Top 2017 Albums

Music is genuine nourishment for my soul. For Mary Beth’s too. Probably for yours as well. Much like my body pushes me to seek out citrus when I have a cold, or sugar when I’m light-headed, something inside me tends to push me towards music that will supply what my spirit may need at the moment. Having been in full-time ministry this past year, especially on the mission field, I’ve been interested to see what kind of music Mary Beth and I have been drawn towards, and what has been nourishing us spiritually. Here’s a brief rundown of the best of whom we’ve been listening to throughout 2017, in no particular order.

The Project

As we were gearing up to begin our new Evensong service last February, I was looking for a contemporary version of the Phos hilaron, and stumbled upon this little-heard musical collective. Their second album, Mystic Chapel is a folksy take on the traditional Orthodox all-night Easter vigil service. There are some fantastic singles on this album, but the whole thing holds together well as a unit. This was one of my first, and favorite, musical discoveries of the year.

Porter’s Gate Worship Project

My most recent musical discovery has blown me away. Last month Porter’s Gate Worship Project dropped their first album, Work Songs, Volume I. We started listening right around the same time that we were celebrating Harvest at our many schools and churches, and the convergence was just amazing. For people like us engaged in (sometimes exhausting) cross-cultural labors and ministry, this was exactly what we needed. Plus, the gospel choir just rocks most of the tracks out of the ball park.

Slugs & Bugs

When I was a kid, my mother and I used to sit down and watch The Muppet Show together, in large part because it was something that both children and adults could enjoy. Slugs & Bugs, the brainchild of folk artist Randall Goodgame, is exactly that kind of album that can be regularly consumed by adults and children alike. These songs are inane and hilarious, infectious and catchy, and so well done. Neither Mary Beth nor I can stop listening to them, shamelessly singing aloud about pajamas, ninjas, back-hoes, and Bible verses. It’s amazing.

Fernando Ortega

Fernando Ortega is on so many people’s lists of favorite musicians, it is no surprise that his calming presence shows up on ours. But Ortega deserves a spot here in particular because his Spanish-language album Camino Largo has been on Mary Beth’s rotation as she has been practicing her Spanish. It helps too that many of his songs are both in English and in Spanish, and knowing one helps her understand the other.

Judy Bailey

Mary Beth and I have been on the look-out for a fantastic setting for the “service music” of our Sunday Eucharist service, songs like the Kyrie eleison, the Sanctus, or the Agnus Dei. We introduced one setting to the folks at St. Andrew’s and St. Hilda’s late last year, but when we discovered Judy Bailey a few months ago, we knew we had to head in that direction. A world-renowned singer-songwriter from Barbados, she has composed and recorded a whole setting for Holy Communion called Lift Up Your Hearts, and it embodies the ethos of the Caribbean. We love listening to her, and we can’t wait to get started on teaching these settings to the people of our churches!

Psalter Project

The biblical psalms form the “bread and butter” of Christian worship, and I am always on the lookout for decent contemporary settings of the psalms for worship. Psalter Project’s first album Highway In Our Hearts is notable, not only in that it is a beautiful and varied gesture in this direction, but it also includes notoriously overlooked psalms, like Psalm 132 which is used for ordinations and such. If you are interested in the contemporary revival of psalm-singing, this collective is worth your attention.

Steven Delopoulos

Steven Delopoulos is a folk singer-songwriter whose music often hones in on overlooked religious aspects of the artistic process. It’s not just that his Christian faith is expressed in his music, but he poetically ruminates on how artistic composition and performance in-and-of-themselves exposit the Kingdom of the “Great Arranger” God himself. Good stuff.

Liturgical Folk

In the little world that is Anglican contemporary worship, this worship collective made a big splash this year with two simultaneous album releases: Table Settings and Edenland. The former is a collection of “service music” for worship, much of which is catchy, and some of which we have been using for our new Evensong service. The later is a theologically deep and fantastically executed rumination on our exile from and restoration to the primordial Garden. There are genuinely good albums that I tire of listening to after a while: months later I am still enjoying them … especially Edenland.

Michael Card

I grew up listening to Michael Card all the time, and though the ’80s synthesizers may have aged poorly, the lyrics and melodies still have a way of injecting the Word of God into my heart and mind. Besides his classic albums The Life (focused on the life of Christ) and The Ancient Faith (a tour through the Old Testament), his albums The Silence of God (on suffering) and A Fragile Stone (the life of the Apostle Peter) have picked up special meaning in our journey as missionaries.

Wendell Kimbrough

Every pastor or music director has a musician or artist that they turn to in planning worship, a composer or singer who seems to capture and embody how the congregation should be praising the Lord. I do not think it would be a stretch to say that for Mary Beth and me this artist is Wendell Kimbrough. Not only do we enjoy his music for ourselves, a good chunk of the new worship songs we have introduced to our church were written and/or sung by him. A contemporary musician with an incredible ear for what a typical church is able to sing, his praise songs are hymn-like and his hymns are praise-filled. We cannot recommend his music highly enough.

 

Obviously there is much more we could say, and much more we listen to. But these are all music, and mostly worship projects, that have touched our hearts and fed our souls over the past year. And perhaps they might be nourishing for you as well!

Dum pendebat Filius

Last night I was taken off guard. As I went through the upstairs hallway of the rectory closing doors and turning off lights, I rounded a corner and was suddenly confronted by something new for us. Reflecting the dim glow of the one remaining light in a way that only cast pewter can, the body of Jesus hung there in front of me. And he looked exhausted.

We have a lot of crosses at our house, a fact I suppose that’s true of many clergy families. It’s not just that people give them to me when they’re not sure what else to get a priest for a gift, but in fact I’ve even bought myself a ton of crosses in the past few years, and we now have enough to hang one or two in every room. Our guest bedrooms house crosses made by humble artisans in Egypt, and our master bedroom and office showcase crosses we bought from the first Spanish mission in California: San Diego de Alcalá. We have little ceramic crosses from Seaport Village and big ceramic crosses from Flores de Petén and wooden crosses from Belize carved from ziricote and granadillo. I even keep stashed away among my little treasures a crooked cross that a friend of my parents, a blacksmith who is now deceased, had pounded out from an old railway spike. I would probably consider this a curious, even unique collection if I weren't also aware that most of my clergy acquaintances collect crosses to a similar, if not greater degree. It comes with the collar, so to say.

What is curious is how few crucifixes are included in my collection of crosses. Geometric patterns, flowers, and tight hardwood grains abound, but until recently only one of the crosses in our home featured the figure of Jesus of Nazareth. A traditional Central American depiction of La Nueva Creación, in it Jesus stands erect, victor over evil and president over a renewed earth, complete with farms, birds and butterflies. The cross itself is el mapamundi of this renewed world, and Jesus (freakishly white, I admit) stands superimposed, suspended over all as he pours out his Holy Spirit on a priest and deacon below, manus orantes. It is a beautiful icon, full of theological significance and meaning, but it’s not quite the crucifix we all know and recognize: a bare cross upon which hangs the helpless corpus of a Victim.

This absence (at least until recently) of a crucifix in our home was probably due more to aesthetic taste than theological aversion. These days, at least when it comes to visualizations of the Son of Man, I lean more towards John of Damascus than John of Geneva. That is, if in my home I can put up images of humans like my family, or Socrates, or the Simpsons, I ought also to be able to hang up an image of the truest human that has ever lived (and lives even still), identifiable by those wounds made by and for his human brothers and sisters. But rather than representing the fulness of Christ’s humanity, many of the crucifixes that I’ve come across are garishly inhumane, uncanny parodies of his humanity and ours. Its virtue may lie in its minimalism, but the empty cross of Holy Saturday does not offend my sensibilities with the overly white, overly effete, overly ripped (I mean, have you seen those abs?), overly Other Jesus found on so many others. All that’s to say, given our collection of crosses we had just never owned a crucifix.

But a few days ago we visited a dear little friend of ours, an eight-year-old boy sick with acute leukemia. He was back home for a few days, after dozens of rounds of chemotherapy in Mexico, and for a gift he brought us back a simple crucifix in the Benedictine style. The wood is darkly stained, and a small image of Jesus has been cast in pewter and affixed to the cross. Simple and beautiful, we thanked him for the gift and hugged and prayed for our little buddy, and we hung his cross in our upstairs hallway when we got home a little later. But it wasn’t until last night that I felt the impact of the cruciform figure that he had given us.

The impact came as I recognized, as if for the first time, the posture of the Christ. It was in the slump of the shoulders. In the disjointed curve of his taut arms. In the limp bow of his head. I had seen this posture when that same little boy who had given us our new crucifix collapsed limply onto his father's shoulders and just hung there as his body gave out. I had seen it in the figures of friends and loved ones who had been raked over the coals of life and who were somewhere between giving up and hanging on to hope. I had seen it in the tears of faithful servants who had given their lives for others but who, wounded and depleted, had nothing left to give but their exhaustion. And I had to be honest with myself, I was seeing it in myself that night.

I recognized the posture: he was simply hanging there. Suspended. Tired. Limp. 

