For many followers of Jesus we desire earnestly for us and our families to grow in our faith, but we haven't acquired all the right patterns and resources to help us do so. Evangelical culture often tells us that if we can just grab the latest Christian book, or small group fad, then we will make powerful strides in our faith, but rarely do these flashes produce the long-term results that we desire.
So instead, let me tell you about this newly published book that will change everything... Just kidding. The book I review today will not be the next Christian fad. I can promise you that. It is rather a quiet sign post that points us back toward some tried and true trails of Christian discipleship from centuries ago.
The book acts as a travel guide to help bring us up to speed on celebrating the Christian calendar, and Lent in particular, as a powerful and lasting way of learning to follow Jesus. It clearly joins the disciplines of Lent to a greater joy and celebration of Easter, and it addresses some Evangelical concerns about the origins and theology behind the season. I was especially grateful for his chapter on "A mercifully short History of Lent," which explained that the same councils that produced our wonderful orthodox creeds, also established the united practice of Lent in the Christian church.
Another strength of the book is its accessibility and practicality. The book could be read comfortably by a middle schooler, and each of the Lenten practices of giving, fasting, praying, confession and corporate liturgy, were addressed in a 'scalable' fashion that gave ideas for starting out, as well as for the seasoned practitioner. As someone who has been walking the Christian calendar in meaningful ways for the last decade, many of the chapters were review, but I found myself led to participate in some of his suggestions about social media, and grateful for the way he was clearly inviting others to join us on the journey.
The Good of Giving Up won't bring you to tears, or leave you inspired beyond words, but it might be just the tour guide you need to help you start the journey of walking the Christian calendar regularly. If the book can do this, then it has done something all the latest, popular studies couldn't do, and that is to hand you a pattern that could keep you growing closer to Jesus, all your life's years.
You can purchase the book on Amazon
One of the areas that can prove to be very difficult to find balance in, is the family. Depending on the dynamics of your family, there can be very unique challenges. My wife and I were married fairly young, and as we set off to start our lives together moving across the country to attend seminary, we had a surprise awaiting us. After our fabulous 5 week roadtrip excursion we landed in our small, unfurnished apartment outside of Boston with a pregnancy test that said Jenelle had gotten pregnant on our honeymoon! The Lord did not consult with us before allowing this. Fast forward three years and my wife was pregnant with our third child! She was 26 years old at the time, and we were feeling overwhelmed with the responsibilities of a young family, full-time ministry and health challenges. From this abrupt entry into family life, Jenelle and I have always had to be very intentional about having a weekly date night. On Fridays we drop the kids off with a friend, or usually their grandparents, and head out for some adult time. Dinner, movies, books, art, friends, coffee... stuff like that. It gives us a chance to invest in our relationship apart from the kids, and it ensures that we are able to give the children the #1 thing they need in their lives, happily married parents.
Now, obviously this doesn't apply to single parents, but for single parents, it is important that in your weekly rhythms that you have a standing, weekly time in which you are able to connect with other adults and to enjoy yourself apart from the kids. You will actually be a better parent when you are establishing balance in your social life in this way. Your kids need a model of someone who has a balanced social life.
Another important aspect of balance in the family has to do with spending enough time at work to pay the bills, while spending enough time at home to have a quality relationship with your children. In a commuting valley this can be a challenge. If you are stuck in a situation that keeps you away from your children for more than 50+ hours per week this is certainly an area for prayer and growth. Life is more enjoyable, and I would argue, more holy, when you are able to find a work/family balance. In my family this means that for the majority of the week we are able to sit down to the dinner table together, by about 6pm to share a meal and to talk about our day. This time isn't rushed, and the TV isn't on. We either tell the stories of our day, from beginning to end, or we ask some strategic questions such as 'What did you love or learn today?' and 'What was your biggest challenge?' It is a chance to connect in a safe space, and even the six year-olds will get with it if it is consistent and modeled for them by others.
Balance in the family changes with different seasons, such as when the kids have left the home. But an effort to prioritize these familial relations continues to bear fruit own whole lives through.
Pastors don't talk much about physical health because the New Testament scriptures don't have specific recommendations about what to eat and how much exercise to get. But it is helpful for us to know that the biblical concept of 'salvation' is a more holistic idea than we have been taught. Salvation, according to the bible, isn't just a promise of eternity with God after we die, though it certainly includes that. Salvation, according to the Gospels, is a quality of life that starts when we begin to follow Jesus, and continues to flourish forever. This 'salvation' includes physical health and healing. In fact the words translated 'salvation' and 'healing' in the bible are often the exact same Greek word! The Jewish worldview of the first century saw salvation as something that included your health, your finances and your social state as well.
