Advent and the Inner Landscape of our Soul

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A note from Bishop Steve Wood

In the title essay of her collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, the author, Marilynne Robinson recounts her days growing up accompanied by the inherent loneliness of Idaho and the enduring positive benefit of this kind of loneliness (she notes that for Americans of a certain era such emotions as mourning, melancholy, regret, and loneliness were “high sentiments, as they were for the psalmist and for Sophocles, for the Anglo-Saxon poets and for Shakespeare”). Being a child of the Midwest with family still scattered across her hills and hollows along with a son who with his family live in Montana, Robinson’s essay was resonant.

All of this was brought to mind with the advent of Advent and having recently returned from a week in South Dakota where I was struck again by the beautiful loneliness of the post-harvest landscape – with winter settling in – and the long wait ‘til spring.

These high sentiments of mourning and melancholy and loneliness are often my companions. I experience them in the solitude of life.  Sometimes in the poetry of a Herbert or Whitman or Donne, other times listening to the “wh-who’s” of the owls and howls of the coyotes while walking through the chilly black woods under a full November moon.

This week we, the church universal, mark the beginning of our church year with the season of Advent.  The season of Advent is a season of preparation as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ. Our seasonal collects and hymns have as their backdrop the prophetic witness to the people of Israel waiting in their “lonely exile” for their Messiah.  They mark as well our waiting in a lonely exile as a peculiar people for the Messiah’s second Advent. The church seasons are meant to help us navigate the landscape of our inner being. They can, at their best, give shape and rhythm to our spiritual life.  They can, at their best, provide the opportunity to recognize and embrace aspects of our life we might wish to ignore – all within the context of the faith and our community of faith.

The season of Advent is a season of preparation as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth.  We live as some have said, “in between the times.” Meaning that we live between the incarnation and the final consummation of His return  And in this waiting, I find a sense of the high sentiments of which Robinson wrote. I find myself saying often with the biblical writers, “Maranatha” – “come, Lord.” I find myself waiting and wondering with the Psalmist who asks, ‘how long?”  How long until our Lord’s triumphant Advent?

So, how can Advent help us navigate the inner landscape of our soul?

Well, we do know something of Christ as we await the final consummation. We are not left as orphans.  He has come. He has given us His Spirit. And so, our waiting is a patient waiting. Patient because we have confidence in Christ and His promise to return.  Patient because of His promise that He will set all things right. Patient because of His promise that there will be a day and a place where there will be no more tears, a day and a place where we will see Him face-to-face.  This confident, patient waiting can give us – if and as we cooperate with the Spirit’s work in our lives – the opportunity to examine and address those hindrances and obstacles in our lives: our crooked paths, our rough places. This waiting though is suffused with inherent loneliness and longing.  A loneliness and a longing that allows one to, in Robinson’s words, “experience . . . radical singularity, one’s greatest dignity and privilege.” That allows one to navigate the landscape of the heart and to discover again that our high sentiments and deepest desires are pointers that point to One thing – the One man, Christ Jesus – who alone is able to satiate our heart.

Come, Lord Jesus.

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Where is your Treasure?

A note from Bishop Wood…

Some of the clearest statements in Scripture concern giving. The first murder in the Bible was rooted in God’s acceptance of Abel’s offering and His rejection of Cain’s offering. Genesis 4 tells us that Abel brought both the first and the best to the Lord while Cain brought neither. The worshipper and his/her offerings are inseparable; a reflection of their heart and what they hold most dear. We see this again and again throughout the biblical record.

400 years before the Law was given Abraham, by faith, set the pattern of giving when he gave a 10th – a tithe – of all that he had to the priest, Melchizedek.

The Lord, through the prophet Malachi (3.6-12), said to the people of Israel – and to people of faith through the ages, “Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts. Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.”

That’s an extraordinary statement – and an even more extraordinary promise – the Lord says, “test me in this and see if I am faithful.”

And the pattern is the same in the New Testament. Did you know that Jesus talked about money more than He did Heaven and Hell combined?

Jesus talked about money more than anything else except the Kingdom of God.

11 of 39 parables talk about money.
1 of every 7 verses in the Gospel of Luke talk about money.

