I am at Peace with My Becoming

Advent is the season of angelic visitations, miraculous births and joyful expectation. It is the season to mark not what is but what will be. The valleys have been raised up and every mountain brought low—the way is being made for the New. We are mindful and attentive, watching the signs. A baby will be born, a star will die and its brilliant light will ignite the night sky. Soon shepherds will encounter luminous messengers who burst with angel song, “Glory to God in the highest, shalom to women and men who find favor with God!”

All this, but not yet. Still we wait. Advent is a song building to a glorious crescendo. It stokes our expectations. We anticipate Christ’s coming, eager that in meeting again the Divine, we may be changed. The road is open, and there is now real potential:  illumination, enlightenment, change, union. 

Rami Shapiro is a Jewish Rabbi and a Zen poet (he studying Zen Buddhism with Leonard Cohen). His poem “There is a Hunger”(from Accidental Grace, Paraclete Press, 2015, pp 32-33), illustrates this sense of expectancy:

There is a hunger in me that no thing can fill;

a gnawing emptiness that calls forth dreams

dark and unfathomable.

My Soul is whispering; Deep calling Deep,

and I know not how to respond.

The Beloved is near—as near as my breath,

as close as my breathing—

The World Soul of

which my soul is but a sliver of light.

Let me run to it in love,

Embracing the One who is me,

That I may embrace others who are One.

Enwrapped in your Being,

I am at peace with my becoming.

Engulfed in your flame

I am cleared and unclouded.

I am a window for the Light,

a lens by which You see Yourself;

a slight of Mind

that lets me know me as You

and lets me know You as me.

How wonderous this One

Who is the face of all things.

Of course, Shapiro’s spirituality, as a  Zen Buddhist Rabbi, is not particularly Christocentric. He didn’t pen these words in anticipation of some Christmas miracle. Certain lines hint at a pantheist union with all nature—the World Soul. However, if we believe as Christians that in Christ we glimpse the face of God, then our Christmas waiting opens up the potential of seeing Christ a new, in ourselves, in others, in the groaning creation.  We will become a window for others to sense Christ’s presence. How wonderous this One/ who is the face of all things!

The way is open for God’s shalom. Peace is the promise. Swords will be plowshares, spears will be pruning hooks. Predation will cease. All will be safe and secure. 

All this, but not yet. Still we wait. I am at peace with my becoming.

What’s in a Word?: What Do We Mean When We Say Community?

I have filled out my fair share of pastoral applications and have read through many church profiles. One of the things I have learned is this: every church values community.  No brainer, right? Why would you be part of a church if you didn’t value community? In a world that is increasingly spiritual and not religious, you wouldn’t. Being a church member means, at some level, we hunger for a deeper connection with others. And so it makes sense that I’ve heard churches describe the joy of community. Some churches even put community in their name. signifying how much being in community is part of their identity.

But what do churches mean when they say they ‘value community?’ I think there is quite a range in the practice. Some churches have a thin concept of community. For them, community means gathered worship, participating in a church event and maybe a small group. Other groups, influenced by monasticism (new and old), Anabaptism, and the second chapter of Acts have a much thicker practice of community with a more robust form of life-sharing. Think shared meals,  a common purse, intense relational commitment. Either thin or thick styled communities can have a sense of God’s presence in the church gathered, but thick communities are more intentional about continually gathering.

Thin communities are popular and widespread, but there is a pull towards a thicker, more robust form of community. Except where there isn’t. Sometimes in our efforts to reach the masses, we minimize the sort of lifestyle commitments we call people to. Sure we want community, but we also know how busy people are and we don’t want them to feel overburdened. So we lower the bar. We call people brother and sister, but don’t bother with them outside of  our church sponsored events. Acts 2 and 4 speaks about a radical commitment, but as many conservative commentators remind us, Acts is being ‘descriptive’ not ‘prescriptive.’ Nowhere are we commanded to share life in this way! I have a friend who is a youth pastor who uses Acts 2 to teach his kids proper Biblical exegesis by demonstrating that Acts 2:42-47 doesn’t really apply to them.