Now, I knew that medically speaking, his death was from suffocation and exhaustion, products of a slow hanging, and not by punctures from nails or spear. But last night as I considered the physical gesture of his succumbing to gravity and letting himself go, his being suspended from the tree, well, it arrested my attention. It is a commonplace these days to say that it was his love, and not the nails, that held Jesus to his cross. But with his exhaustion in full view, I asked myself in a similar way: as Jesus hung there, what did he hang on to?

On that fateful Thursday night it may have been Judas Iscariot who gave up his friend, betraying him to his enemies, but on Friday it was Jesus alone who gave himself up to suffering and death. Exposed before the heavens and despised by the earth, he released his spirit to God and his body to the ground, a voluntary act of giving himself up to his Father’s will and to his Father’s care. The cross may have been an instrument of human torture and divine retribution, but by his last cry it is clear that Jesus was hanging on his Father’s promise. He may have been in deepest sorrow in Gethsemane and obvious agony on the cross, but he clung to his Father’s love. And though Jesus hung there bloody and bruised, exhausted and limp, through it all his Father held him up and brought meaning and power and life out of his suffering. Beyond all the suffering that Christ endured for us upon the cross, the bond of peace and love and purpose between Jesus and his Father, that pactum salutis formed before the foundation creation itself, could never be broken.

I really needed this reminder last night. I needed the reminder that the Son of God himself became exhausted, helpless, and hung limp in the hands of his Father, trusting and entrusting himself to almighty Love. I needed the reminder that Christ ascended to his Father and my Father, to his God and my God (John 20:17). I needed the reminder that when I feel exhausted and washed up, at that point when human capacity is depleted and I feel incapable of going any further, my duty is to surrender myself to the path and posture of Love and suspend myself in the loving arms of my God and Father.

So, I am happy that today this reminder is hanging in our home. Christ has indeed passed for all time beyond his humiliation, suffering, and death, and he has entered into his resurrection, victory, and exaltation. But on this side of my resurrection, I need to be reminded again and again of what he became for me, so that I can become like him, in heart and mind and will, and even posture.

A Musical Anecdote

I began playing violin at age eleven, and since we already owned it, I began my musical training with my mother’s old violin. Now, the age of a violin is not like the age of a car where the longer it’s been around, the worse it gets; rather, like a bottle of wine, a violin’s sound matures, deepens, and strengthens as it is played decade after decade. In those first few months, the voice of my mother’s violin, evoked as my tender hands sawed and screeched away, was a sound of delight and wonder to my tender ears. And as young boys tend to derive their self-worth from their toys (and later from their tools), I was rather proud of that instrument: its sound and appearance far excelled any instrument that my peers were playing at the time. This state of genuine felicity continued along excellently until my own hand brought it suddenly to a swift conclusion.

At the time of the disaster, I was twelve years old. It was November, and the day was cold and gray (as I remember it now). I was at orchestra rehearsal in the music classroom of Test Middle School, and we were in the process of having Mr. Burkhardt tune our instruments to begin practicing the exercises and pieces of the day. As I was exuberantly hustling down the concrete steps of the amphitheater-shaped room suddenly, in an instant, my maternal patrimony slipped out of my hands and crashed lifeless to the ground. The noisy room ground to a halt upon hearing the heart ripping crack that still reverberated, if not audibly, palpably in my own stomach. Mr. Burkhardt and I began to assess the damage, and I tried to delay my sense of hysteria until my mother came to pick me up.

The damage was extensive. A single long fracture had appeared along the face of the violin, originating on the edge nearest the chinrest and extending close to the whole length of the body. This fracture was accompanied by half-a-dozen other fissures parallel to it along the face, blending in with the fine, radiant grain of the wood. Then, along the side of the violin at the principal site of impact, the wooded ribbing was fragmented, and jagged cracks wound their way around the side of the violin, almost as if my chin had suddenly acquired super-human strength and crushed the thing in mid-performance. The damage, I said, was extensive: it would be better to say that the damage was total and, as I found out in the months ahead, irreparable.

As we talked with craftsman after craftsman about repairing my mother’s violin, I had at that age very little sense of cost or price or monetary value. I knew that the numbers in the air were, for lack of a better word, big. But what drove my soul into the ground every time I heard it was the verdict that every artisan gave us: even if my mother’s violin were repaired, it would never sound the same again. The violin I had known and loved for over a year had died that bitter November day, and I mourned the voice of creative beauty that would never, ever, sound again.

As I write, it is Holy Saturday, a Sabbath rest suspended in a sense between Good Friday and the Paschal Feast of the Resurrection. Yesterday in a naked church and in jet-black clothes, the existentially charged emotions that I carried, and in a sense still carry with respect to my mother’s violin, welled up inside of me. And I asked, as you well might, for what reason would these things have come to mind and found relevance on that day which is different from all other days?

I sense that, in some small yet personally vital way, the rupture of that musical instrument reflects the rupture in God’s creation that came at the moment of Adam’s first sin when, in that Garden and at the foot of that Tree, in him we all died. We so often make so little of sin, and yet his sin and our sin has brought a brokenness to all creation and to our own lives that, from our own sincere vantage point, is as irreparable as my mother’s violin. We can try to make repairs and smooth things over and grab a bow and saw away, but the fact remains: the Original Beauty and Perfection has disappeared forever.

And all our blithering mess seems to come to bear on Jesus at that moment when, alone in the Garden and lifted up on that Tree, he was silenced by death as well. On the cross God the Son, who had assumed our nature and flesh in all that these entail, was broken by our brokenness and extinguished in what is, in this world, an irreversible and irrevocable condition. And we can take down his body, we can wash off his blood, we can bind him and spice him and give him all the honors of a rich man’s burial. But when he gathered up the strength to shout out his last expiration, “It is finished,” he was dead and gone as much if not more so than the corpse of my mother’s violin. On the cross, the tragedy of death has worked its worst and greatest triumph in swallowing up the Person through whom and for whom all Beauty and Perfection in this world exist.

And this, I think, is why I remembered and again felt so acutely yesterday, on Good Friday, the pain and loss of that dear fiddle. Yet thankfully, this is where the parallel ends. My parents resolved my pain months later when they purchased me a fantastic new violin, a violin that to this day I responsibly still call my own. But God does not so much replace as Restore, does not so much create again as Recreate. And on the third day, God began the Great Reparation, the Regeneration, the Resurrection from the dead, as he raised his eternal Son, the last Adam, Jesus Christ our Lord from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. What is for man impossible, for God is not only possible but has actually happened and still actually happens and will again happen for all time when that Firstborn and Firstfruits from among the dead returns to transform us and with us all of Heaven and Earth from glory into glory.

But I have already written much, bared much really, and this is now a theme that will be taken up better in church tomorrow, and in the Sundays ahead. I leave you with his blessing, the blessing of the One who was dead, and behold, who is alive forevermore. Amen.

On Cheeky Leadership

This week, I have been ruminating again about leadership, particularly in the church. There is, I suppose, a danger in overthinking these sorts of things; after all, it would be silly to think loads about leadership and neglect to actually do the leading. In addition to my own arrival as pastor of a new church, I have had plenty of other reasons this past week to ponder such high and lofty mysteries. Last weekend I participated in a (lively) diocesan synod, during which delegates from across Argentina strove manfully to pull our fledgling diocese together to confront the challenges ahead. And, what’s more, a good friend and former rector of mine has been nominated as a candidate for bishop in the Diocese of San Joaquin, and that has been present on my mind as well. It makes sense that I would be treasuring up these things and pondering them in my heart; but to be honest, my musings on leadership actually stem from something far less high-minded: I just recently finished reading a book titled How to Become a Bishop without Being Religious.

Yes, you read that right. The cheeky author of this very tongue-in-cheek book opens up to the young seminarian or recently ordained minister the true nature and character of church dynamics in an effort to help him get ahead in his career. The facetious thesis (say that ten times fast) of the book is that the secret to advancing in position, status, and salary in the church is to combine cutthroat secular leadership methods with a veneer of nonthreatening homespun piety. The trick is to view the church as an innately (and merely) human institution, then to cater to the felt needs of its members (i.e. keep ’em fat and happy), and finally to reap the hard-earned political winnings over the years. I laughed a lot as I was reading this book, but it also shook me up a bit: I realized that, humanly speaking, if a young minister were to do everything in that book, he probably would advance to a high position of leadership (if not salary) in the church. This, I think, is frightening.

The question in my mind is to what extent our style of leadership in the church should be any different from styles of leadership in any other human institution? To what degree can we as ordained and lay leaders of Christ’s body learn or borrow from the spheres of corporate management, marketing, the armed forces, or the political world of Washington D.C.?

There does appear to be some overlap. Many of the canons and techniques of leadership in the world around us simply reflect common sense, basic principles of human interaction grounded in the divine act of creation re-bolstered by common grace, principles which will apply equally for a small business and for a country parish. Just as someone who has the spiritual gift (charisma) of teaching in the church probably also has natural gifts in teaching other things in other places, so natural gifts and principles of leadership may yield dividends when put to use in, for and through the church. For this reason, as I read How to Become a Bishop, I was struck by the fact that many of his suggestions were truly good advice, even if they were for entirely the wrong reason.

