Giving up for Lent…?

“I’m giving up [blank] for Lent.”

It’s a phrase you hear quite often around this time of year. Given that we here at the Orchard just celebrated an Ash Wednesday service last night (as of this posting) I thought it appropriate to write just a small piece on the purpose of the Lenten Season in the life of the church. If you attended the service last night you would have heard some of these same things, but I also wanted to add my own particular twist. [ed. That’s one of the benefits of having this job… 😉 ]

Most of us are familiar with the practice of self-denial, shown in the ‘things we give up’ as was mentioned above, but this is not the whole of what the Lenten season means for the church. Traditionally there have been three parts to Lenten observation: prayer, alms giving, and fasting. We Protestants have grabbed hold of the fasting bit, whether it be from food or some other item, activity, etc. But what of the other two activities?

How would our lives look differently if we were to actively pursue all three of these activities? What if during this time of the year we spent focused time in prayer, delving into the depths of God’s promises to meet us there? What if during this time of year we gave over and above what we usually do (do you?) to those less fortunate than us? What if that involved your whole body rather than just your money? And what if, out of giving in those two areas, your self-denial in the form of fasting would actually transform your life?

We live lives of functional materialism. We confess to believe in a supernatural god who works in and through us to effect change in the world. And we confess that he does these sorts of things through the means of spiritual disciplines. And then we reject those disciplines. Or perhaps simply pay them lip-service and then move on.

I stand just as guilty as the next person.

I think I’ll take this time and live it patterned by the rhythms of the kingdom of God rather than the hectic patterns of the blind-led world.

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A Character Grabs the Author’s Pen

There’s something compelling about a good story. Whether it be in a book, on a screen (large or small), or on a stage, there is something about a good story that draws you in and envelopes you. Some people are drawn to epic stories in scale, some to epic stories in length. Others, perhaps, are drawn in by the minutiae of life and see worlds opened up in a single glance.

I like the small things.

This is not to say that I don’t care for stories such as the classics The Iliad and The Odyssey, nor even for neo-classics such as The Lord of the Rings or even, in its own way, the Harry Potter saga. There is something to be said for a story with a scope so large as to create a reality all unto its own. But I still prefer the small things.

It’s the sparkle in the lover’s eye, wordlessly full of meaning.

It’s the contented sigh after a struggled fight.

It’s the single tear quickly wiped that betrays the emotional maelstrom inside.

Strip away the special effects, the soundtrack, the talents and abilities of the author and/or actors and a good story will still draw you in. It will still whisper a siren song to your soul, to your psyche that irresistibly engages you. God does something similar with his grace, but that is for another post, where we’re going is far deeper.

Shakespeare famously wrote, in As You Like It, ‘All the world’s a stage.’ But how many know the rest of it?

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

Upon the lips of Jacques Shakespeare expounds a futile view of life. From birth to death life seems to be a battle against world and self. The closest one gets to ‘the good life’ is as judge against others. Yet, even here, life is a façade kept in appearances.

This fear of life drives people mad.

We all know a good story when we see one. And we often feel the tension between a good story and the story we live in. Something tells us that the story we are living is not good. Donald Miller once wrote, ‘Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo. But we spend our lives living those stories, and expect our lives to feel meaningful.’ We instinctively know that there is something more to life than living day in and day out. We know that if our daily experiences are nothing more than going to school, doing homework, going to work, and waking up the next day to do it all over again we’ve missed the point.

Those kinds of characters are tragic.

In an instinctual reaction against living a life of tedium and meaninglessness we frenetically grab the pen out of our Author’s hand and try our own at the page. We write plots filled with love and fortunes, power and intrigue. We become the cool kids, those whom everyone else wants to be. We become the beautiful ones, those whom everyone else wants to look like.

And somehow, in these counterfeit autobiographies, our stories always degenerate into battles for power and control. This shouldn’t surprise us, however, for those two things were the impetus for our usurpation in the first place. In the reading of God’s storyline for our lives we judged that plot to be deficient and desired the power and control to be our own authors. Wasn’t this the root of humanity’s fall into sin? ‘God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God’ (Gen 3.4) We desire to be equal with God in power and control, which manifested itself as a desire for God’s knowledge and wisdom in our first parents.

The ancient Greeks had a word for this: hubris. Hubris is an excess of ambition or pride, and in literary terms hubris ultimately would cause the character’s downfall. Sound familiar? Human history is a hubristic tragedy.

