Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Prep for the Season: More than Just a Day

It seems like more and more followers of Jesus are awakening to the fact that Christmas is more than just a day. For centuries, believers have seen Christmas in the larger context of the season of Advent (which comes from the Latin word for “coming” or “arrival”). Advent begins the Sunday four weeks before Christmas week (the Sunday between November 27 and December 3; this year it’s November 30). The idea is to practice in this season the posture that the church should always be in: eager anticipation of the coming of our Lord Jesus. So we literally prepare for Christmas day in the weeks before. What I like about seeing this larger picture is that we don’t just celebrate that fact that God has come into the world in Jesus, but that he is coming again to finish the work of bringing all creation back in harmony with its Creator. Liturgical traditions like Catholics, Lutherans and Eastern Orthodox churches have recognized this season for ages, but apparently Advent isn’t just for high-church folks anymore. See this excellent article in USA Today which shows how the classic observance of Advent is going mainstream:

Two helpful books are mentioned in this article. One I’m going to try reading through with the family is Nancy Guthrie’s Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas.

Here's the link for the book:

The other read highlighted in the article is Stormie Omartian’s, The Power of Christmas Prayer.

And the link:

In a world where it’s easy to lose our roots and even easier for the significance of this season to get lost in consumerism, it’s refreshing to reclaim this classic practice. So, Happy Advent season my friends!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

The Smart Car

I still can't get over the fact that my creative and talented wife actually won a car! After three months of waiting, we finally picked it up this week, and yes, it's tiny. I particularly like when we park it next to SUV's, you could almost put it inside of them. But it gets crazy good gas mileage and it's good and green for God's Creation.

Way to go Melanie!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Quiet Conspiracy

I get weary sometimes of hearing Christians all over our land (and, hearing my own heart sometimes) crying out in fear in the midst of a changing world or griping about the supposed dying spirituality of upcoming generations. Anyone who claims to worship a man who wouldn’t stay dead has no business fearing much of anything around here. And anyone who’s spent more than a few minutes with students and young adults lately knows there’s every reason to be ecstatic about what God is up to in the emerging generation.

I suppose this need for redirected hope is why one of the best books I’ve picked up in some time is The New Conspirators, by Tom Sine.

Sine is an authority on global trends and Christians’ response in the midst of such changes. In his seventies now, he’s a refreshingly optimistic forward-thinker, who’s willing to embrace what God is stirring up in an upcoming generation. He’s not na├»ve about the genuine challenges that face humanity with the rise of what he calls “McWorld” and the myth of the “Global Mall.” But neither does he wring his hands in desperation: “Both the church and the world have changed tremendously. But God’s strategy hasn’t changed. Jesus let us in on an astounding secret: God has chosen to change the world through the lowly, ordinary and insignificant…. So, get ready friends—God is preparing us for something really, really—small…a quiet conspiracy that is destined to change our lives and God’s world” (22-23). One of the reasons for his cheerful outlook is that Sine sees God’s work in several new movements in Christianity today: “as my wife Christine and I wander the world, we see the Spirit of God working largely through the vision, creativity and initiative of a new generation—through emerging, missional, multicultural and monastic streams—as well as in traditional churches that are hungry for more authentic, vital, mission-centered faith. This book is written to invite you not only to support what God is doing through these renewing streams but also to join this conspiracy of compassion” (20).

So hail to this prophetic septuagenarian who refuses to cower in fear or to buy into shallow misperceptions of emerging spirituality. May we all be so bold as God leads us into a breathtaking future.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Around this time of year, I have been often struck by how much I enjoy the rhythm of the academic calendar. I don’t experience the benefits of that so much now that I am no longer working primarily in the university environment, and I wonder if I took for granted the natural slow-down that happens in summer in that world. In the academic environment, this Sabbath-like rhythm shows up not just in the pace of work, but in the college cities themselves. It seems that the whole city is ready for the slowing down that happens around May and then August comes just in time to get the adrenaline flowing again. For me, it’s ironic that this summer, which began with a sermon series on rest, ended up being one of the fastest paced I remember in decades. Maybe this is one more reminder that we were created to live in a sacred rhythm of work and rest and how easy it is to get thrown off of that. Lord, I need you continually to call me back to your pace for living.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Miracle of Peace

