Behold the Christmas Season

1217191847_hdrYears ago, when my wife and I lived in North Carolina, we visited friends down in Charlotte. Because my wife was taking classes there, we got to see these friends a lot.

One weekend, while my wife was in class, my friend and I were driving around and he was singing to what was playing in the car. When I inquired what it was, I hardly knew what would be waiting for me on the other side of it.

Behold the Lamb of God.

It was an album by a Christian artist named Andrew Peterson. I had heard of Peterson before through another friend, but my experience with Christian music was love or hate. I had grown jaded to the lack of artistic expression of many Christian artists who instead seemed to be churning out frivolous mediocrity rather than quality music representing the creativity of the One who had created them.

I don’t remember exactly how it went the first time I listened through the album. Nowadays, the art of listening to albums from start to finish has been lost. Although there has been a resurgence of artists performing albums in their entirety on concert tours, in this age of downloadable music and streaming services, we seem to be eternally on shuffle.

Somewhere between hearing those first notes in that car driving around Charlotte and a few years later, the album had become a staple in my annual Christmas music listening. I couldn’t get enough. I wanted to constantly listen and it was an album that I wanted to last longer (the best kind, in my opinion).

In 2010, just a few years after we had moved to the Richmond area, we heard that Peterson would be coming to perform this album in its entirety. So, we eagerly bought our tickets and waited with anticipation. Little did I know what that would begin, an annual tradition that would be passed on to countless friends to be shared together.

Last night marked the sixth or seventh time of seeing this concert and it has never grown stale to me. Peterson has re-recorded the album, which is probably a blog post in itself, and continues to perform it as this year marks the 20th anniversary of the album. He assembles an array of singer-songwriters from the Nashville area and embarks on a journey every year to perform the album at a concert where the first half is marked by an “in the round” performance by the many artists he has with him and the second half is marked by the performance of the album.

1217192153_hdrIt really needs to be experienced in person to fully describe it. If you have the chance, I would highly recommend it, but make sure to familiarize yourself with the music first. With every additional listening, the album speaks to me more deeply. The brilliance of the writing. The creativity. The cleverness. The musicality. It all comes together to profoundly express the overarching message of the gospel through music and song.

Rarely do I ever experience moments like I experience at a Behold the Lamb of God concert. If I am not moved to tears by the end of the performance, then I’m probably not paying attention. To be reminded of God’s plan through Jesus Christ in such a beautiful and artistic way is truly moving.

So there I stood last night, with my family sitting next to me, sitting ten feet from the stage as those first notes played. And as those notes washed over me and the song cycle was played through, I again was moved to tears until the final moments when Peterson read from Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

15 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16 For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19 For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

As the crowd joined with the performers to sing the Doxology, the performers walked off the stage one by one, leaving just the light shining as the focus moved away from those who had so elegantly weaved this musical story for us and rested on the One for whom this season exists.

It’s not Rudolph. It’s not Santa. It’s not presents. It’s Jesus.

And in those moments, maybe my heart had grown three sizes like the Grinch. Behold, Christmas had come. And in the words of the Grinch, “It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags.” And as the Grinch so profoundly thought, “What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

Yes, Christmas means so much more, just like the Grinch realized. And I’m grateful for Andrew Peterson’s creativity for allowing me to remember that through song year after year, both in the comfort of my own home and in the splendor of a concert hall as well.

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Pulling Back the Curtain – Part III

Curtain-Pulled-Back-300x204Transparency.

It’s a word that people seem to love to throw around and yet one that seems to be exhibited much less frequently than we might like to admit.

As I continued on my church planting journey, I keep trying to admit to myself and those whom I lead that most of the time, I probably don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m running on instinct more often than not, exploring the places that seem natural and, sometimes, unnatural to me.

