Don’t be a pornographer

What do you call a person who uses pornography?

I am writing a chapter of my dissertation on pornography. Awkwardly, I kept using the phrase “the user of pornography” to denote, well, the user of pornography. The one who looks at the pictures and videos. The one who reads the smut.

Isn’t there a better term for this person?

The person who shoots the video, who snaps the picture, who writes the smut, they’ve got a name. But the looker and reader: they’re just a user. Right?

Photo: Steve Zeidler

Imagine having the title “pornographer” on your business card or your nameplate.

Here’s the thing: if you use pornography, you are a pornographer.

It is ultimately the user of pornography who summons the pornographic image to appear in all its objectivity in the heat of the faux-erotic moment. Nothing appears to a user of pornography until the user says “appear!” It is the user of pornography who calls out for a human person to be reduced to zeroes and ones, rendered on their screen, and objectified for their private and unilateral pleasure. 

If a pornographer is someone who causes pornography appear, then a user of pornography is just as much (if not more) a pornographer as the one who snaps the photograph, shoots the video, or writes the story. 

Don’t be a pornographer.

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Flattening our reality, one share at a time

This past semester I taught our school’s senior class a unit on media studies. This was mostly an excuse to geek out on Marshall McLuhan and call it “work.”

But in the context of our course as a whole, I had another aim. We are spending the year studying the way in which we derive stories from various influences and then enact those stories in our own lives. When we live our lives, full of thought, passions, and actions in the world, we tell a story—what we’re calling (after Richard Rorty and Mark Edmundson) our ‘Final Narrative.’

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I’m hoping to help students identify the sources (scriptures, rituals, works of literature and art, philosophies) from which they hope to consciously construct their Final Narratives. I am also hoping to make them aware of the ways in which their immersion in the structures of social media may inhibit their efforts to discern, adopt, and enact dimensions of the Final Narratives proposed by compelling authors, mystics, filmmakers, and artists.

In short, it’s hard to mine Homer, Hemingway, Hebrews, Heidegger, Herzog, or Handel for actionable glimpses of the good, true, and beautiful when most of our attention is captured by #hashtags, handles, and header images.

And, even if our minds and hearts are profoundly moved by an encounter with great Final Narrative proposals, the life-changing impact of such encounters may be significantly diminished by the way in which our social media supervenes upon our lived experience. We are brought crashing back down from our mountaintop experiences not by the demands and duties of our daily lives, but through the banality of living within social media’s world-flattening reality.

We put down a great novel and pick up our phones. The Old Man and the Sea was trying to convince us that doing what we were made for, and doing it with heroic perseverance, is intrinsically valuable. But now Twitter is trying to convince us, by the very structure of its ‘world,’ that the latest nuclear provocation by Kim Jong Un is worthy of the same amount of concern as a snarky comment by Stephen Colbert.

We come home from church, where the liturgy was attempting to en-world us in the life of the world to come. We sit on the sofa and amputate that far off world in order to save the World of Facebook, within which a historically private moment like a marriage proposal is photodocumented alongside the also historically private (but for opposite reasons) event of my high school buddy’s afternoon snack.

When we bookend our reading experiences, however immersive they are, with immersion in social media, however brief, we tell our souls that the worlds of those books are fantasy, and these selfies and cat videos are reality. When we enfold our corporate worship within a life more fundamentally framed by Facebook, in a subtle but undeniable fashion, it is Facebook that corporate worship becomes about. 

Our technology has enabled us to see the world from the vantage point of distant planets. But our technology has also given us lifelong memberships in the Flat Earth Society. And, when our lives are through, it will be difficult for people to discern from their movements story arcs other than, perhaps, “they were born, they posted, they died.” Our Final Narratives, our supposed visions of the life well lived, are telling the story not of deep conviction and persistent action, but of things liked, things shared, things retweeted.

Are there some of us who manage to utilize social media in ways that do not allow its structures and its ‘world’ to supervene upon the ‘real world’? Are there some of us who primarily live within a world wherein duty, heroism, conviction, love, and sacrifice are treasured and enacted, rather than a world of mere likes and retweets? Certainly.

