my head, but that part of “Whoever loses his life for my sake” and “being last in the Kingdom” and “humbling themselves as a servant” well, that’s not going to get people back after the commercial break. See the second half of John 6 after Jesus feeds the 5000.

My second concern is how these platforms work. It has always been concerning how often I hear, “I heard Dr. Phil say …“ or Dr. Oz suggests …” or “That’s not what Oprah says!” and it may interest you to know that I think you can take your pastor too seriously too. We’re all just human, including everyone on the Fox News network. Certainly good advice is to be sought, but let us be careful to not make idols out of our contemporary sages.

Yes, I am suspicious of anyone “big.” Yes, I am concerned with the god-complex that is often associated with any celebrity type. And if you could have coffee with me, and get me really caffeinated, I might let it slip that I am also really concerned with some pastors that I’ve met over the years, who have a god-complex. Many of whom, appear to be ordinary, out of the spotlights, more a local celebrity in their congregation. They wake up believing they need to lead their people but when that humility and mission is left unchecked and becomes compromised, the dysfyncion of a god-complex becomes inevitable. Franky, I think the nature of power and control is something that we all deal with on some level.

Many of us can and cannot relate to the Rob Bell’s. One of the questions for all of us spectating on these spiritual celebrity types is what would we do if we were in similar positions? If for a decade or two, there were adoring masses of people telling you how brilliant, creative, passionate, courageous, helpful you were and that “God spoke to me through you” that might change you a bit. When someone tells me “Tim, I felt as though God spoke to me through your message” that’s both one of the most incredible moments of my year and upon reflection, a frightening yet grace-filled moment. I imagine the weight of such words and adoration for those who hear it countless times a week in various forms – may God be with them.

I am rooting for Rob to avoid the trappings of half-truths and god-complexes. Further, I understand why his critics see this as a doomed operation. But in this post-Christian world, there is an opportunity that perhaps his critics may be missing. Is it possible that viewers will appreciate Rob and pick up a copy or Velvet Elvis or Sex God. Is it possible that some might find his old Nooma videos, or his preaching podcasts. Will some discover that his first preaching series at his former church was based out of the book of Leviticus? Bell does have a decade-worth of content drenched in the Christian narrative and it is possible that God might still use it. This is among the differences between Bell and say others who may not have such a track record.

And so, should the show be short-lived (or enjoy a long, historic streak), barring moral scandal, it keeps Bell with some workable cultural currency. Though that is fleeting and potentially soul-sucking when used not for personal gain. But when used perhaps as an offering it has the potential to be used by God for great things. Still, in the now, I am betting that Bell speaks of Jesus more than some might think. Discerning minds will ask “Which Jesus?” We’ll see.

I hope Rob does better than Dr. Oz or Dr. Phil,. I know, I know, you, or someone you love, loves these guys but to put it kindly, I hope Rob’s show does far better in terms of legitimacy and cultural appreciation. I hope Rob doesn’t have to appear before a similar Senate hearing like Dr. Oz to give account of some of his medical advice and I hope Rob has better judgement on chasing stories.

Further, even without these scandals, I hope Rob passes the “sniff test.” It’s a subjective test, and for some, he has failed it long ago and is past the point of recovery. But there is a whole audience of people that Bell has been connecting with and many more that will tune in. I think a lot of good for the Kingdom of Jesus can result from this.

There is a part of me that loves the idea that Rob will be preaching to the Oprah fan-club. This works well for my post-Christian, pluralistic sensibilities to have a Rob Bell part of our spiritually-diverse stable of communicators. May the best narrative win.

So where does that leave us? Hopefully where it leaves us with everyone else from our neighbor to our enemy to Bell and Oprah to you and me. We can encourage, we can critique, can converse, and contribute but we cannot judge, dismiss, bid farewell in a way that is only reserved for God. We must love and seek the good that Jesus is trying to show us in all things, in all times with all people.

Now that isn’t a polite send off. Rather it is as sincere a blessing as I can offer. I mean it – I hope countless people find Jesus through Rob. And if God wants to use Oprah, Dr. Phil or Dr. Oz then so be it.  And should God be desperate, maybe He’d consider using me. You think that’s a line of false-humility right. Well let me be clear, If I’m unavailable, maybe God might consider using you. But this is really the point of it all. God uses people to share hope, forgiveness, encouragement bring healing, community, and salvation, – ultimately, I’m rooting for that.

Sites and Reading That Piqued My Curiosity:

The Official Page of “The Rob Bell Show”

“Why Rob Bell is a Better Evangelical Than Evangelicals” by Danielle Shroyer

“Rob Bell: A Symbol of Every Evangelical Who Has Been Shunned For Asking Questions” by Benjamin L. Corey from his blog “Formerly Fundie”

“Busyness” – O Antiphones: Prayers for the Advent Season – a Guest Post by Thomas Turner

This is a Guest Post from Thomas Turner of Everyday Liturgy. He’s a good friend, he’s sharp and I personally feel he’s an evangelical who really gets historical liturgy for us not raised in high church settings.