Or is it?

Tolkien had a term that he liked to use, eucatastrophe. A catastrophe being a sudden turn of events in a story, typically of a complete failure, Tolkien appended the Greek preposition eu, meaning ‘good’, and in doing so turned an idea of failure into one of unforeseen salvation. He called the Incarnation the eucatastrophe of human history and the Resurrection the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation. Far from being deus ex machina, the God from the machine, a literary device to remove the story’s characters from danger in a way that is entirely out of sync with the rest of the narrative, a eucatastrophe is unforeseen, but in harmony with the narrative arc.

In the Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus God, as it were, takes back the pen from humanity as a whole and begins to write the conclusion of all stories.

As we confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead (Rom 10.9) God, as it were, takes back the pen we have personally stolen and begins to write the conclusion to our story.

God’s literary brilliance is shown, as well, in that he does not erase what we have, unauthorized, written. He takes up where we have left off, broken lives, failed storylines and all and supernaturally brings them all to a wonderful conclusion.

If only from the eucatastrophic moment it were a smooth narrative decline to the end of the story.

God’s promise to us is not one of immediate joy and comfort once he retakes authorship. Just as in so many other stories, the deciding moment, the turning point is not necessarily the end or even close to the end. Whether it be catastrophic moment of Mercutio and Tybalt’s duel in Romeo and Juliet, or the eucatastrophe of Gollum’s attack on Frodo in the heart of Mt. Doom (here the recent movie adaptation departs from the book, where after the destruction of the ring there is an whole other storyline of the destruction and redemption of the Shire), quite often characters find themselves still deep in the plot when the turning point comes.

A more fleshy example of this may be of D-day, the storming of the beaches of Normandy. There is a real sense in which, though the war was not won on that day, the battle was over. The year which past between D-day and VE-Day, from 6 June 1944 to 8 May 1945, was simply a working out of the victory at Normandy. The decisive battle of the war had been won and the remainder of the war was the outworking of that singular victory.

In the same way, the eucatastrophic victory of Jesus has initiated the beginning of the end of all stories. But it has not ended all stories.

Yet.

In the intervening time our great Author is in the process of working in us and through us to bring all things to right. His story arc from Garden to Garden City, from Genesis to Revelation, involves with it the necessary purging and honing crucible fire which produces faith. Any, even cursory, reading of the New Testament will show that one thing which is promised, perhaps more than just about anything else, is suffering and trials. ‘In this world you will have trouble,’ Jesus said. But thankfully he concludes the statement with, ‘But take heart! I have overcome the world.’

God’s story of Life, Death, and New Life is a sad, but hopeful story. We know that in the end ‘all shall be well.’ Whatever plot he has chosen for our lives we can be assured that the Author is good and knows just where he is taking us. Though it may seem in the moment like the world is falling apart, sometimes a little unraveling is necessary to re-sew a cloth.

The beauty is in the details.

The littlest things in life can communicate the most profound truths. The small things, like the looks, the sighs, and the lonely tear can reveal more about who we are and who those around us are the often the most boisterous sermonizing.

Andrew Peterson, a singer/songwriter, once penned these words. Each simple line opens up oceans of lifestories. Enter in. What would your line be?

After the last tear falls
After the last secret’s told
After the last bullet tears through flesh and bone
After the last child starves
And the last girl walks the boulevard
After the last year that’s just too hard
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love

After the last disgrace
After the last lie to save some face
After the last brutal jab from a poison tongue
After the last dirty politician
After the last meal down at the mission
After the last lonely night in prison
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love

And in the end, the end is
Oceans and oceans
Of love and love again
We’ll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms
Of the Giver of love and the Lover of all
And we’ll look back on these tears as old tales

‘Cause after the last plan fails
After the last siren wails
After the last young husband sails off to join the war
After the last “this marriage is over”
After the last young girl’s innocence is stolen
After the last years of silence that won’t let a heart open
There is love
Love, love, love
There is love

And in the end, the end is
Oceans and oceans
Of love and love again
We’ll see how the tears that have fallen
Were caught in the palms
Of the Giver of love and the Lover of all
And we’ll look back on these tears as old tales
‘Cause after the last tear falls
There is love

meritocracy and youth ministry

– From the box entitled “take others’ ideas and run with them.” –

Having read in a couple of places (here and here) about Tim Keller’s talk on Justification and the Gospel at Campus Crusade for Christ’s ’09 Staff Training, I felt like this idea of America’s meritocratic society, and by association the American church’s assumption of the same, needed to be fleshed out, at least in my own mind, in the arena of youth ministry.

