Preparing for a New Year

For the past 6 or 7 years, Holly and I have done a prayer and planning retreat, usually at the end of the calendar year, or sometimes right at the beginning. We were inspired by some wise, older, mentors who talked about their rhythm of intentionally praying and planning for the new year. (Special thanks to my parents for watching our kids this year, as in recent years.) 

Each year, we’ve done it slightly differently, but there has generally been a progression from prayer to planning. Often, we start by listening, waiting upon the Lord, asking Him if He has a word for us for the new year. This year, to aid our listening, we began by sitting in the beautiful church at the Franciscan monastery near our house. Holly and I found separate corners in the quiet, empty sanctuary for about an hour or so. Holly used the ‘Prayer of Examen’ as a way of taking stock of the year [here’s a short article from Peter Scazzero on how Evangelicals can practice the Prayer of Examen]. I sat and quieted my heart, kneeling in silence. We both read passages of Scripture and journaled.


Over lunch, we talked about some of the things we heard from the Lord. Then we made our way to the retreat center in town where we would spend two nights, and took the afternoon to formulate a ‘Rule of Life’ for each of us [here’s a very thorough website from Steve Macchia on how Evangelicals can create a ‘Rule of Life’]. Many people do this as an exercise in solitude, but we found it helpful to discuss it with one another because it helps us to not be too ambitious or unrealistic. Plus, my wife is an external processor so everything is better when you have someone to talk it out with.

Here’s a sample of my Rule of Life (slightly redacted for the public):

rule-of-life-001

A new practice we did this year was to try to set morning and evening habits (or ‘liturgies’ in the very loose James K. A. Smith sense of the word– or in the sense Eugene Peterson called his ‘liturgical nap’ decades before Smith!). We are both rather poor at consistency, but we aren’t willing to give up because we believe in the formative power of spiritual habits (1 Tim. 4:6-16).* So we talked through the physical, habitual rituals for our mornings and evenings– from a consistent wake time, to work-out time, to prayer, Bible reading, and breakfast (and, dinner clean-up, bedtime prep, reading with the kids, and nighttime prayers). We tried to be realistic and not too ambitious. We also discussed a very simple ‘Sabbath’ practice to try– beginning with a walk, our evening meal, a candle and prayer for others as we gather at the table. We have four kids, so life is far from monastic– but rhythms even with the chaos and mess of real life– can make it feel like there’s music to our movements (and not just madness!).

Our first evening was mostly recreational: we went out to eat, came back and read, and relaxed. The next morning, it was time to go over the calendar for the new year. We tried to put in the things we know: from kids activities (basketball, soccer, dance, etc) to meal groups. Then we blocked out my travel and in-town special ministry events. With a year-at-a-glance, we talked about possible vacations, camping trips, and weekend getaways, circling dates on the calendar that would serve as placeholders until plans are actually made. We’ve learned the hard way that if you don’t ‘schedule first what matters most’, then whatever comes will fill the spots. Our goal was not to fill the calendar, but to allow ourselves to see what kind of margin we could create. All the wildness and goodness of life happens in the white spaces we leave, right?

The afternoon was mostly reading and doing a bit of personal work– Holly did some homeschool planning, and I did some dissertation editing. Then, we had dinner, watched ‘The Crown’ on Netflix, and ran out to grab some hot chocolate. I’m telling you all these boring details not because I think you’ll find them compelling, but precisely because they are uninteresting: a prayer and planning retreat is not epic or other-worldly. It is the kind of space in the ordinary for you to breath, and for God to breathe in it.

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One final piece of our annual retreat is writing letters to our children. Years ago, we bought each of them a journal that we write in. Though we may write in it at different points in the year, we make it a point to write in it at this retreat. With some worship music going in the background, we pray for the Lord to give us a ‘word’ or a theme for each child. Then, we write them a letter in the journal, recapping some of what we have seen in them this year, and in what we sense for them in the year ahead. The plan is to give them each their journal when they graduate high school, or something like that. So, they won’t read their ‘word’ now. But, the mere act of journalling a word for them each year allows us to follow up with a personal conversation when we get home, shepherding them into the next season.

Anyway…our retreat is an amalgam of things we’ve learned from others along the way– from the Examen to the Rule of Life to the journalling idea. I’m quite sure none of this is original to us. And it certainly shouldn’t be unique to us. If this is inspiring or helpful to you in anyway, please, use it. If not, forget about it! ūüôā


Even if you didn’t get days away to prepare for a new calendar year, here’s a little recap with some helpful questions to guide some reflection on your end:

Spiritual review:

  • Where did you feel God’s joy in your life last year?
  • Where did God’s grace show up in helping you give and receive love?
  • Where did you feel joy drain out of you last year?
  • Where did you fail to allow grace to flow through you by failing to give or receive love?

