Archives For The Christian Life

Hymnals

We all know what it’s like to be bored with worship. Anyone who has been around the church for a while knows what it is to sing a praise song so many times that it becomes almost painful. Our worship services can become boring, predictable, numbing. And that’s not good. Boring, predictable, numbing practices can rob us of our passion and make God seem like something he is certainly not: boring.

While I’m convinced of this point, I don’t believe the answer to boredom lies in constant novelty. Certain church paradigms believe this. Change it up, keep everything moving, shift gears incessantly or we’ll lose their tiny attention spans.

But passion in worship is not the inevitable byproduct of constant novelty. Nor is repetition the opposite of vitality. In his excellent and important book Imagining the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith makes a case for repetition as a central part of our worship:

“We, especially we Protestants, have a built-in allergy to repetition in worship, though we are quite happy to affirm the value of repetition in almost every other sphere of life, from study to music to sports to art. We affirm the value of ritual repetition if we’re learning piano scales or learning to hit a golf ball but are curiously suspicious of repetitive ritual in worship and discipleship” (Imagining the Kingdom, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013, 181).

Does that strike you as odd? You’ll never become a musician if you don’t value repetition. You’d be stabbing yourself in the cheek with your fork without a lifetime of repetition. You wouldn’t speak English if it weren’t for repetition. We know that repetition is important for mastering a skill, for getting a practice to sink deeply into our being.

BasketballTo use a basketball analogy: being a good basketball player requires the ability to dribble, pass, shoot, screen, and block out without giving a second’s thought to these activities. You’ll only be a solid player when these practices are second nature, automatic, natural. You push the ball towards the court, your fingers receive the ball when it bounces back up. You push it back down again. The shot goes up, your body immediately gets into position for the rebound. It just happens. You’re not letting your eyes be distracted with these actions, you’re not wasting your brain power on them, this is simply how you’ve trained your body to behave on the court. You’ve spent countless hours repeating these skills, forcing your body to learn these practices without the conscious assistance of your brain.

So it is with worship. You won’t be good at worshiping God in the moment that you lose your biggest client or get cut off in traffic or lose your temper with your child unless you’ve trained yourself to be a worshiper. And this requires repetition. Our corporate worship services and church gatherings are, in a sense, our basketball practices. We listen to sermons to hear the story of what God has done in Christ. We speak and sing and exult in this story with our songs. We acknowledge our need for this story in our prayers. We enact this story in taking Communion. We incarnate this story in the words and actions we do in fellowship and service with and for one another. With repetition, the story sinks into our bones.

We enact the story of what God has done in Christ as if by second nature. It has become part of us, it has come to shape us. And thus it shows up unexpectedly in actions that we would not have thought have anything to do with worship.

In comparing our church gatherings to “practice” I don’t mean to imply that what we do in church is not serious. It is. And it’s these serious (yet joyful) times of intentionally saturating ourselves in God’s story that make the story a natural part of who we are.

The world around us knows the value of repetition for shaping the human soul: think of how deep-seated consumerism has become in our society, our churches, and our hearts. Smith recognizes how effective the advertisers are at shaping us and laments how weak the church is at countering this formation that we receive from the world:

“It is precisely our allergy to repetition in worship that has undercut the counterformative power of Christian worship—because all kinds of secular liturgies shamelessly affirm the good of repetition. We’ve let the devil, so to speak, have all the repetition…Unless Christian worship eschews the cult of novelty and embraces the good of faithful repetition, we will constantly be ceding habituation to secular liturgies” (183, emphasis added).

In other words, if our worship experiences remain fixated on novelty while our society engages in effective repetition, our Christian formation will take a back seat to our secular formation.

In my next post, I’ll talk about what healthy repetition might look like in our church gatherings.

This morning I dropped my firstborn off for her first day of school. Maybe that doesn’t sound impressive. But listen: this precious little girl, whom I have been holding since she was 7 pounds 9 ounces 19 and ¾ inches, whose food I have shoveled and airplaned into her mouth, who has received a late night kiss from my lips every night of her life as she sleeps, with whom I have watched countless episodes of Mickey Mouse and My Little Pony, and for whose sake I gladly renounced what I used to call “free time”—I drove this little girl to a government owned facility and left her there. For most of the day! I left her with a group of five year old strangers (and a couple of friends, thank the Lord).

First Day of School 2

Here’s the crazy part: I fully intend to do this again five days a week for the next 13 years! Then I’ll probably be sending her (at crippling personal expense) to some far-flung college (may it never be!) for another 4+ years of being shaped outside of my immediate presence. And then she’ll likely meet some punk kid (everyone will probably think he’s super sweet, but I’ll know better), fall in love, and start a family of her own. Then I’ll see her from time to time at best.