What does ‘meritocracy’ mean? If you did not click through to read the blog posts above, in short a meritocracy is, “a system in which advancement is based on individual ability or achievement.” – American Heritage Dictionary A meritocracy stands against other systems, such as oligarchies, democracies, and ethnocracies, in that the requirements for leadership rest upon the actions taken, both past and present, which entitle the person to positions of power and prestige.

It is no surprise that America is a meritocratic country. The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. The Land of Opportunity. We are a nation where pulling one’s self up by one’s own bootstraps is a badge of honor. The rags-to-riches story is our nation’s central myth. (I use the word myth in the community-forming/guiding sense rather than the fictitious sense; see here.) Our nation was founded, or so the G-rated, schoolbook polished version of the story goes, by religious outcasts trying simply to find a place where they could live out their personal convictions without being persecuted. Leaving aside the racial, ethnic, and social-economic injustices which then became inextricably intertwined with that original postmillenial/puritanical ideal of America becoming “God’s Country,” what the colonists unknowingly did not leave at the door, if you will, was the idea of personal achievement equaling communal success. That is to say, personal achievement is a sure-fire sign of entitlement for public success.

Obviously, here I am making very broad generalizations. (Which is one of the reasons why any writing on “culture,” whether it be in regards to general cultural trends, the interface between church and culture, etc., is by its very nature overly simplistic. One can speak properly of cultural trends, but once one begins to get more specific in definition the appropriateness of that description narrows to a smaller set of people. Moreover, taken to its (il)logical end, the definition and description of a culture will ultimately collapse into a culture of one, which is to say that for every individual there will be a distinctly, definable culture. I apologize for the length of this aside, perhaps it should, and will be, a post of its own, but the issue of church and culture is a hot one now and I find, more often than not, that the definitions and descriptions of American culture claim far too much.) But, with a few modern examples I believe that I can support my claim that this meritocratic ideology is endemic to the American cultural landscape.

  • Consider the educational background of our “leaders”: politicians, professors, etc. Do we find many state school graduates, community college graduates, vocational or technical school graduates?
  • Consider the perceived hierarchy of employment opportunities. The distinction between so-called blue collar and white collar jobs is not incidental. Among the white collar crowd, as well, there exists a pantheon of desired jobs: lawyers, doctors, celebrities, athletes, etc.
  • The last two examples from above only serve to highlight the meritocratic nature of America. That someone’s ability to deliver a line with passion or comedic genius or someone’s ability to play a sport with excellence necessarily gives that person a voice outside of their arena of expertise.

Now this is not to say that a meritocratic system is bad in all regards. Part of the reason why it is so infective to a culture, especially one so influenced by philosophical pragmatism is that in most situations ‘it just works.’ People who excel do so because of their talents and abilities. Where this gets dangerous is when they step into areas where they may not have the same level of expertise and yet are treated as if they do because of their previous accomplishments.

I believe that the American church, at the least, has adopted this same sort of meritocratic mentality. This can be clearly seen when success is defined by church membership numbers, hip cultural engagement, and the like. Or perhaps, on a smaller level we can see this in how we value those in the church. How often have we, whether wittingly or not, placed value judgments on those in the church defined by how much they contribute or how successful they are in their particular spheres of ministry?

Do we look up to certain pastors? certain “worship leaders”? Do we value more highly those people in highly visible roles over those faithful servants who work behind the scenes eschewing any form of recognition?

There must be a distinction made between faithful performance of one’s duties and giftings, and one’s value as a Christian and a person. Meritocracy ought to speak nothing to value.

What is it that Jesus said to the rich man who asked him what he must do to inherit the kingdom of heaven? “Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor.” The recompense was that this man would then have treasure stored up in heaven, but in order to attain to that he had to humiliate himself in his own eyes and in the eyes of his peers. He had claimed, “all these things I have kept, from my youth” in response to Jesus’ call to keep all the commandments. Jesus knew this was a gross overstatement and a claim to greater righteousness than he actually possessed. So he then called the man do reject the meritocracy of wealth and nomism (religious legalism) and embrace a self-sacrificial love for his neighbor (which is, in fact, one half of Jesus’ summary of the Law found in Luke 10.27). The Way of Jesus is one of self-sacrifice not of self-service.