Do we have the reflective capacity to recognize when we’ve swapped the enchanted world of the great texts, great films, great artworks, great religions and real-life heroes for the flattened earth of Facebook? Do we have the will power to make a substantial change if we recognize that we’re living in the wrong world? I’m not sure.

The Expatriations of Bono and TS Eliot

As soon as I became an expat in the summer of 2015, I began feeling a new kinship with those who throughout history have gone to take up residence in a land not their own.

In the past year I’ve been fixated on the so-called “Lost Generation” of expats who lived in Paris after the Great War. First it was a near obsession with Hemingway. Then I got a group of friends together to read this generation. We’ve read Fitzgerald, Sherwood Anderson, Joyce, and now Eliot. In their lives and literatures, they were trying to dial into life after the cataclysm that was World War I.

Eliot’s difficult waistcoat

As I’ve studied The Waste Land, I’ve paid close attention to Eliot’s expatriation. As Yale’s Langdon Hammer humorously notes (in his Open Yale Course), Eliot is the only major British poet from St. Louis. In speaking of Eliot’s forced entry into British culture, Hammer makes a big deal out of the young poet’s waistcoat. (Being a sartorial old soul myself, I was all ears.) Hammer says Eliot’s waistcoat can be read as a symbol of his quest to strip himself of his Americanness, to fully embrace British culture, and to inscribe himself within its literary tradition, however uncomfortable, stuffy, and restrictive that might seem.

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Photo: The Telegraph

As Eliot settled into his British tweed, he made it his practice to quote heavily from authoritative literary and religious texts of the past. He was conscious of their power to convey an authority to him by their very citation. But he was also conscious of the fact that everything had changed in the wake of the Great War, and that he would have to do something new with the old he treasured. The result was a sort of bricolage of lines from Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Homer, the Bible, and Buddhist texts. Nick Mount’s fantastic lecture on The Waste Land likens Eliot’s use of texts to a Canadian soldier’s gathering of bits of broken stained glass from across Europe and their assembly into a new window at the University of Toronto. Eliot was old and new.

He was also difficult! In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent, he insisted that, following the War, poetry had to be difficult.

And so Eliot set out to become a tastemaker in his new home. By quoting authorities, he wanted to tell Britain what its literary and cultural legacy was, and he, the American, wanted to make himself the standard of what it meant to be literary, cultured, and British. Spoiler alert: he basically succeeded.

Bono’s star-spangled jacket

U2’s front man maintains a home in Dublin, and has most definitely not renounced his Irish citizenship or roots. And while in 2000 he had “just got a place in New York,” he was not new to America. The Joshua Tree feels like the wide open spaces of the American west. The video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was filmed under the pulsating lights of Las Vegas. “Bullet the Blue Sky” was addressed to the American industrial military complex and its commanders-in-chief. The Rattle and Hum album and tour was an immersion in American sounds and culturescapes. They re-toured The Joshua Tree for its 30th anniversary, convinced that it had something yet to say to the two Americas under Trump.

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Image: Getty/GQ

After 9/11, it was U2 who memorialized its dead at the Super Bowl halftime show that winter. The names streamed up the screen like a New York skyscraper as though they were headed to “Where the Streets Have No Name”. Bono showed his American flag jacket lining in solidarity with the country reeling from the attack less than six months prior.

All of which is to say that Bono is a lot like Eliot. He has quoted America’s traditions to it, and has made himself himself its modern interpreter and its most enthusiastic champion. Though while Eliot renounced his Americanness to cozy up to the British, Bono has used his outsider status to hold a mirror up to America—to try to convince America of its exceptional history, ideas, status, and burden to serve and lead the world in all things free and brave.

However, Bono hasn’t postured himself as America’s authority. As recently as last night, Bono sang two songs to America on Saturday Night Live. In one of them, he sings:

I could sing it to you all night, all night
If I could, I’d make it alright, alright
Nothing’s stopping you except what’s inside
I can help you, but it’s your fight, your fight

Moreover, Bono, unlike Eliot, increasingly doesn’t seem to be convinced (as perhaps he was during the Zooropa/Pop period) that, in order to point America back to its founding documents, his music and lyrics need to be difficult. Where Eliot thought the cataclysm of World War I called for difficulty, Bono seems to think the post-9/11 world needs joy and simplicity “with an acid drop mixed in with the sweetness.”

