Thursday, December 13, 2007

Anticipating Advent

As many realize, for centuries followers of Jesus have celebrated the weeks leading up to Christmas (starting four Sundays before) as the Advent season. Advent is just a word that means "coming" or "arrival," and it focuses on the arrival and coming again of Jesus into the world. I found the following article excerpt by Chris Armstrong from Preaching Today. It is a helpful summary of what Advent represents and describes why it is a wonderful way of practicing the anticipation and expectation that the people of God have in Jesus. So, I wish you a glorious Advent season!


I confess: when my parents tried to impress on my two brothers and me the importance and the intricacies of Advent observance, I could hardly keep from rolling my eyes. In a country that spends its cold Decembers in hot pursuit of food, presents, and parties, the historical niceties of an ancient liturgical season seemed … well … irrelevant. These days, on the other side of an evangelical conversion and nearly a decade of graduate study in church history, I've begun to see what excited my parents about Advent. I'm even entertaining the possibility that my own young family might benefit from an informed observance of Advent.

In fact, Advent season presents a unique opportunity to many Protestants. It's like the once-a-year conjunction of two planets: It brings a great mass of Bible-loving, praise-and-worshipping, extemporaneously praying born-again Protestant Christians into close contact with a big chunk of the historic church's liturgy. Even many non-liturgical Protestants don't think twice about joining in the season's rituals, old as well as new. They pull out and count off advent calendars, listen to lectionary sermon themes and Bible readings, and recite set prayers at the dinner table around candles in meaningful hues of purple and rose.

What is this thing called Advent? Once upon a time, in 4th- and 5th-century Gaul and Spain, Advent was a preparation not for Christmas but for Epiphany. That's the early-January celebration of such diverse events in Jesus' life as his Baptism, the miracle at Cana, and the visit of the Magi. In those days, Epiphany was set aside as an opportunity for new Christians to be baptized and welcomed into the church. So believers spent Advent's 40 days examining their hearts and doing penance. It was not until the 6th century that Christians in Rome began linking this season explicitly to the coming of Christ. But at that time, and for centuries after, the "coming" that was celebrated was not the birth of Jesus, but his Second Coming. It was not until the Middle Ages that the church began using the Advent season to prepare to celebrate Christ's birth. And even then, this newer sense of the Lord's advent or coming did not supplant the older sense—the Second Coming. And the muted, Lent-like mood of penitential preparation remained alongside the joyous anticipation of Jesus' birthday.

So, the modern liturgy divides Advent into a period, through December 16th, during which the focus is Christ's Second Coming, and a period, from December 17th to the 24th, focusing on his birth. It starts with sobering passages and prayers about the apocalyptic return of the Lord in judgment. Then it moves to Old Testament passages foretelling the birth of a messiah and New Testament passages trumpeting John the Baptist's exhortations and the angels' announcements.

Every year these rich Scriptural reminders and the traditional prayers that accompany them set my blood rushing a little faster and bring a rising excitement: Christ came with plenty of prior notice! Prophets and angels joined to proclaim his coming! And now I can join too, with the cloud of witnesses stretching back to apostolic times, in the same proclamation! And in the protected, quiet times of meditation, I can respond as I imagine believers have done on every Advent since the tradition began: I can bow my head and prepare my heart to receive the One who is always present, but who seems distant in the busyness of the season. I can mourn for my hardness of heart. I can hope in his grace. And I can rejoice that in answer to the cry, "O come, O come, Emmanuel," he came. Would I really be able to do this—in the midst of December's commercial rush of lights, decorations, present-buying, and piped-in carols—without a gently insistent, weekly liturgical pattern? Maybe. But I'm not rolling my eyes any more.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Weekly Musings: Grand Exits

One afterthought from a series reflecting on God's Adventure in the epic story of Exodus: God knows how to finish a story. Here are some of lines from the final scene: Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the tent of meeting because the cloud had settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35).

I love how God reminds us at the end who the true hero of the story is. Moses does remarkable things: his leadership is courageous and consistent; his mercy on those who would undermine him is astounding; and his willingness to step out of the comfortable places in his life to take up God's tasks again and again are inspirng. But, in the end, God doesn't even let him in the tent. This show is about God. This story is about God. This adventure we call life is about God. In fact, as we discovered, the adventure isn't just about God, the adventure is God himself. The purpose and delight of human existence has always been and always will be about finding ourselves in the larger story of God's character and activity in the world. It's all about Him.