This then means that one’s station in life has nothing to do with their personal value. Whether a person is wealthy or poor, influential or marginalized, multi-talented or lightly gifted, etc., they are called to self-sacrificial living.

Turning from this, how does our meritocratic system affect youth ministry?

Who are the “good kids”? Who are the student leaders? Do they tend to be the hard workers, the outgoing, the popular, the ones’ whose parents are leaders of the church? Do we measure a kid’s worth (to us, which is itself a self-serving rather than self-sacrificial move) along these lines? If so, we have capitulated to the meritocratic system.

From another angle, and one which I feel is endemic to upper-middle class America, how do we as parents view our children? How is their worth/value defined in our eyes? Are our kids “good kids” if they keep out of trouble? If they don’t do drugs? Don’t hang out with “bad” people? Are they “good kids” if they do all their homework? Do it well? If they excel in school, athletics, music, etc.? Of course we want our children to do well in life, but what defines the term “well”? Do we allow society at large to define it or do we all Jesus to? [ed. I will grant that this is a rhetorical dichotomy. We cannot so neatly divide things in real life. We are always affected by both extremes and this, in some ways, not a bad thing. If, however, our interaction with society at large is not reciprocal, that is, if we do not affect society, only allowing it to affect us, then we have failed. But to answer this problem would require a post all of its own.]

Do you believe that your child has succeeded if s/he does well enough in grade school to merit entrance into an elite class of universities? If s/he graduates and gets a “good” job? What is a “good” job? Is it defined by pay grade? Levels of influence? What if God’s “good” plan is for him/her to have a minimum wage job for his/her entire life? What if God’s “good” plan is for his/her life of struggle to picture, in miniature, the sufferings of our savior? Who’s dreams are shattered? Yours or theirs?

I find myself in that position. Having been extremely gifted in many areas (Please hear me, this is not a boastful statement. In fact, it is quite possibly a judgment on me for my unfaithfulness in using those gifts.) I look at my son Nolan and want the good education, the position of influence and power, and all those things which I am decrying.

Our goal, mine as father and youth pastor, is to inculcate in the next generation the values of our Christian faith. We are to tell them the stories of our faith and work for the development of their character. Hard work, faithful service, striving for excellence, all those things which we want for our kids will still be there, but they will be found in their proper place. Godly character, biblical wisdom, and all those things which truly matter will lead our kids in the way of righteousness far better than the American meritocratic work ethic. We will, in the end, produce children who are self-sacrificial rather than self-servicing. We will have children who desire Jesus’ name to be great, rather than their own. And they will look not to others for their own self-worth, but to the only one who is able to truly place a value on a person.

Jesus’ statement at the end, “well done, good and faithful servant,” emphasizes our place. Servitude. And this is a “good” thing.

a novice[‘s] prayer

[if you haven’t already done so, please see this previous post first.]

Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Today is the first day of the next stage of my life. I sit right now in my office. My office. It feels a touch weird to say that, if for no other reason than it connotes some sort of ‘adulthood’. I’m not sure at what point one passes through that ephemeral veil that separates child from adult, or if that is even a proper analogy, with the truth being closer to a series of small steps that looked back upon reveal a lifetime’s worth of travel. Perhaps there is not time at which one ‘flips the switch’ to adulthood. Perhaps you simply wake up one day realizing that you are one, have been for some time, and yet have simply not realized it until that moment.

Adulthood entails responsibility. Youth ministry entails responsibility. Responsibility entails faith, hope, and love. I say that because of the sign that has been hung over my desk. ‘These three remain,’ the apostle said once. After all has been stripped away and we are left with eternity, ‘these three remain,’ and you have called me to be a conduit for and participant in a ministry of faith, hope, and love.

You know I can’t do this job.

You know that apart from a supernatural working of your grace in my life I am going to thoroughly thrash this thing to pieces.