To me, this lacks imagination. We may not be required to join an intentional Christian community and sell all our private property, but the fact that the first group of people ever called ‘church’ did is amazing. It evokes communal imagination of how we can share life together. We need to let this passage challenge our individualistic, privatized lives and our lack of commitment to one another.

Three chapters later, Ananias and Sapphira are struck down for pretending to share their possessions. Peter says to Ananias,” “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land?  Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” (Acts 5:3-4). If we allow this passage to speak to us about community we learn two things. First, a robust community is never about compulsion. Ananias was free to share life with the church in Jerusalem and still hold something back.  There was no command to ‘sell all he had to give to the poor.’ Second, we see Ananias and Sapphira under judgment (struck down!) because they lied to the Holy Spirit. 

This is a disturbing passage and one of the difficulties I have with it is what it shows me about how much God hates our pretensions of community. Ananias and Sapphira died because they said they made a commitment, they never made. How often have I done that? How often have I called my fellow church member brother or sister, but resisted my responsibility towards them as a family member?  How many times have I promised to pray for another and did not? Where have I said I would be available or said I was willing to serve, and yet totally flaked on my commitment to others?

If we are honest, we know we all fail at community. One of the reasons that an Acts-2-style community is left largely untried is because we know we could not sustain that sort of life sharing. But this passage is a prophetic call toward a deeper shared life. This is one of the reasons I celebrate movements like the New Monasticism (and other incarnations of  Intentional Christian Community).  It is when we covenant with others that we are formed more fully into the image of Christ. His body transforms us and invites us into a shared life of mutual giving and receiving. Sundays and Wednesdays are not enough!

What would deeper community look like for you? 


Hardware Store Haikus

I feel called to vocational ministry but I have bills to pay and a family to feed. I do this by working at my local hardware store as a salesperson and quasi-supervisor. I drive a forklift, cut keys, fill propane, mix paint. I also am responsible for training employees and merchandising the store. This isn’t ministry it’s just life, but ministry is the stuff of life. Here is a taste of my day-to-day:

I open today
My gaggle drives me to work
stuck behind  the train

“You got a thingy
that will whatchamacallit?”
“Absolutely, yes.”

“Doesn’t fit,” He sighs.
Package says universal.
Not this universe.

Can you cut a key?
Yes, if I have the right blank.
No. She leaves the store.

He asks,”EEEEE-poxy?”
Holding out the ‘E’ too long–
It stuck to his tongue.

“Sixteen Inches,” he says.
I measure eighteen. Displeased,
“Sixteen’s what I need.”

“It’s slow can I go home?”
The cashier asks, I respond:
we have work to do.

“Time for your training!”
She complies with verve and speed
grimacing at me.

Break time: I’m reading
He leans to see the cover.
Far too religious!

Running, I get gas.

His eyes scan the shelf,
What can I help you find? No
I was just looking.

It’s twenty to eight
I ride the pallet jack back
Almost closing time

Words For Readers and Writers: a book review

When I picked up Word for Readers and Writers: Spirit-Pooled Dialogues I had no idea who Larry Woiwode was. I had read his bio and knew he was an award winning novelist (William Faulkner Foundation Award, John DosPassos Prize, plus a finalist for the National Book Award and Book Critics Circle Award), recipient of the Medal of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Poet Laureate for the state of Norht Dakota since 1995. But I had not read any of his works, much less heard of them until I picked up this book.

I loved the beauty of Woiwode’s prose and am sure that this will not be the last of his books I read(unfortunately my local library only has a couple of his other books). These essays are compiled from previous publications in various journals and publications. They showcase  Woidwode’s grasp of English literature and a lifetime of working with words. Some of these essays reflect on Woidwode’s own literary endeavors (there are a couple interviews of him in the collection). Other essays probe the writing of others. Still others are more reflective about the nature of writing and craft. My favorite of these essays (A Fifty-Year Walk with Right Words or A Writer’s Feel of Internal Bleeding, A to Z) are personally revealing. 