I guess this is on my mind still, not just because this was the theme of the final message in our most recent series; but because I was thumbing through a recent mailing listing new Christian books. I'm struck by how much of what we put out is all about us. I don't intend this to be critical at all, because I do know how important it is to connect God's truth to our lives, and I try to do the same every week. But sometimes in the mainstream Christian world, all we're offering is what my friend calls "Dr. Phil with a Bible verse." Our attention is so easily turned inward. Unfortunately, the great irony of this spiritual navel-gazing is that when our eyes are taken off of the Creator, we'll never find the healing and happiness that the these "self-help" materials so desperately seek. I truly believe that the greatest longings of our hearts will be satisfied only when we pursue that satisfaction in the wonder of God. So, like Moses, I pray that we can get out of the way long enough that he could fill up the tent of our hearts all over again!

Have a wonderful week!


Monday, September 24, 2007

Diving Down the Rabbit Hole

“Alice was getting very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do; once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’” [After that Alice noticed an oddly well-dressed rabbit run by]: “Alice started to her feet, for it flashed across her mind that she had never before seen a rabbit with either a waist-coat pocket, or a watch to take out of it, and burning with curiosity, she ran across the field after it, and was just in time to see it pop down a large rabbit hole under the hedge. In another moment, down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”

So begins the classic, The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland. I just began reading this with my daughter recently, right after finishing Tolkien's The Hobbit. This was right at the time we were beginning our current series on Exodus, Journey into the Adventure of God. Then it hit me: from nomadic people in the Ancient Near East to children in America today, it seems as if we're wired for adventure. There seems to be something in the human heart that just longs to join the quest, or discover the treasure, or save the world. I resonate with Alice's boredom sometimes, because in contemporary Christianity it often feels like we're just sitting on the river bank watching someone read. That is, we have been told that the point of faith is to "get saved," find a comfortable pew to sit on and tell stories as we watch the world go by, pining for the day when "heaven" will take us away from all of this. Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm all about seeing and being part of the new creation when Jesus returns, I'm just convinced that God is calling us to begin embodying that new creation even now. He's calling us to dive down the rabbit hole of his work in the world today; because Egypt-like oppression still exists in our time and there are still people enslaved today (literally and symbolically). The God who brought freedom for Israel in the Exodus stands ready to bring similar freedom today and what astounds me is that he invites us to be a part of this journey too.

So, as we have conversations through this biblical epic, I'd love to hear anyone's thoughts on the parallels you see in the world today. Who are the Pharaoh's and oppressors today? And where do you see God splitting seas and opening up new worlds in our time?

Enjoy the journey!


Sunday, September 2, 2007

Anchor Forward

Ok, so I've slacked in posting the last few weeks; but I'll say here how much I've enjoyed this brief series looking at anchors of our identity as a spiritual community. I got the image that shaped the series from Leonard Sweet, an image of how the anchors of our past don't just hold us down or hold us back, but can actually propel us forward. Here's how Sweet himself puts it: "The biblical image is clearly one of casting an anchor ahead, not behind, and then pulling oneself forward.... In the legend of the Welsh Prince Madoc and his discovery of America, his ship got stuck in the Chesapeake Bay. After trying every way concievable to get the vessel unstranded, the crew came to Prince Madoc and asked if there were anything he could think for them to do. He responded, 'Kedge on our anchor.' So they rowed out with an anchor, dropped it as far into the sea as they could, and then winched their way toward it. The ancient saling practice of 'kedging' is what I mean by the AncientFuture methodology of moving into the future." (Ancient Future Faith, 118-19).

I can't tell you how much I appreciate this image. For our Christian hertigage as a whole, I see wounderful resources in the stories, language and classic practices of our faith that will enable us to weather the uncertain journey ahead. For the congregation in which I serve, I see all that God has already done among us as beacons urging us forward to serve God as courageously in the future as he has allowed us to do in the past. And I see the possibilities of this image helping us as individuals redeem even the dark moments in our own lives, seeing even these experiences as directional markers for the journey God still has to take us on.

I guess that's yet one more reason I find the Christian story so compelling. It honors where we as humans have been--history matters, it's not just about great ideas. And yet, this faith does not honor complacent satisfaction with the status quo. Our God always has us asking, "in light of all of the places and ways that Jesus has shown up in the past, what fresh new places and ways will he reveal himself to us in the times to come?" So thank you Father God, for telling us a classic story with a cosmic twist.

Have a great week!


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Celebrating God's Work

Well, it's hard to believe it; but as I shared on Sunday with the Family here, this past Sunday was the year anniversary of when we visited and spoke at Woodmont for the first time, praying and seeking whether God was leading us here or not. We all celebrated what God has done among our church family over the last year, taking a page from Rick Atchley's practice of giving a State of the Pulpit address every year. If you're interested in his 18th installment of that practice, here's the link from his message this summer: (click on the message from July 1).