So how do we live into this salvation physically? There is no shortage of dietary and exercise advice. But how do we sort through it? First, before we start to take advice from our culture about how to treat our bodies, we must become aware that physical well-being, especially as relates to an attractive appearance, is a favorite idol in the world today. We must begin by allowing our salvation, our acceptance in Jesus, to set us free from connecting our sense of self-worth to our physical health and appearance. Only when we are gratefully set free of the burden of always having to look and feel healthy can we experience a deep satisfaction in God that can empower self-control, and liberate us from food's addictive qualities. With these foundational truths in place, let us revisit our virtue of the month, balance.
Much of the advice of our culture today pushes toward the extremes rather than a balance. When you discover physical rhythms with balance you are less likely to get injured, less likely to make your health an idol and more likely to stick with the lifestyle. So what does a balanced physical health pattern actually look like? It won't look the same for everyone depending on your current health and stage of life, but I offer my family's efforts as one case study. Feel free to add your recommendations as well.
I recommend bringing your physical health in line with the annual rhythms of the church calendar. There is a brilliant balance to the feasts and fasts in the church year that can benefit us spiritually and physically.
During lent, and at the end of the church calendar (10 days before thanksgiving for my family and me) we observe a special season of fasting when we give up processed foods, dairy, sweets, alcohol and some meats. During the feasting around Christmas, Easter and Pentecost we enjoy rich celebrations including desserts and wines. Our 'ordinary' times lie somewhere in between including few processed foods, light on the dairy, sweets and alcohol, and mostly white meats. When we are with friends, on a date, or on our weekly Sabbath (Sunday) we celebrate life and relax our usual restraint. It works well because it is healthy and flexible, and in addition, it grows our faith by tying our physical rhythms to the annual remembrance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
As relates to the exercise and rest side of things, we find physical activities that work with our schedule and that we enjoy so we will stick with them. For the past year the activity has been rock climbing at a local gym around 3x per week. The kids climb with us, or participate in other athletics. We also try to have our kids' outside time match their screen time. Currently that means after school they spend an hour outside and then then they get an hour of television or video games.
We don't have perfect health, but I do have a sense of my faith, and the virtue of balance, having worked its way into my family's physical rhythms. I share our pattern as one example of the way God can bring his salvation into our lives physically. I'm off to do some climbing now ;)
I've had an outdated revelation. After a decade of full time ministry and multiple church health surveys telling me that I'm running around doing too many things, I think I'm ready to embrace the hidden virtue of a balanced life. As I've been studying the concept, I've been having to dust off some forgotten vocabulary. Words like temperance, moderation and prudence are slowly making their way back into my century. If I start braking out into 'thee's' and thou's' in this post please stop me. But truthfully, I think this old virtue is a treasure chest for us in a culture that celebrates excess. The motto of my city in Lake Elsinore is 'Dream Extreme', and such are the times we live in. Who can eat the most hot dogs in an hour? Who can run the most days in a row before they need sleep? Who can give their dog the best leopard hair cut? And who can get the most views online for their unique insanity? A culture of excess leaves normal folks feeling boring, unimportant, and it leaves hard working folks abused and feeling exhausted.
Many times at the end of a hard day of ministry I've found myself at home with a sense of hollowness inside me. I had given all my words and emotions during my day of work, and by the time I got home, I had nothing helpful, nothing holy to offer to those that I love the most. I'm a walking robot, only able to fulfill the simple tasks required of me before I collapse on my pillow. And I know this isn't just a ministry issue. Many of us, especially here in our valley, commute long hours, work difficult jobs, and find ourselves feeling exhausted by the time we make it home. We are fulfilling our duties as providers for our family, and workers for the vocation that God has placed us in, but the left overs of our soul at the end of the day don't produce the righteousness of God.
Enter our friend, the forgotten virtue, balance. Church history is rich with her presence though she often goes by different names. St. Thomas Aquinas said prudence was "absolutely the principle of all virtue." And the NLT says "Anyone who fears God will avoid extremes" Eccl 7:18. One of the powers of the balanced life is that it can be such a pervasive and liberating principles in so many different areas. In the weeks ahead I will be looking at different areas of our life including family, work, rest, eating, exercise, marriage and parenting to see how the presence of balance brings greater righteousness and enjoyment. I desire this series to give practical help toward enjoying balance. Towards that end let me share with you a productivity method that has been helping me prioritize my daily tasks, and to still have energy left for my family when I get home.