In one of his more well-known parables in Luke (16) Jesus says this: “Therefore if you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust thetrue riches?”​

What’s he saying? Well, what is mammon? What are “true riches?”

Quite simply mammon is money, yes, but it’s more. It’s everything – it’s our wealth, it’s our investments, it’s our possessions. It’s what so many strive for, give themselves for, sacrifice their families for. And note this, elsewhere in this same parable Jesus calls all of this that we value so much “little,” insignificant, temporal, passing.

And then Jesus speaks of true riches. What are true riches? True riches are spiritual treasure given to us by the Holy Spirit – spiritual stewardship and responsibility in God’s kingdom.

So, what’s Jesus saying? He’s saying if you – if I’m not faithful with something as temporal and insignificant as earthy treasure and possessions with which I am entrusted to steward for His purposes during my lifetime, why would I ever expect the Holy Spirit to entrust to me real treasure, with spiritual treasure, with eternal treasure?

So if the Bible is so consistent and clear – so encouraging in its teaching on how we handle our money – why are we so hesitant?

Let me tell you what I see in my life and in the lives of folks I’ve spoken with over the years: fear. We’re afraid. We think to ourselves, “It’s unreasonable to live like this. It doesn’t make sense. If I live like this, if I give like this, will I have enough?” And behind these questions lies the deepest question revealing our deepest fear: “Is God faithful? Will God really come through?” And in this sense, mammon, money, possessions are a wonderful diagnostic test. How so? Well, Jesus again. In Matthew 6 (21), He says, “where your treasure is, there will be your what? There will your heart be also . . . Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”

Friends, where’s your treasure? There’s your heart.

The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation, Winfield Bevins

For many years now, articles, surveys, and news reports have lamented the steady flow of young people leaving the church in North America at an alarming rate. According to the Pew Research Center has observed that about a third of older millennials (adults currently in their late 20s and early 30s) now say they have no religion, up nine percentage points among this age range since 2007. Nearly a quarter of Generation X now say they have no particular religion or describe themselves as atheists or agnostics.

Yet while a growing number of young adults are leaving the church, there are other trends as well. Some younger Christians are choosing to remain in the fold of Christianity, but that doesn’t mean they are content with the existing expressions of evangelical faith. Many young believers, from different backgrounds and traditions, are staying in the church while embracing a liturgical expression of the faith. And while it is most noticeable among young adults, this trend is true of people of various ages and backgrounds as well, believers who are seeking to recover ancient practices of the Christian faith.

For the past two years, I have traveled across the United States, Canada, and England visiting churches, cathedrals, universities, and seminaries. I have listened to dozens of young adults share how they have embraced Christian liturgy. I have heard stories about how liturgy is impacting many lives, and I have interviewed hundreds of young adults and leaders to hear their stories about how liturgy has impacted their faith.

Commenting on the movement we see today, author and Anglican Bishop Todd Hunter proclaims, “There is something in the air today, something in the spirit of our age, something in the Spirit that is leading thousands, maybe millions, of people to reconsider liturgical forms of worship.”

Why Young Adults Are Embracing Liturgy
At this point you may be thinking, This is all good, but what are the reasons that have led to this searching? By interviewing young adults from across the United States, all of them from radically different Christian traditions, I’ve uncovered eight major reasons why a new generation is following the allure of liturgy. I won’t claim that this list is exhaustive, but it does offer a succinct snapshot of the world of spirituality in North America.

Holistic Spirituality
The first yearning of young adults I’ve interviewed is for a holistic, or embodied, spirituality. In this age of technology and media, many young Christians have come to feel that the contemporary church (and even society as a whole) doesn’t engage their faith in a holistic way. I’ve found that many young adults are seeking a holistic spirituality that embraces all aspects of their person—mind, body, and soul. Young adults want a faith that not only engages the mind but involves the senses of touch, taste, and smell. The historic church has asserted that we are cleansed with the water of baptism, fed with the bread and wine of Communion, and healed by the laying on of hands using anointing oil. We are taught by the read-aloud Word, as well as with the colors of the sanctuary that correspond with the seasons of the Christian year. All these elements function together in the liturgical practices of the church and engage us holistically. Many young adults say these practices allow them to engage their whole person with the whole gospel.