One final reflection on our own congregation's journey the last year: it's interesting to me how God maintains the balance of inward transformation of his people and external mission for his people in the world, it's both an inside and outside thing to be a Christian. The most mentioned defining moment in our past year was the testimony of Bill Wooten, our courageous brother who has modeled for us and spoken to us the faithfulness of God (see his testimony at: This moment was internally transformative for us as a family. But then, God doesn't leave us there: our most mentioned theme for the year and desired place to grow more was to "get off the hill" and serve the poor and needy in the city and around the world. These two themes remind us how wonderfully God develops community inside the family of God and then propels us outward to share his wonder with a hungry world.

May we always hold in balance both the internal transformation and the external focus of our God. Have a wonderful week!


Sunday, July 22, 2007

Grace Beyond Borders

Sorry about the down week--between a wedding/vacation in Colorado and team teaching my first grad class here in Nashville, we've been out of sorts. Here's a word on our series to end the summer: Grace Beyond Borders: Life in the Global Village. This completes a summer that has gradually looked further and further "out" in our vision for God's work in the world. We began focusing on God's work in the home and family. Then we streched to look at how God reveals his message in and not just to contemporary (American) culture and now we're ending with a look at how the grace of God is not just something to be received, but something that compels us to bring that hope to the farthest reaches of our world. As I heard John preach powerfully today about different places we might locate ourselves in Jonah chapter three, I can't help asking myself again and again, where is the surprising place "beyond borders" that God wants to send us to reveal his hope? Where is our Nineveh today?

Let me end by sharing from Mark Buchanan's challenging book, Your God is too Safe: "What is God mostly interested in? Strangely, anticlimatically, it has to do with concerns--with what our hearts fix on, with what stirs us in the depths and makes us rise to the heights. What are we concerned about? Is it what God is concerned about?. . . The last thing Jonah wants is for God's concrens to be his own. . . Jonah just wants to dwell on borderland, undisturbed and safe."

May God call us beyond safety, beyond our expectations, and beyond the borders to display his global grace in our world.


You can find the latest series at

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Hear the Remix

Well, we've finished our Conversations with Culture series, but certainly not the conversations themselves. I was amazed watching and hearing Randy Gill masterfully bring out techniques and themes in music that we need to give some Gospel consideration. I guess what strikes me most after all of the reflection is the incredible artistry of God. He reveals that artistry in creation itself, as I'm reminded every week when I hike alone with God or with my kids. He reveals that in the Gospel narratives, which the more I study them, the more I am staggered by the depth of literary wonder there. And I've seen through my collegues here and my spiritual family the artistry God has placed in our everyday lives through the gifts of his people and the creativity of humanity.

So, a concluding thought and a question to ponder. The thought: we serve a breathtaking God who has not ceased his creative work. The question: some have legitimately asked, where do we draw the line between finding God in the common and profaning the name of God by connecting conversations about him with aspects of the world? I tend to lean toward Augustine's take, that whatever good that is found in the world comes from God, so like Israel of old, we should feel free to "plunder the Egyptians" and find God anywhere he chooses to reveal himself. In fact, like Paul discovering attributes of God in pagan poetry (Acts 17:28), I find it incredibly honoring of God to find him at work in surprising places. But, I don't want to dishonor him by falling into the trap of trying to water down the Story of God and reduce it to what those in a pop culture would find attractive. Any thoughts on keeping the balance in our conversations and lives? Or, you might feel free to share your own encounters with God and his creative artistry.


Here's thge Final message on Gospel & Music:

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Spidey & Culture

A word on where we've been and where we're going in the latest sermon series, Relevant Discord: tommorrow, John and I will be discussing The Battle Within, themes from our fascination with superheroes and Spiderman 3 and next week Randy and I will be tackling the intersection of themes in music with the Story of Jesus. So feel free to offer any thoughts.

Here's the basic assumption we're working off of: the Story of God can be seen in culture and not just brought to it. So, we're trying to begin by allowing the gospel to affirm what's healthy in expressions, themes and practices of popular culture and only then move on to critque and complete those themes with the larger Story of God. Any musings on where we've been or where we're going?

By the way, there are some cool clips & study guides to Spidey 3 at


Beginnings: Following a Formerly-Dead Man

Ok, I don't have a clue what I'm doing, but Jason and I talked on the gospel according to bloggers a few weeks ago (see link below), so I figured we might give this blogging thing a try. First, a couple of warnings: I'm computer illiterate, so be patient with us as we get this going. Second, I have a hard time keeping up with my email, much less a blog, so I can't promise always to be up to date--but I do enjoy joining and sparking conversations. I've been so impressed by several folk's email reflections our Gospel in Culture series, so basically I'm throwing that out to the web. My main focus here will be to dialogue about what this adventure of following a formerly-dead man looks like in the real world. You can hear our conversations on podcast at the link on this page ("Dean's Podcast"). I Look forward to "walking" with you here.