I hate that I struggle with the universal male issue of passivity and complacency. These things are antithetical to the call of the gospel. You have called us as believers to be salt and light in a world of darkness and death. I need your help. I need your forgiveness. Every day. I know myself. I know that I will do everything in my own power to try and force things to happen. I know that, given my faithless nature, I will look to the approval of others before I look to you for approval of my ministry. Even saying ‘my’ ministry sounds so like me. It is your ministry in which I participate. Orchard Christian Fellowship does not exist for itself, for the betterment of its own people, nor even simply for the betterment of those around it. It does those things, and rightly so, but its primary purpose is to glorify you in the world. When we worship you rightly, when we place our own desires down and pick up your own, when the name of Jesus is made great and our own names made small, then we are truly participating in the ministry of the gospel in southern New Hampshire.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Father, Son, Holy Spirit

Please guide me in all that I do. Please show me the vision for youth ministry at the Orchard. Please give me a heart that loves these kids as they deserve to be loved. Please give me a heart that breaks when the effects of sin and the attacks of the evil one and his crew tear through them as individuals and as a community. Open my eyes to the ways in which they are not currently following hard after you. Break their hearts for the sin which is ensnaring them. Help us become a community reaching a community. That students will feel free to allow others into their lives. That Orchard Youth will be a safe place for hurting people.

It’s only by your grace that this ministry can be fruitful. And fruitfulness is measured in soul care and life change, not by numbers and hype. Please keep this in the front of my mind. Please help me to rely on your strength every day. May the name of Jesus be made great and not my own.

Κύριε ἐλέησον, Χριστὲ ἐλέησον, Κύριε ἐλέησον.
[Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy.]

a return to the blog

So, it has been a while since I last wrote on this blog. In the intervening time my family and I have relocated from Orlando to Londonderry, NH so that I could take the call as the Youth Ministries Director of Orchard Christian Fellowship. There is a whole ton of stories that I could tell about what has gone on in the last month and maybe some day I’ll tell them here.

But for now, what I really need to do is to think…

I think better with my fingers than strictly in my head. This is why this medium is so beneficial for me. I can type, mull over ideas, and submit them to others [read: you] for further consideration. Yeah, perhaps sometimes the subject matter might get a touch personal. And, yeah, there might be times when for the sake of propriety I don’t disclose all pertinent information for confidentiality’s sake. But this job that lies before me is a massively important one. It is one that I cannot come at unprepared, nor in an inconsiderate fashion. And so, I begin. Following this post will be two others today. The first will be a prayer (Yes, I need to plan and write this one out. My life is so crazy I need the discipline of writing for this one.) and the second will be further musings on life as a youth minister.

Thanks for caring.

D.A. Carson kicks my butt… again

In reading Carson’s The Cross and Christian Ministry I ran across this quote:

We have become so performance-oriented that it is hard to see how compromised we are. Consider one small example. In many of our churches, prayers in morning services now function, in large measure, as the time to change the set in the sanctuary. The people of the congregation bow their heads and close their eyes, and when they look up a minute later, why, the singers are in place, or the drama group is ready to perform. It is all so smooth. It is also profane. Nominally we are in prayer together addressing the King of heaven, the sovereign Lord. In reality, some of us are doing that while others are rushing on tiptoes around the “stage” and others, with their eyes closed are busy wondering what new and happy configuration will confront them when it is time to take a peek.

Has the smoothness of the performance become more important to us than the fear of the Lord? Has polish, one of the modern equivalents of ancient rhetoric, displaced substance? Have professional competence and smooth showmanship become more valuable than sober reckoning over what it means to focus on Christ crucified?
— pg 38-9

There are any number of things that I could say about this quote, and any number of directions I could take these present ramblings. But the thing which stands out to me the most is that first sentence. We’ve become so compromised to the idol of performance that we cannot even see it in our own churches. Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that there ought to be a stellar level of “professionalism” to the church service (in saying professionalism, I’m seeking to use the term with out the negative connotations), but how many times have I stood on stage and either turned red with embarrassment or kicked myself because I “made too much noise entering or exiting the stage (or even making some noise at the wrong time while on stage) on a Sunday morning.” The feelings I had were not because I ruined someone’s worship experience, but rather because I was not as smooth as I could have been. I had trangressed my idol of performance’s standards.

I’ll just let this stew. Maybe I’ll pick up this theme again in another post. But I think we all ought to take a long hard look at ourselves. Has this particular idol silently worked its way onto our private shines? In possible attempts to clear out other idols have we overlooked this one? Maybe nothing externally will change about our churches, but at the very least we will have investigated our own hearts and made room for God to judge our worship and not an idol.