A Sense of Mystery
Young adults are also drawn to historic practices because they long for a sense of mystery. The pragmatic consumerism that has infected the church leads us to value the elements of our faith and practice that are most “relevant” to us today. For example, many contemporary churches play worship music that echoes secular pop songs, and we’ve designed our church buildings to look like Walmarts or movie theaters, neglecting theologically informed architectural designs that were once popular in church buildings and sanctuaries. Young adults sense intuitively that today’s churches have lost a vision for aesthetic beauty that encourages us to experience the mystery and transcendence of God. And they have grown tired of shallow, alternative approaches to the historic liturgical practices of past centuries. Young adults want more. They want depth and mystery, and they aren’t afraid to say it. They are harboring a longing for a church that transcends any single culture, not an approach that simply accommodates the surrounding culture.

A Desire for Historical Rootedness
To counter the effects of transience and constant change, many are seeking to find a sense of stability by engaging with the roots of their faith. They are looking to the ancient history of the church and discovering that we are part of the larger family whose roots go back to the time of Christ. Many of those I’ve talked with have felt like spiritual orphans, people with no roots, no family history. They are discovering a new identity as they learn about their spiritual family heritage and embrace the origins of their faith in the Christian liturgical tradition. The experience is akin to a person discovering their family genealogy and suddenly realizing that they have deep family connections to the past. It’s the realization that we are not independent Christians tied solely to our own time and place. We are part of the larger body of Christ, spanning continents and generations, a church that began not with the Reformation or the contemporary evangelical movement in America, but with Jesus Christ and the early church. Liturgical tradition offers young adults a refreshing alternative to the ahistorical culture of the modern evangelical church because it represents a place of belonging—one that has survived and thrived for over 2,000 years.

Looking for a Countercultural Faith
Having grown up in a culture of entertainment and consumerism, many young people are now rejecting these cultural trends—or at the very least, they are uncomfortable with their presence in the church. For those who are looking for an opportunity to meet with God that cultivates an aura of transcendence, the rhythms of ancient liturgical worship are attractive. It’s slow, repetitive, and it lacks instant gratification. The beauty of a faith that didn’t start yesterday is that it is not driven by the latest fads or personalities. For many, it harkens to another time and is not bound to the biases of today’s culture. One young adult from Chicago told me, “Liturgy is the opposite of our culture . . . in the sense that it provides ordered participation instead of watching passively.” Alongside a desire for the “new,” there is a corresponding longing for the past, for a connection to something older and bigger than their individual tastes, interests, and experiences. There is an undercurrent in today’s young adult culture that wants to retrieve the things of value from the past.

Belonging to the Universal Church
Another reason many young adults are attracted to the liturgical forms of worship is because they are tired of the schisms and splits within Christianity. They see the liturgy as a pathway for unity, a way to unite us with the historic faith by inviting us to join the universal—little “c” catholic—church. In the liturgy, we participate in the same prayers, the same songs, and the same rhythms with Christians who have lived across the world and throughout the ages. Sadly, many Christians have spiritual amnesia and have forgotten or neglected the rich traditions and treasures of the faith from the past 2,000 years. Historic liturgy offers us a way to correct our forgetfulness. Travis Collins, a worship leader from South Carolina who recently began helping his church practice liturgical worship, said, “[Liturgy] helps us remember that we are not alone. We are part of something much bigger and very beautiful. When we pray privately or corporately, we are joining our voices with millions of people around the world and with the heavenly host around the throne.”

Sacramental Spirituality
While many Protestant low-church traditions have all but abandoned the celebration and practice of the sacraments, some young adults are experiencing a resurgence of interest in learning about these sacred practices and the bounty of grace inherent within them. The sacraments offer a rich, multi-sensory worship experience that engages the whole person through touch, taste, and smell. The Church’s outward signs reveal to us a deeper dimension of the Christian faith, one that is often lacking in much of contemporary Christianity. Our faith is not an isolated, one-dimensional experience that only impacts our hearts, souls, or minds. Instead, it must engage the whole of who we are, and the sacraments are an essential way in which God, through our faith, does this. Liturgy leads us into a faith that holistically transforms us—our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies.