The other day, I had just finished up a meeting at a local elementary school. I was excited to see more partnerships developing. As I was leaving the meeting, I was marveling at what was being accomplished. In my opinion, partnerships are the quintessential means by which to achieve goals. Keep your self-righteous and pompous views that you can accomplish anything you want if you put your mind to it, I’ll gladly join with others to see how much more we can accomplish together.

I’ve been to conferences and seminars. I’ve listened to podcasts and read books. When it comes down to it, I feel like a lot of what I do comes out of the things that make the most sense to me. I’m not modeling it any one thing that I’ve seen, I’m just going with what I know.

For years in ministry, I’ve heard people say, “People just want to be lead.” It was uttered so many times that it began to grate on me. But the truth of the statement and its simplicity may be just why it seems to grate. We sometimes look for solutions that are much more complicated than they need to be. We assume that somehow, if we figure out a complex solution to a somewhat complex problem, we’ve somehow earned our money and justified our own existence.

But solutions are rarely as complicated as the people who solicit them. Simple is better and I’ve more often than not found that simple solutions are not only among the most effective, but also the most easily explained and embraced when trying to lead others.

I sat in another meeting this past week and heard someone thank me for modeling what I am asking of my team. I scratched my head and said, “I couldn’t do anything else.” To ask others for something that I am unwilling to give myself is hypocrisy of the greatest sort, management rather than leadership.

I’ve often said that my greatest sermons come out of the deepest sense of preaching to myself. The moment that I have someone else in mind as a target for a sermon is the moment that I take the transparency out of it. But when I’m preaching to myself, it usually translates to some ounce of truth that could be helpful for others. Preaching out of what God is teaching me is the only way that I really know how to do it. So if I can’t do that, it either means God’s not teaching me anything, or more realistically, I’m not listening.

Church planting can be a lonely journey. That’s why it’s so important to surround yourself with a team of people whose commitment to the mission and vision is beyond lip service. There is no room in church planting for people who simply want to put on a good show and cast a pretty picture to those around them that they’re getting it done. It’s far too important a calling to simply put on accoutrements that make us look as if we’re accomplishing something that we’re not.

Over and over again, I marvel at the place to where God has brought me. While I might arrogantly attempt to take much of the credit, if I’m honest, I just can’t. Too much of what has happened and is happening is not my own doing. There are Divine fingerprints on so much, I feel that I’m simply following the trail to make sure I’m heading in the right direction.

During this season of Advent when there is anticipation, expectation, and excitement for what is to come, it’s a reminder to me of just how important it is to hold these things beyond just this season. If I am not constantly anticipating, expecting, and excited about what is to come, I had better check myself. If I think I’ve got it figured out and I’m leaning on my own understanding, I had better check myself.

The roller coaster ride of ministry may just be a more magnified version of life, having more pronounced and dramatic peaks and valleys. I’ve been in that valley in recent days and finally had to just step away. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if anyone tells you that there is, you might want to distance yourself from them, especially if they’re your boss or supervisor.

I’ll continue to pull back the curtain to reveal what’s going on back here. It’s not always as magical as it might seem, but that’s the beauty of it and part of the Divine mystery and miracle: God accomplishes the extraordinary through the ordinary. I’m not anything special and somehow God chooses to use me to be a part of the unfolding of his plan. That’s reason to boast, but not about myself, about the One whose plan I get to be a part of. If that doesn’t give me reason to anticipate, expect, and be excited, I had better check my pulse.

‘Tis The Season to be Hopeful

I used to be the guy who started listening to Christmas music in July. I would roll out the Christmas CDs and park them right by the stereo. I would load them in a case to bring into my car. I would pull out the ones that I would listen to regularly and make sure that I got through every single one of them.

That’s kind of what happens when music is your thing and your job. You get caught up in the season and planning takes priority.

Of course, I always used to be the one who was cuckoo for Christmas. But life can sometimes have a way of changing you, of stealing your joy a little.