However, I think we must do better. The Apostle Paul, whilst upbraiding the Corinthians for their unseemly divisions, warned them against being “merely human.”  Likewise, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr, cautioned in Life Together that there is a difference between human community and spiritual community, and that genuine spiritual community is always a gift given by grace through Christ’s death on the cross. The redeemed community is and will be different from all other human communities, and its leaders can and must be different from all other leaders. The title of a book by John Piper puts it rather well: Brothers We Are Not Professionals.

We must be on guard to put the grace of our Lord Jesus front and center in our leadership as in our churches. It is crucial that leaders in the church have a desperate dependence on the living God who alone can grant what he has promised. As lay and ordained leaders we must ingest and digest the words of Jesus to the Apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” We must depend upon the gift of this grace for and in the our lives; in fact, we must boast of it, because it is the same grace that powerfully creates and constructs that spiritual community, a community to which God has given us leaders as a gift.

And that kind of leadership, which boasts in its own weakness and in the weakness of the cross, will in fact begin to look rather like that of the God-Man himself, who went to that very cross for us. The more we depend upon and rest in the grace of God “who took the nature of a servant,” the more “that same mind” will be in us as leaders. As servant-leaders we may not advance in position, or in status, or least of all in salary, but we wait for our reward in heaven where Christ is seated: a crown of glory for those who have run the race set before them.

I have not quite found the line marking the balance in all of this, but I am running the risk of overthinking the matter of leadership, and the hour tells me I must go put it into practice. Sola gratia, my friends!

Small epiphanies

The other day, I had a curious thing happen to me. As I was sitting at the little table in my little apartment, eating my little breakfast (tomatoes, lentils, eggs, and coffee, I believe it was) and reading my little Bible (with tiny print), I had something of a little Lenten epiphany. The passage that I was reading at that moment from Deuteronomy spoke directly, naturally, and rather uncannily to a practical challenge that I was confronting in my life and finances last week. I laughed, chalked it up to God being cheeky and hilarious (as he often is), and had the situation sorted by sundown. But this was not actually the epiphany that I’m talking about. The little epiphany came upon further reflection on what had happened. First, I realized that this sort of über-specific message from the Lord rarely comes to me as I prayerfully spend time in God’s Word. And second, it occurred to me that this first realization, the fact of the rarity of it all, really did not bother me a bit.

By this point, I have probably shocked (perhaps even worried) you, the gentle reader of this blog. Can a pastor, nay a missionary, demonstrate true spirituality if he is not praying for, hoping for, and faithfully expecting the very voice of God to guide him regarding the details of the coming day as he spends “quiet time” with the Lord in his “prayer closet”, consuming “every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord”? To the consternation of some, I suggest that not only can a pastor and a missionary do so, but so can other Christians as well.

To begin, allow me, if you will, to reflect on my own experiences of the result of my spending time in God’s word on a daily basis. Frankly, most days are pretty average and ordinary. As an Anglican minister, I tend to select the passages of Scripture to read and upon which to meditate through the use of a daily lectionary, that is, a calendar that lays out a pattern for a group of people regularly to ingest a balanced diet of God’s word together.

Now, I happen to use Archbishop Cranmer’s lectionary, and yesterday evening, for example, we prayed together Psalms 147-150 and read both Joshua 1 and 2 Corinthians 4. These readings, I think everyone will agree, have nothing really to do with each other, except that they are in the Bible, and that (like everything in the Bible) they have to do with the Triune God, Jesus, and us. Similarly, these readings had almost no direct reference to the minute details of the day that I had just led or of the evening that was to come. Nevertheless, I ended my time in God’s Word refreshed. Why?

I left refreshed, in part I think, because reading a portion of Scripture that was not actually tailor-fitted to my day forced me to re-comprehend that day in the light and context not only of those passages but of the whole of the Bible’s story and perspective. It forced me to get outside of myself, outside of my head, and outside of the story that I had been telling about my life until 6:00 PM, and be confronted by God’s story, God’s priorities, God’s details, and God’s purposes. To make any sense of what God was saying to me, through David, Joshua, or St. Paul, I had to submit to his Word and hand over my immediate worries and preoccupations (of which I had more than a few) and sit for a few moments at the feet of the Man who would wash my feet by taking me out of the center of my crazy world by putting himself and his Message there in my place instead.

The purpose and reason for which I go before the Lord daily to pray and to spend time in his Word is precisely to have this kind of displacement, this kind of submission, with the hope that I will come out more alive, more oriented, and more prepared for whatever this world and its pomp may throw at me. Listening to God in a “quiet time” or in a “prayer closet” then is usually less like following the instructions of a GPS (no matter how cool it is to listen to the voice of Bob Dylan commanding you to “turn right now!”), and much more like time spent studying the map and polishing the compass (no matter how boring we may think Scoutmaster Blain and his mustache are). We may want direction for the moment, but time spent day-after-day learning the contours of the path will be even more valuable in the long run.

Not of course that I complain when God’s word is delightfully specific. And, even in the most seemingly unrelated passages of Scripture there is always “daily bread” to be had in one way or another if we have prayed for it. In fact, last night as well, the Lord gave me the sustenance of his re-orienting story, the precise words that I needed then and that I now impart to you, on the off chance that they may feed your souls as well:

So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

The Authority of a Servant

What a crazy random happenstance, to come to another culture and realize that you are seeing facets of your own, not so much diminished but magnified in the other. I rather suppose this must be the way Italians view pizza in America, particularly in our universities: “Well goodness, we thought the round disk of goodness tasted swell and everything, but is it really necessary to eat it four times a week for dinner?” “Not to mention,” I would add to this imaginary Italian’s comment, “it seems a pity to wash its magnificence down with Coke Zero instead of with some bottled vintage, deeply tinted.” But before I get too far down this rabbit trail, let me say that this is not today a reflection upon pizza in all of its glory, but on culture in all of its curiosity. And so we come to the area that has piqued my interest this week: that of authority.

I suppose that as Americans we have always had a difficult time understanding and implementing a healthy framework of authority. Whether we were trying to escape medieval serfdom in Europe, or the Church of England and its bishops and prayer books, or (in the end) various taxations without representation, we have often prided ourselves in the United States as being free, independent, self-sufficient, and beholding to no one for our origin, our destination, or anything in between. (I am oversimplifying things, I know.)

As a result, an Old World view of authority has been long discarded among us in the New, and recently at least we have not really seen any need to place it with another. We have a kind of freedom, it is true, but we live now in a culture that is clueless in regards to how genuine authority works: parents struggle to implement their authority with their children, employers struggle to communicate their authority with employees, pastors struggle to assert their authority with their parishioners, and all of us struggle to recognize and obey the authority that exists over us. Few of us know what the centurion who pleaded for Jesus to heal his servant himself knew: what it means to have and to be under authority.

But as I was informed shortly after I arrived in Buenos Aires, the people of Latin America (and Argentines are no exception) struggle equally, if not even more so, with the concept of authority. Here in Argentina, to have authority is to have the power to command, and personal and collective identity tends to be understood in terms both of issuing commands that are obeyed and also of resisting commands that others have made.

To wit, as it was explained to me, each person here desperately wants to have authority, to be the person in charge, but yet each is also terrified and resentful of those who have authority over him or her and will do (if possible) whatever it takes to undermine that authority. This leads to an serious suspicion towards any person or group that tries to exert a modicum of authority, let alone command power and control. To be able to navigate any relationship, personal or professional, it becomes necessary that any sense of one having authority over another, or of one reporting to another, be soft-pedaled or eschewed entirely.

How ought we then as Christians to live and move and have our being in this cultural landscape, regardless of the hemisphere? Obviously, a biblical concept of authority does not begin with the question of “Who commands whom?” but rather of “How do we each serve each other differently in love?” Think about it: the Almighty Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, the Savior of the world, was given “all authority in heaven and on earth” precisely after he “emptied himself, taking the very form of a servant.”

Love and service. The basis of Jesus’ authority in all of creation consisted in his giving himself up entirely in obedience to the Father whom he loved and on behalf of us sinners whom he loved as well. Nor has he abandoned this love, but he continues to serve his Father and to guide, save, and intercede on our behalf. For this reason, he tells his disciples, “A servant is not greater than his master,” (to clarify, he is the Master, we are the servants), and in another place he adds, “The one who would be great among you must be your servant, and the one who would be first among you must be slave of all.”

Notice, Jesus holds up an extremely high view of authority, but it is a servant’s authority modeled after his own love, not a dictator’s authority modeled after the enslaving forces of sin. Despite all the abuses of authority, despite the pain and suffering that ill-gotten and ill-managed power has wreaked upon this world, as Christians we must stand up and affirm that authority does exist and must be recognized. We are not called to soft-pedal authority, but to re-declare its importance together with the importance of its proper use. What is more, we must acknowledge and submit to every authority when and where it is legitimate, just as Jesus submitted not only to his loving Father but also to callous Pontius Pilate.