Spiritual preview:

  • Is there a word or a phrase or a theme from the Lord for this year?
  • What are some relationships the Lord is calling you to be attentive to this year?
  • Are there some projects that the Lord is leading you to step out and attempt this year?

Spiritual habits:

  • What are your repeated actions each morning and evening?
  • Is there a built-in rhythm for rest and weekly sabbath?
  • Are there times during the week where you can be free of your phone (Can you give it ‘office hours’?)?
  • What will guide your Bible-reading this year?

Planning for margin:

  • What activities have you already committed to?
  • What trips have you already planned for work or ministry?
  • Where can you mark out space for retreats and vacations– time for reflection and renewal, and for recreation?
  • Where can you leave margin– unscheduled space– in your calendar?

Paying attention:

  • If you have children, what is the Lord doing in their lives?
  • How can you co-operate with the Holy Spirit’s work in your children or in the lives of those around you?
  • What can you cultivate in your children or in the lives of those around you?

For any of you who have your own rhythm of prayer and planning for your lives and homes…do share so that this can be but the spark for the gathering of collective wisdom in the community of faith.

Cheers to you in 2017!


* For an illustration of how the Holy Spirit works in us to helps us ‘make every effort’ in the formation of character through the training of habits, here’s a 4-min clip from a sermon I gave in 2010! Excuse the scruffy look!

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It’s Too Easy To Dismiss Hillsong…and Miss Our Shared Problem

So, Hillsong¬†declined to publicly declare a position on ‘LGBT issues’.

And the internet was awash with opinions. Some shook their heads in disappointment, because, after all, ‘the Bible is clear’. Others smugly remarked that we shouldn’t expect much from this ‘culturally accommodating’ brand of Christianity. I find neither response particularly helpful or accurate.

First, the response of certainty:¬†‘A non-answer is an answer.’

I understand this response, and there is some truth to it: a non-answer is indeed an answer.

But it is not saying as much as we might think it is. It does not, for example, (necessarily) mean a ‘shift’ in position. It may simply be a statement about what the church’s mission is: to announce Christ in the pluralistic public square, and to challenge Christians more specifically¬†once they are in the community.

I didn’t read their response as fudging on the what¬†of Christian morality but rather as a statement about the¬†where, when¬†and¬†to whom. Is it the Church’s role to announce ‘positions’ on issues to the public? Or is that tendency a leftover from Christendom– the era where we were gladly¬†the power-brokers of society, blessing presidents and wars and condemning movies and rock stars?¬†The Church is not¬†a government agency; we need not announce ‘policy’ to the public.

Furthermore, there is something fundamentally wrong with thinking about this as an “LGBT issue.” I read with tears an email from a congregant who thanked me for our clear yet tender conversation about homosexuality. It was the first time he felt dignified as a person. Not an¬†issue or an¬†agenda. If we think of this as an “LGBT issue” or a “gay agenda”, then we will rush to announce policies and positions. But if we remember that we talking with and to people– living, breathing, holy, created beings– then we will be careful to have these conversations in pastoral contexts, not in press conferences.

Secondly, the¬†response of smugness:¬†‘What did we expect from Hillsong?”

If you’re looking to bag Hillsong, you don’t have to work too hard. Criticism from afar is all too easy. The lights. The arenas¬†packed with the young and beautiful. The upcoming movie. But all these critiques are cheap. And wrong.

Today, Hillsong was accused of ‘accommodating culture’, with the not-so-subtle¬†insinuation that this was why they have attracted such large crowds. But I wonder if the people who wrote those critiques have ever been to Hillsong. I wonder if they’ve ever listened to a sermon. I wonder if they realize that they (likely) sing Hillsongs’¬†songs in their own churches on Sundays. I wonder if they know that one of the biggest new songs on Hillsong’s latest album is one based on the Apostles’ Creed— written humbly in response to a challenge from an outside denominational leader.

I know how easy it is to form an opinion or to cast doubt on a group of people by what you observe from the outside. I know because I’ve done it. But it’s wrong. From an academic standpoint, it’s irresponsible sociological analysis. From a pastoral standpoint, it reeks of the ‘older brother’ all too willing to see another’s faults exposed. And from a Christian standpoint, well…

Let’s look in the log in our own eye.¬†

Let’s do some theological reflection for a moment.¬†One of the more controversial¬†statements in Merritt’s article was from Carl Lentz’s wife, who said¬†that it isn’t our job to tell people how to live. Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt and say that by ‘people’ she meant people outside their church.