Bono’s and Eliot’s expat churches

One final consideration of Bono’s and Eliot’s expatraiations.

Everywhere in the world where there are expats, there are congregations for them. Eric Liddell went to the English-speaking presbyterian church in Paris on the Sunday when he skipped his Olympic event. Flushing, New York has Korean congregations that dwarf the rest of my denomination’s churches. I currently pastor an English congregation in Seoul.

Perhaps it was just another of Eliot’s anglophilic waistcoats, but the poet converted from Unitarianism to Anglicanism in 1927. He submitted to the authority of a bishop despite his professed Puritanical temperament. While he moved and shook the literary world, effectively becoming its archbishop, in ecclesial matters he sat in the pew and became, liturgically, an English commoner seeking communion. For all we can tell, he was a quiet orthodox church member until his death. Two years after his death, his name was emblazoned in stone in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. That seems like a fitting place for one who became both the English language poet of the twentieth century and a humble Anglican.

On the other hand, as one of my fellow expat churchmen has recently pointed out to me, Bono’s relationship with the church has been a different sort of expatriation experience. As Joshua Rothman ably recounts, U2 struggled in its early years with their potential for international stardom and the felt demands of their fringy ascetic ecclesial community. Eventually, they chose rock n roll over church. The Irish context of Protestant-Catholic violence certainly contributed.

The result, as I’ve hinted at above, is that Bono became something of the megachurch worship pastor of America’s sorta-spiritual and maybe-kinda religious stadium rock crowds. He doesn’t fancy himself a papal authority in American music or culture the way Eliot saw himself in the world of British letters. Bono has always taken more of a persuasive posture of influence; he just doesn’t have an ex cathedra temperament. But if one made a bit of a Puritanical analysis of Bono’s dealings with the American soul, one might say he is an unauthorized street preacher; a circuit-riding camp meeting convener; an officiant of strange fire.

In the end, Bono has not expatriated the way Eliot did. Part of me thinks Bono is doing it right. Who instinctively cozies up to Eliot’s renunciation of homeland? Who can bear his stuffy sartorial affectations? Who cannot look on quizzically at his brazen cultural interpolation? And, by contrast, who cannot help but admire Bono’s admiring pep talks in star-spangled jackets?

But the churchman in me, along with the would-be rebel in me, knows that while Bono bends over backwards not to be seen as an American authority, his churchless spirituality ultimately amounts to an unwillingness to sit under authority. He’ll read the Psalms, interpret them, sing them, and make them sexy enough to sing in an arena. He’ll earn his money, and then he’ll decide where it should go and who it should help. And ultimately, he’ll make himself a sort of Unitarian pastor in a “church” where everyone that’s feeling the vibe feels at home, as long as their politics are sufficiently socially conscious and they’re okay periodically holding up their consciences to a certain figure of Jesus of Nazareth.

Bono has expatriated not from Ireland, but from the church. This leaves him homeless, dislocated in a way that Eliot would have remained had he merely gone all-in with the British literary tradition and not settled into the back pew in his local parish church.

It has been 35 years of ecclesial homelessness for Bono. My hope is that he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for in churchless spirituality. My hope is that, if he still can’t reconcile church and rock n roll, he will become uncool or irrelevant enough, soon enough, to settle down into some quiet parish outside Dublin and perhaps duck into Redeemer when he’s playing expat at his other home in New York.

To be at home, to repatriate, he’ll need to take some of the advice he’s giving to America on the new album and get out of his own way.

[Update: As I mentioned to my critical fellow U2 enthusiast, sometimes we assume we know the perspective from which Bono speaks and the audience to which his songs are addressed. We don’t, necessarily. It turns out that America may not be the primary audience of “Get Out of Your Own Way”—instead, that honor seems to belong first to his daughter and second, to himself. ]

Mastered by Divinity

JL MARION

I’ve long thought that is what the M.Div. degree ought to signify. Listen to Jean-Luc Marion describe what theological work does to us:

Theology always writes starting from another than itself. It diverts the author from himself; it causes him to write outside of himself, even against himself, since he must write not of what he is, on what he knows, in view of what he wants, but in, for, and by that which he receives and in no case masters.

