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Entering Fully into Advent

Advent begins this Sunday. From the songs to the symbols, the lights to the loves, it is by far my favorite time of the year. In years past I've suggested ways to lead your family (church and home) faithfully and meaningfully into the story of the season. I really don't have anything new this year, but I thought I'd list a few links to past posts and some other helpful resources that may stir your imagination.

You may wonder why we should observe Advent at all. Here are a few posts giving reason as to why it is a good practice:


If you are like how I was a few years ago, having never observed Advent before and really having no clue what to do or how to lead my family, here are a few very practical resources that may help you:

And finally, I thought I'd take this opportunity to plug a very fun Christmas music collective that has been gaining some traction the past couple of years.

Here is a video of the story behind my song "Glory in the Heights" from Merry Christmas. Good Night. 1. I intended for this video to be a Call to Worship or sorts. May we enter fully into the hope, peace, joy, and love of Advent.

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The Sunday Gathering: Formality or Formation?


The Sunday worship gathering is the greatest point of tension among the leaders of our church. Just about every conflict that arises among staff members and elders has something to do with the Sunday gathering. Some of the tension is rooted in our differences of stylistic preference and interpretation of cultural context. Some of the tension has to do with numbers: attendance is down and we have a large budget to uphold. But I would say that all of the tension comes out of the chasm between where we currently are and where we could be, in terms of how we view ourselves in worship.

Several years ago we came to the realization that we had gotten really good at doing the Sunday morning thing, but something was missing. We were good at facilitating newcomers and attendees, but our vision didn't really extend beyond Sunday morning. The Sunday gathering was the be-all-end-all of spiritual life for most people. The spiritual identity we reinforced in people was convert and churchgoer. Worship life consisted of going to church and inviting your friends to come to church so they can get converted. Conversion and going to church are good things, but if the vision is limited to this, if Christian worshipers see themselves merely as converts and churchgoers, then worship can only amount to formality, "the rigid observance of rules of convention or etiquette" (according to my dictionary widget). If the goal is to make converts and go to church, then worship will be reduced to formalities. Ever look at your congregation on Sunday and think, "Boy, we are really good at rigidly observing the rules of church convention and church etiquette, but where's the life?" It may be that your people don't have a spiritual imagination beyond conversion and going to church.

But there's more to our identity than this. Jesus doesn't tell us to make converts who attend your church. He tells us to make disciples and to follow him in God's kingdom mission. When we begin seeing ourselves as disciples and missionaries, the Sunday gathering will be all about formation. Formation (according to my handy widget) is "the action of forming or process of being formed." Christian worship is formational encounter with God. We give ourselves to the actions set before us, fully expecting the Spirit to meet us right where we are with transformational power. Our posture is not one of consumption, but one of self-giving. Worship becomes the service of the people rather than to the people. Volunteers begin to see themselves as leaders with the empowered responsibility of discipling others. And attendees become missionaries who are equipped in the Spirit and sent out in Jesus' name. Rather than the Sunday gathering as the be-all-end-all of church life, it becomes part of the whole, one of our rhythms of discipleship. We are missionaries who gather weekly for worship. See the difference? If disciple-missionary is our identity, the Sunday gathering will be for spiritual formation.

Lots of paradigm shifts, I know. But this transition doesn't just happen. We don't think ourselves into new ways of living; we live ourselves into new ways of thinking. Some churches react to this identity crisis by stopping the Sunday gathering altogether, or by stripping the gathering of its form. But if you take away the form, you've removed the -ation along with the -ality, not to mention you've just replaced it with another, probably less grounded, form. There are significant theological reasons we do the things we do in worship. Can we figure out a way to allow God to transform us through our existing forms of worship from mere convert-churchgoers to disciple-missionaries?

Have you experienced the Sunday gathering as formality? Do you think it is an identity issue? How do we live into this new way of seeing ourselves, from convert-churchgoers to disciple-missionaries? What role does the Sunday gathering play in this process?

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Who Does the "Work" in the Sunday Gathering?


"Liturgy" means "the work (or service) of the people." The idea is that everyone in the weekly worship gathering works (or serves). Of course there are leadership roles, but the job of the staff and volunteers is simply to lead all the people (or servants) into doing the work. It is NOT the job of the leaders to do all the work themselves. But I think this is precisely what is happening in much of the church, at least in perception. Many churches seem to have removed the work from the people and put it into the hands of pastors. Volunteers come alongside the pastoral staff to help them get their work done. Over time a split has developed between those who "serve" on Sundays and those who don't. It's usually an 80/20 or 90/10 split. It's fueled by a culture of consumerism that bombards our lives from every angle.

The question I have is this: What does "service" mean when we gather for a worship service? What is the "work" we intend to do when we gather for worship, and who does it?

First, I think it's important to note that no amount of work on our part is worth doing unless God is working first. God acts first in worship. God calls, we respond. God acts, we re-act. Even Jesus did only what he saw his Father doing. We must imitate this. When we get ahead of the work of the Spirit, we derail into the realms of worldliness. Our actions in worship reveal the cultural narratives we've adopted as our own, and those same actions cement us further into their accompanying false identities: consumer, spectator, individualist, etc. This is why Christian worship is a counter-culture. Through the worship service--the work of the people--God actually transforms us into a new kind of people: a community of self-giving participants. The world finds us peculiar, because we go against the grains of culture. And many will find us refreshing and will be drawn to the Story that defines who we are. Worship is primarily about what God is seeking to accomplish in us. The work of the people starts with the work of God!