But what if she didn’t? What if she meant that as pastors it wasn’t their job to teach their congregation how to live? Now, this would be extraordinarily troubling. But it would say more about us— all of us as modern, Western, Protestant, non-denominational Christians– than it would¬†about Hillsong.¬†Let me explain.

What makes it possible to say that it isn’t our job to tell anyone how to live? I submit it is the fruit of seeds many of us have participated in sowing:

  • We have perpetuated an individualistic view of salvation that allows an individual to ‘be on their own journey’– and the Church ought to be silent while they’re on it.
  • We changed the purpose of a church gathering from worship— with the historic ‘four-fold ordo’ or at least the ‘two-fold shape’ of Word and Table– to evangelism, modeling it after the Frontier Revivals– a warm-up, a sermon, and an altar call. If the church gathering is more about¬†mission¬†than¬†formation, why wouldn’t we end up abdicating our role to instruct fellow Christians on a new way to live?
  • We have sent out church planters with little to no sense of ecclesiality (what makes a church a church) or covering or authority, leaving them¬†to give ecclesial authority¬†only to those ‘who are doing it better than us’– which, in short, means those with bigger churches.
  • We have created such a hard (and false) dichotomy between ‘law’ and ‘gospel’ that we have no place for actual moral instruction. All teaching on how we ought to live¬†is too often reduced to ‘law’ and therefore dismissed as ‘legalism’. By misunderstanding grace to be a sort of¬†spiritual autonomy¬†instead of the power that makes us new and helps us live in a new way, we have side-lined any notion of ethics.
  • We have not said enough about the thoroughly biblical notion that the commandments are meant to give us life, that Jesus has a way for us to live that leads us to true human flourishing, that ‘Christian ethics’ is really an invitation to be fully and truly¬†human.

You see,¬†it’s too easy to scapegoat Hillsong and miss the larger problem we all share. We would do better to address our participation in an anemic or flawed soteriology and ecclessiology– the log in our own eye!– than to waste another minute dismissing¬†a church we don’t really know.

UPDATE: I wrote a follow-up piece on whether we should make a distinction between public statements and pastoral exhortations HERE.

The Communion Liturgy at New Life Downtown

Every once awhile, I am asked what our liturgy is at New Life Downtown. Our service flow (in general) can be found HERE. But the most ‘liturgical’ part of the service– i.e. the part that uses the ancient prayers, practices and sequence– is when we come to the Lord’s Table.

While I am an ordained Anglican priest, I serve as a pastor at New Life Church, a non-denominational, charismatic church, where I have been on staff for over 14 years. Fortunately, a trademark of Anglican worship is its adaptability to different contexts.

Almost all these words are from the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The only tweak I’ve made is in the way I announce forgiveness in the ‘absolution’ section.¬†We have the band on stage during all of the below, providing a soft, worshipful bed of music. Once the invitation is given (the last section of the communion liturgy), the worship leader begins the song she has chosen for that week. From Easter to Advent, this is the longer section of musical worship, where we sing 4 songs.

Below, the bold are the ‘movements’ or sections of the Eucharist liturgy; the italics are an abbreviated version of the instructions I give.

————————-

CONFESSION (All):
Take a moment and let the Holy Spirit nudge you about ways that you can surrender, ways that you can turn away from self-reliance and toward a dependence on God. Now, let us pray this prayer together:

Most merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved You with our whole heart;
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of Your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in Your will, and walk in Your ways, to the glory of Your Name.

Amen.

[UPDATE] WORDS OF ABSOLUTION/FORGIVENESS (Me):
May the Father of all mercies cleanse you from your sins and restore you in His image to the praise and glory of His name, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

[UPDATE] THE PEACE:
The peace of the Lord be with you!¬†Now turn to one another, and pass on the Lord’s peace, speak His life and His love to one another.

EUCHARIST PRAYER:
Me:             The Lord is here
All:              His Spirit is with us.

Me:             Lift up your hearts.
All:              We lift them to the Lord.

Me:             Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
All:              It is right to give Him thanks and praise

WORDS OF INSTITUTION (Me):
On the night he was handed over to suffering and death, our¬†Lord Jesus Christ took bread; and when he had given thanks¬†to you, he broke it, and gave it to his disciples, and said, ‚ÄúTake,¬†eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the¬†remembrance of me.‚ÄĚ

After supper he took the cup of wine; and when he had given¬†thanks, he gave it to them, and said, ‚ÄúDrink this, all of you:¬†This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you¬†and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink¬†it, do this for the remembrance of me.‚ÄĚ

MEMORIAL ACCLAMATION (All):
Christ Has Died, Christ Is Risen, Christ Will Come Again.