Theological discourse offers its strange jubilation only to the strict extent that permits and, dangerously, demands of its workman that he speak beyond his means, precisely because he does not speak of himself. … One must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology. In all senses.

(God Without Being, 1991)

Thickening the Sermon’s Plot

I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s delightful book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. If you are interested in writing short stories, novels, or even memoirs–in other words, any writing that is less expositional and more dependent on character and plot–you really need to get this book. It will demystify the writing process, while still leaving lots of room for you as a writer to lean into the real mystery: people’s lives, folks’ souls.
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I happened to get to Lamott’s section on plot the other day when I should have been writing my sermon. I decided to try and redeem my procrastinated time by trying out Lamott’s counsel for developing a good plot in the writing of my sermon.

Lamott shares a trick she learned from one Alice Adams on plot-making. It follows an ABDCE pattern. Action, background, development, climax, ending. 

You begin with action that is compelling enough to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, and what was going on before the opening of the story. Then you develop these people, so that we learn what they care most about. The plot–the drama, the actions, the tension–will grow out of that. You move them along until everything comes together in the climax, after which things are different for the main characters, different in some real way. And then there is the ending: what is our sense of who these people are now, what are they left with, what happened, and what did it mean?

My experiment in sermon-plotting

I was assigned Exodus 5:22-6:12, the story of Moses confronting God for failing to deliver Israel from slavery under Pharaoh, and how God responded. Here’s how I ‘plotted’ my sermon:

Action: Easy. Moses actually says what so many of us are thinking lots of times. “God, are you on our side, or have you teamed up with our enemies?” How will God respond to this accusation? What will God do? Incinerate him? Turn his staff into a serpent and have the serpent bite him? But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. That’s enough action to pull us all into the story.

Background: What’s the history of Moses’s relationship with God up to this point? It’s had its highs: being saved from an infanticidal Pharaoh, getting a Harvard education, enjoying Egyptian courtly privilege. It’s also had its troughs: being exiled into Midian and demoted to a lowly shepherd, almost being struck down by God along the roadside for not having circumcised his son. We’re rehearsing the twists and turns of this relationship that have brought us to the current action and dialogue. The action was at first introduced as raw action. Now, each bit of background shows how the present action is freighted with significance, and shows how the stakes are higher than we would have assumed with the action alone.

Development: Development is the part of the plot that sets the stage for the big climax. In Marylynne Robinson’s Gilead this is where we feel the feel the tension in the room when Jack and Rev. Ames say 10 words with their lips and 100 more words with their tone, body language, and with all the words that aren’t said. In Exodus 5-6, this is where I want the congregation to feel the sting of Moses’s words as he accuses God (who had promised to deliver Israel) and Pharaoh (who regularly threw Hebrew infant boys into the Nile to drown) of being on the same team. It’s here that I pull my “exegetical goodies” into the story–but only those exegetical goodies which actually help tell the story. Nothing will slow the story down like a bunch of parsed Hebrew verbs at this point.

Climax: Where is the confrontation between a God who is not going to change and a character who therefore must change in one way or another? When you’ve identified this point, you’ve found your climax. What remains is to make the climax of the story the climax of your sermon. In this case, everything hinges on how God reacts to Moses’s accusation. So my climax focused on how Yahweh did not incinerate Moses, but instead reiterated his promises to him, with two particular details:

  1. Yahweh underscored the intimacy with which Moses had come to know him, based on the fact that God had revealed his personal name to Moses, though not to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
  2. Yahweh told Moses that for generations to come, Israel would constantly recall the deliverance that was about to happen–that these wild events would become Israel’s national origin story.