This four step process is called the Ivy Lee method, and 100 years ago, it famously multiplied the productivity of Charles Schwab's organization. It is quite simple: 1. Write down the six (no more!) most important things you need to accomplish 2. Prioritize these six things 3. Work only on the most important task until you finish it. Then move on to the next most important task, in order. 4. Any tasks you don't get done get moved to your list for tomorrow. And repeat the process for each work day.
This process has kept me from treating myself like a servant that needs to accomplish 20 tasks each day, and it has also helped me prioritize some of my most important tasks. For a pastor this includes things like prayer, preparation in God's Word, connecting with God's people, and reaching out to our community. I feel less depleted at the end of the day, and better able to give to my first ministry, my family. Thank God for balance. Next time we will look at the way balance can contribute to our physical health.
I've talked to many people over the past couple of weeks regarding our nation's recent election. The responses have been as unique as the peoples that have expressed them, I've had family members in rural parts of the nation that were relieved. I've had African-American friends that were ready to leave their identification as evangelicals behind them because of the election results. I've had people confide in me that they have been deeply depressed, even unable to get out of bed. And whether you fall into one of these camps, or more likely, have had your own response to America's recent election, I would like to remind us of some important truths and actions that we have been teaching the past few months:
1. If you are in Christ, your first citizenship is in the kingdom of God. This means that in spite of the apocalyptic tone of American media (which improves ratings), or the messianic expectations upon American politics (which politics were never intended to carry), the most important election that will ever take place has already happened. Jesus has been elected King over All. He is ruling with perfect power, although sometimes beyond our ability to see and appreciate. We are confident that the vacillations of America do not hinder the rock solid hope in the current and coming victory of Jesus' nation, the Kingdom of God (Ps 2:8-12).
2. If you are in Christ, you are called to love the other. This means that there is place for you to mourn and lament the fractures in our culture, and the disappointments in the way our leaders don't reflect godly values, but at the end of the day because you belong to Christ first, you are willing to listen, and pray for, and speak truth to, those that you disagree with. What we do with our 'enemies,' those that we passionately disagree with, shows us more about our real religion than just about anything else (Lk 23:34).
3. If you are in Christ, then you are God's comfort and protection to the vulnerable. If you don't reach out to those that feel like the election left them behind, and express your concern and your prayers, it might not happen. Our normal in America is to look after our own, and it takes God's Spirit in us to give us the courage to reach out to those from different backgrounds and ethnicities and express our concern and prayers. You'll be amazed at how much this concern means to be people at this time. You can start by simply asking, "How has the recent election made you feel?"
For more insight into how the scriptures inform us as Christians in a divided America at this time please check out our sermon series from the month of October, Living in a Fragmented Nation. The messages on Living in Exile and Praying for our Nation are especially applicable.
Depending on our background, personality and spirituality, there are some parts of worship that we enjoy more than others. For some people, they cannot wait to hear the Word of God preached with clarity and conviction. For others, they deeply connect with musical praise that rises in a sanctuary. For others still, they hunger and thirst to be able to partake of the weekly Sacrament. But what is common to all of these enjoyments in worship is that they are acquired tastes, or maybe more accurately, reacquired tastes.
So many years and miles removed from Eden, where humanity had the integrated pleasure of God's Spirit and creation, we have lost much of our enjoyment of worship. We no longer delight in God in the way we were designed to do. We are still able to delight in a meal and drinks at the Yardhouse. The latest movie, tabloid, ball game, romance, concert and family gathering bring us joy and feel like a feast. But for many of us worship can feel more like a yawn than a banquet. Are we missing something? God's Word says the enjoyments of worship including God's presence, God's Word, His people, the Gospel and His Son are inexhaustible. The Bible says they go on forever, always getting better, and they never run out. If this is so, how do we cultivate a deep enjoyment of these things? How do we savor these treasures once more? How do we unlock their eternal riches?
Let me suggest three ways, or rather three rhythms that, if integrated in our lives, will lead us to an ever deepening enjoyment of our weekly feast:
1. Prepare ourselves for worship- And I'm not talking about a fancy hat, or shinned shoes. I'm talking about having times of daily prayer and reading in tune with the calendar of the wider church. This helps our corporate worship get integrated back into our daily lives. You can find Scriptures and liturgies for personal or family prayer at thetrinitymission.org. And as we pray, we pray for our time together, that heaven would touch earth, and that we would be wonderfully changed into Christ's likeness. And wouldn't you know it, God responds to our prayerful preparation.
