Saint Augustine opens his Confessions by asking whether we pray in order to know God or whether we must know God in order to pray. How could we pray to a God we don’t know? But how could we know God unless we’ve prayed?i
It’s a paradox.
The head and heart are mysteriously united—a hypostatic union that’s unclear where one begins and the other ends. Does your heart shape your thinking? Or, does your thinking shape your heart? Somehow they must work together. For example, I know that this pork sandwich isn’t doing my cholesterol any favors, but I have no heart to change this dirty habit. Neither gets the job done alone. Unfortunately, even if I had the knowledge and the will to change, I’d also need a pork eaters anonymous support group.
There’s a wedding between our heads and our hearts throughout Scripture. “What’s the greatest commandment?” the Pharisees asked Jesus. “Love God,” Jesus said. That’s not an original thought. Moses said this when he gave the word of God to the people: “Love God with all of your heart, soul, and strength.” Jesus quotes this verse to the Pharisees, but adds a fourth component to make sure we don’t constrain love: “Love God with all of your heart, soul, strength, and mind.” In other words, love with your whole person because otherwise love isn't possible.
Lent is notorious as the season where Christians try to redirect our hearts to God by not eating chocolate and drinking booze. The theory is that if you can find a way to fix the heart, then the rest will take care of itself. And most Lenten disciplines get there through the stomach. Sometimes this works. But faith isn’t just practiced; it’s also learned. It sounds obvious, but we meditate on Jesus to become more like Jesus. Turns out that we should also get to the heart by going through the head.
Historically, Lent was a time of catechesis to teach new converts the faith, which included spiritual discipline and theological formation. The early Christians fasted, but they also gathered under the instruction of their bishops and dwelled on the mystery of Christ’s two-natures, divine and human. Finally, these new Christians woke up as the sun rose on Easter morning and took off their clothes (how much more liberated can you get?) and their old lives to be drowned and raised with Christ--a death and resurrection of heads and hearts.
I should mention, by the way, that this is repentance. Repentance is a buzz word during Lent, as it should be, both slightly embarrassing and crucial to our faith. But if we reclaim the Greek ‘metanoia,’ we remember that repentance is a simple and practical word that means to ‘change your mind.’ Repentance means that we’ve been walking in the wrong direction, but then something changed our minds and we’ve decided to walk a new path. I’ve already repented of this essay a number of times—changed the direction, deleted great sentences, and started a new trail by putting one word in front of the other. We're all better for it.
How will you change your mind this Lent?
Today’s church has done a great job shaping hearts during Lent, but we’d do well to set aside time to love God with our minds. Most of us come to faith through words, many of them written down. My hunch is that many Christians are spiritual, but illiterate. Or, if we’re not illiterate, then we’re stuck in the same theologies we learned in Vacation Bible School. This is about as unhealthy as believing that food hasn’t progressed since the birth of McDonalds. We should always question our theological inheritance. I often hear parishioners boast that they’ve not read a book in thirty years and I learn something about our discipleship. In the Land of Oz, we'd be the scarecrows with hearts, but no brains.
Maybe we’re still retreating from the Enlightenment—afraid to ask difficult questions because they might destroy our finely sculpted piety. You mean to tell me that the earth is four and a half billion years old? Then again, maybe we’ve wrongly assumed that Christianity is absorbed via oxygen in our country. Conversely, it’s possible that the administration of good catechesis has declined because of the pitiful number of adult baptisms. There’s an even better chance that we’re just lazy followers of Jesus. And we’re failing to love God with our whole selves.
There’s a case to be made that we're all called to be life-long theologians, because we love God by thinking about God. Now, that doesn’t mean we’ll be paid for it, but that’s no excuse not tinker with new ideas (after all, most of us are not dentists and we still brush our teeth). Don't you long to know more about your beloved? I love my wife and kids with all my heart and so I hope to learn something new about them every day—still, the mystery has not been fully plumbed. When Socrates said, ‘The more I know, the more I realize I know nothing,’ he could have been talking about women. Or, children. And also, God.
God is greater than that which can be conceived. Whenever we say ‘God,’ we’ve already misspoken. And so we speak of God with great care, admitting that we’re just children scrambling for words and looking for better ones. It doesn’t matter how great our intelligence or I.Q, because we can love God with our minds and still not graduate from pre-k. After all, we have the hardest curriculum. Class is never dismissed. You have permission to monitor my continuing education allowance—if I’m not buying and reading new books, tell my bishop that I’m not following Jesus.