Ending: Here’s where you make sure to have Jesus be the real hero of each Old Testament story. The reality is that we’ve all been where Moses is from time to time: convinced that we’d answered the call of God to obediently follow his lead into some difficult task, only to begin to wonder if God had sadistically sent us on a fool’s errand. But from the cross onward, we know at least 2 things that Moses himself wouldn’t even come to know:

  1. God isn’t just God (his title). His ‘first name’ is Jesus, and this Jesus has drawn far nearer to us than Yahweh did to Moses. We have a God who invites us to call him by a personal name–a name which means what that same Jesus did: “God saves.”
  2. Jesus was sent on a ‘fool’s errand’ to fight a losing battle at the hands of sin, death, hell, Satan, Judas, the Pharisees, Sadducees, the crowds, Pilate, and the Romans. But in walking the plank like this, he saved us, and by rising again, he raised us. No matter what happens on the apparent ‘fools errands’ we seem to find ourselves on in obedience to Jesus, we can know, only because of the the cross and resurrection, that our labor in the service of Jesus is not in vain.

Let’s thicken our plots

The preaching of Old Testament narratives, in my opinion, doesn’t just lend itself to story-shaped sermons; it almost requires it. If anything, we should be taking the so-called expositional and doctrinal parts of Scripture and thinking about how to bring the impact of the text to our audience through the conventions of good storytelling. But what we’re prone to do is strip mine ready-made biblical stories, full of dramatic intrigue, for doctrines and principles. This is one of these instances in which Dorothy Sayers’s criticism of churchmen rings sadly true: Christianity is often boring through no fault of Christianity itself.

Remember, the point of preaching is not to teach doctrines. The point of preaching is to confront us with Jesus in such a way that we, like the characters after the climax of a dramatic story, are changed in a lasting way. If we’re aiming to reach a spiritual climax by preaching, why not make a plot out of our sermons?

Small Room = Big Feel

From the start of our church plant, we adopted a contrarian “no launch” launch plan.

If you are “launching,” then you need people. Enough of them. Experts say at least 50 of them, or else there’s an 85% chance you’ll never make it to 50.

Congregations are Psychological Animals

I think that part of what’s behind that statistic is psychological. There is a certain effect that empty chairs have on the morale. If you “launch” with 25 people in a room that could hold 125, you’re going to feel pretty pathetic. Try as you might to get this fledgling congregation to imagine filling the space, psychologically, there’s not much that can be done to engender optimism with so many vacant cushions.

If you have a group of 25 people, chances are they are anxious to launch. To get out there in the wild. To get out of the living room and into something that feels more like church. The gurus will say to wait. Launch later, launch larger.

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Some Standard Contrarian Counsel

My advice?

Never launch. Just don’t. Reject the whole idea. Then you don’t have to “wait” until you hit some magic number in order to “go public.”

Nah. Stay put until you’re bursting at the seams. Until there is so much energy in the teensy little room you’re in that you simply must acquire a new meeting space.

Why? Because, instead of launching, you can continually calibrate the psychology of your church plant by pressing the limits of whatever space you inhabit.

Upsizing and Downsizing

In our case, we stayed in the living room until we simply couldn’t. Then we moved into a public space, but we didn’t “go public.” We just met there instead. That was two years ago.

This summer, our evening service began slumping in attendance due to vacations. So we moved that service (and the pot luck that goes with it) back into a home. Now we’re bursting at the seams “again”. Going forward, this gives us the option of either meeting in two homes instead of one in the evenings, or moving back into our larger space. Both things will feel more like momentum is in our favor rather than against us.

In the mean time, the psychology of our evening crowd is not “man, that stinks that we got so small that we went back to being in living rooms.” Instead, it’s “whoa, there’s a lot of people crammed in here!”

If you are in a small room, you’re probably experiencing a big feel. Always be a little crowded as opposed to a little empty.

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Fear the Cash, Wear the Crash Helmet

“As many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” – Acts 4:34-35

Keep your hands off that cash

This would freak any of us out, if we were the Apostles. “Who put me in this kind of position?” They say that pastors should keep their hands completely off the church finances, and especially never come into contact with cash money. Keeps us honest, above reproach, un-scanalizable. These folks dumped a whole pile of cash money at their pastors’ feet and said “you all figure out what to do with this. The Spirit of God freed me to give this, and to release control over how it’s precisely used.”

Yikes.

But if you’re planting a church, and the Spirit of God is moving among his people, you’re going to have these moments.