I love those moments when truth goes from the head to the heart. It happened to me recently. First, the head truth: one of my favorite verses in Scripture for years has been the promise of Jesus to his troubled followers the night of his arrest: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid" (John 14:47). I've often turned to this promise, from everything as trivial as my discomfort when flying to situations far more serious like prayers for those facing serious illness, broken relationships and the death of loved ones. I know the truth mentally: Jesus offers a peace to us, beyond our own ability to muster. I've treasured for years that it is "his" peace he offers, not mine. But I must confess, far too often I'm better at announcing this than experiencing it. Yet, just a few weeks ago, God brought the head and heart together for me. I had let myself get pretty distressed about many different things and as a result, I sunk to a pretty dark place of disquiet inside. In an effort just to breathe one particularly stressful day, I went to a hill overlooking the city for a time of quiet prayer. When I was there, I found myself calling an old friend, whose walk with God alone seems to give me peace. He was in the middle of about three things at the time, but still took a moment to offer for me a thirty-second prayer. One part stood out to me, he asked something like: "God, please give Dean some word or Scripture to repeat that will remind him of what he needs to know." After his prayer, he had to go. Within three minutes, God answered that prayer--putting on my heart a passage from years before that had oriented my life and ministry. I can't express in words what happened then, but all I can say is I went from an intensely anxious heart to one that has been completely at peace--a peace which has remained for weeks now.

Two reflections strike me about this: one is that it really is possible to experience what the prayer-masters in the Psalms seem to experience so often. God really can give us a peaceful heart, even before anything changes in our circumstances. What a magnificent God we serve! The second thought is really a question which I suppose will linger with me: why do I seem to have to get to the desperate place before I'm able to experience that miracle of peace? Will I learn more quickly in the future to open myself up to his serenity rather than to try to manufacture my own?

So, my God, I confess both my failure, to run to you first as a refuge; and I confess my faith, I do know that you are able to deal with all that troubles us and I know that you stand ready to allow your children not only to enter, but always to dwell in your peace. Teach my restless heart to be still in You.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Catching the Wave

I'd like to post an excerpt of an email I got recently from one of our small groups. I believe that they are modeling for us the future of what "church" will look like. There is a (healthy) movement away from program and event driven churches to a more organic approach that starts with genuine community in smaller groups in the church and then spreads by them living out their faith together in the neighborhoods around them. Notice how this group focuses on needs right where they live and how it isn't a one-time thing. They serve in one way and expectantly move on together to another opportunity to serve. Here's the group's testimony:

As you may remember our small group requested help for a fifteen year old young man who is autistic. He has been going to Saddle Up (a horseback riding facility for mentally and physically challenged youngsters just down the road from our house). His family believes that this has helped bring [their son] out in a way that nothing else has. The family is going through financial hardships…[and they] were about to have to withdraw [their son] from the program. On the very day that the mother was calling Saddle Up to take him out of the program, the bookkeeper told her “you are not going to believe this. A church just sent us a check for one full year’s tuition.” The mother told me this while sobbing. . . . This family is deeply touched by our caring and our small group is thrilled with the outcome. Our latest project is to buy new tennis shoes and socks for the needy students at Allan Powell’s school. He gave us the sizes for twelve students which he says are in dire need. We will get new tennis shoes and socks to them this week and we asked him to add others as the need arises. Our small group has always been a great connection, but never as much as when we started knowing the rewards of service.

May we all grow into this vision of the life of faith!

Thursday, April 3, 2008

A Likeness to Eternity

In the spiritual community to which I belong, we are reflecting on the art of meaningful relationships, and I am struck by some wisdom I’ve come across which advises the opposite of what most of us would consider the Christian way: be slow to make friends. It seems odd, even ungodly perhaps; and yet that is precisely what the spiritual giant, Alred of Rievaulx, claims is best. Alred was a 12th century monk and a contemporary of St. Bernard of Clairvaux. In fact, Bernard was so taken by Alred’s rich and healthy relationships, Bernard asked him to write a book describing the pursuit of such Christ-centered friendships. The result is Alred’s classic work, Spiritual Friendship, in which, among many other treasures of wisdom, he gives this advice: don’t commit to friendship with just anyone. Now, it helps me to realize that he means friendship in a very specific way: not just those with whom we have causal, “friendly” relationships, but those we allow into the closest places in our heart. Once I see that, the wisdom becomes evident. Yes, Christ-followers are called to love everyone, but not to admit just anyone into the inner circle of our lives. We all seem to know this intuitively: he just offers a more thoughtful and intentional rationale:

Since your friend is the companion of your soul, to whose spirit you join and attach yours, and so associate yourself that you wish to become one instead of two, since he is one to whom you entrust yourself as to another self, from whom you hide nothing, from whom you fear nothing, you should, in the first place, surely choose one who is considered fitted for all this. Then he is to be tried, and so finally admitted. For friendship should be stable and manifest a certain likeness to eternity, persevering always in affection. And so we ought not, like children, to change friends by reason of some vagrant whim.