For example, the doctrine of the Trinity reminds us that we’d have a better chance of reaching the end of the universe than arriving at God. God is not like us. Rather, God is a mystery to be savored, not a question that can be answered. Those of us who worship God with the mind rise eternally ‘through ever higher regions towards the Transcendent.’ii
That’s beautiful. Wait, now my heart is kicking into gear.
Here’s the point: loving with our minds is not a means to an end. Nor, is it an academic pursuit or about getting the right definition of God. Rather, it’s about being pulled into God’s arms. Dwelling on what’s beautiful. Loving words because they deliver us to the feet of the eternal Word and then, unite us with God. Many days I learn something new and I don’t even have the opportunity to use it! That's ok. Loving with the mind is an end in itself—worship.
One last thing: the word Lent is partly derived from the Anglo Saxon word Lenten, which means ‘Spring,” but also forms the root for our word ‘lengthen.’ Lent begins when the days begin to lengthen and the darkness wanes. Coincidentally, Christians lengthen their spiritual lives by stretching their brains and stomachs. The sun casts light on a people who dwell in night—the darkness of the heart and mind.
I wonder how you will lengthen your mind. How would you describe the Apostle’s Creed? What makes a Methodist different than a Baptist (other than the amount of water used)? Here’s a list of great Lenten disciplines: read Scripture and tradition, listen to someone who believes differently, have lunch with a Muslim. These practices will challenge and deepen your own convictions. It will help to shape your heart—dreams, goals, purposes, and being. And in turn, you will have worshiped.
This Lent, I made a commitment to study Scripture and challenge myself with new thinkers. It’s an alternate means of repentance—an acknowledgement that I don’t have all the truth. I'm not God. By the end of the season, I hope I’ll have changed my mind. Walked a new path. I still won’t understand resurrection on Easter morning, but I’ll relish in the mystery with my head and heart.
Even better, I’ll have spent forty days loving God.
i. Augustine Confessions Book I.I
ii.Gregory of Nyssa Sermon 8; On the Song of Songs
“There is snow everywhere. It must be Christmas!” says my daughter.
Which is fortunate or unfortunate depending upon how your December is progressing. If we keep power and heat, then this will be good news for most of us. We’re an overworked people in an overly anxious season. Christmas is two weeks away, which means that Advent is halfway over. It’s a perfect time to stop for half-time. To take a break. Slow down.
Snow should be on the checklist for every great Advent-Christmas, along with shopping, hot cocoa, Home Alone, and at least one good meltdown. With nowhere to go, nothing to do, we are invited to unwrap true sabbath rest as even most critters go into hiding. The streets shut down and everything is quiet, until the silence is finally broken by chirping birds and crunching snow. It’s an open invitation to be a child again—binge those Christmas classics and make a snowman. Heck, make a snow-family. The world slows enough to notice that ice crystals fall from the sky.
What’s advent without one day of wonder?
Zechariah, who we met last week, was forced into a season of silence when he didn’t believe that his wife had become pregnant with child (who would be born as John the Baptist). And who would? But the angel sealed his lips and held is tongue. John must have come out of the temple miming a ‘Y’ with his arms stretched upward and a beachball with his arms outstretched and rounded.
He lived like this, in a perpetual game of charades, for nine months until his wife gave birth. Now, this is often interpreted as a punishment—usually by extroverts, I imagine. This might have been a blessing. It’s December and we can’t talk! Silence is free therapy. It's a way of watching and a way of listening to what is going on within and around. Before we inquire about the gift that is to come, we must first come to understand what is happening around us—to sink deeper into each moment and let your eyes linger on those things that are so often ignored.
It might be that our angel takes the form of snowflakes and icy roads.
The December calendar fills up quicker than any other month of the year. Advent has been hijacked by Christmas busyness, loud noises, and too many bad songs. Bah humbug. There’s not a spare minute to prepare a room for the coming child, to make a wish list, to dwell in the stillness. Christmas arrives and there’s no room in the Inn. Go next door, Jesus. This house is full of eggnog and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.
Then, we’re blindsided by snow and the calendar is suddenly empty. There is absolutely nothing to do. Many of us can’t even distract ourselves with church—even church is cancelled. Turns out that we have to find God in snow blossoms and white blankets covering lawns. We’ll have to look for God in a quiet house, the children sledding, the neighbor who needs a warm place to stay. It’s even possible that we might have to play board games with family. Oh, the horror.
Worse yet, we might have to look within ourselves and prepare a place in our hearts for Christ to be born. Where is Jesus’ looking to be born this year? In your heart? In our world?