Needless to say, I’m sitting here thinking, “What have I done?” How could I drop her off and drive away?

Let me admit right off the bat that I don’t know what I’m talking about here. My oldest child is almost six: I know nothing about parenting. But as my daughter sits in a classroom, being taught for the first of countless days by a teacher I’ve never met (I’m sure she’s wonderful, truly), it occurs to me that this is just one in a long sequence of letting go experiences.

When my daughters, Abigail and Claire, were first born, it was all about holding on. I scooped them up. I held on tight. I’ve spent so many delirious hours rocking to sleep and singing nursery rhymes and crawling on the floor and reading Goodnight Moon and applying band-aids to nonexistent owies and kissing chubby cheeks and holding miniature hands. At some point, my back will offer its last piggy-back ride, but I could continue with the holding on phase forever. And then for forever again. I’ve grown my own friends, and I love how they’re turning out. Letting go strikes me now as the worst-case scenario.

I’ve literally cried while talking to parents during our college orientation weekends—parents who are dropping their daughters off to attend college across the country—I smelled these parents’ uncertainties and I shed tears of panic, realizing that one day I’ll be letting go of my beautiful girls.

And I started letting go today. I’m not sorry that I’ve been holding on. I’ve “helicoptered” around the playground, and I don’t regret the times I saved my daughters from breaking their necks by falling off the climbing wall. I’ll hold these girls tightly for as long as the Lord leaves them in my care. God entrusted me with these two magnificent human beings, and I plan to cherish every moment I have with them. But I realize they’re not mine to hold—at least, not forever. Right now, holding them has been an important part of fulfilling the stewardship God has blessed me with. But to be a faithful steward, letting go will be an important part of the process. The world is all around them, and they need to see it. I can tell them about it, but they need to get out there.

First Day of SchoolI recently taught Abigail how to ride a bike. I removed the training wheels and ran alongside my little pedaler, holding the seat of her bike to keep it steady. She did great with my hand firmly gripping that seat. Eventually I let go—only for a few seconds!—and she rode. I put my hand back on and steadied the now wobbling bike. And then, one time, I took my hand off the bike and she rode well and I didn’t put my hand back on the bike again. She’s my little bike-riding girl now; she’s having a blast and I’m so proud.

I expect to continue to have recurring moments of holding on. She’ll get the tightest hugs of her life every day when she comes home from school, and I plan to give her late night sleeping kisses every night she lives under my roof. I’ll hold her when she cries and when she’s happy and when she succeeds and when she’s feeling sappy. But I’ll also let go—every single day—and get her out there in the world. There’s so much I still want to and plan to teach her about the world and God and people and herself. But I will also let go and send her to learn from other people, to thrive in real friendships, to experience the beauty and joy and brokenness and glory of the world firsthand. I’ll teach her about all of these things, and I’ll help her debrief her experiences with them. And in between I’ll let go.

I don’t want to. I want to hold on tightly forever. But God has given me these miraculous little girls to make his world a better place, to spread his kingdom into nooks and crannies I could never dream of, to heal hurts that I’ll never be aware of, to reflect his image in places and ways that go beyond my tiny imaginative capacity. These girls are his. And I’m so thankful he has entrusted them to my wife and I. And I’m beginning a regular process of praying for the strength and wisdom to let go at all the right times.

Happy first day of school, everyone.

A couple of days ago I wrote about God’s presence—all around us at every moment, but somehow eluding our attention. Yesterday I had a discussion with one of my students about the things we do in “secret” that we would never do if we were cognizant of God’s presence in that moment, and I feel compelled to add on to my previous post.

Theologically, we know we’re never actually alone. As David asks God rhetorically in Psalm 139: “Where can I flee from your presence?” We know this, but we don’t believe it. Or we struggle to hold it in mind at every moment. So my student and I discussed the things Christians would never do if they could only remember God’s inescapable presence in moments of temptation.

PrayerThe problem, however, is that we fail to take God’s presence seriously in such moments. You wouldn’t do it if another human being were standing there. You certainly wouldn’t do it if God incarnate were standing there. But God is there. So why are you doing it?

The problem of not being aware of God’s presence in such moments is actually much bigger than that. We have trouble caring about God’s presence in moments of temptation because we have trouble caring about God’s presence in general. You’re not going to turn on the switch of “Oh wait, be careful what you do because God is here” in your battle with temptation. That switch will stay off as long as your master switch of “Everything I’m doing right now is done in the active presence of God” is off. And for most of us, it’s just off all the time, unless we apathetically turn it back on during a church service or prayer time. But we’re always diligent about turning the switch off again when those times are over, if not before.