But we must also show ourselves to be faithful stewards of the authority given to us; that is to say, when we are given authority, we should not use it for our own interests, or for our own ego, or for our own sense of fulfillment. Instead, when we are entrusted with authority, we must act as stewards of that authority, as servants who will have to give an account to our Lord and Master, the just Judge of all things.

I am still working on figuring out how to live life in light of these discrepant paradigms and realities. Pray for me, as I seek to lead as a servant, and to serve those who are leading me. 

Parts of Speech

Part of the joy of stepping into a different culture from time to time is that being there brings (at least for me) a heightened awareness of the details of cultural expression, particularly of language. Every day we are each of us immersed in words: words consumed and words expended, words wasted and words withheld. Ordinarily, we have no need to consider the minute significance, sound, or effect that our words have unless something goes awry, or we fear something going awry, or we happen to be a gaggle of poets (or whatever the word would be for a collection of poets) going awry. But when everything around strikes us as inscrutably foreign, especially the language in play, we can instinctively begin to catalogue and analyze the flow of words that pass us by. Though exhausting, the experience can be fun and even thought provoking at times. Which, I suppose, is why I am writing this little reflection.

One of the subtleties of language that has stuck out and resonated with me a lot in the last week has had to do with the prepositions to use when describing my missionary calling in Argentina. (Fair warning: things could get pretty nerdy here for a bit.) I have often reflected and remarked that the proper use of prepositions is, if not the soul, at least the imp of theological reflection. To give a proper example, we are saved by grace through faith in Christ. Similarly, we pray to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit. I could go on. But it is not simply theological reflection that is reflected in the proper selection and use of prepositions; in fact, the whole scope of the Christian life and of our service before God in love not only informs but is also influenced by our use of prepositions.

The prepositions in question upon my arrival here are simple and well known: “to” and “with”. They appear innocent enough, but there is more mischief here than meets the eye. I arrived just over a week ago here in Buenos Aires, and after some rest and adjustment, I began sitting down with the leaders of the congregation here in the borough of Hurlingham. One of the things that we had to discuss right out of the gate was whether I had come on a mission to the church in Argentina, or whether I had come for a mission with the church in Argentina.

For decades, churches in what we could call the “Global South” have received missionaries from places like Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, or Australia who out of great love for the people of these churches and for the Gospel have made these churches the mission field, the goal of their labors and pains in the harvest fields of the Lord. Their mission was to these churches. But if that is where the ministry ends, if that is all that the paradigm entails, then these churches have been not only blessed but also impoverished by the efforts of these missionaries. What so many churches around the world have lacked, as part of the whole Body of Christ, is a sense of sharing in the call not only to be disciples but to make disciples, not only to be the mission but to be the missionaries themselves.

The effects of this way of thinking about and being the church have been disastrous. First, this kind of thinking tended to create a dependency of these churches on the mother churches in distant lands: with respect either to money, or to leadership training, or to gumption. Second, it has often led these churches to view themselves as second-class citizens in the City of God, blessed perhaps with fewer advantages but freed from other responsibilities. This in turn meant third, and most importantly, that these churches often lost sight of the Great Commission that Christ gave to his church (Matthew 28:18-20). He did not just give this commission to missionaries, nor to churches in the “West” (as we have traditionally called it): he gave the Great Commission to his entire Church, which means to every Christian congregation, which means to every Christian as well.

The congregation at which, in which, and with which I am serving here in Argentina was right to ask me that question: am I on a mission to them or with them? And I did not have to reflect very long to agree wholeheartedly that, while I may be on a mission to Argentina and Buenos Aires when considered as a whole, I am on a mission with the Church: with the churches of North America, and with the churches of South America as well. And I have to admit, I would not have it any other way.

At the end of the day (or until the End of the Age, however you want to measure it), I am on a mission with this church in the shady borough of Hurlingham, Buenos Aires precisely because, on a fundamental level, this mission is neither mine nor theirs: it belongs, as they and you and I all do, to Christ himself. And for this reason, I am rather keen on seeing how he, the One from whom, and through whom, and to whom are all things, continues to unfold his plan for his mission among us all.

Presentation and Departure

I find that making a genuine departure comes with its own unique difficulty. When we begin something new, we are confronted with sheer possibility, with the good or ill to come from our actions. What is unknown drives us to dream, plan, design, and live for something better yet to come. But departure is different. When we leave the place, tasks, people, pains and joys that we have lived and loved for so long, we are confronted not with the call of possibility but with the dismissal of powerlessness. And I have to admit that I (a sinner) do not easily come to feel peace without power.

Instead of peace, the impotence of departure tends to bequeath to us an anxiety which can be unendurable. On the one hand, we are powerless to mitigate the past. I once read over a grave in an English churchyard the chilling words, “What is done is what remains, and furious sorrow.” Convicted by our own faults and failings, by our former ignorance and current hindsight, by our own impoverished action and cowardly inaction, leaving we are left only with the gripping (even crushing) realization that we are powerless now to correct the past.

On the other hand, at the point of departure we become powerless to mitigate the future. Some fear being forgotten, but for most of us something much deeper threatens our peace. In our absence, who will love, protect, and care for those whom we love? Apart from us, who will promote and defend the purposes for which we have labored? We ordinarily have no answer, and leaving we are left only with the sinking realization that we are now powerless to affect the future.

I have really been mulling over these dynamics a lot lately, mostly because I have come to a series of radical departures in my life. Beginning at the end of December, I began the long process of uprooting myself from California and from the United States. I moved out of my apartment, ended my day job, was commissioned as a missionary, and have been begun the process of saying farewell to friends. Letting go will come of course to a gigantic climax when I board a plane in March and head to Argentina to begin a new life there. And this anxiety of powerlessness in departure, of regret for the past and uncertainty in the future, has been a real temptation for me.

But Simeon, that elderly man in Luke 2 who found himself face-to-face with the redemption of the Redeemer in the temple, gives me some hope for departure in peace: “Peace,” as our Lord says, “that the world cannot give.” Simeon, a righteous and devout man, had been “waiting for the consolation of Israel,” that is, waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises to bring his Kingdom and to manifest his glory to Israel and to the entire world. And for some reason, in his infinite wisdom, God had revealed to Simeon that he would not die until he had seen the Christ.

And then finally, after years of waiting, the “Lord himself,” as the prophet had said, “suddenly came into his temple.” Without warning (perhaps) this Lord came clothed in human flesh, wrapped up as a tiny baby boy in the arms of Mary and Joseph to be bought back from God by an impoverished sacrifice of two pigeons. The three of them slipped unobtrusively into the temple to consecrate the Son of David, completely unrecognized by all with the exception of the now ancient Simeon who, completely overwhelmed with revelation and emotion, just could not stow his enthusiasm or his hands. He interrupts these dutiful parents by grabbing the boy and offering praise and thanksgiving to Almighty God in a Song, of all things, about departure.

Simeon bursts out, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word;” oddly enough, he finds the most peace precisely at the point where we naturally find the most anxiety: at the point of departure (from this mortal coil). He fears neither death nor the fate of his people nor his own sentence on Judgment Day. Simeon not only is at peace with his departure: he actually departs in peace. What in the world could have given Simeon this confidence, this boldness, and this courage?

Simeon continues, “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.” Simeon held in his arms God’s Salvation and God’s Savior, God’s answer to our past regrets and future fears. This baby, “a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel,” terminates Simeon’s anxiety, our anxiety, and the despair hanging over the nations of the earth. The cooing, drooling, wailing Jesus had come in miniature to bring the totality of God’s purposes, promises, and plans to completion to such an extent that departure would have no more anxiety, death no more sting, and judgment no more condemnation.

This Child silences regret for the past by crucifying our past to his own cross, the pain of which would “pierce the heart” of his own mother. Safe in his scars, his perfect life overwrites our wretched lives, not only to redeem our ignorance, sin, and error but also to interweave them perfectly and tightly into the marvelous fabric of God’s plan for all things. What is more, this Child quenches anxiety for the future in his own almighty ascended glory by securing “the rise and fall” of all. United to his resurrection by way of his sufferings, we can rest assured that the one whose death gave him all authority in heaven and on earth will be able to bring to completion the good work that he has begun in his creation. As the Apostle John says, “perfect love casts out all fear,” and there is no greater love than his.

I am indeed preparing to depart, and it is not without some pain, not without the unknown, not without a cost. But I nevertheless depart in peace, peace which abides despite the tumult around and within my soul, peace which rests securely and only in the words of our Lord: “Take heart: I have overcome the world.” May that very peace of Christ be with you this day and always.

Connecting with the Psalms

A couple of days ago, as I was perusing ye olde internet, I landed on a resource for which I had been searching for a long time: a complete metrical (i.e. rhythmically translated) Psalter in Spanish! Though I own a metrical Psalter in English, I had never found one in Spanish like this for sale, so of course I excitedly ordered my own copy right then and there. Purchasing this Psalter however has given me another opportunity to ponder why so often our churches seem unwilling or unable to sing the very songs that God gave us in his Word to sing right back to him.