Download his free e-book O Antiphons: Prayers for the Advent Season available through Noisetrade, be blessed this Advent and check out his post. – Tim

“Busyness” – O Antiphones: Prayers for the Advent Season – a Guest Post by Thomas Turner

December is one of the busiest years of the month for me. Not just the usual bustle of presents and parties and pageants at church. I work in fundraising at International Justice Mission, and on top of all the holiday hustle I am pulled in many directions at work as well. It seems like the wrong time to start spreading the word about a prayer book for Advent that I have written…

But then again, it is precisely the right time. Because not only do I think you need this book (and you do!), but I need it as well.

In the midst of the hustle and bustle I need to slow down and realize that Jesus Christ came to this earth, is coming to the earth through his Kingdom and will come again in the second Advent, to unite heaven and earth under his glorious reign. I need to take some time to be still and know that the Lord of Lords and Prince of Peace came in the flesh to dwell among us. I need to prepare my body and soul to worshipfully meet the King of Kings on Christmas day.

The aim of the Advent and Christmas seasons are so rich in meaning: the first and second coming of Jesus, the Incarnation, the Kingdom, Mary’s song about what the Messiah, who is in her womb, will do when he is birthed into the world. All of this, and yet by the time I get to Christmas day I just want to eat a nice dinner, gorge on some cookies and take a nap. Where’s the worship in that?

Simply put, O Antiphons: Prayers for the Advent Season is a prayer book for you and me to use to prepare our bodies and souls to worship on Christmas day. The “O Antiphons” are one way that Christians for over 1500 years have been preparing their hearts, souls, minds and bodies to celebrate the coming of Christ at the first Advent, Christmas. In this book, I have given a fresh reading of the O Antiphons, along with an Old and New Testament scripture reading and a meditation with discussion questions to guide you during the last week of Advent. From December 17th to December 23rd, you can use this prayer book to prayerfully come into the presence of the baby Jesus, born of a virgin, fully God and fully human in form, who is Wisdom in the flesh, our Lord, the Savior promised from David’s line, our Eternal Light, the King who unites all peoples and our Emmanuel, the God-who-is-with-us.

Starting today, you can pick up your free copy of O Antiphons: Prayers for the Advent Season on Noisetrade. And if you are truly in the Christmas spirit, all of the tips I receive on the book will go toward a nice gift for Jana Miller, who contributed awesome illustrations that you can turn into Christmas or Jesse tree decorations, and toward ending everyday violence against the poor.

Have a Blessed Advent and Merry Christmas!


Author Bio

Thomas Turner is the Strategic Partnerships Research Manager at International Justice Mission and curates Everyday Liturgy, a source for worship and liturgical ideas. He is happy to be living back below the Mason-Dixon line again after a lengthy sojourn in the NYC metro area. You can follow Thomas online, on Facebook and on Twitter.

Why Does God Bother? – Advent 2014 Post 1

Advent is a special time for me, I hope it is for you too. The message and timing of it pushes us to take inventory of our year and points us to the meaning and beauty of Jesus’ coming. Looking back, I remember one year feeling like I was going through my days without enough prayer and reflection. It was the weeks of processing Advent that pushed me to re-center, process more, pray more, look back and ahead more and this helped me in the following New Year.

Maybe you’re new to Advent, maybe you feel like you’ve gotten off to a late start, maybe you started well but find yourself disconnected, I think that’s normal and this isn’t to appease my guilt of having done similar over the years. If I can be of encouragement, I’d suggest asking yourself, “Am I spending enough time thinking about the things that matter in this life?” And a follow up thought would be once you realize the better answer to the question is not only about the amount of time you spend dwelling on such essential things but it’s also about the posture and resulting action – this is where many have found the balance of thought/action/peace.

Advent comes and I hear sermons, I read devotionals and walk around trying to really figure out why God would really come to this world and become one of us. Of course it feels better to exist than to not exist but if I was self-existing, beyond human, all-powerful, God-like, what would compel me to come to this world? This world where the general global population routinely chooses their own happiness at your expense regularly? A world filled with hate for the most trivial of reasons? A world where we often have to make up reasons to justify selfish behavior? A world addicted to its own selfishness to such a degree that it often lacks the ability to recognize something significantly and distinctively better?