As much as I love the cheer, it’s not always helpful. Welcome to the season of imposed (faux?) happiness! Christmas is a slow, steady morphine drip in the veins of the world's brokenness and grief and despair. If we manage to schedule our calendars full enough, then we can ignore the pain during ‘the most wonderful time of the year!’ Or, we can throw money at it, which usually works temporarily.
But what happens when there are no distractions? Enter melancholy and stress. Silence can often be the precursor to an avalanche of worry, dread, and pain that you never heard coming. If there’s one person I don’t want to be in a room alone with—it’s me. There I am, face to face with my receding hairline, that weird pain in my throat, and too many meetings scheduled for next week. God may not even show up. I’m left all alone with just thoughts, lost dreams, and false hopes. And it feels way too close to death.
At least I can still send text messages.
The desert fathers told this short tale: A brother in Scetis went to ask for a word from Abba Moses and the old man said to him, “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”
But there’s also a threat with these kinds of snow storms. Trees fall and transformers blow. Roads are snow covered and slick. We are fragile and dependent people. Milk and bread is no condolence. Thousands are not only stuck in silence; they’re cold and fearful. Literally yearning for someone to turn on the lights. Will we ever be warm again? When will the quiet, stillness of advent’s labor move into transition? And that's the cry of a people who wait.
Someone once said that silence is the loudest cry. For whom is the world cold this year? What blankets can you offer them?
A couple of snowy days is the perfect Advent gift. Here’s why: advent is about anticipation and longing and quiet can be the medium to develop that patience. If we sit long enough, we’ll long for a savior. Maybe even prepare a room in our chests. A child will come “to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
Quiet is busy, though it’s a different kind of busy—the kind that Advent intends: waiting, wonderment, joy, yearning. It’s sledding down a hill, but also introspection. It’s The Great Christmas Light Fight, yet longing for a more just earth. It’s making sure your street is warm and fed and talking about nothing.
For one day we will look for peace on our streets and create peace in our hearts. And that’s what advent is about. After all, there will be no peace on earth if we can’t first find peace at home.
Advent is a season of pregnancy for Christians. Well, that’s to put it mildly. This is the season when we become like a woman in her third trimester. We’re waddling around like we’ve just eaten at Golden Corral. We’ve already decorated the baby’s room. And redecorated it. Forget about getting any sleep. Speaking of forgetting, why did we just get in the car? Everyone tells us to savor the season—the anticipation, warmth, and wonder. But all we really want is rest and normalcy. We’re yearning and praying for this child to be born among us. The world is broken and we need a Savior—like, now. In fact, yesterday would have been great.
I think this is one reason why the secular culture loves Christmas. It’s a sign-act that we’re not giving up on this world. Help is on the way. And for us, help means a newborn baby. Even strangers can’t help but to come near to the church, to touch her protruding stomach. Our houses are strung with lights and trees are standing tall in living room windows. The darkness will not overcome us. We sing, we eat, we snuggle. We buy each other gifts, which is a good instinct if it can be reigned in, subverted, and made cruciform. Take that, despair.
I wonder if we criticize people too deeply—the ones who never quite make it all the way to Christ’s stable. They stop short at “Happy Holidays” with shopping malls. Or, they watch from the fringes at the Christmas parties with one too many egg nog mixed drinks. Maybe, they’ve followed a different star and ended up at a different stable. But we’re on this earth together, each of us waiting for the darkness to recede and the light to shine longer and brighter.
A life without hope is not a life. This is why Dante wrote that the gates are hell are inscribed with ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here.’ We need hope so much that we can’t make it through Thanksgiving without singing Away in a Manger. For three years at my first church we argued about Christmas hymns. The congregation wanted to sing the carols. Life is painful. Can we go ahead and celebrate Christmas now? I wanted to make them wait until Christmas Eve. The congregation won.
Christ is born in Bethlehem. Today, Today, Today.
And why not? We’ve all seen the news. The world has dealt us so many blows. Not to mention the disappointment of so many prior Christmases. We’ve gone under the tree, picked up the present, shook the package, and ripped the paper. Great! It’s another pair of underwear. Something more must be under that tree—more than sentiment, good cheer, pieces of plastic. Or maybe that's all we'll ever unwrap.
Advent begins with uncertainty and a high risk of miscarriage. Pregnancy is full of excitement and wonder, but it’s also a season of fear. You place your hope in flesh and blood vessels and cells that need to divide and grow. Everything is supposed to ‘just work,’ but we still wonder if the heart is still beating. We can’t control it—we’re held hostage by a bundle of cells the size of a mango. All of our hopes and fears are bound in a tiny package marked 'fragile.'