For me, this is weird. On the one hand, almost nothing could be clearer about Christian worship from Scripture than that we ought to sing the inspired words of the Psalter. Psalms formed the backbone of worship in temple and synagogue, sung by God’s people from Moses to Jesus himself (who sang every psalm in the scroll). Then after the Resurrection, the Apostle Paul urges believers to sing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.” In fact, the psalms serve as a musical prelude to Paul and Silas’ jail-break, as the texts for sermons (e.g. Acts 2, Hebrews, etc.), and as the inspiration for apocalyptic Lamb-centered worship in Revelation. It seems so obvious: God is glorified in our songs of praise most particularly when we sing his inspired words of worship back to him.

But, on the other hand, almost nothing could be clearer than that, in Western Christianity, we have largely abandoned the psalms as the “bread and butter” of our worship. Long before organ-lovers and guitar-lovers began waging a mutually toxic battle for dominance in our churches, English-speaking churches ditched the previously common practice of singing the Psalter in favor of sexier fare (e.g. Watts and Wesley hymns). In fact, hymns so completely replaced psalms in worship that hardly anyone today realizes that psalm-singing is a possibility. And although some contemporary worship music has borrowed isolated lines from certain psalms, a believer in most American churches can go a lifetime without once singing a psalm in its entirety.

So, what prevents us today from singing the psalms? Some hurdles are obvious: relatively little attention has been paid recently to making psalms easy to sing (really, chanting?), Old Testament imagery might be a bit illusive (“on Moab I cast my shoe”?), and they can be super short (e.g. Psalm 117) or long (e.g. Psalm 89). But after reflection, I have come to believe that much more is getting in the way.

It is not that we simply prefer not to sing psalms; rather, for the most part, we have rendered ourselves incapable of singing the psalms. Our priorities for worship, for singing, and really for the Christian life are at variance with those of the Psalter. To what exactly am I referring?

  1. Psalms Are Completely Human. In worship we tend to like to focus on things that are happy, and on what is internal to us (heart, mind, feelings, etc.). However, the Psalter in its entirety focuses on the whole sphere of human existence. In the psalms, worship involves the whole body: with heart and with lips, with bodies prostrate and with hands upraised. In addition, worship involves the full range of human emotions: joy and sorrow, faith and doubt, courage and fear, pardon and wrath. So, singing the psalms requires us to be more consciously human than we usually prefer.
     
  2. Psalms Are for the Community. I have often had people complain that they were too happy to sing a sad psalm, or vice versa: we want to sing only what we think applies to us alone. Yet the Psalter was intended to be sung by the Assembly, not just by individuals. When we sing psalms, we join our voices with Christians around the world, brothers and sisters for whom what we are singing may apply more acutely than for us. So, singing the psalms requires us to be less individualistic than we usually prefer.
     
  3. Psalms Are Centered on Christ. Many westerners expect to be able to connect immediately to God on their own terms through what they sing. Yet, almost none of the psalms can be sung this way; in fact, singing some of their lines can seem downright inappropriate! To sing a psalm, we must sing as we live: in Christ. Think about it: our Lord took his people’s worship on his lips when he became like us. He sang (and, I believe, sings) on our behalf every single psalm in the Psalter, each fulfilled in his own life lived on our behalf. So singing the psalms requires us, contrary to our sinful nature, to come to God always and only through our only Mediator, Jesus Christ.
     
  4. Psalms Look to the End. We dwell in a culture of instant gratification, and we often expect instant gratification in worship, fully experiencing the totality of God’s presence and blessing automatically when we sing to him. The psalms however force us to wait: to wait for his blessing, to wait for our inheritance, to wait for the Lord himself. Whether singing reward for the righteous or vengeance for the wicked, we can only sing psalms in light of the End of the Age and the coming of our Lord Jesus. So, singing the psalms requires us to have hope and to be patient as we take up our cross and follow Christ.

These four reasons help explain why singing psalms often just does not “connect” with our congregations. How then do we become fully-embodied, community-oriented, Christ-centered, future-looking Christians? The paradoxical answer, I believe, is that these priorities are best acquired by singing the very psalms that may not now seem relevant.

When songs are set in our lips, we have a tendency to swallow them. Songs get in our gut, and singing songs inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit will change us inside and out. I have seen the fruit of the psalms in my own life and in the lives of others, and I commend them to you now. May God indeed grant that the Word of Christ might dwell richly among us through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in our hearts to God.

Expression and Benediction

Christmas is for expressing yourself; that is, at least, what the retailers who want me to buy media for expressing myself keep telling me. This time of year when the aroma of Tall Pumpkin Spice Lattes fills the air, we usually feel the urge to tell someone (or the world) exactly what it is we are experiencing. We may not know exactly what it is we want to say or exactly where it is coming from up, but we do want to express it nonetheless: whether through cards and cookies, or through presents and wrapping jobs, or even through yet another Christmas album and yet another Christmas sweater. Whatever it is, we want to say it, and we want it to be said to us.

But words can fail, gestures can deceive, presents can disappoint and sweaters can wage a holiday campaign of “shock and awe.” Our confident attempts at saying one thing can implode (or worse, explode) as we end up communicating something quite different. Even worse, our usual streak of babbling can drown us out when we actually have something important to say. To be honest, I have often even wished to become like the prophet Ezekiel, blessed by the Gift of Muteness. For the first part of his ministry, he could speak only when he had a message from God, and the rest of the time he existed in a state of tongue-paralysis. Though it is hardly in the spirit of Christmas, receiving such a gift from God might actually help me avoid inflicting or receiving the wounds caused by my wayward words.

And actually, when God broke his own four hundred-year silence by sending the angel Gabriel to an average priest named Zechariah, he gave him the Gift of Muteness. The message that Gabriel brought, namely that Zechariah’s post-menopausal wife Elizabeth would bear a son who would prepare the way for the Messiah, was rather incredible, and Zechariah’s own incredulous questioning was nearly life-threatening for him. As a result, Zechariah walked out of the temple that day stunned: he had heard a Gospel that he was utterly incapable of articulating to anyone but himself. All he could do was to go home to be with the elderly wife of his youth who would now conceive, carry, and bear his son while he sat silently waiting to speak God’s words.

And what words! Zechariah’s thoughts had been sealed in, allowed to marinate and stew as he reflected on what it all meant. In the better part of a year during which Zechariah waited on God to return to him the use of his speech, he had essentially tenderized his silent meditations into a song of praise and blessing which neither minces nor wastes words as it presents the Gospel. It is no surprise that Zechariah’s song, traditionally called the Benedictus, was quickly picked up and learned by the early church and became forever immortalized in the Gospel of Luke. To this day, it is still sung around the world (as in fact a group of us did last night around a living-room piano), in large part because it expresses with both precision and amplitude the marvelous salvation that Almighty God has accomplished through his Messiah.

The song begins by praising God for fulfilling his own self-expression: the promises that he had given through his prophets. God had sworn oaths in the covenant that he made with Abraham both to save him and his descendants from all enemies and also to allow them all to worship him without fear forever in holiness and righteousness. No matter how sinful Israel had been towards God, no matter how far away from him they stood, no matter how broken they had become, God had promised to show infinite mercy to them by anointing a descendant of David to deliver them. And now this God (who has a real penchant for “self-expression”) has made good on his oaths by actually coming into the world, by visiting his people in mercy. God who before had spoken at so many times and in so many ways has finally spoken his Final Word: the Word made Flesh, the only-begotten Son of God, full of grace and truth.

But in the last part of this song, the self-expression of God which gave voice to Zechariah gives voice to his son John as well. John would declare the total and imminent fulfillment of all of God’s promises. He was called to announce the news of the forgiveness of sins, forgiveness through God’s grace and mercy alone, secured by the Coming One whose arrival would be like the dawn breaking upon total darkness. At his advent, his people would be delivered from death itself and brought into perfect peace with God forever. When John opened his mouth, this would be his subject, his theme, and his passion. The mission of John’s life was simply to prepare the way for God, and when he “expressed himself” he simply delivered the message that God had given him to say.

And I suppose that this is precisely why I find deep pleasure in singing Zechariah’s song. I live immersed in a world of the incessant chatter of messages: phone, text, mail, email, radio, and video, not to mention actual face-to-face conversations with someone. And in this sea of words, most of which is drivel (emanating from me as much as anyone), I can find it difficult to find my voice. But when I sing his song, when I declare anew his Gospel, when I find his focus again on Christ, I find that voice which will endure beyond this mortal life and which will arise again to praise my Lord when he visits us again for good.

Meaning and Magnifying

The American search for the “true meaning of Christmas” intrigues and frustrates me. As children we just did not have this problem: we were too thrilled with the trappings of covetous anticipation to notice the metallic taste of “vanity of vanities” somewhere in the shreds of wrapping paper. But then we grew up. And so, we watch television specials all month, usually featuring a burnt-out workaholic who has to “rediscover” some hidden secret of holiday happiness which, as it happens, might actually be the whole secret of human existence. As we do this, we often sense the intolerable weight of obligation to fulfill an ever-increasing number of materialistic holiday demands while at the same time sensing the need to reconstruct artificially the fuzzy feelings (and fuzzy premises) allegedly at the heart of these holidays. All of this tends to end with exhaustion, grumpiness, alienation, and the nagging sensation that Vanity Fair has overlooked something. And it has.

