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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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)

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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).

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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?

On Saints and Celebrities

Today is All Saints’ Day.

I used to never think of it that way. It was just the day that Starbucks brings out their red cups.

Besides, I, like most Evangelicals, am a little uncomfortable with the idea of saints. After all, nobody’s perfect, right?

Right.

But here’s the thing: we can’t help but look for people to inspire us, to show us what it looks like to follow Jesus and embrace His Kingdom here and now.

So much has been written about our obsession with Christian celebrities. I’ve contributed to that conversation (with an article in Relevant). But one of the things that has not been said enough is that the way to correct an unhealthy obsession is to look for the healthy desire at its root. The way to heal a distored desire is not to kill it but let it be rightly ordered. Jonathan Edwards, drawing on St. Augustine, said as much in his work on ‘religious affections.’

So, what does it look like to have our desire for a role modelРfor faithful men and women to remember and honor and inspire usР rightly ordered?

This, I think, is where the notion of saints comes in. You see, there are a few differences between saints and celebrities.

  • Saints can’t be canonized until they’re dead so we can look back over their life as a whole. Christian celebrities can be made through savvy self-branding and high-cost PR firms.
  • Saints are often admired for what they did¬†not have in this world– their lack of riches, of fame, of acceptance by the world. In fact, the first ‘saints’ were martyrs. The Church began to recognize and honor them around the turn of the second century. Celebrities, though, are often admired for what they have in this world– their large churches, their fame (christened as ‘influence’), their best-selling books or CDs, and perhaps even their houses and cars.
  • Saints are ones whose deep ‘interior life’ with Jesus was often kept secret until others discovered it after their death. Celebrities are those who want to leverage intimacy with Jesus for popularity with others.

The list could go on. But I think you get the point: no, saints weren’t perfect; but they are better images– icons– for our rightly ordered desire to see how a human is to live out the Jesus kind of life.

The Faith did not begin with us. There are others who have come along this Way. We can learn from them. We can follow them. We can thank God for them.

So, here’s to remembering the saints. Here’s to praying that we would be broken of our obsession with celeberities, of our addiction to ‘influence’, and turn to the quiet hidden life of faithful obediece to Christ. May we seek credibility— the mark of a life that is worth trusting– and not popularity.

Let renown come if it does. But let our lives point to Christ– crucified and risen.

Just as it was with the lives of the saints.

Proclaiming our Faith in Worship: How the Creed Tethers Us to Our Story

One of the main reasons we gather as the people of God is to remind ourselves of who God is, what He has done to make us His people, and what it means to live as the people of God here and now. One of the key ways we do this is by proclaiming things that the Church has proclaimed throughout the centuries. When we rehearse these truths about God together, we remembed that we aren’t the first ones to travel thie Way, and that we aren’t the only ones who are following Christ now. In making these proclamations part of our worship, we keep ourselves tethered to the Story of God and His people.

Watch this 2-minute first:

Excerpt #1 from Chapter 3 of “Discover the Mystery of Faith”:

        The object of our faith is a Person, not a proposition. We do not place our lives in an idea or a doctrine or a system or a set of values. We place ourselves in the personal God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Proclaiming the creed, then, is an act of worship, not a recitation of doctrine. Faith, after all, is not simple agreement or the acknowledgment of certain propositions or hypotheses. Faith is the placing of your whole life within God, the only One who is faithful enough to hold your life, redeem it, and save it.

        There is no worship without faith, and there is no faith without worship. It is faith that leads us to worship and worship that enlarges our faith. Why should our greatest, most central and unifying profession of faith, the Nicene Creed, not be part of our congregational worship?

¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† …Early Christians spoke these words of worship and belief in the face of ridicule and scorn, confessed and clung to these words even when they knew that they could lead to their death. The creed, after all, didn‚Äôt form out of thin air at the Council of Nicaea. The words and phrases show up early in the Church‚Äôs life, early enough for Paul to say that he himself was only passing on what had been given to him.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†The question we must ask is this: ‚ÄúWhat sort of faith will we hand down to our children?‚ÄĚ

        If the rope is no longer tethered to the house, how will we find our way home as we wander about in the snow? And how will we lead our children there? What will keep their faith? Unless we remain tied to our Story, our faith is sure to flounder. Worse yet, it may die with us.