Gracious Orthodoxy
In the relativistic culture defined by a postmodern approach to questions of truth, many young adults yearn for boundaries, though they are not necessarily looking for exhaustive rules. They want an anchor for their faith, an embrace of beliefs that I would describe as a “gracious orthodoxy.” What is a gracious orthodoxy? Several millennials and Gen X young adults I talked with expressed a longing for “correct belief,” yet they want to hold that belief in a way that is “full of grace.” They want to stand up and confess the “faith once delivered to the saints,” yet they reject dogmatic and exclusionary relationships with other Christians. They want a faith that broadly unites them with other Christians, even those who may be a part of other denominations and other traditions. They believe that by focusing on essentials of the faith, the creeds have the power to unite believers from different backgrounds instead of separating them.

Anchor in Spiritual Practices
A final reason young adults are embracing liturgy is that the ancient practices of the church provide an anchor for their faith in a world of constant change. Many young people are longing for practices that help them consistently celebrate their faith. They were raised in churches that told them what to believe but didn’t offer ways for them to practice their faith. Because we are creatures of habit, the habits we practice on a daily basis form us even if we are not aware of their power. Many of those returning to liturgy are hungry for time-honored practices that will form their faith and help them grow. Ancient practices help us develop roots that go deep whether we are young or old. Many young people are incorporating these older practices in fresh new ways into their daily lives.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I don’t think the recovery of liturgy is merely a trend among young people; it is something much bigger than I first realized. The allure of liturgy isn’t just a passing fad or the latest gimmick; it represents a longing for roots that connect us to another reality, a world set apart that runs parallel to our modern age. It’s a longing for ancient practices that form our faith and connect us to the larger body of Christ, preparing us for God’s mission in the world. The recovery of liturgical practices among this generation is a sign of revival, a Spirit-inspired movement that should give us hopes for the future of the church as it rediscovers its ancient roots. I have come to the conclusion that liturgy, when rightly appropriated, is one of the best ways for us to make disciples in a postmodern context. It is this emphasis—the appropriation of ancient practices for disciple formation today—that is the unifying theme of this book. The liturgy is truly ever ancient and ever new!

Winfield Bevins is Director of Church Planting at Asbury Seminary and Canon for Church Planting for the Diocese of the Carolinas. This talk is from his new book Ever Ancient Ever New: The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation with Zondervan.

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A Word from Suffragan Bishop David Bryan

When God breaks in…

As we begin a new church year we do so with a sense of anticipation for the coming of Christ into our world.  We look back to incarnation of our Lord in Bethlehem and we also look forward to the end of the age when Christ will return in glory.  These two salvation events anchor our lives in the grace, love and faithfulness of our God who comes to us to accomplish for us what we could never accomplish for ourselves.

These two great events are also central to the mission Christ has given us as his church.  On the one hand, like the Apostle Paul, we preach nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2).  Our proclamation is grounded in the reality that God, in Christ, entered into the human story, put on our flesh, lived among us and died for us.  In Him we see the very face of God and in him we receive the gift of life.  This message is the power of God unto salvation and the very thing our broken world yearns to know.  We are his ambassadors who bear the treasure of this very good news.

On the other hand, our Lord’s promise to return and establish his kingdom in the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 21), re-orients us to that which matters eternally.  The One who graciously came to our rescue on Calvary, will again return to dwell with His people forever.  The implication for us is clear:  there is more to life than this present age.  Our mission is shaped by this truth.  C.S. Lewis observes “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this” (Mere Christianity).  When we have the end in view, we live differently in the present.  The necessity and urgency of sharing Christ with our neighbors and communities is brought into light.

A new church year is a great time to reflect the initiating grace of God in Christ who breaks into our world.  However, Advent is not merely a time of personal reflection, it is a time to recommit ourselves to the mission of Christ in our world.  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  May God the Holy Spirit empower us individually, and our churches corporately, for his mission!

Yours in Christ,  Bishop David

A Word from of Diocesan Bishop Steve Wood

Having the Word and the Spirit

“Jesus said to His disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses.”

How did the early church turn the Greco-Roman world upside down?  Certainly, a large part of their success lay in their message – that through Christ people could find freedom and salvation from all the things that held them in fear and bondage.