Of course, the meaning of this season of waning daylight can only be found in the momentous, earth-shattering arrival of the Coming One through whom all times, items, ideas, and people have any meaning whatsoever. At the heart both of the Fast of Advent and of the Feast of Christmas lies the intrusion of the living God, the Almighty Creator as a Man into his own creation, all to save it from sin and to bring it to glory. To be sure, this is much more momentous than what the typical holiday seeker of spirituality and meaning is looking for. But the coming of the Messiah does not merely restore Christmas carols to their original childlike gleam or redeem gaudy decorations to be put up without restraint. When Jesus comes, it changes everything.

And this is what gave Mary reason to sing as she did to her cousin Elizabeth in what we know as the Magnificat. By God’s choice, she who was simply an impoverished adolescent girl from a forsaken family in an insignificant town was given the simple Good News that she need not fear. By way of Gabriel and his message, she who had never known hope apart from what the prophets had promised centuries beforehand now knew that she had found favor with God. By the power of the Holy Spirit, she who had never lain with a man would conceive, carry, and bear a Son who would be called the Son of God and who would sit on the throne of his forefather David forever. And though she gave her affirmative acceptance of the will of God then and there, it is in her song that it all spills out to Elizabeth, and to us.

As Mary stands and praises the God of Abraham, she weaves throughout her song an understanding of the Gospel which carries with it loads of meaning for the birth of this boy and for the whole rest of the world. Why does Mary magnify the Lord? Why does her spirit rejoice in God her Savior? It is because he regarded her lowliness, stooped down from heaven and exalted her by choosing her to be the mother of the Son of God, the Son of David, the Lord of all things, and the Savior of his people. He in his grace and mercy had shown his power, love, and mysterious wisdom in exalting such a lowly, humble, meek, and otherwise insignificant girl to that pivotal place in his redemptive plans for history. He magnified her, so she magnifies him.

But as Mary considers God’s holiness, might, and mercy, she quickly understands that the inconceivable change in her life that she has experienced pours out into the rest of the world in the same way. The coming of Messiah means the Great Reversal of all things as he enters into his Kingdom. Those who are wise in their own eyes are scattered by the wisdom of God. Those who grasped power for themselves are thrust down even as the meek and humble are exalted to the top. Those who are hungry are finally fed, while those who have denied them sustenance waste away apart from him. And most importantly, God’s broken people, who had suffered so obviously and for so long under the weight of sin, guilt, hunger, plague, sword, and death, would finally enter into the blessing and rest promised to Abraham so many centuries before.

Mary here grasps and fleshes out in her song one of the central truths of the Gospel: her son Jesus Christ accomplished the Great Reversal. His lowly birth, lowly life, and lowly death were reversed when he experienced his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension, which means that not only has the curse on his people been turned to blessing, but the tables have been turned throughout the whole of reality. All of life finds its purpose and meaning only in this Man and in submission to his authority, and all of life will be judged by him on the Last Day when he comes again in glory. That little first-trimester baby, who lay in Mary’s womb as she sang this song, is now and ever King of kings and Lord of lords: holy is his name, and his mercy on those who fear him through all generations.

Meaning in general can be tenuous, artificial, even synthetic, and never more so than around the month of December. But in the midst of the holiday blues or a nagging ennui, we have in Mary’s song a vibrant reminder that God in Christ was reconciling the world to himself, that God in Christ will make all things new, and that God in Christ has magnified us who believe in his mercy, to the point that we will be called blessed by all generations.

And that, boys and girls, is the true meaning of Christmas.

Andrew's Feast for All

One of the gnarly things about the classical Christian tradition that I absolutely love is the peculiar practice of setting aside particular days to remember the most important elements of what Jude calls “the faith once delivered to the saints.” We have days set aside to celebrate with solemnity or feasting (or maybe even with both) the birth of our Lord Jesus, his presentation in the temple, his temptation in the wilderness, his death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead, his ascension into heaven, his sending of the Holy Spirit upon his church, and his imminent return to judge the earth. This is weighty and tremendous stuff, the kind of timekeeping that can engrain the Gospel in a person, a generation, and maybe even a culture.

And peppered throughout a church year dedicated to the life of Christ is a constellation of dates set aside to remember those through whom the Lord Christ established his church: the Apostles, Prophets, and Martyrs. His life is reflected in their lives, his acts are engraved in their acts, and if we pay attention, we may manage to get a clearer picture of our identity as the church when we study not only his life but their lives in him as well. These sporadic days are tasty and marvelous bits in the year, and help recall us back to our roots as a family, part of the household of God under his Son.

Today is the Feast of St. Andrew, brother of Simon Peter and Apostle of the Lord Jesus. According to Christian tradition Andrew, like all of the Lord’s Apostles, gave up his life to death at the hand of the enemies of the truth on behalf of what the Apostle John calls “the Word of God and the Testimony of Jesus Christ.” He like the others had been empowered on the day of Pentecost to bear witness to the resurrection of the Son of God and to teach all that he had spoken and done during his earthly ministry. Like them, Andrew went to his grave proclaiming the Good News that Jesus had died for sinners and was raised for sinners. He was, after all, an Apostle and a Martyr.

But I find that merely treating Andrew like a generic apostle misses all the nuance, all the personality, all the juice of what Scripture tells about him. It misses altogether the example and the encouragement in the life of Andrew in particular for sinners like me who seek to be found in and to follow Christ daily. And I find that, as a man preparing for the mission field, it is particularly important for me to pay careful attention to the life of Andrew.

Andrew does not immediately stand out as an Apostle to take much notice of in Scripture. Though fisherman Andrew is one of the first to come to Jesus, he does not make it into the inner apostolic circle of Peter, James, and John. Indeed, Andrew makes only occasional appearances in the Gospel narratives, and barely shows up at all in the Acts of the Apostles. But that does make him any less important than the other Apostles.

In fact, two things stand out in the life of Andrew. First, Andrew immediately answers the call to follow Jesus without delay. When John the Baptist identifies Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” Andrew immediately leaves everything to follow Jesus. There is no hesitation, no delay, no looking back: he follows Jesus persistently and joyfully. Now, clearly, we are called as Christians to this kind of obedient response to the Gospel: how much more should we missionaries have quick and ready hearts to go where God calls us and do what he requires of us?

Second, Andrew always seems to be bringing people to Jesus. After he follows Jesus, Andrew brings his brother Simon Peter to meet him. Andrew brings the boy with loaves and fishes to meet Jesus despite his doubts. Andrew brings the Gentiles who desire to see Jesus and announces them to the Lord. Just as Peter is prone to action, Philip to speculation, and Thomas to emotion, Andrew is dedicated to connecting people with the Messiah whose words bring life and whose presence brings peace. It is certainly the case that we are also called as Christians to bring others to Christ in order to find life in him: how much more should we missionaries, whose professional calling is to proclaim Christ, be bringing the nations to walk in his light?

These twin attributes that we see in Andrew, a passion both quickly to follow and also to bring others to follow the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” do not just belong to Andrew: they spring from the very heart of God our heavenly Father. His desire from before the foundation of the world has been that we have life in him, and that we have it through his Son, Jesus Christ. In the life of Andrew we get a poignant if tiny and imperfect picture of the love of God and of his own passion that we obtain true and eternal life by believing in his Son. My hope is that, on this Feast of St. Andrew, we may, by considering his obedience, be encouraged to come not to him but to his Lord and ours, that Jesus who, in his goodness, has founded and established his church on the Apostles and Prophets, one of whom is Andrew.

The Excellence of Autumn

The joy of traveling is, if nothing else, a distinct change of scenery. It seems impossible to me that in the last three weeks I have gone from the green, mountainous coves of Puget Sound to the fir-encircled lakes of Northern California to the balmy beaches of San Diego, and now finally to the cold shores of Lake Michigan and the gray, dilapidated suburbs of Chicago. Some might say that this latest stop along my journey is a step down from the others, but as I took a walk this afternoon and experienced an old familiar sensation too often missed in Southern California, I must disagree. It is here in the Midwest where I have once again met an old November friend in a blustery season that cannot be experienced in the same way in warmer climes.

Autumn is absolutely my favorite season. Growing up in Indiana and attending college in Ohio, every year I relished the vivid moments of crinkled leaves, spiced cider, and the gradually cooling air which day after day brought a gradual crescendo of nippiness. As the days and weeks moved on through November, the biting autumn air that flooded my nose and lungs seemed like a harbinger, bringing an oracle not only of the swiftly approaching winter but of mortality itself. In the midst of midterms and term papers, it was as if Death, whose specter had managed rather successfully to remain hidden during the bright summer months, now grew bold and jumped out from behind every early-darkened shed, summoned by the smell of ponds turning over, leaves decaying, and harvest fires everywhere giving off lusty billows of smoke. It was intoxicating then, and I am equally enthralled today.