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Wombs and wee preachers

I remember the first instance of this, when I was first learning how to preach one summer at a country church in Virginia. I mentioned off-hand while preaching through the book of Ruth, that we should notice that it was the Lord who opened her womb, and gave her and Boaz conception. I didn’t grind and axe or get pontifical. I just mentioned it, pointed it out.

Well, 2 of those country folk, who happened to be married with a good bit of offspring already, and not much cash flow and not much square footage … they had to go and get “convicted”. They decided to trust the Lord with their family size. And of course, they got pregnant. And then pregnant again. One of those kiddos was named “Ruth”.

Oh gosh! Did I do that? Yikes. Not really. Kind of? No. Oh wow.

Don’t turn your life upside down, I’m just preaching

Then there was our church plant’s emphasis and sermon series on hospitality. Hospitality. Seems innocuous enough. Being friendly, inviting people over, feeding people, maybe having someone stay for a while so they can get on their feet again. No big deal.

But after 12 weeks of preaching on gospel hospitality from creation to New Creation, all of a sudden there’s a pile of money laying at your feet. One couple in our church felt the Spirit of God call them, through the preaching of the word, to take guardianship of a 13-year-old girl whose home-life had deteriorated. To raise a teenager. Teenager. One laden with beauty and brokenness.

Wait, hold on. Don’t do that. Let’s make sure you’re not just hallucinating or having a warm fuzzy moment. This is serious business. Don’t sell the farm just because I preached about Jesus and his generous welcome to us.

Crash helmets for seersucker

You’re not in charge. You have the authority to minister God’s word. It’s not a coercive and physical authority. It’s persuasive and verbal. And you—if you’re like me—hardly think of yourself as a grown-up, much less as in some ways analogous to the Apostles who led the first churches in the New Testament. You want Jesus to move among your people, but you don’t want to feel responsible for the weird things people do as a result.

Maybe Annie Dillard is right when she says that we really ought to be wearing crash helmets, and not big flowery hats and seersucker trousers, when we enter the presence of God in corporate worship. There’s nothing cute about the Spirit using his Word to flip someone’s life completely upside down in an act of radical, joyful obedience to something you certainly didn’t explicitly suggest anyone should actually do.

I still don’t know what to make of all this. I could be trite and say that it makes me humble. I could be sagacious and say that you should be warned and prepared. But I don’t think I’ve gotten past the PTSD of seeing the pile of cash laying at my feet, so as of yet I have nothing really to say. Except yikes.

Yikes indeed.

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The Churched Disciple: Sabbath – “Expect”

Alas, back to our series on ‘the churched disciple’. If we’re going to have the kind of church that doesn’t underwhelm earnest Christians and encourage them to opt for ‘community’ instead of church, what kind of body of disciples do we need to become?

“Discipleship is never complicated or easy, but always simple and hard.” – Mike Breen

That’s certainly true of this call to discipleship. We’re called to expect that Jesus will give us plenty to receive in each Sabbath feast.

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The great London Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon once had a pastor-friend who came to him discouraged. He was upset about the lack of fruit he saw from his preaching ministry. The pastor complained that he was not seeing people come to faith in Christ under his preaching.

“Well,” Spurgeon retorted, “you don’t expect that someone will come to faith in Christ during every sermon, do you?” Sheepishly, the pastor said, “well, no.” “That’s precisely the problem,” Spurgeon said.

SMALL EXPECTATIONS?

We often suffer from abysmally low expectations of what God will do in the power of the Spirit when his people are gathered in his presence.

Growing disciples of Jesus, in contrast, will experience an growing anticipation of what Jesus will do. Especially when we come to God in the posture of receptivity, we come expecting that it will primarily be him that does a great work in and among us.

We no longer look at Sunday as the religious version of a dreaded Monday. We no longer see it as a day when we have to get the children up, get them dressed, get them fed, and keep them quiet so that we can say we went to church, and that our kids didn’t embarrass us.

Instead, Sunday becomes one of our favorite days of the week—even if we love going to work on Monday and we begging out with pizza, beer, and a movie on Friday night.