I’ve had some great Christmas seasons in my past but I’ve also had some pretty crappy ones. The Christmas after my mom died, my dad was in the hospital and acting like he’d lost his mind. It was one of the most surreal and depressing Christmases on record for me.

At the same time, watching my kids grow up and seeing their faces on Christmas morning has been one of the greatest joys that I’ve experienced. If there’s anything that can make me feel like a kid again, it’s Christmas Eve and the experience that comes from having young kids experience the wonder and joy of Christmas.

But as much as I still love Christmas, I think that I’ve grown up a little bit. I’m not talking about growing up like the kid in The Polar Express. I think. I can still hear the bells, but the “why” of Christmas has become so much more important to me and, frankly, I’ve begun to look at Christmas in context with why I celebrate it as well as why it’s important in the grand scheme of things.

Last week was the first Sunday of Advent and it passed me by. I don’t think that I forgot it, maybe I just ignored it, but it hit me on the second Sunday of Advent just how important it was. I was speaking on the second Advent of Jesus and recalling the first Advent of Jesus. It all seemed to be that much more weighty and important to me.

During Advent, each Sunday has a theme: Hope, Joy, Peace, Love. I can’t help but think about those and this pas Sunday, I was thinking about hope. Hope is the thing that propels us along when it seems like there’s nothing left. Hope is what keeps us going when everything inside and outside of us is telling us to just give up. Hope is the thing that keeps us looking around the corner, checking the mailbox, waiting for that phone call. Hope is what keeps us going when everything seems impossible.

Hope is one of the only reasons why I’m still here. In the midst of pain, in the midst of loss, in the midst of uncertainty, I have hung on to hope. When it seemed that darkness would overcome, hope remained a candle that penetrated the darkness.

That’s what this season is to me. It’s a reminder that although God seemed silent, something happened to keep hope alive, to breathe new life into all those places that seemed dead and lifeless. God seemed silent until he came to dwell among us, and even as he lived and eventually died, hope still hung in there, albeit by a thread.

And then he rose. Death had not won. Hope was alive.

Christmas time is always a reminder to me that when it seems that things are the darkest, there is still hope. It may not be realized in my time, it may not even be realized on this side of eternity, but hope is there, waiting patiently for us to believe and trust. We may not understand. We may not be happy about waiting. But hope remains.

We’re coming to the two week mark to Christmas. As I look at all that those two weeks hold, it’s a little overwhelming to me. I’m afraid that I’m going to blink and those two weeks will have passed without me fully understanding the significance of these moments.

Narrative Apologetics – A Book Review

narrative apologeticsIs there a way to talk speak convincingly about Christianity without using theology? Can the stories we read in the Bible and stories where we see the work of God be used to compel people towards a faith in Jesus Christ?

Alister McGrath says that stories of the Christian faith, “can open up important ways of communicating and commending the gospel, enabling it to be understood, connecting it with the realities of human experience, and challenging other stories that are told about the world and ourselves.” We are a storied people who continually attempt to find meaning through stories, analogies, and allegories.

In “Narrative Apologetics” Alister McGrath refers to stories within the Bible where a narratival approach is used to break down defenses and reveal truth. Nathan’s confrontation with David stands as one example, as Nathan stealthily shares a story that helps David see the error of his ways. Jesus used parables in the gospels to illustrate deeper points to his audience. Sometimes, removing the specific emotional attachments that people might have to a particular account allows them to see more clearly and objectively to the meaning which is being conveyed within a story.

McGrath mentions many of the great Christian writers who have used allegory and story to illustrate the finer points of the gospel. Among them are C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Both Lewis and Tolkien came to understand Christianity  not as a myth alongside other myths, but rather as the “fulfillment of all myths” to which all other myths point. In other words, in the search for meaning found in mythology, all the stories which make up those mythologies can be completed when resting upon Christianity.

McGrath goes on to share certain aspects of Christianity’s story and how meaning can be derived from it. The exodus. The exile of God’s people. The story of Jesus Christ. When looking at these stories, one can find connection. Rather than couching reality in abstract terms, narrative allows us to “taste” reality.

