Thursday, March 17, 2011

Christians Need Rhythm

Some ways of life have a distinctive rhythm.

For example, think of a school. One thing I miss about my former career as a college professor is the rhythm of the school year, a rhythm that is dictated by the academic calendar. The first day of class in the fall semester brings with it the excitement of new beginnings and new challenges; the mid-term brings with it the opportunity for evaluation, reflection, and recommitment, the fall break and the Thanksgiving break bring with them some much-needed rest; final exams bring with them the thrill and anxiety that accompany an ending. The spring semester brings a similar rhythm.

Or think, for another example, of major league baseball. Pitchers and catchers report on a set day in February followed soon by the position players. For a couple of weeks the beginning rituals of workouts and practices take place until around March 1 the first Spring Training games take place. Around the end of March teams break camp and head to the city where they will open their regular season. The All-Star Break marks the mid-point of the season and then comes the trade deadline and the end of the regular season. The post-season, culminating in the World Series, brings a last blast of excitement followed by the inevitable letdown so that as fall gives way to winter we fans are looking toward the day when pitchers and catchers report to Florida and Arizona. Baseball, then, has a rhythm, too—a rhythm dictated by its calendar.

The rhythm of the lives of Americans, such as it is, is dictated by the secular and civic calendars or, to put it perhaps more accurately and honestly, the commercial calendar. We move from New Year’s Day (Parties! Football!) to Valentine’s Day (Love! And be sure to buy something!) to Easter (Bunnies! Egg Hunts! And be sure to buy baskets and candy!) to Independence Day (Fireworks! Cookouts!) to Halloween (Trick or Treat! And be sure to buy lots of candy!) to Thanksgiving (Food! Football! Let the Christmas shopping begin!) to Christmas (Santa Claus! Presents! Let the Christmas bills roll in and the gift returns commence and while you’re returning stuff be sure to buy more stuff!).

Christians are to live a different kind of life; we need to find a rhythm different than that dictated by the calendar of the materialistic, hedonistic, shallow and bordering on insane culture in which we find ourselves. We need rhythm but it needs to be a different kind of rhythm than that which the world gives.

I am utterly convinced that Christians need the rhythm produced by following the Christian calendar.

There are many good reasons for churches to follow the Christian calendar. (Some of my readers will have trouble understanding why I feel a need to make this case, given that they worship in traditions in which following the Christian calendar is a longstanding and accepted practice; the reason is that for most churches in the Baptist tradition in which I worship and serve, as well as in many other churches in the free church and/or evangelical traditions, the practice if not the very concept is foreign.)

One reason that churches should follow the Christian calendar is that the practice reminds us of what our lives are really all about. The Christian year takes us from the anticipation of Advent to the celebration of Christmas to the revelation of Epiphany to the repentance of Lent to the seeming defeat of Good Friday to the stunning victory of Easter to the equipping power of Pentecost to the long stretch after Pentecost that reminds us of the importance of faithfully putting one foot in front of the other and trusting God all the way; our lives, in short, are all about following the way of Jesus.

A second reason that churches should follow the Christian calendar is that the practice provides a framework for the development of a disciplined Christian lifestyle. It offers a constant reminder that our life is a pilgrimage in which we are always following Jesus and learning of and from him and being formed and shaped by him.

A third reason that churches should follow the Christian calendar is that the practice gives us an opportunity to offer a helpful Christian witness to our culture. For example, think of the message we would send if, while those around us are caught up in the frenzy of holiday shopping, we were to embrace the four-week season of Advent through appropriate practices of worship and other spiritual disciplines such as fasting, sharing, and serving. Think of the witness we would offer if, while those around us are suffering from post-holiday letdown and mall fatigue, we were to embrace the twelve-day celebration of Christmas through an appropriate focus through worship and other disciplines on the wonder and mystery of the Incarnation event.

When you put those three reasons together you can, I hope, see the value in giving ourselves over to the rhythm of the Christian year. If our churches will intentionally allow the Christian year to provide the narrative framework for our worship and practice we will over the course of time help those who worship and serve through our churches to develop and live out a helpful Christian rhythm in their daily lives of discipleship (provided that they intentionally embrace the practice).

If we learn to feel and to follow that rhythm in our worship in the sanctuary and in our homes, we will over time begin to feel and to follow it in our service in the world. Imagine how our lives, our churches, and our communities will change if more and more Christians begin to live their lives with the same rhythm with which Jesus Christ lived his--a rhythm of love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, obedience, faithfulness, service, and sacrifice.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The House Where a Home Used to Be

We picked up the trash in the yard, some of which had been there for a long time and some of which had been recently discarded by vagrants and trespassers.

We cut back dozens and dozens of plants and trees and vines, some of which were clearly in the past very nice and will no doubt, once they recover from their severe pruning, be beautiful again.

We collected and discarded items that were lying around the yard, items ranging from a tomato plant cage to a hydraulic car jack.

We dismantled and threw away the old doghouse and the food and water bowls that were inside the very small pen in the backyard.

We collected and disposed of all of the old toys that we found on the ground outside the dilapidated storage shed.

In short, we picked up and raked up and broke up and cut down and threw out and disposed of and piled up the sad and lonely remnants of the lives that once were lived in that house and in that yard.

It didn’t take a lot of imagination to picture another beautiful Saturday like the one on which we were cutting down and picking up and throwing away, only in our imaginations much different activity was taking place on that other Saturday.

On that Saturday, Mama was in the kitchen baking a pie while Daddy was in the back yard grilling hamburgers.