These essays form 21 chapters, organized into three parts: Uses of Words, Users of Words, Realms of Users. The theme joining the essays in each part is not always immediately apparent but in general part one  is more descriptive of Woidworde’s own understanding of metaphor and words, part two (primarily) describes other writers, part three discusses the nature of writing and explores writing in different contexts. But these divisions are fluid and each essay (or interview, or speech) is a stand-alone piece. 

I came away from reading this, wanting to read more Woidwode. He is a Christian author and self consciously so, but he doesn’t beat you over the head with his faith.  My standing critique of Christian novelists is that they are all ‘tell’ with very little ‘show.’ By that I mean that their prose is baldly didactic with very little craft. In a novel that is unforgivable. But in a volume of essays I may let a little ‘telliness’ slide.

However I was pleasantly surprised. These essays are well crafted and beautiful.  The importance of Woiwode’s faith is evident but this isn’t an apologetic or a thinly-veiled Bible lesson. This is a celebration of the power of words by a man who had dedicated his life and career to wordcraft. I enjoyed this book a lot. I give it four stars.

Thank you to Crossway for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. 

What’s in a Word?: Why I dont want to ‘just love on you.’

I haven’t done one of these in a while, but I thought it was time I posted one of my cranky posts critiquing the way we Christians use language. Words are important and when we use them badly we end up communicating something we don’t want to communicate. Worse, sometimes a bad phrase might start us thinking about things the wrong way. Yet at other times, our words aren’t really harmful, they just don’t make a lot of sense.

Case in point:

I just want to love on you.

Excuse me?! You want to what on me? You hear this said in church with several nuances in meaning depending on the context:

We just want to love on this community  (translation: we want to pick up garbage , smile a lot and have a free car wash)

We just are going to love on her ( translation: a guest speaker  has a ministry we should support so we are taking a ‘love’ offering to benefit their ministry)

I  want to love on them (translation: they are  facing some trying circumstances and I want to help care for their needs).

These things are good. We ought to seek tangible ways to bless the community, give generously to ministries who are fulfilling God’s mission in the world and we should look for ways to care for the vulnerable in our midst.  We are called as Christ followers to love one another (John 13:34-5) and numerous scriptures exhort us towards mutual care.  But do we have to say it that way? Honestly!

Here is my problem. The phrase “I just want to love on you” is unnecessarily modified in two places, the first makes it untrue while the second makes it incomprehensible.  When you say you ‘just’ want to do something, you imply that you are wanting to do that thing and that thing only.  Like when my five-year-old daughter says I just want to sing, that is the only thing she wants to do. When we say ‘I just want to…’ do we really mean with all our being this is what we want? Or are we just using a stock phrase which doesn’t mean much (like when we ask “How are you?” and are just being polite)?

“On’ is our second modifier.  What does it mean to love on someone? The word-picture I get is not really something that you hear discussed much in church.   What we mean by the term, ‘love-on’ is ‘express love.’ Certainly ‘love on’ expresses love, but not exactly the love we mean to express.

But we also modify it when we say this is what ‘we want.’  By these words we express desire and our ideal, but we allow for some dissonance from reality.

These modifying words soften the phrase. If you consider our examples, consider someone saying:

We will love this community


I love her


We will  love them

These phrases have power and speak of  commitment. Love is a powerful word which names our relationship to family, friends, church and world. When we add modifiers we soften our love, putting limitations and making  it  more manageable.  Tell me you love me and I feel like you have committed to me in a powerful way. Telling me you just want to love-on me does not boast any commitment on your part.

By our syntax we have manufactured an easy way to love our neighbor that doesn’t require our whole person. Loving someone is a relationship and a lifestyle. Loving on someone is an event. Events are easy. We need relationship.