THE EPICLESIS– ‘Come, Holy Spirit’ (Me)
Stretch your hands forwards as a Kingdom of priests:
‚ÄúWe pray you, gracious God, to send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant.‚ÄĚ

Lift your hands up in surrender:
‚ÄúSanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace; and at the last day bring us with all your saints into the joy of your eternal kingdom.‚ÄĚ

THE INVITATION (Me):
‚ÄúThe gifts of God, given for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for¬†you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.‚ÄĚ

Related articles

Five Marks of a Good Liturgy
The Liturgy: What the Community Builds Together

Why An Ash Wednesday Service?

“As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.

For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”

Psalm 103:13-14 (ESV)

_________________________

You don’t need to observe Ash Wednesday. This isn’t a command. There is no rule for it. In fact, as far as Church traditions go, it is a fairly late development– and by late I mean around the 8th century.

But ashes have long been a symbolic part of YHWH worship.

  • There were a sign of sorrow and mourning (2 Sam. 13:19, Is. 61:3, Jer. 6:26, Ez. 27:30).
  • They were also an act of repentance and turning toward God’s face. Daniel says that he “turned [his] face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes” (Dan. 9:3).¬†Jesus uses ashes symbolically to speak of repentance (Matthew 11:21).

As with all spiritual practices, the practices themselves are not the point; the practices point to Jesus.

So, how does– or, rather, how¬†can–¬†Ash Wednesday, point us to Jesus?

Let it be an act of humility. Make yourself low before the Lord Almighty, the One who formed us from the dust.

Let it be a confession of mortality. The psalmist urges us to “number our days”, to remember that we have limits, that we are finite, that we shall one day return to the dust¬†(Ps. 90:3, 12). Kneel before the “Lord our God our Maker” (Ps. 95:6).

Let it be a time to repent. We do not confess our sins to¬†make God gracious; we confess because we have found that God¬†is¬†gracious. We turn away from self-reliance and self-destruction, and we turn toward the God whose nail-pierced hands are ever and always open to us. Repentance is not about shaming us; it’s about making us whole.

Let it be a time to receive God’s grace.¬†When we humble ourselves, we find we are met by God’s grace (James 4:6).

So, no, you don’t¬†have¬†to observe Ash Wednesday. You don’t have to have a service or even go to one. But it is a beautiful way to join with the Church– for the past 1200 years– and with the people of God– for thousands of years before that!– and humbly repent and seek God’s face.

It is the beginnig of a fast season, Lent. Lent– like every other season of the Church Calendar– is about marking time around the life of Christ. We tend to mark time around our own events; there’s nothing evil about that. But there is another way to keep time. Christians for centuries have marked time in way that reminded them of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, in short, this is about being centered on Christ and being connected to the Body of Christ, historic and universal.

This an invitation. Spiritual habits like marking time by the Church Calendar can be a¬†habitation for the Spirit, a way to make room for His work in us and in our churches. It is, as Peterson paraphrases Jesus’ words, a way to “keep company” with Jesus (Matt. 11:28-30).

_________________________

If you live in Colorado Springs, and would like to join us for New Life Downtown’s Ash Wednesday service, here are the details (The Pinery at the Hill is at 775 West Bijou Street, Colorado Springs, CO 80905):

AshWednesday-2014_1366x768

Related articles

Advent Resources, 2013 Edition
Why the Church Calendar?

Overview of Ephesians in 15 Minutes by N. T. Wright

For those already familiar with theologian N. T. Wright, this talk will seem a bit elementary– and much shorter!– than his normal lectures. For those unfamiliar with Wright, you may not see what all the fuss about this theologian is about. "Ephesians cannot be summed up in 15 years of study let alone 15 minutes," you may rightly say. But keep in mind that Wright is one of the rare breed of theologians who can write multiple 700+ page volumes on Christian Origins, a full-length 500+ page commentary on Romans, and yet write dozens of other books aimed at the general public, and succeed at both! That sort of excellent scholarship combined with accessible articulation are what make him special.

What is remarkable about this short talk, given not to seminary students but to the whole student body at a Wheaton College chapel, is how, in 15 minutes, he is able to show Paul's cosmic soteriology and how we fit into it. If brevity, as Shakespeare said, is the soul of wit (which for Shakespeare meant intelligence not humor), then N. T. Wright's wit and wisdom are both dazzlingly brilliant. The whole talk, only about 22 minutes long, can be viewed on iTunesU HERE.

NT Wright Gives Quick Tour Through Ephesians from Glenn Packiam on Vimeo.

 

 

What Makes A Worship Song Uniquely Christian?