Excert #2 from Chapter 3 of “Discover the Mystery of Faith”:

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†Proclamations like the Nicene Creed remind us that we are not the first and we are not the only. It is also important to remember that the Creed is not the only proclamation that does this for us. There is also ‚ÄúThe Lord‚Äôs Prayer‚ÄĚ and many of the aforementioned creedal formulas or statements in Paul‚Äôs New Testament letters. There are the old Hebrew prayers and the Psalms, as we explored last chapter. There are also the early Christian songs‚ÄĒsongs based on Mary‚Äôs song (the Magnificat), Zecharias‚Äô song (the Benedictus), and Simeon‚Äôs song (the Nunc Dimittis).

        All of these are old, well-worn words, prayed by mothers and fathers and sons and daughters in times of trial and on occasions of joy. These words form paths, a trail to walk on. When we say them, sing them, or pray them with worship and faith in our hearts we can remember how many others have prayed these words before us. We can think of the great church fathers, the Bishops and theologians, the peasants and farmers, the missionaries and martyrs. We can imagine all the saints around the world who gather each week on the Lord’s Day and say these very same words and sing them and pray them with one voice.

        All of a sudden, we are no longer alone. We are caught up in the great company of saints, praying alongside David and Jeremiah and Paul. We realize that we are not the first to face despair or hunger or fear. We are not the only ones desperate for mercy and redemption. Our joy of being found by God’s grace is multiplied in the praise of all the saints, in heaven and on earth.

        We are not walking up this mountain alone.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†The beauty of this truth came to me not in a Gothic cathedral or a remote monastery, but in a dusty cement building in the middle of an African village. I was on a trip to Swaziland‚ÄĒa country with the highest rate of HIV infection in the world‚ÄĒwhen we visited a community of orphaned and vulnerable children that our church supports through a partnership with Children‚Äôs Hope Chest. We greeted the local pastor who visited these children several times a week. We met the women who cooked them meals with the money that came in from our sponsorship.

        And then came the children. Singing. Dancing. Playing. Thrilled with stickers and face paint and games and songs and stories and lessons, they made the afternoon pass like a heavenly moment. When one of the local ministers stood to conclude our time, she told the children that it was time to pray together.

        I closed my eyes, waiting for a short, sincere prayer. Instead, in stumbling unison, their voices rose.

        Our Father, who art in heaven,

        Hallowed be Thy name.

        Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

        My eyes opened, blurring with tears. I caught the eyes of the others on our team. We gently shook our heads, all of us thinking the same thing: We pray this prayer…almost every Sunday!

        Give us this day our daily bread.

        Oh…what this simple, biblical phrase meant for these children. I could never say these words the same way again.

        Forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.

        Like the parents who abandoned them? Like the family members who chose a life that led to disease and ultimately to their demise, leaving these children to fend for themselves?

        For Thine is the Kingdom,

        the power and the glory,
        forever and ever,
Amen.

        Amen. There is a rope to ties us to our Story; it is the same rope that binds us to each other. It reminds us that even in the most fearsome storm, when faith is all we have to guide us for our sight has gone, we will not falter.

        Others have come this Way before.

        Others walk it even now.

        The Creed, the prayers, the Psalms, and the Scriptures…all of these bind us to the Story, tether us to the narrative of God’s redemption.

        May we all find our way home.

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Who Is “Church”? Pt. 1

What is “Church“? Who is Church for? The lost? The disciple? What are Sundays for?

Many pastors jump right to the Great Commission and define “Church” through the lens of a “heaven and hell” crisis. The church invariable gets defined by what it does or what it ought to be doing.¬†But with God,¬†identity precedes activity. Adam and Eve were made in God’s image before they were given a vocation. So,¬†we need to ask what Church is…or more precisely,¬†who Church is.

Before we can begin to properly wrestle with this question, we need to zoom out all the way out and ask who Jesus is. How we think about Jesus and the salvation He brings affects the way you think of Church and our mission.

To say it in theological language:

Our Christology shapes our Soteriology;

Our Soteriology shapes our Ecclesiology;

Our Ecclesiology shapes our Missiology.