Bringing God’s Kingdom Through Worship: a book review

Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church by Father Vassilios Papavassiliou

If you have ever attended a worship service in an Orthodox church, you have been captured by the beauty. Candles, incense, ornate iconography, reverence for sacred symbol, poetic words and acts all draw you into a deep appreciation for the Triune God.  But those new to Orthodox worship may also come away feeling lost, unable to understand the liturgy and symbols.  I remember once early in my marriage, my wife and I attended an Orthodox service during Holy Week. My wife grew up Catholic and neither of us were strangers to liturgy; however we must of looked befuddled because one dear woman sitting behind us, took it upon herself to guide us through the liturgy and help us follow along and take part more fully in the experience.

In Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs, Father Vassilios Papavassiliou does what that Orthodox woman did for my wife and I (albeit in a more magisterial fashion) and unlocks for outsiders the significance of the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church.  Papavassiliou speaks of the Divine Liturgy as a journey to the Kingdom. The liturgy begins, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever, and to the ages of ages.” This announces the destination of Orthodox worship. As Papavassiliou says:

It is true, our destination is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Trinity. But our journey really begins the moment we leave the house. Without the sacrificial act of leaving the comfort of our beds and homes and coming to church, there can be no liturgy, and whether we have to travel many miles or just walk a few yards down the street, a sacrificial act of worship has already begun. We come to church not simply to add a religious dimension to our secular lives, nor simply to meet fellow Christians and to socialize, but above all to become the Church, to become the Kingdom of God. (9-10)

And so the Orthodox liturgy leads congregants from the mundane into an encounter with the risen and ascended Christ. Papavassiliou walks us chronologically through the elements of the liturgy, from the Blessing and Litany of the Peace,  to the Great Thanksgiving and Dismissal, pausing to reflect on the various prayers, the veneration of the gospel, the Cherubic hymn, the presentation and litany of the Holy Gifts, the Creed and its meaning, The Holy oblation, the Our Father, Communion and Thanksgiving.  Little sidebars break up the chapters to explain Orthodox practices and theology.  One of the joys of this book is the way Papavassiliou is able to use the liturgy to explain the beliefs and distinctives of the Orthodox in ways which seek to assuage the objections of outsiders.  For example, he describes the Orthodox veneration of Mary (a doctirine which is often looked at critically from those outside the fold) as the outflow of the Orthodox affirmation of the incarnation of Christ (34). According to Papavassiliou, when we remember that the Word became flesh, it makes sense to honor the woman from whom he took flesh and honor her for it.  Likewise he gives brief explanations of the theology behind iconography. He also manages to present the Orthodox liturgy in a way which values it as the truest expression of the Kingdom on earth without being dismissive of other Ecclesial traditions.

My introduction to the Orthodox Liturgy first came from a similar book designed to explain the Orthodox liturgy to new converts  (Archbishop Paul of Finland, The Feast of Faith, trans. by Esther Williams, St. Vladymir’s Press, 1988).  What I really like about Papavassiliou’s volume is that he isn’t content to simply explain Orthodox practice. He also calls the Orthodox to inhabit their best theology.  He acknowledges the disconnect between the rich sacramental heritage of the Orthodox tradition and the fact that it has become common practice among many Orthodox to attend the liturgy without receiving communion (56). Papavassiliou invites his Orthodox readers to participate more fully in worship, being united with Christ in the Eucharist. He tries to remove any obstacles that stand in the way of their participation (79-85). Papavassiliou’s sacramental theology owe much to the work of Alaxender Schmemann and Vladymir Lossky and he delves into patristic sources when describing the doctrines of the faith from the Orthodox perspective

And so I recommend this book for two groups of people. Sympathetic outsiders like me who appreciate some of the beauty and poetry they find in Orthodox worship but want a deeper grasp of what is going on in the Liturgy. And insiders who  wish to grow in their own understanding and appreciation of what the liturgy offers and the theological reflection from which the liturgy springs. The journey to the Kingdom leads us to a fresh encounter with Christ, His Church as we await and enact the full coming of His Kingdom.

Thank you to Paraclete Press for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.