[EDITOR’S NOTE: A few posts ago, I started the conversation about what our worship songs communicate about God and why that matters. Then, earlier this week, I was asked to write down some thoughts on songwriting for a booklet that will be distributed at a certain conference coming up in Australia. While I can’t be certain what bits of what I sent will make it and what won’t (it was rather lengthy!), here is an excerpt that I thought might be a nice follow-up to my earlier post of what is at stake in our worship lyrics.]

What do our songs and prayers say about God? If we were to construct our church‚Äôs theology solely based on the lyrics we sang, what kind of ‚ÄúGod‚ÄĚ would that be? And more to the point, could our lyrics be applied to a generic deity or is there anything uniquely Christian about the God they depict?

It is not enough to simply say ‚ÄúGod‚ÄĚ in our songs. Which ‚ÄúGod‚ÄĚ? The one Oprah describes, the one Deepak Chopra worships? People in America are filling in the blanks in their own minds of the ‚ÄúGod‚ÄĚ we‚Äôre talking about and the picture of God is often disfigured as a result. I can‚Äôt speak for what the view of ‚ÄúGod‚ÄĚ is in other countries and cultures, but one would think that in countries where many distinct religions abound‚ÄĒlike in Malaysia, the country I grew up in‚ÄĒit only becomes more important that we are saying and singing things that are uniquely Christian.

So, what makes a song uniquely Christian?

1.    Christo-centric
This is a fancy way of saying our songs should focus on Jesus the Messiah. We need to sing about His pre-eminence, how He co-created the world with the Father, how He left His throne in heaven and became a man, how He suffered death and was buried, how he rose again conquering sin and defeating the evil that has infected the cosmos, how He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, how He will return in glory to judge the world and set it right and make all things new. (There. I have summarized what the creeds have said about Jesus!)

And in saying all these things we should name Him. We can do better than a generic ‚ÄúYou.‚ÄĚ His name is Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the rightful King of the World.

2.    Trinitarian
The Trinity is not a concept to be understood; they are Persons to be worshipped. But we are not helping that cause by not naming Them in our worship. And we make things worse when we get muddle ‚ÄúWho is doing what.‚ÄĚ The early apostles went to great lengths to help us assign the right roles and functions to the right Persons of the Trinity (The Father as Creator, the Son as Savior, the Spirit as Life-Giver, etc). We would do well to pay attention to that in our writing.

This mysterious belief in God as three Persons is uniquely Christian. We are not praying to, singing to, or following an amorphous, monolithic Hero-God. We are drawn up into the Divine dance, the communion of the Tri-Personal God. If we‚Äôre looking for help in understanding the distinct roles, we can, once again, turn to the Nicene Creed‚ÄĒthe only statement of Christian faith accepted by every stream of the Body of Christ, both Eastern and Western, Catholic and Protestant (and rejected by Mormons, Jehovah‚Äôs Witnesses, and other cults and religions that would like to be called ‚ÄúChristian‚ÄĚ).

As I wrestle with this, I am not yet convinced that every song needs to be overtly Trinitarian by acknowledging all three Persons. A song could be aimed at one Person of the Trinity. (Think of a song about Yahweh as Creator-God, the Almighty Father, or about Jesus the Redeemer and King, or about the Holy Spirit as the Comforter or God‚Äôs ‚Äúempowering presence‚ÄĚ with us.) But even in doing this we are acknowledging the God we worship as three-in-one.

If you were to comb through the catalog of my songs (you might first need a powerful search engine to find them!), you would discover that many of my songs simply address ‚ÄúGod‚ÄĚ or ‚ÄúYou‚ÄĚ. ¬†Many of them are not Christo-centric or Trinitarian, and some, worse yet, are not even uniquely Christian. Much of that I regret. This journey for me is only a year or so old. But I want to write songs that are uniquely Christian and that help people live our truly Christian lives as a result. Would you join me on the journey and embrace the challenge?

N. T. Wright: “God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil”

What does our culture think of evil? Why do we pretend it doesn't exist until it hits us in the face? And what has God done about it? Is He distant and watching, waiting? Or is He working from within His creation? Does the cross address more than our personal sin? In this brilliant guest lecture from N. T. Wright, given on a visit to Seattle Pacific University, he addresses what he calls the "new problem of evil" and what Jesus has done– and what He will do– about it.

http://vimeo.com/moogaloop.swf?clip_id=10785299&server=vimeo.com&show_title=1&show_byline=1&show_portrait=0&color=&fullscreen=1

NT Wright: "God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil from Glenn Packiam on Vimeo.

Click HERE for the link of the near-exact transcript of the talk.