What a helpful vision! First, Alred would have us practice discernment in those we allow in the inner circle of our lives. This is not out of any pretension, but because it is they who most will shape and define who we are, and we them. But, after that, once we’ve committed our lives to another, we refuse to cast off that friendship on a whim, or whenever difficulty arises. What a refreshing picture in a world of superficial connections and disposable relationships! I pray that God would give us the wisdom to live out this vision in such a way that our friendships might become for the world “a likeness to eternity.”

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Easter Effect

As recent posts reveal, I have just been captivated by the richness of the historical language of the Christian faith, both the language of God's inspired Scripture, and also the richness of the practice of prayer known as the "Daily Office" or fixed hour prayer. One aspect of the daily prayers is known as the "collect," which is a kind of prayer that specifically reminds us that we don't just pray personally and individually, but as part of the larger Story of God and as just one member of the community of God. Jesus himself gave this kind of collect reminder when in the Lord's Prayer he called us to say, not "my Father," but rather, "Our Father." With this in mind, I turn my attention to the collect for Easter-time, in which we find ourselves now. This prayer not only connects us to the larger community of faith, but reminds us of our calling, of the effect that Easter is supposed to have on us. Here is the Easter Collect:

In the Paschal Mystery, Almighty God, You established the new covenant of reconciliation. Grant, we pray, that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ's Body may show forth in our lives what we profess by our faith.

I thank you my God, for reminding me and all your people that Easter is not just a time when we recall the fact that Jesus is alive and working to bring about your new creation in the world, but that you invite us to display in our lives the reality of this very new creation which we profess. For your glory we pray that you might fulfill this prayer in our lives this season. Amen.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Morning Sun has Risen

This is one of those times of the year I most treasure, when after what seems like weeks of gray, spring is fighting its way through the clouds and making its presence known. It reminds me of the lines in the classic prayer known as the Daily Office which reads: "In Your tender compassion, the morning sun has risen upon us, to shine on us, we who live in darkness, and to guide our feet into the paths of peace." There have been countless days in recent weeks when I pray those lines by faith, so to speak, knowing that the sun has risen, but not seeing it shine. I very much prefer saying these lines when I have to squint, with the morning sun's rays in my face.

I suspect God's gracious presence is like that too. I find myself in seasons when I'm squinting because He is so obviously near; but there are times when I accept his presence in my life and our world only by trusting what I know to be true, because I cannot see. My friend challenged me years ago when he said, "we shouldn't pray, 'God be with me,' because he already is." The daily prayers remind me that he's probably right. Perhaps I should pray instead, "Lord give me the eyes of faith to know your presence, even on those days when I cannot see evidence of it anywhere." And I thank God for the times of Spring, literally and spiritually, when he amplifies his voice to shatter my deafness. Enjoy the sunshine my friends!

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Coffee Shop Musings

I had an interesting conversation today with a friend of mine who is incredibly wise, a spiritual guru of sorts. I asked him what advice he had for how our churches can pursue spiritual formation, to grow spiritually to be more the Jesus-followers we were created to be. His response was interesting: he said, we need to focus on doing the one thing that will not happen unless we do it--worshipping our God. Basketball leagues will be started for kids, people will learn to sing, counseling will be offered by therapists. But, he said, only the church will worship our God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And if we do that well, if we train people to genuinely and authentically worship (not just to craft things in churches to please themselves) it will change us over time. We will take on the character of the One we worship and we will impact the communities in which we live. I'm am captivated by this wisdom. Are we allowing ourselves to be distracted by a consumer mindset of offering what the crowds want? Of catering things to fit our lifestyles and our tastes and ignoring the One who made us and for whom we're made? My God, call us back to an utter abandonment to You. Capture us with your beauty and wonder and, as the ancients instruct us to ask, "turn our eyes from wanting what is worthless and grant us life in your ways."