2. Learn to acknowledge where we are- This is so important. Because we know we are supposed to enjoy worship, we are often out of touch with our true emotional response to our times of worship. If we could check our denial at the door, we could recognize that often we feel bored in worship, or we feel like we don't want to worship, or worse still, we feel completely indifferent. Friends, please don't ignore these emotional signs. They can happen to anyone, and only once we acknowledge them can we begin the process of thawing the spiritual ice. Don't let yourself be
content with a heart that is indifferent toward worship. This is the type of heart God condemns when He says, "You honor me with your lips, but your heart is far from me" (Isa 29:13). Rather, check your heart, and if it is cold toward worship, present it to God, and allow yourself to mourn it. You could pray something like, "Lord, I acknowledge that my heart doesn't want to worship right now. And I know you deserve worship. Please soften my heart, and let me delight to sing your praises again."
3. Present your longing as an act of worship- We can't force feelings. Enjoying worship is a gift from the Lord, and it is cultivated over time. But what we can do, is we can acknowledge our spiritual dryness, and then we can look to God in hope that He will respond to our honest prayers. We can present to Him a heart that wants to enjoy worship. We show up and we give God our longings, just like the Psalmist who says, "As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God" (Ps 42:1). This action of presenting desire to God honors Him. It shows Him to be the Well of Living Water. It gives Him ample opportunity to fill us, and to form us into people satisfied in the worship of their Maker. It is like a guest sitting down at the dinner table, hungry. This is exactly what God wants for us in worship. He wants us hungry to enjoy the feast. And, in His timing, when He allows us to enjoy our weekly banquet, including a procession for Jesus, the Gospel proclaimed by our pastors, connection with His people, songs of praise, and the sacrament presented with elegance, our last great responsibility is to enjoy the feast! This is your great moral duty in worship that glorifies God as the all satisfying one. Let us keep the Feast.
This new space for our weekly worship has proven to be a true delight. Hearing the songs of God's people rising together in strength this past Saturday was a highlight for me. At one point we were singing the 'Revelation Song,' and the sanctuary sounded like a massive cathedral, full of praise. In that moment I remembered singing that same song about 5 years ago, and it was just a few of us on my creaky front porch, and now, it was a diverse choir of worshipers exalting the name of Jesus. Look what God has done! I was overwhelmed.
I've been thinking a lot about worship lately. St. Paul's recently completed a survey with an organization that helps us identify church health. The results, which I will be sharing with our church shortly, show that we are on a strong trajectory, and they also identify areas that we can emphasize in the year ahead. One of the those areas of attention for us is going to be the area of 'inspiring worship.' I'm really grateful this will be an area of emphasis for us moving forward, because it will only enhance our weekly experience of coming together, just as last year, our experience of gathering in small groups was emphasized and strengthened.
As I've been digging in to some preliminary studies in preparation for this emphasis on worship, I've come to see more clearly that 'worship is a feast!' We proclaim this each week, at the breaking of the Bread, when we respond "Let us keep the feast. Alleluia!" but it seems that we don't always get to experience this in practice. In fact, one question on the survey that was a challenge for us, was the question that invited us to explain clearly, why we come together weekly for worship. Our church is faithful to gather, but it seems we don't always know why we are doing it.
Do we come together because it forms us in the image of Christ? Do we worship because it is our duty as God's creation? Do we gather to be formed into a community that reflects Jesus to the world? Do we come so the Gospel will be preached, and people brought into salvation? These are all wonderful and important components of our corporate worship, but as we venture into a deeper appreciation and experience of worship this year, I would like us to foundationally start to view worship as a feast. A feast that is an end in itself, bringing pleasure to God, and ever increasing joy to His people. Like a family dinner at the table, when we gather together in worship there is more happening than just consuming energies that will help us live better, although that happens. The event is the consummation of the life of the family joining in union, joy, celebration and knowing one another more. It is one of the treasures of life, and even, of all eternity. But like a teenager going through a rough patch with the family, who doesn't want to gather around the table, so we, in our brokenness have lost some of the taste for the family banquet. Our appetites, our spiritual taste buds have shriveled, and it is going to take some growth and grace to see these affections revived. So how do we acquire a taste for the feast of worship? We'll cover that in part two of Come Hungry...
This Sunday is Palm Sunday, followed by Passion Week, Good Friday and Easter Morning. This is the part of the year that rotates the 300mm camera lens of the church calendar into sharp focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ.
People who know more than I do about photography say that the area of highest contrast in a photo, is the object that your eye is naturally drawn toward. And every year in the church calendar, in the juxtaposition of Good Friday and Easter morning, we find the exposure of highest contrast in all of redemptive history. On the same weekend stand death and life. Light and darkness. Defeat and triumph. Doubt and faith.