But it wasn’t just the early church’s message that made them so fruitful.  It was both Word and Spirit.  The early church was empowered by a vital experience of God – the Holy Spirit’s presence.

The Book of Acts communicates a simple message to Christians, that apart from the Holy Spirit, we Christians have nothing and are nothing and can do nothing.  Our whole life is dependent on the Holy Spirit.  Our coming to faith in Jesus is the product of the Holy Spirit.  Our Christian growth is a result of the Holy Spirit, our unity in the church – created by the Holy Spirit.  Our evangelism and mission is empowered by the Holy Spirit.  Our knowledge of God’s Word is a result of the Holy Spirit.  Our hearing from God, our healing, the restoration of marriages and families, our insight into the things of God, our servanthood, our Christian character:  It’s all the result of the power of the Holy Spirit.

Listen, there is very clearly and very definitely something to believe in Christianity – we can never let go of that.  But there’s also something more.  There is Someone to receive, Someone to experience.  Christianity has a certain truth content to it.  But Christianity goes beyond creeds and beyond propositional content.  It involves an encounter with the Holy Spirit – an experience of God through the Holy Spirit.  This is partially what Jesus meant when He said, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.”

Much of the church today says not to worry about experiences and not to worry about feelings.  Concern yourself with the truth and that is enough.  On one hand there is truth in this.  You don’t have to wait for a feeling to obey God.  The Christian life is not just a life of waiting around for a feeling in order to do what is right or good or helpful.  We act in faith based on the truth.  We know what God’s Word says –we know what God’s will is and so we do God’s will regardless of our feelings.

But the Bible consistently presents the Holy Spirit as Someone who can be experienced – as Someone who imparts power.  A few examples of this biblical witness:

The Apostle Peter wrote truths for us to believe but he also spoke of his experience.  1 Peter 1:8 he writes that as we encounter God we experience “joy unspeakable.”
The Apostle Paul, who wrote some of the most profound and dense theology, said in Romans 5, “God’s love is poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit?”  Is that just doctrine or an experience?
Again, Paul, we read in Romans 8 that we have received the Holy Spirit and by Him we cry out, “‘Abba, Father,’ the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirits that we are children of God” is that heart cry, “Abba Father,” just right belief or it is the result of a genuine encounter with the Holy Spirit?

God brought the prophet Ezekiel to a desert valley that was covered with the bones of dead men.  While Ezekiel watched, the Spirit of God breathed upon those dried out bones and flesh grew on them and dead men came back to life.  Some of us are like those dead bones in the valley.  You’re not physically dead.  You may be as physically fit as one could be.  You may be intellectually fit.  Your mind could be incredibly quick and your wit as sharp.  But even if you are physically alive and intellectually alive, spiritually you can still be dead – dead to God.  Dead, in terms of your awareness of God.  Dead, in terms of your experience of God before the power of the Spirit makes you alive to the reality of God.

Jesus said to His disciples, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses.” The power of the Spirit is at work in us to make us look like Jesus.  And living like Jesus is a fantastic way to live.  Jesus was free.  Jesus was secure.  His identity was not based on the opinions of those around him.  He did not feel the need to prove Himself.  He did not measure His success in life by what He possessed or what He accomplished.  He did not measure the fruitfulness of His ministry or the faithfulness of His Father by the response of His audience.  He was at peace with Himself.  Jesus was authentic.  He was the real deal.

Being like Jesus means that you are aiming at loving other people and not being self-consumed with introspection or self-pitying, being self-absorbed.  Being like Jesus means you’re able to love people who are different than you.  People who are different in color, different in background, different education, different ages. Being like Jesus means that you speak well of others instead of always complaining, bad-mouthing, gossiping.

Wouldn’t it be nice to live life like Jesus?  Secure, content, thankful, truthful, loving, free?  How does it happen?  How does holiness happen?

It happens by the Word and the Holy Spirit working together in our lives.

One last thought on this matter. When I was in seminary I had a theology professor who used this ditty to make this point:

To have the Word without the Spirit is to dry up.
To have the Spirit without the Word is to blow up.
To have the Word and the Spirit is to grow up.

May we all grow in the fullness of life that the Lord means for us to know.

Yours in Christ,
Steve