The church teaches that hope is waiting for deliverance from something that can only come from the outside. We've been waiting to be freed once and for all for a couple thousand years. If that’s the case, then why should we dare to hope for more than the emptiness and silence? Will this finally be the year that the humble will be exalted? That the rich will be sent away empty?
Most Advent seasons Zechariah is my patron saint. What’s hope look like for Zechariah? It’s showing up to work on time. Zechariah is a priest of Israel. His job consisted of going into the temple, deep down into the Holy of Holies, the place where God resides. And he burnt incense. No one else gets to go that deep into God’s heart. Others would have tied a rope around his leg in case he died back there so they could pull him out.
Exteriors are often misleading. Through another lens, Zechariah was dealt a difficult hand. He and Elizabeth were childless. To say they were righteous and childless would be like hypocrisy. Other Jews would presume they were being punished by God for their unrighteousness. So what’d he do in his brokenness? He went to work.
Sometimes that’s what hope looks like. Hope does not know any excess. But it also doesn’t know any dearth. A sky ripped open sounds great, but most of us are just hoping for a good night’s sleep. A better co-worker. That she’ll get out of the hospital by Christmas Day. Hope doesn’t always have to be so heroic. Sometimes hope is brushing your teeth and getting dressed the week after the funeral. It’s planting a garden when last year’s was destroyed by a groundhog. Hope is buying energy efficient lightbulbs after the latest climate report has been released. When the world is caving in on itself and we can manage to sit down at the piano and write a song. That’s hope, too.
God uses people who have just enough hope to show up. It’s not bold or heroic; it’s the path of least resistance. It’s the bare minimum amount of hope—just enough to pass the course, to get the pay check, to stay out of the hospital. But it’s an open door and God’s done more with less.
Does Zechariah expect God to show up? Doubt it. Regardless, he's given these words:
Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.
John became the unexpected gift to Zechariah and to the world.
Now, it doesn’t always end that way (spoiler: it usually doesn't). We’re not promised every happy ending. But it often begins the same—in darkness and barrenness. The blues of advent can be as deep as the blues of lent. This year Advent begins with tear gas, fires that terrorize entire landscapes, guns in schools and synagogues.
Here's the question: do we dare to show up for work?
Saint Augustine says that “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” I also think that Hope has two less attractive, chain-smoking stepdaughters. They’re named Duty and Perseverance. Duty to show up today, and Perseverance to show up again tomorrow.
And so we show up. Not because we want to, but because we have to wait. Christmas will arrive, but there’s no way to induce it to come earlier than scheduled. In the mean time, we go into the temple and burn incense. We wait. Light the Advent wreath. Wait. Speak up with the voiceless. Wait. Deliver cookies to the shut-ins. Wait.
Something might come when we least expect it—during a rally or a dinner at the women’s shelter. We’re sitting on the couch watching a Hallmark movie and suddenly something contracts. It’s go time. God is speaking something new into existence. A light is rising against the night sky. A shining star is appearing. Follow it. Follow it all the way to the stable. A Savior will be there. He must be, right? It's our only hope.
Until then, all we can do is show up. And then, show up again tomorrow.
‘We should do this more often because, like, people are happy,’ I overheard after our worship gathering the other week. It’s a shame that we don’t say it every week, or even most weeks, and that it’s a surprise when we walk out of worship muttering 'well, that wasn't as boring as usual.'
A couple of times a year ten of the local United Methodist Churches get together for joint worship. About half of each congregation shows up, but it’s enough to fill an entire sanctuary and leave the stragglers searching for parking. For others, it's a free Sunday off. I get it, because it’s tempting to wake up and smell that coffee and then remain in pajamas. Life is busy. You can get more done if you stay home. I’ve heard that voice before, too. The leaves will get raked, groceries bought, and you’ll still have time to catch the Panthers game.
And yet I have a lingering sense that half of our congregations missed out on something:
Methodists usually teach that church is a verb. You don’t go to church; you are the church—go, do, be. “The Church exists by mission, just as a fire exists by burning,” says Emil Brunner. I think that’s right, but there’s still a sense for me that church is also the place where we intentionally participate in the God who is where we live and move and have our being. Worship is the center of our life together—an event where an ancient book of stories, myths, poems, and angry prophecies becomes a vessel for the risen Christ to walk among us, up and down the aisles. A meal of bread and wine reveals God’s presence among us as Christ is re-presented in a sacrament of thanksgiving and hope. God’s love is made visible in our peace—the hugs and laughter.