3 LETHARGIC ALTERNATIVES

Some fast-growing churches seem to put all their energy into making the worship experience so spectacular that someone could wander in half-dead and be resurrected by the sheer force of the music, the lights, the preaching, and the crowds.

Other stagnating and declining churches seem to simply go through the Sunday motions, which can make the most zealous Christian comatose ten minutes in.

Some Christians have seen all this at its worst, and have lost hope in ever seeing it at its best. And so they are satisfied with small group gatherings and private devotions.

Our church’s experience of Jesus is dependent on our church’s expectations of Jesus. Will he pour himself out by his Spirit when we are gathered to keep his feast? Do we expect it? Do we believe that Jesus always throws the best feasts and brings the best wine?

So, what’s our challenge? How do we be become an expectant people?

ARE WE EXPECTING?

The challenge for those preparing to lead us in Festal Sabbathing is to mine the riches of the gospel of Jesus in its diverse implications for a more abundant life under his lordship. Preachers must prepare with diligence, with prayer, employing all their God-given powers of spiritual imagination to proclaim the gospel with authority and generosity (2 Tim 4:2). They must expect that God will accomplish much through its proclamation.

Those that cook food for the rest of us to enjoy should cook with love, expecting and praying that it will be received (there’s that word again!) with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:46). Those who watch the young children in the nursery, those who lead music, those who clean the kitchen, and all others who serve at the Sabbath feast should ready their hearts, expecting that their humble service will be used by the Spirit of God to enable others to receive his grace and be transformed by it.

Whatever we bring to the feast, we bring it with the joyful expectation that Jesus has given us the gift, and intends to use it for the edification of the body (Rom 12:4ff).

It is incumbent upon each member of the feasting body to calibrate their hearts throughout the week, expecting that the feast will be satisfying, and that Jesus will delight our souls on the richest of fare.

The challenge for each of us is much like the challenge of our entire Christian lives: to live our week in the hopeful expectation that the best is yet to come, and that each Sabbath feast is a foretaste of the greater feast of the New Jerusalem, which we also expect to enjoy soon.

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The Churched Disciple: Sabbath – Be Contradictable

Are you contradictable?

It’s time to get back to my string of posts on how a church, and especially a church plant, can become the kind of holistic discipling culture that would make underwhelmed veterans of evangelicalism like Donald Millers stay put and dig deep.

Today, a first swipe at why “going to church on Sunday” is still a really good idea.

This is probably the least sexy reason I’ll give.

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Community. Dialogue. Living life together. Going on mission together. These are the necessary antidotes to the truncated version of church that many evangelicals have regrettably experienced. They’re also the things that many people have begun to find outside “traditional church” (whatever exactly that means). A lot of such folks, according to Donald Miller, just don’t go to church much anymore.

But consider this:

Scripture is the breath of God, given so that it might teach us, rebuke us, correct us, and train us to be godly and ready for every good work Jesus calls us to walk in. Agreed?

‘Organic’ is Great, But …

Humanly speaking…

When you’re reading your Bible alone, your mind is the limit of what you’ll see in a chunk of Holy Scripture. Your own heart is the limit of how the sermon you’re preaching to yourself will be allowed to get at you. Your schedule and personal discipline are the limits of how much listening to Jesus you’ll do in one sitting, and how frequently you’ll sit and listen.

When you’re dialoguing about the Bible with friends, your friends’ minds become the limit to a potentially enlarged understanding. Your friends’ willingness to say hard things to you, often with others sitting right there beside you, now becomes the limit to how closely the Bible will press in on you. Your friends’ schedules are another limit to the quantity and quality of these Bible reckonings.

There are a lot of factors that make these group and individual encounters with God’s word potentially powerful. And there are even more ways to make a sermon in a church on a Sunday almost useless to discipleship.

What makes your eardrums beat?

But the advantage to sitting still for 30 minutes every Sunday and hearing someone give a monological discourse from God’s word is this:

You cannot control what is said. You cannot direct the conversation where you want it to go. You cannot pick the passage. You cannot determine the trajectory or scope of its application.