It seems that God wants to draw our attention to this particular point of history. He wants us understand both the love, and power of the Messiah. He wants us to know the weight of our sin, and the hope of His promise. He wants us to know both the hard, and the happy, of life with God.
One prominent evangelical pastor said that most churches can fall into either the 'come and see' category, or the 'come and die' category. The Come and See church is a church that puts on a great, feel-good show, that emphasizes the way God meets all our needs. The Come and Die church emphasizes the cost of following Jesus, and the challenges of being a Christian in today's culture. It seemed that Jesus drew people to Himself with amazing 'come and see' miracles and teachings, and then He brought people into a process that moved them toward a 'come and die' commitment.
This Passion Week, we are invited to come and see what God has done. See how Christ has died, and Christ is risen. And then we are invited into a life of discipleship, so full of love, that we become those that are willing to give everything for the sake of Jesus. And as I reflect on the powerful transition that God is inviting us into as a church, I see many similarities. This new season has many 'come and see' elements. Our new worship space (St. Andrew's at 111 Kellog St. Elsinore) will allow us to express the fullness of our worship tradition in a way we have never been able to enjoy. The music, the liturgy, and the sacrament will come alive in this space. And the space designated for our kids and for fellowship is very attractive. But the opportunity that God is leading us into also requires a degree of spiritual maturity. We have to be willing to lay down some of our scheduling preferences. Worshiping on Saturdays at 5pm is a big change for many of us. And it will mean that we will need to be taking the Gospel out into our communities, rather than people looking for us. There is some contrast for us here. This opportunity is both better, and more challenging. It seems that God is getting our attention with both 'come and see,' and 'come and die,' right next to each other. At least we can rest assured, this is consistent with ways He has worked before.
Nothing like doing your taxes to get you into the Lenten spirit. I guess that is a good thing because Lent has tried to sneak up on me this year. Ash Wednesday is next week, and I just barely finished putting away my Christmas boxes.
For those that are familiar with Lent, this is the part of the church calendar in which we turn our attention to the darker accounts of Christ's life. We remember his temptation, his suffering and, of course, His death on Calvary. But for many of us when we think of Lent, instead of thinking about the sufferings of Christ, we often think of ourselves. What am I going to give up this year? How do I feel about embracing a challenging season, and so soon after New Year's resolutions? Lent can easily become more of a personal experience than a discovery of the character of Christ. As Eugene Peterson puts it, "God is the subject of life." How quickly in our stories God becomes the object, and we find ourselves as the subject. How quickly in our Lent.
Israel, post-exile started to have seasons similar to Lent. They would have national fast days when they would remember some of the darker parts of their history. They had special days set aside that would memorialize the invasion of Jerusalem, the destruction of temple, and the putting to death of some of their key leaders. It was a way for the Jews to honor their past sufferings, and past sacrifices. It wasn't a bad idea, but in Isaiah 58, God rejects their fast. Not because fasting is bad. And not because they weren't making personal sacrifices. They were. But rather because their fast was about themselves. "'(God) Why aren't you impressed?' 'I will tell you why! It's because you are fasting to please yourselves... This is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people" (from Isaiah 58:3-6).
God isn't opposed to spiritual discipline, but it can be easy to fall into the trap of making our spiritual growth about ourselves. Sometimes the fastest way to grow spiritually is to find someone else's need and to begin to invest energy in helping lighten the load. If God saw our American Lent today would He say, "I don't care if you eat candy or not. But rather go help the immigrants that are stuck in fear by the millions, fix the criminal justice system that incarcerates 1/3 of black men at some point in their lives, fix the proliferation of divorce and the toleration of abortion, provide for the poor and homeless that have nowhere to sleep in your cities, repair the racial and economic divides that fracture your country..." I don't know if that is what God would say, but I know this, His concern this Lent is larger than our Lenten diets, and so as you consider some sort of fast, or abstention this Lent, prayerful consider how you might be able to help the oppressed as well. You might find that when our Lent is bigger than ourselves, it gets filled with more of Christ.
Christmas is depressing for some people. It is a lonely time. It is cold. It reminds them of the loved ones that they have lost. That is sad to me because for my family and me, Christmas is a wonderful time. The whole season is a delight. I love the anticipation in my wife and my daughter's eyes as the day approaches. I like grabbing my son to help me dangle off the roof and hang lights. I get a thrill when I find a gift that I know is going to excite my child. I like the weather that requires a sweater rather than sunscreen.
Author: Cameron Lemons
Reflections from the pastor