Somedays I think if I were God, I would have abandoned “Project Earth” and skipped over to one of other projects in the “Creation Folder.”  Imagine being the God of a world that decided to fully worship God rather than live in a post-fallen world that often ignores and rejects the beautiful redemption awaiting them. I imagine this alien planet in a Garden of Eden setting, singing their hymns, serving one another, and doing everything right. The competitive side of me doubts these creatures would be as beautiful as us but they seem like the type of imaginary people that God would prefer. So with that possibility why does God bother with us? [Read more…]

“Everyone Else’s Life Looks So Much Better Than Mine.”

After I posted Sunday afternoon, someone came up to me at our evening service and said something like, “Thanks for giving permission to the feeling of not being thankful. Truth is, I want to be thankful. I really do. I just haven’t figured it out. What am I missing?”

I can never give such a huge question a singular answer. Further, I am very skeptical towards those who do provide that answer. There are answers for sure, but ultimately they are found before God in prayer, Scripture, community and however else God chooses to show us grace. I’m grateful to be among the many pointing the way.

I shared this and my friend agreed but was looking for guidance, even adding that’s it tough to be thankful when everyone around you is so happy and then saying, “Everyone else’s life looks so much better than mine.”

This is a bad time to get caught up in the literalism of the statement. It’s a bad time to point out those who are clearly and arguably less fortunate in dealing with either poverty, illness, or a crisis. Yes, this individual had health, home and a sense of stability. But what I think he was really saying, “So many seem to be living a better life than mine and I’d be thankful to have a little more of that and bit less of this.”

The remainder of our conversation took a shape of its own and I asked the individual for permission to share some of this. As unpacking this a bit was helpful for me, and might be for you too.

First, I don’t know anyone who has a pain-free life. I literally do not know a single person that isn’t stress-free, pain-free, frustration-free, etc. I know people who pray/fight/search/work for their happiness, joy, strength and peace but I don’t know anyone who has it made. I know people who look like they got it made.  In fact, every single person without exception who I thought had it made has forced me to think otherwise. Once I got close enough to every single one who I thought “It must be nice to be them,” I later thought otherwise. I truly believe that without exaggeration this is without exception.

I too, used to think there were these really blessed people whose lives I would love to have. I’ll avoid name-dropping here, but I particularly remember talking to someone who was relatively famous, relatively successful (In my sector anyway), admired, appeared to have financial security, probably liked what they saw in the mirror and probably enjoyed their family portrait. What’s more to have? Oh right, this person had, from what I could tell, a relationship with Jesus that appeared so wonderful, that on one of my bad days, I would try to steal it. To summarize, this person shared with me, “Honestly, it gets kinda lonely sometimes. I never know who to trust. Everyone around me, anyone I meet, I don’t really know who to trust and who is going to stab me in the back, I don’t know people’s true intentions when they are being nice to me and I can’t figure out who the genuine people are from the disingenuine. It’s hard to find authentic community …”

When he shared about his mistrust and loneliness, I wanted to encourage finding community but when he mentioned that he feels targeted and feels unable to lower his defenses, I could offer nothing but sympathy. I drove home remembering there is very little glamour to be found in life and this became an important life lesson for me as I processed this more and more. Our celebrities, our leaders, our artists, thinkers, creatives, all the beautiful people we’re told are “laughing their way to the bank” may not be as happy as they seem. To be sure, the misery of others provides no comfort to me, but it helps me see that we’re all in this together. We have different struggles, different pains, different joys. And strikingly, we have a number of similarities as well. 

Every life having an element of pain, stress and tragedy has become for me, one of confirmations of the Christian narrative – everything in this world is broken and seeks redemption and wholeness. Again, to be clear, I am not grateful for the brokenness  – we all hate this. This is not misery loves company, this is we are all in the same boat. And maybe at one moment the person next to you is smiling, maybe the next moment not so much. Maybe the person next to you envies you and while you were looking away, caught the site of you enjoying a moment of life. Maybe you were smiling through the pain, maybe you were smiling at a beautiful moment, we all wish we could enjoy life more – that’s universal. The lives of others may look better than yours. But maybe because no one knows you pain the way you do, and you can’t know someone else’s pain the way they do.

It’s at this point, I am supposed to say something like: “You have the life God wants you to have, don’t wish for someone else’s.” Which in my mind is a very unhelpful half-true. Indeed, we ought never to be envious or wish to have someone else’s life. But depending on what the first half of that sentiment actually means, I tend to think that God wants us to have a better life than we actually have. There’s a longer story there, but while God is not a genie existing to give us all we wish for, Jesus invites us to live a beautiful, abundant life. 

It’s here where we can begin to get traction on experiencing identity, gratitude, and living at peace with ourselves. But before we can do that, it seems we need to stop assuming the person next to us has the life we want and consider that what we have is worth living in. May God give us the strength, the courage and the grace we need to be faithful with what we’ve been given.