Or in a series of questions:

  • Who is JESUS? (Christology)
  • What is SALVATION? (Soteriology)
  • Who is CHURCH? (Ecclesiology)
  • What is MISSION? (Missiology)¬†

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THIS IS HOW WE TEND TO THINK THROUGH THE LIST:

  • Jesus = my personal Lord and Savior
  • Salvation = forgiveness of sins and a ticket to heaven
  • Church = a collection of saved individuals who pass time in the meantime
  • Mission = optional extra credit

OR:

  • Jesus = my personal Lord and Savior¬†
  • Salvation = an escape from Hell
  • Church = a lifeboat (functionally: God‚Äôs sales and marketing team)
  • Mission = a mandate to rescue lost souls¬†

What results is an often frenetic pace of ministry, where the whole focus is on getting people to come to church or get saved. Songs and sermons are aimed at going “wide” on Sundays, while other “environments” are created for going “deep.”

But imagine if you ran your home this way: What if you were constantly telling your kids to keep the house clean because guests were coming over? What if you told them to eat on their own time or in the back room? Eventully, the house would cease to be a home; it would be a showroom. The children would stop being family and would become housemaids. This is, in fact, how so many staff members at many churches feel. Everything ¬†is geared for the “outsider.”

[The rebuttal is often, “But we do a mid-week service for believers…Sundays are for the unsaved or unchurched.” I hope to address this in the next post…but my short answer is, our practices are formative.¬†What you do when you gather becomes what you are. This is perhaps most true of our most prominent gatherings: the weekend service. One might say, “What you do with the most people becomes who you most are.”]

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THIS IS WHAT WE SEE IN THE BOOK OF ACTS:

  • Jesus = “Lord” (YHWH & Caesar– King of Creation & of the nations) and “Christ” (Promised Savior)
    Acts 2:36 (ESV)
    ‚Äú ‚ÄėLet all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.‚Äô ‚ÄĚ

It is not untrue to call Jesus our personal Lord and Savior– the Triune God is deeply personal. But the Lordship of Christ is not, as Leslie Newbigin reminded us, a private opinion but a public truth.¬†The rulers of Rome wouldn’t have trembled if the Apostles preached Jesus as their personal Lord¬†who was living in their heart. No– Herod and Caesar and all the other “powers” trembled because these Christians¬†were announcing Jesus as the true Lord of the Cosmos. For them, the resurrection and ascension were not “Jesus going home” (as though He were ET!)…but Jesus being enthroned!

  • Salvation = God working within His world to redeem and restore all things
    Acts 3:21 (ESV)
    “…until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.

By the same token, salvation is much more than the forgiveness of sins. It is the setting right of all ¬†that is broken in the world. At the heart of what is broken is the human; and he must be set right with God. So, it is not wrong to emphasize the forgiveness of sins. It’s just not the whole Story.

  • Church = the Kingdom community, formed by the Spirit, living now as it will be then.
    Acts 2:42 (ESV)
    ‚ÄúAnd they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.‚ÄĚ

Church becomes not a collection of saved individuals but a new community. The first priority of the eleven apostles in Acts 1 is to replace Judas. Why? Because 12 was a significant number– it signified the Church as the new Covenant People. The Church is a sign of the Kingdom– a people who live as if Jesus is King now, and whose very love for one another point to the Future that Christ is bringing.

  • Mission =to announce Christ as King here and now and to anticipate the Kingdom
    Acts 8:6-8 (ESV)¬†“And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. 7 For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was much joy in that city.”

We are not told to build the Kingdom. We are not called to expand it. Rather, Paul tells us to build for the Kingdom (1 Cor. 15), to do things here in Christ. So, we announce Christ as King– we preach the Gospel– and we live in anticipation of His Kingdom arriving in fullness. This idea of anticipation is how N. T. Wright frames works of justice and restoration done in Jesus’s name. We are beginning to live now as it will be then. In living this way, the Gospel is both seen and heard.

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There are many more questions to be wrestled with regarding church, not least of which is how we ought to think about our gatherings. I hope to address that in the next post.

But for now, how does this broader framework change your understanding of Who Church is?