But my love for autumn is completely tied to the inevitable advent of spring. True, I may savor the bittersweet, melancholy sensation of sheltering myself indoors with a cup of tea after spending a gray blustery day in the open elements. But autumn leads to winter, and though joy may be found in the days of dark and nights of ice, it can only be secured and maintained with great personal sacrifice and exertion. When nature round about us lies in the grips of winter, nothing grows, nothing comforts, nothing warms, and nothing forgives. Death himself, who with coquettish insistence merely flirted with us during the fall, wins in winter over the world of living things and drives them into the still hardened earth.

To put it another way, spring must come, or we must die. For me, it was never a surprise that, in his Comedy, Dante arrives at the heart of hell to find it a veritable block of ice, a frigid prison from which he and his classical guide would finally emerge on Easter Sunday. The poet’s instincts ring true to me, though not simply with respect to the coldness of Death and Hell (as well as the hellishness of cold), but also in regards to the radiant victory that the Resurrection of Christ brings. Our Lord Jesus rose from the dead in the first month of the Jewish calendar, coinciding in the Northern Hemisphere with the first emergence of spring: the time of warm winds bringing fresh rain, of greenness and new life, and of the promise of summer to come. From the empty tomb emerged a Savior who had borne the wrath of God and who in the process had not only defeated Sin and Death and but had also begun a radically new life, the first fruits of the new creation of all things. Every year, the glories of springtime gesture towards a coming moment of cosmic regeneration, the general resurrection of all flesh at Christ’s coming, without which there remains no hope for a gritty world of ember days and hoarfrost nights.

Still, the reverse is true: not only must we look forward to the waxing of spring to endure the waning of autumn, but spring is never appreciated without the preceding howl of winter or the bite of autumn. I find that those who most celebrate spring are those suffer through the sternest measures of darkness, snow and ice. We must reckon with the “newness” of new life before we can experience its mystery, joy, and power. As Christians, we keep Advent before we celebrate Christmas, and we fast through Lent before we feast on Easter. If we would taste the joy and blessing of the world to come, we must savor the pain, sorrow, and curse of the present world and, in the process, stand against it in hope of greater things on the horizon. The Apostle Paul writes that “Death has no sting” for the one who will rise with Christ, just as autumn poses no despair to the one who knows that the frost’s own doom is coming; and so, to continue the analogy, we do and must stoke the fires, rake the leaves, mull the cider, and howl back into the night as we await a month that comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.

I have made a short story long, and it is time to put the kettle on to make more tea, after which I will probably take a walk in the nippy eventide. With any luck, my cheeks will grow rosy from the wind and my lips may even chap. It may not seem like much, but it is a small reminder that I have come and am going home.

Wisdom and the World

I usually find life's complexities pretty perplexing, often pleasantly so. Recently however, I have been mulling over a conundrum which has been popping up frequently in my conversations with friends and loved ones (though it it has been chewed over by veritable centuries of Christian thought). Since I have decided to jot down some of my ideas about it here, let me put the conundrum succinctly: how can some unbelievers show so much wisdom when so many Christians live life so foolishly? To wrestle with the force of this question, you do not have to have poured over the great pagan works of Greco-Roman antiquity, or have studied the Crusades in detail, or have read a biography of Gandhi, or have spent a grueling semester abroad with a Muslim family in North Africa. The only thing necessary is to have been struck at one time or another by the realization that some of the smartest, wisest, and nicest people in your life do not trust in Jesus for salvation or confess him to be Lord.

Humbling as it may be, Christians simply do not have a monopoly on wisdom and wise living. When we come to Christ, very few us get zapped at the same time with instant supernatural skill in wise living. God’s promise to give wisdom to everyone who asks is absolutely true; nonetheless, this promise does not come with a timetable, and far too few Christians even spend time asking God for wisdom. All too often, we Christians regularly replicate the foolish, immature, and even destructive attitudes and behaviors of the unbelieving world around us: sometimes we surpass them. We frequently appear to aim at being wise as sheep and innocent as snakes.

So, if wisdom does not come naturally from being a Christian where does it come from? Wisdom in Scripture is a practical, habitual skill in living life well, grounded in an insight into and understanding of how reality is set up and structured. This structure of reality is rooted in God’s creative order, an order which he established for everyone when he created the world and which he still upholds and sustains for everyone through his common grace in the midst of a world filled with the common curse of sin and brokenness.

The key words here are creation and common grace. Whether we have salvation in Christ or not, we each have access to the world God created by way of our observation, reason, and lived experience. Armed with God’s tools and God’s help, both non-Christians and Christians alike can gain considerable success in living life skillfully. Christians can learn much about life from myriads of non-Christians, dead and alive, who have lived and taught wisely. To assume that Christians have an automatic superiority in wise living in this present age is to deny both the goodness of God’s creation and the sufficiency for the time being of his sustaining providence for those created in his image.

But this is far from the whole story. The Christian message, the Gospel, announces that God “hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.” The wisdom of the Present Age, otherwise normally valid, is of no ultimate value when entering into the Coming Age, into the Resurrection and the New Creation. Here human wisdom, built so precisely on God’s purposes in our Creation, becomes bewildered and clueless when confronted with God’s wisdom, exuberantly manifested in our Redemption through the Cross of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians,

While the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, to us who are being made alive it is the power of God. … For, since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased, through the folly of what is proclaimed, to save those who believe.

In view of our foolish living, God the Father, moved by infinitely powerful love, sent his Son Jesus to live and to die wisely on our behalf. In this "foolish" act for the sake of fools, he accomplished something far beyond anything revealed in the universe up until that point. This Gospel appeared then, as it still does now, to be utter nonsense, but this perception does not change the fact that all of reality has been restructured and reordered by Christ, and one day it will be regenerated in him. Paul continues,

We do in fact speak wisdom among the mature, yet wisdom not of this age, nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away. Instead, we speak a mysterious and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.

According to Paul, every Christian must possess, indeed does possess, a unique wisdom in light of this reality, rooted in submission to God’s wisdom as realized in Jesus Christ.

God’s wisdom requires two fundamental actions: trust and reprioritization. Trust demands that the Christian, in light of the finished work of Jesus Christ, depend entirely on God for every good thing, beginning with his salvation from dominion of darkness and entrance into the Kingdom of God. Reprioritization demands that the Christian, in light of the Kingdom that Christ is bringing with him when he returns, make decisions which acknowledge the transitory character of the things of this life, preferring instead to “store up treasure in heaven” which will never pass away. Those wise in the wisdom of this age can never and will never understand trust in God’s wisdom or the decisions made in its light. The authentic Christian will always appear foolish to the worldly-wise who scratch their heads and look on. As Jesus said to his disciples, “Where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

As Christians, we must embrace wisdom wherever we find it: God has given it to the world for his glory and our benefit. This is absolutely true. But we must never forget that such wisdom is not enough: the deepest wisdom is found only in a paradoxical and counter-cultural way of life, steeped deeply in the truth of a Gospel which heralds and opens to us a heavenly reality to come.

When Home Comes to Us

There is something delightful in seeing the paradoxes of the Christian faith come to life and take flesh in visible and tangible ways. Over the last few weeks, I have been ruminating a lot on the paradox associated with the via crucis, “the way of the cross” of Christian discipleship. The paradox goes something like this: to experience this resurrected life of Christ, we must experience the cruciform life of Christ. To put it another way,

“Truly our way to eternal joy is to suffer here with Christ; and our door to enter into eternal life is gladly to die with Christ; that we may rise again from death, and dwell with him in everlasting life.”

This paradox is expressed of course in different ways, whether by Jesus addressing his disciples, or by the Apostle Paul writing to Timothy his apprentice or to the Philippians, or by the Apostle Peter comforting suffering Christians. But Holy writ is unanimous in its testimony that the model that Christ gives to Christians for their lives corresponds much more closely to the hard wood of his cross than to the ease, comfort, pleasure, prestige, or power that we generally expect or hope to come our way.

Still, do our lives in fact bear witness to the truth of this paradox? I seem to be able to see something like it in the incredible lives of men and women around me who, in the face of evil around them and despite their own sufferings, remain stalwart in their faith and persevere with joy. However, none of these experts in “cruciform living” have actually attained to the glory that has been promised us in the Resurrection of Christ, and it can be difficult to obey the exhortation to “consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” when we cannot see that outcome here and now.

Indeed, the difficulty in seeking visible and tangible confirmation of the paradox of the via crucis is that, according to the Apostle Paul, we are still waiting for “the coming weight of glory to be revealed in us which is not worth comparing to the sufferings of the present age.” Here and now we can only behold the suffering: the glory has not yet broken into our world. In order to consider the outcome of the lives of those who have taken up their cross and followed Christ, we must have faith, trusting that our Lord will honor his promise to “transform our bodies of lowliness into the same form as his body of glory, according to the working by which he is able also to submit to himself all things.”

But even considering the outcome of their “cruciform living” through the lens of faith, a tricky question can emerge for people like me whose own suffering appears minute in comparison to that of so many others. After all, in my short life of youth and vigor, I have enjoyed a loving family and firm friendships. I have eaten well, slept warm, earned degrees, travelled the world, and preached the Gospel in peace and tranquility. Very little about my life suggests the obvious suffering which the apostles, the martyrs, and so many others of the church militant have undergone as they were conformed to the “cruciform life” of Christ. The question is: have I and others like me been exempt from the via crucis?

