Singing Our Faith in Advent

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Advent is one of the times I remember most clearly from my early years. My parents would gather my older brother and I around the Advent wreath each night to light candles and sing hymns about the coming of Christ. That tradition is one we have continued in our own family, since the time our children were young until today.

When our children were younger, they couldn’t read the words of many hymns, so we always sang the first verse and chorus of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” together. They quickly caught on and, during their earlier years, made up their own hand motions to parts of the chorus. I don’t think they make the hand motions anymore, but we still sing that song regularly in the evenings of Advent as we light the candles before reading Scripture, a devotional, and praying together.

There is something powerful about singing our faith. We experience that when we sing with others in corporate worship, whether in formal worship services or informally with a few friends or family members. Singing engages our minds and our spirits in worship. We both consciously and subconsciously enter into the meaning of the songs with our whole being. This depth of engagement is enhanced when we return to the same songs again and again, year after year. That may be why we find tears in our eyes when we sing a song that brings back memories of dear friends or family members like “How Great Thou Art” or “It Is Well (With My Soul).”

I didn’t think of it this way when my children were younger, but I realize now that we have been singing our faith into our lives for years. Every Advent, we again gather in this simple ceremony of singing, candle-lighting, Scripture, and prayer. There is not much to it at one level, but there is much more happening beyond what we see. The fabric of faith – Jesus has Immanuel – is being woven into our lives one strand at a time. The symphony of God’s story is rising up and we are joining in with it one note at a time.

So, let’s sing our faith during this season of Advent. No matter whether it is “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” or some other song, may we be caught up into the symphony of God’s good story with our voice and in our lives.

The 30-Day Minimalism Challenge

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This past weekend as I preached a message at Eastbrook Church on “Sacrificial Generosity,” I spent quite a bit of time talking about simplicity.  I believe that simplicity is the twin brother of generosity. Paul the Apostle writes:

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. (1 Timothy 6:6-8)

Contentment is something I struggle with greatly. I believe it is a difficult trait to develop in our lives, particularly when we live in a culture bent on acquisition and consumerism. We consume music, movies, food, books, clothes, and more.

Simplicity is a key to attaining contentment, and it is a key to developing generosity in our lives as well. In Philippians, the letter known as “the epistle of joy,” Paul writes while imprisoned about contentment:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  (Philippians 4:11-12)

In the month of August, my wife, Kelly, and I participated in something called the 30-day minimalism game. It was an opportunity to simplify our lives and get rid of the clutter of stuff that happens to all of us. Every day of the month we would get rid of different things. On the first day we each got rid of one thing each. On the second day we each got rid of two things. On third day, three things. We did this all the way to the end of the month. We gave things away to others, dropped things at Goodwill, sold stuff online, and more. By the end of August we had both shed nearly 500 items.

Now, here is what was amazing: our life was not that different afterwards. We have more than we need. But this 30-day minimalism challenge taught me some important things:

  • I don’t need a lot of the stuff I think I need.
  • It’s hard not to want more stuff.
  • I don’t become more happy by having more stuff.
  • Contentment is sometimes easier when you have less, not more.

Generosity requires us to engage with simplicity in one way or another. Simplicity helps us learn that contentment is more about something inside us than something outside us. Simplicity helps us escape from letting our stuff own our lives. And in that place, it prepares us for generosity.

Solitude Brings Coherence

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness. Only discord can come of the attempt to share solitude. True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures. One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.

– Wendell Berry, “Healing,” Stanza IV in What Are People For?

Wendell Berry’s statement that we lose loneliness by entering solitude seems completely counter-intuitive. Most of us are afraid of solitude for the very reason that we feel, in being alone, we will necessarily become lonely. But it does not have to be that way.

As Berry mentions, it is often in the “wild places” are where I feel most at ease in solitude. The fresh air, the rugged wildness, and the scurrying of creatures around makes me aware of both my smallness in the vastness of God’s creation, yet also God’s infinite attentiveness to the cosmos He has made. In the midst of this, nature’s contours soothe my soul. I am sure this soothing arises in part because, as Berry writes, in these wild places we are without “human obligation.”  In wild places we are away from people we feel obligated to engage with and things we feel obligated to do.

Both for good and ill, it is in solitude that we hear inner voices. Words that have been floating around inside of us – whole streams of though – suddenly take on such clear force that we are at times overwhelmed. We wonder, “Where did that thought come from?” Or, “I haven’t thought about that in awhile.” In reality these thoughts and ideas – these inner voices – are ever-present yet go unheeded because of the clamor of people and things in our daily lives. The voices and thoughts are there, but until we quiet ourselves enough, both externally and internally, we often either suppress them or ignore them.