Why You Ought to Listen to Creed: a book review

The Creedal Imperative by Carl R. Trueman

Most Christians throughout history had some sort of confession or creed which delineated for them proper Christian doctrine.  The ancient church had the rule of faith and the Apostle’s Creed. When controversy around the nature of the Trinity erupted, the Nicene Creed was born. There have also been numerous other creeds, confessions and hymns which declared what Christians believed.  And yet in many congregations today, you are unlikely to hear a creed recited or hear what confessional standard the church adheres to.  And many are suspicious of anything written by ‘dead white males’ and wonder how the creeds can speak with any relevance to us today.

Carl Trueman is a professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary and an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OCP) pastor.  The OCP is a Presbyterian denomination which holds  to the Westminster Standards whereas other Presbyterian churches have moved away from them(PCUSA). As a confessional evangelical (and historian), he has a lot to say about the abiding value of creeds and confessions for the ways in which they summarize Biblical teaching (not as replacements for proper Biblical authority).

Trueman presents his case for confessionalism in six chapters and a conclusion. In chapter one, he describes the  contemporary case against confessionalism/creedalism, stressing how technology, consumerism  and has made us suspicious of  the past and doubtful about the existence of a universal human nature.  Against these assumptions, Trueman argues that (1) the past is import and is of positive relevance to us, (2) language is an appropriate vehicle to commicate truth across geographic space and time, and (3) there is a body (the church) which can compose and enforce creeds and confessions authoritatively (p.22-3).  These assumptions are fleshed out more fully in chapter 2 where he lays out the foundations for Creedalism.  In chapter three, he examines the Biblical data and the witness of the early church to demonstrate the priority the early church placed on passing down right doctrine and how this develops into the rule of faith. He also goes on to describe the ecumenical councils and the formation of the early creeds. In chapter four Trueman turns his attention to the historic Protestant Confessions ( i.e. the 39 Articles, the Book of Concord, The Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Confession, Canons of Dordt, the Westminster Standards). In Chapter five Trueman discusses the ways in which confessions and creeds give shape to corporate worship, and inform it with its Trinitarian character. Finally chapter six describes the abiding usefulness of creeds in guarding right doctrine, passing on the faith,  providing accountability for congregants and pastoral elders, etc.

I enjoyed this book a lot and I think that Trueman makes a number of cogent points. I especially liked how he was able to root confessionalism and the concern for right doctrine in New Testament texts.  He is able to demonstrate that Creeds are not formulated to provide authority over the text, but as summaries of biblical theology to help people apprehend the gospel better. Trueman is also convincing in his assertion that the past has something to teach us (i.e. Ancient creeds, hymns, writings actually have something to say to Millennials and beyond).

However my own denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), describes itself as non-confessional/non-creedal.  Trueman does discuss why many contemporary Evangelicals are non-creedal by attributing it to the widespread contemporary suspicion of tradition and authority. In the case of the ECC, they formed as a Pietist revival movement  from within the Swedish Lutheran state church.  In Lutheran tradition, clergy and laity all subscribed to the Book of Concord; however the theological orthodoxy  of the Swedes did not guarantee any spiritual vitality. The founders of the movement rejected confessionalism in favor of  affirming the authority of scripture and the necessity of new birth (as well as other theological distinctives). They didn’t reject creeds per say (the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed are reproduced in the Covenant Hymnal and the Covenant book of Worship) .   They rejected the idea that creeds and confessions made you a Christian. They didn’t reject instruction, or passing on the faith (they still had a trained clergy.  I think that Trueman is really good at addressing some of the modern and postmodern qualms about confessionalism but he is less eloquent in addressing the concerns of Pietist critics.

Trueman says at a number of points that every church has a confession whether they are ‘confessional’ or not. Either they give authority to creeds and confessions–public documents open to the scrutiny of the entire church, or they interpret scripture through some less defined, and private theological grid. I think he is right about that and I am in agreement with his main points.  I think this is a great book for exploring the nature of ecclesial authority and the history of theological reflection.   I would recommend this book for those who is curious about the foundations of confessionalism and the virtues of it.

Thank you to Crossway for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for this review.