We are, first of all, a Sabbath people who worship a God who celebrated on the seventh day. And secondly, we are Easter people with lives built on a resurrection festival. And thirdly, a Pentecostal people of sprawling wild fires, violent winds, and a dove that hasn't found its way back to the cage.
Jesus’ life was festal even if it was also painful, ending in suffering and death. You’d often find him at a table sharing a meal or telling stories about wedding banquets and great dinner parties. That’s why it was fitting for Christian worship to begin as a celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Christians, at the beginning of our existence, weren’t uptight. We gathered on the first day of the week at daybreak, which is the day following the Jewish Sabbath, with bread and wine for koinonia, or fellowship, and song. The rationale is simple—when Christ’s presence is recognized among the gathered, the best response is to celebrate. And why not go hard? We are, after all, subjected to so much bad news the rest of the week that it's nice to have a day to let hope loose.
I must confess that the party template for worship isn’t appealing if you have mild social anxiety, especially when there’s not a bar to get a drink to make the small talk bearable. Parties can be uncomfortable. I assume there are others like me and that it is one reason why attendance drops when we gather with other congregations for shared worship. But God’s Spirit takes the place of alcohol by bringing us together and filling us with joy and communion. Why else would a group of sober friends, and oftentimes strangers, get together to hug, eat, and sing? If it gets real heated then hands are raised, except not to Journey, but to Charles Wesley. Surely, this Spirit explains why outside onlookers thought the early church was drunk on the day of Pentecost.
If we are a resurrection people then one thing is certain: we should throw better parties.
I happen to know that there are a few key ingredients for a good party: the first step is to think about who’s there, what they’re bringing, and the particular season for celebration. We call worship liturgy, or ‘the work of the people,’ because it’s something we join together to create in the Spirit in ‘full, active, and conscious participation.’ Like a potluck, the festival changes depending on who has created what or what has been brought to be tasted. The style of party—whether you have organs or guitars or hymns or Hillsong—won't matter as much as what gifts, attitudes, or needs are brought into the body. All of it is incorporated into a theme, or a season and focus, that gives shape to the time and more generally, our lives together.
Go ahead—plan the party, get the details hammered out, and then the people will take it and create an experience that you could have never foreseen or planned.
There’s a Spirit involved in our worship that can’t be predicted, but moves with the energy of our common life together. God isn’t coercive; God fills sanctuaries and hearts as we acknowledge the presence and make room. We show up with thanksgiving and the Spirit gives us a heart of celebration. But these parties aren’t only about being happy, either. We may arrive grieving a loss and the Spirit will come to us as Counselor. We only need come expecting to see God and each other, and God and each other we will find. Which is why this much is certain: if worship is another obligation or box to check off on our to-do list, then it will become a rote and dreadful thing to persevere. Visitors can sense this. The room is deflated, or what Marcus Borg calls ‘flat-tire’ worship, because all of the Spirit has been pushed out of the room. No one wants to go to a party that’s always a duty to fulfill.
On the other hand, a right experience of God bestows energy that we carry home with us and bring out into the world. Here’s why this is so crucial for us and the others around us: transformation rests on the shoulders of good parties. There’s better mission when there’s better worship. At the end of the service, the pastor stands up with open arms to give a benediction. It’s a blessing and also a rally cry to go back into a broken world that needs healing. Worship demands action. If saints aren’t being made more Christ-like, or if chains aren’t being broken and powers and principalities aren't vanquished, then it’s not a right experience of God. It’s just fairy tales and self-help, or worse—entertainment. The taste of the bread and wine must make us hungrier for real life, which is life as God intends in the kingdom of God. If we have an encounter that moves us and begins to shape our will, then we’re more likely to not just have church, but to do church.
To put it all more simply, bad parties don’t cut it.
We should bring better gifts, a bigger appetite, and an expectation that something good might happen—something we can’t risk missing. We owe it to God who has created a festal life and is inviting us into it. But we also owe it to our communities, especially if worship is a primary place that God changes our wills, sanctifies us, and makes us into the kind of people who transforms the world. Let’s not settle for routine when real goodness and truth might fall on our human hearts and then radiate out into the world.
When folks say, ‘something beautiful just happened,’ then pastors and other leaders of the church should listen. If it’s a better party to gather with the neighboring congregations, then why don’t we do it more often? After all, it’s beauty that will heal our broken world. Let us gather it to create another living performance of God’s drama of (re)creation.
Unless, of course, we think that there’s nothing to celebrate.