When we are attentive to these inner voices and more intimate thoughts, we have the opportunity to come to a more comprehensive internal order with God and ourselves. We bring those clamoring voices to the living God and ask to hear His voice in it all. The unheeded voices that were always there speaking messages of fear or hurt or joy to us have been heard, conversed with, and brought to greater resolution in conversation with the God who hears and knows us. They grow quiet now. God’s voice becomes more solid, enduring, and strong. It is in this journey that we achieve a sense of coherence. We become less divided and distracted.

It is from this order and coherence that God sends us out with the ability to more fully engage with others and the created world. We become more fully present and able to connect with those around us.  We are in tune with God and the cosmos because of His work in our turbulent souls. With the Spirit’s power strengthening our will we can face the things that come into our daily lives, both planned and unplanned.

In solitude the various slivers of our distracted and fragmented selves come to a greater unity in God’s presence. That greater unity enables us to receive people into true relationship and bring our tasks toward completion. It is that powerful reality mentioned in the psalms:

Teach me Your way, Lord, that I may rely on Your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear Your name. (Psalm 86:11).

Learning God’s Love with St. Bernard of Clairvaux

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St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk in 12th century France, rose from relative obscurity to influence many  aspects of church life during his time. Born within a wealthy, Bernard forsook all of that to bring enter into a small monastic community in Cîteaux, influencing his five brothers and around twenty-five friends to join with him. Over time, his strict renunciation of life’s pleasures and influential love of God brought him to leadership, first in forming a new monastic community in Clairvaux and later to be an advisor to church leaders. His least admirable legacy was helping to whip up interest in the Second Crusade.

However, what Bernard is often best-known for today is his writings on the love of God. His work, On Loving God (available in full here or summarized here), provides one of the most powerful explanations of both God’s love for human beings and human love returning toward God. Most notably, he outlines four degrees of love for God, which have provided a framework for growing in love toward God for many over the years. In fact, I first heard about Bernard of Clairvaux in a seminar on the love of God that I attended during my college years while at the Urbana conference. The speaker referenced Bernard again and again, and I figured this was someone who I needed to know more about.

When I returned to school after Christmas break at Wheaton College, I scoured the lower level of Buswell Memorial Library until I found works by Bernard of Clairvaux. This led me to a four-volume set of his 86 sermons on the Song of Songs (excerpts available online here). Convinced that, as Paul writes in Ephesians 5, the relationship of a husband and wife in Christ mirrors the love relationship that exists between Christ and the Church, Bernard preached these sermons on the Song of Songs as a means to better understand God’s love in Christ for His people. When you read those sermons, you know that Bernard knew the love of God that surpasses all our knowing. Eugene Peterson, that rugged pastor to pastors, once wrote: “Love is Bernard’s theme, a non-sentimental, hardheaded and warmhearted love that is equally informed by self-knowledge and God-knowledge” (Take and Read 10).

Reflecting on God’s love and our love back to God, Bernard once wrote to a friend: 

You wish me to tell you why and how God should be loved. My answer is that God himself is the reason why he is to be loved. As for how he is to be loved, there is to be no limit to that love. [1]

If you are looking for a good guide into the love of God, I cannot recommend too many more heartily than St. Bernard of Clairvaux.

 


[1] Bernard of Clairvaux, “On Loving God,” https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/issues/issue-24/on-loving-god.html.

Distracted and Divided from the Good Life

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In an article entitled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, Nicholas Carr wrote:

Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case any more. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.[1]

Studies have actually shown that not only are we becoming more distracted these days, but the power of distraction and multi-tasking are making us less productive in our work, more anxious, struggling with relationship-building, and often more lonely.[2]

Our Problem: Distracted from the Good Life

Our problem with distraction is that it divides us up, confuses us, and leads us away from life at its best. While we have more information than ever before, tremendous amounts of technology with greater capacities than ever before, and greater ease in life than ever before, we are simultaneously struggling as much as ever – if not more – with attaining to the good life.

The good life is that life the we would like to live; the life that we most desire and long for. Unfortunately, the good life seems to be slipping through our grasp even as we have more access to information and ease than ever before.

I’d like to take us some initial exploration of what it means to live life at its best; that is, how do we attain the life we really desire? This will require some degree of self-awareness. We will need to know our own selves well, and what is hindering us from the good life. Specifically, we will need to give attention to distraction, both the distractions that come from outside us and the distractions that come from inside of us

It will also require some God-awareness. Awareness of God is the key to the good life, specifically how to move from division to unity – or integrity – as people. Let’s look at Psalm 86:11:

Teach me your way, O Lord,
that I may walk in your truth;
give me an undivided heart
to revere your name.

Beginning with awareness of God will help us access the good life. Increasing our awareness of God as revealed in the Scripture, and preeminently in Jesus Christ, will lead us into transformative understanding of some basic truths. First, the good life is what we were made for. We were created by God, both individually and as the human race, for His good pleasure and for experiencing the good life with Him. Second, the only way to enter into the good life is through right connection with God. That right connection with God requires that our hearts that are focused upon Him through faith in Jesus Christ, and undivided by both inner and outer distractions. The good life requires undivided hearts with God. Over the next few weeks, i will spend some time here at the blog exploring these themes. I invite you to join me in that exploration.