You also aren’t dependent on the guts of a person in a group setting to say something difficult to your face. You don’t have to wait around for your friends to get there, move past the chit-chat, hope the vibe is right, and then, hopefully, hear something insightful, life-giving, and perhaps even challenging. You don’t have to send 291 emails to reschedule when life gets busy for this organic group of Bible-appliers.

At both 10:25am and 7:25pm every Sunday in our church a fresh, never-before-heard, well-struggled-over, well-prayed-over, very much fallible and sometimes even outright boring, but always earnest, gospelicious, challenging, provocative bit of teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness aimed at equipping the body for every manner of good work can be heard.

You can doze off, play on Facebook on your iPhone, harden your heart, or even make better discoveries from the passage than the preacher makes. But what sets your eardrums beating will not be your choice. You will be contradicted. You’ll be called to change your mind and to change your life. You’ll be called to quit proving yourself right and instead rest in the righteousness of Jesus given to you.

Relationship Requires Contradiction

As Tim Keller has suggested, admitting that the Bible doesn’t contradict itself so much as it contradicts you is the crucial step toward being in an actual relationship with the God whose breath the Bible is. From there, the question becomes: how can I ensure that I’m regularly opening myself up to being contradicted by the God who speaks in the Bible?

One of the most basic answers to this is, yes, to sit under its preaching.

Even if you have an exquisite preacher, you can still spend your life ignoring everything he says. But it’ll get said. Over and over. And much of it—especially the bits that contradict you—won’t get said by your private homilies to yourself or by your friends around the table, no matter how much they care for you.

Be contradictable.

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The Churched Disciple: When ‘Going to Church’ feels like a Distraction

In my last post, I suggested that many of the Donald Millers of the Christian world would be re-engaged with the local church if our churches gave them a compelling story about why their particular church exists.

photo: Sara McAllister. saramcallister.com

photo: Sara McAllister. saramcallister.com

Now, I’d like to suggest that a church’s broadened, compelling why calls for a integral and tightly-aligned, but diverse, multi-faceted, and sprawling how. If “going to church on Sunday” provokes a blasé response from passionate Christians, then it may be that the church has abandoned some key dimensions of its corporate calling.

Why leads to how

If your church believes most deeply that Jesus wants more than anything else to assemble his people for worship and instruction, and that its corporate calling is therefore to gather people to worship God and instruct them in Christian doctrine, then Sunday for 120 minutes or so will probably do the trick. That will be its how. 

On the other hand, if your church has a more expansive belief about spiritual reality, and a corporate calling as expansive as “the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus for the flourishing of Rock Hill”, for example, then your church is going to have to gather, bless, challenge, equip, and deploy its people across a number of different spheres of kingdom reality.

Worship, or ‘every good work’?

In our case, that means Sabbath, Neighborhood, and Vocation. Because we believe that Jesus is Lord over all, and because we believe that he has entrusted the mystery and power of the gospel to the church, we know that we’ve got a much larger job than providing worship and Sunday School. We need to gather the people of God so that we can open the word of God, teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training one another in righteousness so that every one of us will be fully equipped for every good work. Every good work. That’s what the church is responsible to help the people of God with.

And that’s partly what Donald Miller is grieving over as he looks at the ecclesiastical landscape, and at his local options. He has learned to worship God through his work! He gets something that many Christians never get. And yet he isn’t graced, challenged, or equipped by the church for what he is called to do with roughly half of his waking hours.

We need grace and truth, warm invitation and robust challenge, not just for the good work we’re called to do on Sundays “at church”, but for the pursuit of our neighbors and our networks, and for faithfulness in our spiritual, spousal, familial, educational, and occupational callings.

When ‘going to church’ is a distraction

What I’m suggesting here is this: If our beliefs are too narrow and our ecclesiastical missions are too truncated, our Donald Millers may end up becoming too ‘distracted’ by the glorious expansiveness of their personal kingdom callings to take even 2 hours a week to “go to church on Sunday.”

And I find it difficult to blame them.

In the next few posts, I’ll outline what I believe what a more expansive approach ministry looks like. I’ll discuss what I mean by Sabbath, Neighborhood, and Vocation, and how these or similar ecclesiastical hows can more fully equip God’s people for every good work.

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