Meaning can be found through the use of narratives. Even when we begin to tell our own stories, we can begin to find meaning when we see it not as a story unto itself but as connected to the bigger story of God and Christianity. We tell our stories to connect us to the bigger story in which we are living, the story of the gospel, God’s rescuing of us.

Although this is a relatively short book, this wasn’t the easiest book to get into. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why that was the case. Perhaps it was the dry approach used by McGrath. Maybe it felt like some of the treatments of the material were exhaustive within the book itself. Regardless, this wasn’t a book that I would recommend to just anyone. If you are interested in exploring this idea of narrative apologetics and using story to give meaning to life, this may be a good start to move towards that.

(This review is based upon a copy of this book which was provided free of charge by Baker Books. These opinions are my own; I was not required to write a positive review, nor was I compensated for this review.)

 

Walking By Faith

There have been a number of times in my life when it seems my faith is stretched more so than  others. Times when it seems I have to reach a little further, take a little bit longer of a stride, and that where my feet land is solid ground. These times in life are a bit unnerving and kind of scary. But a life of faith was never promised to be easy or without incident.

I’ve lost a lot of sleep in these seasons, wondering whether I’m making the right decision, wondering whether I’ll be regretting the leap of faith that I’m making. My prayers become prayers for signs and glimpses of evidence that will make me more confident. I want it all spelled out for me and I pray and wait, almost expecting the sky to light up with letters from some kind of divine skywriting plane, telling me exactly what to do.

But that’s not faith. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things that aren’t seen. Faith isn’t simply following a paint by numbers painting and filling in all the pieces. It’s not following some kind of treasure map and making sure that we get all the clues right. Faith is stepping out of ourselves and our strength and relying on the One who created us, the One who sees beyond all time and space.

And yes, it’s unnerving. For those of us who are more analytical, even more so. We want evidence. We want clarity. We want 99% certainty, things we can put our eyes on, our hands on. Things we can wrap our heads around and make sense of rather than things we need to trust and hope for.

Faith is a little bit scary. All right, it may be very scary. But in those moments of leap, those moments where it seems impossible, there is peace. It’s the biblical concept of shalom, more than just our concept of peace being a state of being without conflict. It’s peace and security, a holistic peace that is transcendent. It’s a diving peace that can only be realized and experienced through God.

In these moments of faith, these leaps that seem irrational and impossible, there’s a difference between a nagging sense that it’s the wrong decision and a fear of the unknown that you are stepping into. I’ve stopped to try to determine which one it is during those times. Am I uncomfortable because my “faith muscle” is being stretched beyond what it’s used to or am I uncomfortable because it’s the wrong decision?

For those of us who like to exude confidence and rely on our own strengths and abilities, these faith moments are exactly what we need to be knocked into humility and trust, relying not on ourselves but on God. If we can figure it out and accomplish it within our own abilities and strengths, it’s probably not requiring as much faith of us. Faith isn’t praying and then leaning on our own understanding, it’s leaning on our understanding that God’s ways are higher than our ways and that he knows more than us and is capable of more than we can ask or think.

Faith is a leap into the unknown. Scary? Yes. Worthwhile? Yes. Because afterwards, we find that we’ve got even more confidence for what’s next, the next ask of us.

I’m not sure if faith ever gets easier. Probably not if we are doing it right. But the more we exercise it and see how much we can grow in it, the more likely we will be to want to leap a little further the next time around, knowing what the outcome was the last time.

I’m learning to leap. It’s kind of a scary business, but as I look at my history in walking with God, I can see that the leaps have extended a little further every time. I’m not talking additional feet every time. It’s more like inches, if not smaller. But we can’t look at our growth and progress from event to event, we need to see it as a progression over time. A long obedience in the same direction. Then, when we look back, we can see just how far we’ve come in faith and not in our own strength and power.