 


[1] Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, The Atlantic, July/August 2008, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/306868/; accessed January 3, 2019.

[2] Eric Westervelt, “Learning in the Age of Digital Distraction,” NPR, November 5, 2016, https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/11/05/498477634/learning-in-the-age-of-digital-distraction; accessed January 3, 2019; and Harriet Griffey, “The Lost Art of Concentration: Being Distracted in a Digital World,” The Guardian, October 14, 2018,  https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/oct/14/the-lost-art-of-concentration-being-distracted-in-a-digital-world; accessed January 3, 2019.

 

 

Freedom with God: the radiant seal of spontaneity in virtuous living

Josef Pieper writes about strenuous effort versus free spontaneity in living the virtuous life with God:

The strain of self-mastery, which for us countrymen of Kant is inseparable from any concept of upbringing and moderation and is generally tied to and fused with the concept of virtue, is an accompanying phenomenon only of less perfect and beginner stages, whereas authentic, perfected virtue, by dint of the very definition of the concept, bears the happily radiant seal of spontaneity, of freedom from constraint and of self-evident inclination. (From A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, p. 10)

I love the way Pieper highlights the difference between immature and mature virtue. The effort-driven, straining of self-mastery is a reflection of beginning in virtue. The movement toward maturity is marked by an increasing spontaneity of virtuous action.

The Apostle Paul’s words ring in my mind here: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. . . . If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:15, 26 ESV). As we increasingly walk by the Spirit and keep in step with the Spirit, like someone learning a dance, we become increasingly overcome by the rhythms and patterns and less conscious of the effort it takes to move our feet to the rhythms of the dance.

Self-conscious spiritual effort feels tense and difficult to watch, yet it is the necessary first steps of growing with God, sensing His Spirit’s work in us, and learning the patterns of life with God. But it is the spontaneous living with God that brings out the sweetest rhythms of grace, overflowing into the most beautiful dance of life in step with God’s calling for holy living.

Atheists Who Sought and Found God

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_ThomasJesus’ closest disciples did not initially believe the message of Jesus’ resurrection. Instead, they doubted. Luke tells us that they even went so far as to categorize the story of the women who encountered angels at the tomb as “nonsense.” This terms comes from the medical realm and refers to the delirious ravings of someone overcome by their sickness. Not a good response from the disciples, it seems.

However, I believe their honest engagement with doubt and questions actually is an expression of faith as they move into a new experience of Christ. It is not authentic to disavow our doubts when they are there. It will not lead us into faith to shut our questions into a back room of our minds, and pretend they do not exist.

Even in our own day, we’ve had our share of doubters who have in their honest journey of doubt experienced the risen Jesus. Here’s a list

  • Lee Strobel (journalist) – at the popular level, Strobel sought to disprove his wife’s faith in Jesus, but ended up becoming a Christian himself. His book The Case for Christ shares that journey.
  • C. S. Lewis (Oxford and Cambridge medieval literature professor) – Lewis is so well-known for The Chronicles of Narnia and his own journey of faith that it’s hard to remember that his journey from agnosticism to faith was triggered by conversations with J. R. R. Tolkien. Basically, Tolkien got Lewis thinking about whether all the best myths which cause longing to rise up in our hearts might be echoes of the one true story found in Jesus Christ.
  • Edith Stein (Jewish philosopher) – Stein’s upbringing in a Jewish home led her to reject her faith. She wandered for years before finding faith in Jesus Christ after battling through philosophical issues. Stein went on to become a nun, later known as Teresa Benedict of the Cross
  • Francis Collins (geneticist) – Collins was an atheist scientist, but his work on the human genome project with DNA brought him to a point of consideration about the intricacy of the nature of life and the universe. He later converted to Christianity, and wrote about it in his book, The Language of God.
  • Alexander Solzhenitsyn (novelist and social commentator) – Solzhenitsyn is best known for writings such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago. Solzhenitsyn’s suffering in a Russian gulag actually led him to faith in Christ.
  • Antony Flew (philosopher) – Flew was a rabid atheist throughout most of his life, but changed directions later in life. His 2007 book, There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind, offers this striking description: “It may well be that no one is as surprised as I am that my exploration of the Divine has after all these years turned from denial…to discovery.” He defended his change of direction and directly addressed claims of ‘the new atheists’, most notably in his review of Christopher Hitchens’ book The God Delusion.

One of the most important lessons we can learn from the early disciples – and this list of contemporaries who found faith – is that following our doubts down the paths they lead us will often lead us to encounter the resurrected Christ.