The children were running around the yard, hollering and laughing and kicking up dust and playing with their brightly colored if well-worn toys; the dog, enjoying her release from her small pen, was running and barking and playing alongside and among the children.

On that other Saturday, life was being lived and celebrated; on that other Saturday, lives were being built and hope was being practiced; on that other Saturday, that house was hosting a home.

What happened? I don’t know. I do know that there is no family there now. I wonder what happened to the Mama and the Daddy and the children. I wonder if their hopes and dreams went the way the house went, if they were over time left untended and uncared for until finally they fell prey to dilapidation and decay and despair.

I hope not. I’m afraid so.

I do know that the house has been condemned and is destined to be torn down. I fear the family’s demise preceded that of the house.

It takes a lot of work to keep a house healthy and in good shape; it takes even more work to keep a home, to keep a family, healthy and in good shape. It’s not terribly surprising when a family runs low on and even out of the energy and stamina and hope required to keep things going and developing—it’s not terribly surprising, but it is terribly sad.

It is sad to think of family that once lived in that house, a family that perhaps once provided community to a small group of people.

Our efforts to clean up the yard and particularly to prune the overgrown trees and shrubs may have interfered with a community of vagrants and drug users who congregated and found sad fellowship in the shelter offered by the yard’s shadows, shadows that are no longer available.

I'm not sorry for that interference but I am reminded that people will find community wherever they can and wherever they must.

There is hope to be had, though.

We who were cutting and cleaning and discarding what we found all around that abandoned and condemned house were doing so as part of an effort of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia known as March Mission Madness; some 200 youth and their adult chaperones descended on our town of Fitzgerald and found community as they worked to improve our community through such projects as the one I have described here.

Next door to the dilapidated and littered place that we worked to clean up, our group was also working on a house being built by our local Habitat for Humanity chapter, a house that will allow a hard-working family to get out of their substandard housing and into a simple and decent residence.

Perhaps not too far in the future that abandoned house next door will be torn down and Habitat can build another good home for another good family on that site.

It will be a very, very good thing if before too long the houses on that street once again produce the sights, sounds, and smells of families building their lives and practicing hope.

That would help to assuage my grief over the house where a home used to be.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

We'll Understand It Better By & By--Starting Now

[A Communion Devotion based on 2 Peter 1:16-21 & Matthew 17:1-9 for Transfiguration Sunday 2011]

There were things that Peter, James, and John, as well as the other disciples, wanted to know. Jesus had been talking about things that lay in the future; some of them, such as his crucifixion and resurrection, lay in the near future while some of them, such as his coming in glory for judgment, lay in the distant future. In God’s grace, God gave Peter, James, and John access to an experience that was meant, in ways that went beyond and beneath rational explanation, to give them a “foretaste of glory divine,” a sampling, as it were, of the glory of God that belonged to Jesus and that would be seen fully in his coming resurrection and in his eventual second coming.

The disciples could not fully comprehend the resurrection of Jesus until it actually happened—but the transfiguration of Jesus gave them a start at understanding. That experience was a gift of God to enable them to grasp at least something of the glory of God and to help them to make some immediate progress in their pilgrimage of faith.

There are things that we do not understand and that we do not know. We do not have the advantage of having experienced Jesus in his resurrected state as Peter, James, and John eventually did. And we have not experienced, as they did not experience, the second coming of Jesus Christ.

We wait, therefore, for the time when we will understand it all better, when we will understand it all fully. We wait for the time when we will be in the full presence of the resurrected Christ and experience the full glory of God.

Do we ever have experiences like the one that Peter, James, and John had when they witnessed the transfiguration of Jesus and thereby caught at least a glimpse of his glory?

Sometimes we have such an experience in worship, when somehow, through the feeble and frail attempts we make to put ourselves in a position to experience God, God in grace allows us to catch a glimpse, to sense a little of the wonder, of God’s glory.

Sometimes we have such an experience in the reading of Scripture, when somehow, through our submission to the words that have been given to us by God and by God’s servants, God in grace allows us to catch a glimpse, to sense a little of the wonder, of God’s glory.

Sometimes we have such an experience in prayer, when somehow, through our conversation and communion with God, God in grace allows us to catch a glimpse, to sense a little of the wonder, of God’s glory.

Sometimes we have such an experience in other people, when somehow, through our meeting face to face and spirit to spirit with someone else who is made in the image of God and who is being formed in the image of Christ, God in grace allows us to catch a glimpse, to sense a little of the wonder, of God’s glory.

Sometimes we have such an experience on a random day at a random time in a random event or in a random moment, when, somehow, in the course of our living of our lives, God in grace allows us to catch a glimpse, to sense a little of the wonder, of God’s glory.

Sometimes we have such an experience in the Lord’s Supper, when somehow, in our eating of the bread and drinking of the cup, God in grace allows us to catch a glimpse, to sense a little of the wonder, of God’s glory.

Having an experience of God’s glory through Jesus Christ should make a difference in our lives, shouldn’t it? It is understandable and even all right if for a little while—a very little while—we sit or kneel or stand awe-struck and silent and fearful, but we cannot stay in that experience interminably for celebration soon becomes wallowing and receiving becomes passivity and rest becomes sloth.

One day, when Jesus comes back in all his glory and we experience our resurrection that his resurrection guarantees, we will be all we should be and we will know all we should know. But—given that God in God’s grace gives us glimpses of God’s glory now, we can begin to understand better now and to do more now of what we are to know and what we are to be and what we are to do.

What does that mean? Well, earlier in his letter Peter said to his readers, “You must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love” (1:5-7).

Are we coming more and more to look like that?

We can’t understand God fully now, but we also can’t glimpse the glory of God now and stay the same…