Hardly. My tentative answer to this question may not be entirely satisfactory to some, but I find it is an important stab at it for Christians who, like me, have enjoyed enormous blessing, prosperity, and privilege in the present world.

As I have been travelling for the last three weeks I have been struck by the discomfort which comes with being a visitor and a guest in the homes of others. No matter how gracious the host or how posh the surroundings, there is an ache associated with being somewhere other than home. Homesickness reminds us with its unasked for jabs that we are not where we are most ourselves, not where we most belong, not where we hope to arrive at. Though well-fed, well-clothed, and well-cared for, we will never rest content until we are at rest in the place we claim as our own.

It is this kind of homesickness pain, be it dull, throbbing, or acute, which characterizes the heart of the Christian life as we are each stretched upon our crosses. As Paul lets on, when we become crucified with Christ, we remove our focus from earthly things and experiences, even when they are pleasurable, in order to set our minds on heavenly things, where Christ is seated, where our citizenship lies, where we have our home. To wit, if this world is no longer our true home, then its pleasures and comforts, its prestige and honor will all ring hollow as our homesickness for a heavenly kingdom casts its shadow over life in the present age. Suffering always comes to Christians in this world because, without exception, we have all died to the world we live in, and death is never without pain.

However, to the end we cling to the paradox that Paul exudes to the Romans: “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” And this is the hope: that home will come to us. Our risen Lord will return to earth to raise us up to be with him, bringing heaven with him, and he will wipe away every tear from our eye in that place where there will be no more place for suffering. Believe me: this homecoming will make all the suffering of our cross-marked lives worth every minute of it.

The Inner Game of Wisdom

One of the incessant prayer requests that I have is for is wisdom, especially when I’m going through circumstances which are ridiculously confusing, disheartening, or deeply painful. I don’t think this comes merely from a sense of need or inadequacy: God has promised to give wisdom to those who seek it out and to those who ask for it in faith, and we are commanded to counsel each other with all wisdom. It may be important to us, but it is even more important to the God who loves us and whom we love in return.

Yet through my own prayers, I sometimes betray a misunderstanding of what wisdom is and how it is received. They’ll go something like this:

Dear Lord: dang it, I’m going to have to make a decision, and I am at my wit’s end. I don’t know which way to go. I have not obeyed your Spirit by disciplining my mind or the habits of my heart to faithfully discern your will or way for my life. Please zap me with secret knowledge so that I can make the perfect decision. Or, if possible, take this awful decision from me and clearly arrange the circumstances of my life for me. I pray all of this in the Name of Jesus who lived the most perfect life ever. Amen.

Without question, we need to pray to the Lord for wisdom, but let’s be honest: the biblical concept of wisdom is at once far more robust, far more organic, far more divine, and far more human than what these last ditch prayers would seem to suggest.

The concept of wisdom that we find in Scripture is richer than the anemic exposition above. In the Old Testament alone (which is not only full of wisdom literature but in fact shot through with the themes and motifs of wisdom), there is a whole range of words used to describe the concepts related to wisdom: knowledge (da`ath), understanding (binah), instruction (torah), discipline (musar), prudence (`ormah), discretion (mizmah). But the actual word for wisdom itself (chokmah) in the Hebrew Scriptures is an intensely practical word relating to the skill of an artisan. The wise person is like the MVP pitcher who pitches a perfect game, or the virtuoso violinist who receives a standing ovation, or the architect whose arches last a millennium. Wisdom may involve insight into the world and understanding of reality, but we cannot limit wisdom to knowledge and insight. Wisdom always manifests itself in skillful, beautiful living. So how then do we become skillful, beautiful livers?

Back when I was regularly studying and practicing violin, a music instructor recommended that I buy and read The Inner Game of Music, a musical spinoff of the book The Inner Game of Tennis. The thesis of this book was at once intuitive and instructive: the musician is at his best when the technical aspects of his craft have been completely rehearsed, practiced, and mastered before the performance, consequently allowing the creative and aesthetic core of the musician’s expression to come across flawlessly and effortlessly.

As long as the musician is concentrated on hitting all the right notes in all the right order with correct precision and execution, he will be creating sequential sounds, not music. However, when the musician is so prepared that he has stopped being concerned with these technical elements, he is then finally able to open himself up completely to express what he desires through the medium of music. Only then is he an artist, and only then is his craft truly art.

Here’s where a parallel can be drawn with the technique of musical performance that I described above, what we might call “The Inner Game of Wisdom”. To become not just a master of my instrument but a performer whose artistry would transcend mere technical mastery, I had to take time every day to practice meticulously the music of the day: note-by-note, section-by-section, piece-by-piece. Similarly, if we desire insight, wisdom, and expertise in beautiful living for the glory of God, we must discipline our lives hour-by-hour, day-by-day, month-by-month, and year-by-year. As we practice walking with God in Christ, coming before him in worship, trusting his promises, following his commandments, drawing close to him in prayer and worship, and showing his love in tangible ways to those around us, we become like Christ, the Power and Wisdom of God, whose skillful and beautifully lived life knows no equal.

It is hardly wrong to cry out to God for insight and guidance when we are feeling confused and helpless: he desires and commands us to do exactly that! But we can miss the heights and depths of the life of wisdom that God has for us when we equate God’s momentary direction and providence with the wisdom acquired through a lifetime of walking with him. As followers of Jesus, let’s delight in the daily discipline of drawing close to him, seeking first his Kingdom and his Righteousness, so that, among all these things, his wisdom may be added to our lives.

Missions Means Martyrdom

Much of the Christian life can sometimes sound syrupy: martyrdom does not and cannot. Even in an age of cynicism, we still remember, respect, and honor those who have given their lives for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, as Christians living today in the United States, our primary attitude today towards martyrs tends to be pity: pity for those robbed of life, beaten down by evil, and prevented by violence from serving God. All this then usually lead us to fervent prayer that we and our families be forever spared the blessed gift of martyrdom!

Of course, this is hardly the perspective of the Holy Scriptures or of the Church at its strongest. Over the last few days, I have been studying the second century account of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna (a city in modern-day Turkey). As the story unfolds, the focus is neither on the brutality of his execution nor on a call to rally around his death. Rather, the narrative hones in on the conformity of Polycarp’s life to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Not only does Polycarp proclaim with his lips the Good News that Jesus, the Son of God, suffered, died, and was raised on behalf of sinners and now reigns as King, but even the tiny details of Polycarp’s life and execution correspond with the life and execution of his Lord and Savior and, in the process, bear witness to the Gospel.

In a similar way, the Apostle Paul describes for the Philippians his own passionate desire to be found in Christ and justified through faith on the basis of Christ’s righteousness in the hope that he himself “might know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming made like him in his death, if by any means [he] might attain to the resurrection of the dead.” Paul, who would one day be martyred in Rome, understood that the goal of the Christian life is to become like Christ in every detail possible. This means that, for the present age, our highest joy is to become like Christ by suffering like him, at the hands of wicked men and women, and even to give up our lives to death if we are called upon to do so.

But becoming like Christ in his suffering and death also means becoming like him in his victory. For this reason, the Apostle John in the book of the Revelation describes Christians, reigning with Christ, as “those who were beheaded on account of the testimony of Jesus and on account of the Word of God” but who, in doing so, “conquered [their Accuser] on account of the blood of the Lamb and on account of the word of their testimony, and did not love their life even unto death.” Just as by dying on the cross Christ conquered our guilt, our sin, our enemies, and even our death, in martyrdom we also conquer the forces of evil, not through force but through the power of his Gospel proclaimed by individuals whose lives increasingly mirror and reflect his life.

Thinking through the implications of this for my own life and for Christians more generally, I think we ought to draw two conclusions. First, I think we need to understand that missions” means “martyrdom”. Cross-cultural Christian ministry is not simply a hip project for bored people, an alternative lifestyle for the poor Christians who simply will not fit into regular life in the United States, or even the means to a personal sense of fulfillment and productivity. Missionaries who cross cultural boundaries to make disciples of Jesus Christ are called to renounce every right that we have on our own lives, fortunes, locations, priorities, and privileges, all in order to bear witness to his Good News, a Gospel which is robust enough to merit both the world’s persecuting fury and the disciple’s trust and endurance in the face of that persecution. Missions entails suffering, martyrdom, and conformity to Christ.

But second, I think that we also need to understand that “the Christian life” means “martyrdom”. While martyrs deserve our remembrance and respect, they do not deserve our pity. Rather martyrs like the Apostles “have been counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of Name” by God himself: they share in that “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” that directs us all to bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ by proclaiming him with our lips and by becoming like him in his life and death. Our chief desire as Christians should not be to live comfortable, easy, prosperous, or otherwise “successful” lives, but to become like Christ in every way possible. The Christian life entails suffering, martyrdom, and conformity to Christ.

We may never be burnt at the stake like Polycarp, beheaded like Paul, or crucified upside down like Peter. But we are all called to lives in which we share in the sufferings of Christ, as John puts it, “for the Word of God and the Testimony of Jesus!”