What we desperately need to cultivate for many reasons is a constant awareness of the presence of God. This is not a theological study, it’s a matter of getting a biblical truth to sink down into our bones and permeate the furthest recesses of our minds. This requires training, and in this regard, I think we can find some help from Brother Lawrence’s spiritual classic, Practicing the Presence of God.

Brother Lawrence was a French monk who lived in the seventeenth century. As he would do his daily, monotonous activities, such as washing dishes, he would simply train himself to be aware of God’s presence. He describes the result of these years of training like this: “I am come to a state wherein it would be as difficult for me not to think of God as it was at first to accustom myself to it.” This statement reveals that continued awareness of God’s presence is hard won, but it also holds out hope that this could one day become natural for us.

Kitchen SinkBrother Lawrence said, “Our sanctification did not depend upon changing our works, but in doing that for God’s sake which we commonly do for our own.” In other words, awareness of God’s presence is not the result of doing only “spiritual activities;” it’s about doing the things we do already, but doing them with God by our side.

It was said of Brother Lawrence that “he was more united to God in his outward employments than when he left them for devotion and retirement.” Leaving his daily business to go spend devotional time with God amounted to being with God in abstraction rather than being with God in the tangible stuff of daily life. If you don’t see God in another human being, you’ll have trouble seeing God in a formalized prayer. If you don’t see God in the stunning beauty and intricacy of his creation, you’ll have trouble seeing him in your devotional routine.

Brother Lawrence’s prescription is this: “Think often on God, by day, by night, in your business, and even in your diversions. He is always near you and with you; leave Him not alone. You would think it rude to leave a friend alone who came to visit you; why, then, must God be neglected?” This is where theology meets reality, where knowledge becomes embedded in practice. God is all around us, we must learn to see him. He is not hiding; the problem is our blindness.

Perhaps our goal should be arriving at this reality: “Sufferings will be sweet and pleasant to us while we are with Him; and the greatest pleasures will be without Him, a cruel punishment to us.” It doesn’t matter what God calls us to: in his presence there is fullness of joy, at his right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11). And it doesn’t matter how strong the pull of sin, any activity that cannot be done by God’s side is inherently repellent.

May we practice God’s presence in every moment, including those that would seek to pull us away from him.

It’s all around us at every moment, yet we never see it. It runs through us, in every thought, every gesture, every strand of DNA. It is present in every great world event, in every circumstantial triviality, in ever beat of every heart.

It is the presence of God. The involvement of the Almighty in the world he created. Biblically speaking, the question “Where can God be found?” is nonsense. The question “Where can God NOT be found?” gets us closer to reality, but it’s still invalid. Psalm 139 uses rhetorical questions to drive the point home: “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?”

Foggy Vineyard

Every Christian has known this from their first Sunday School lesson, but in my experience, we are almost completely blind to the presence of God in our world.

God is present in our church services, in our Bible reading, and in our small groups. He rejoins us when we do an act of service or say a prayer. We may sometimes see him in our family life. But other than that, we’re blind. We have relegated God to religious moments, to Christian activities, to spiritual books.

But God is not so bound; we need to learn to open our eyes. You have never engaged in a secular task. You have never left a sacred space. You have never walked out of God’s presence. You have never attempted a feat too big for God’s power, nor have you slumped into an activity too trivial for his active concern. Everything you do matters to God. Everything you see and think and apathetically pass by involves the Creator of all.

Our lives would change dramatically if we could only see the God who is there at every moment. I often use this quote from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov because I find it so helpful:

“Love all of God’s creation, both the whole of it and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love animals, love plants, love each thing. If you love each thing, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.”

We’re not to “love the universe” in a hippy, “we’re all one with the Cosmic One, man,” kind of way. But if we actually looked at what was around us—using the senses God gave us—we would see that this world is full of wonder. Every bit of it. And if we began to notice the wonder pressing in on us at every moment, we would be overcome by the kind of place we inhabit. By the kind of people we are. By the miracles that surround us at every moment. And when we become overwhelmed by the reality we take for granted, we can begin to ask David’s question with the same rhetorical conviction: “Indeed, where CAN I flee from your presence?”

Step outside and you’re in the presence of trees that steal sunshine, inhale carbon dioxide, and miraculously produce green living matter even as they exhale precious oxygen for us to breathe. Step outside and there’s always the possibility that you’ll be hit with water that God pulls up out of rivers and oceans, flies through the air for miles, and then deposits onto dry ground—thereby watering his enormous garden.

Sunset 1

Sit in your car and be propelled at unbelievable speeds by the fire burning at many hundreds of degrees Fahrenheit just a few feet in front of you. Enjoy the cool air that God’s image bearers have learned to create by harnessing the power of explosions in your engine.

Check your smart phone and consider the “air waves” that miraculously and invisibly transport whatever your phone is doing through space. Be amazed that God made a world in which such things are possible and created image bearers who could learn to create devices to send, receive, process, and share this kind of invisible information in nanoseconds.

Go to your office and marvel that God uses industries to provide for his world—distributing food, enriching lives, shaping social interactions, providing safety, spreading information, and the millions of other activities that we call “work” and that God uses to care for the people he created.

You will never spend a second of your life outside of God’s presence. You will never engage in any activity that is not in some way related to what God is doing in this world.

It’s there. He’s there. All around you. In everything. Working. Shaping. Calling. Grieving. Redeeming.

And you’re there. In the world. In your very specific setting. As God’s image bearer. As his ambassador. Extending God’s care to the people around you, whether that be through technology or agriculture or customer service or industrial production. Your work ties in to God’s. Your “secular” activities are anything but. Your “boring” moments are anything but. Your “insignificance” is anything but.

Open your eyes. See the world. See God. And live the prayer: “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

I have written several posts in defense of social media (for example, here, here, and here). My basic argument has been that social media is a series of platforms that are not inherently harmful. I have expressed concern over the way that many people use social media—replacing true friendship with “likes,” superficializing relationships, making unhealthy comparisons, etc.—but my argument has been that it comes down to each person’s heart. If you are a committed friend in real life, then social media can only supplement those friendships, giving you an added dimension to help you stay connected.

I still agree with the basic thrust of my arguments, and I still find the common arguments against social media silly. (The most common argument I encounter is that social media is distracting and time consuming, and I still think my arguments in my earlier posts sufficiently address these concerns.)

Imagining the KingdomHowever, I recently read an excellent critique of social media practices in the important work of James K. A. Smith, specifically in Imagining the Kingdom. Smith’s concern throughout the book is that we give much thought to the intellectual ideas we encounter, but few consider the practices that shape us at a preconscious level. And it’s this preconscious element inherent in everyday practices (or liturgies, as Smith likes to call them) that shapes us the most.

Smith contends that as we scroll through friendships and use our touch screens to manipulate whose updates we will see—choosing who to interact with, how to present ourselves, and who to ignore—we are actually being shaped by these seemingly innocent practices. It is absolutely true that your heart matters for the way you interact with Facebook: if you have a superficial approach to friendship, Facebook will aid your superficiality. But Smith’s point is that Facebook itself is not neutral. It orients us to the world in a specific way, and that orientation shapes us deeply, at a preconscious level.

Think of it like a boot camp for life. What sort of training is a person receiving by using Facebook on a regular basis? She is engaging in a world where everything is under her complete control. Friends are accessible at every moment, inconvenient interruptions are non-existent; or, if a friend goes on a political rant, he can be immediately muted or permanently banished. Interactions always happen at her own pace—friends wait patiently to fit into her schedule.

Don’t get this wrong. The point is not that Facebook is evil or that it was designed in an effort to make us into bad friends. The point is simply this: every activity in our world carries an inherent orientation toward the world. I am thankful for the added connectivity that social media adds to my friendships (particularly those who live out of town), but I must take seriously the way in which social media frames my interactions. It’s naive to imagine that Facebook is not training my heart.

Social Media Distraction

At this moment, I still believe that Facebook and other social media are wonderful means of interacting with my friends and the rest of the world. But I must take seriously Smith’s caution that the platform itself plays a significant role in shaping me. I have to keep an eye on my formation, my training. To what extent do I find myself frustrated when my friends don’t fit my schedule? How annoyed do I get when I have to respond to a political rant instead of simply muting it? Do I try to surround myself with only those people I find interesting? If I see these things becoming reality in my life, I’ll know that my training is off base. I agree with Smith that social media is tendentious—it is pushing me in these directions through the effortless power it offers me to manipulate my world. And I agree with Smith that social media is not trying to convince me to view the world in these ways, it is actually training me to do so at a deep level.

So I partially recant of some of my praise of social media. I at least want to add another dimension to the discussion. Perhaps I was right to say that Facebook itself is not the whole problem—it’s more about how we use it. But I need to add Smith’s important recognition that it’s also about how Facebook uses us. Social media is not neutral. Pay attention to the way it orients you to the world, to the way it shapes your desires. All of us are being shaped more often and more deeply than we think.