To serve during a Sunday gathering is different than to fill a leadership role, such as communion team member, band member, or usher. Only a small percentage of people can fill these roles. The goal of full participation is not to find a role like this for everyone who gathers. Serving is different than leading. Leaders create space for the people (for everyone!) to serve. Another way to say it is, leaders lead the people to serve. Leaders create space for God to act, to encounter us, so that everyone can serve God.

There are about 300 people who gather for each of our weekly worship gatherings. Out of these 300, there are about 10 musicians/techs. There is 1 reader, 1 preacher, and 1 other facilitator with a microphone. There are 8 communion servers and maybe 6 hospitality folks. These are the people who are scheduled to “serve." In all, it is about 10% of the people gathered. When you count all the kids and students gathered elsewhere in the building and all the staff and volunteers for those ministries, it comes to about 20% staff and volunteers who are "serving." I’m suggesting that although these folks are indeed serving, it is better to think of their role as leading. If they are thought of as the ones who are serving, then what does that mean for those who haven’t “signed up” to serve in one of these roles? What work are they doing? I suggest that it's better to think of the ones who sign up for these roles as leaders who create space for the “service of the people.” What they do is indeed a service, but it is more a leading of others into service.

What kinds of things are included, then, as service on Sunday mornings? Simply showing up is an act of service. Whether conscious of it or not, anyone who attends worship on Sunday has responded to God’s call to come. Standing when invited to stand, sitting when directed to sit, and following other simple instructions such as these is an act of service. (Submitting to the leadership of others is very counter-cultural, by the way, in this every-man-for-himself, no-one-tells-me-what-to-do world.) Lifting our voices together in song and corporate prayer is a service of the people. Listening to the words of Scripture read aloud, searching our hearts for our messy realities and receiving the proclamation of the Word right there is a service of the people. Coming forward to partake of the body and blood of Christ at the Table is a service of the people. The people who are scheduled to serve communion that day aren’t the only ones serving. (Really, they are leading!) We are all serving the Lord and one another by actively participating in these practices.

So when we gather for worship on Sundays, who are the servants, just the ones on the microphones and schedules, or all of us? I think if everyone began seeing themselves as servants, then active participation would naturally happen, the “worship service” would be embodied as “the service OF the people” rather than “the service TO the people.” This paradigm shift would help to shape us out of the 80/20% dichotomy we've fallen into (80% congregational consumers of goods and services / 20% staff/volunteer producers/providers of goods and services), and help to shape us into the fully participating body of Christ that God envisions us to be, where every man, woman, and child serves the Lord and one another through the simple practices of worship.

These are just some scratchy thoughts of mine, but what do you think of this distinction? Am I way off? How might people act differently if they saw themselves as servants instead of consumers? What might leaders do differently if they saw themselves as leaders of servants rather than service providers?

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Are we dying? Where are we going? I don't understand.

On Palm Sunday afternoon, while the children were napping upstairs, Melissa and I decided that we would take the kids to church in the evening for Journey to the Cross, an event the high school students organized for the kids. After naps, Melissa told Lily, our 5-year-old, that we're going. She was super excited and ran downstairs to tell her little brother. “Liam! Liam! We’re going to Journey to the Cross!” Liam, who was cuddling with me, sat up quickly, somewhat startled, collected his thoughts, and said, “Are we dying? Where are we going? I don’t understand.”

My first thought was, “Oh, how cute. I gotta facebook this.” Moments later I began to realize how profound my son’s response was. If I’m honest, I don’t want to die this week. I don’t want to "go there". And I don’t understand. This morning's reading from Isaiah helped shed some light on my predicament.


I, the LORD, have called you for the victory of justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you
as a covenant of the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.

—Isaiah 42:6-7

When I read passages like this, my tendency is to read myself into the text as the protagonist. In this case I assume the righteous role of the one called, grasped, formed, and sent by the Lord as a light to free the prisoners. I assume that other people—unrighteous, lost, wicked, unbelieving sinners—are the blind prisoners in the dungeon, and it’s my job to save them.

But as I reflect a bit more deeply on this passage and on what my son said, I am confronted with the reality that I am one of the blind prisoners in the dungeon of darkness. I am an unrighteous, lost, wicked, unbelieving sinner. Jesus is the called One in Isaiah; the One grasped in the Lord’s hand; the begotten One who is set as a covenant of the people; the Light sent to free the blind prisoners from the dungeon of darkness. I forget this. Holy Week beckons me to sit in the dark and miserable dungeon of my sin again. It is here the Savior will come and rescue me.

Are we willing to "go there"? Can we die to our own righteousness this week? What will that look like for you?  I invite you to listen to this song.  The words were written by Martin Luther.  "In Devil's Dungeon Chained I Lay." As you sit in the dungeon this week, may you experience the Father’s love, the Savior’s rescue, and the Spirit’s comfort.







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New FREE Music: Good Morning. Happy Easter. 2

Don't let this spoil your Lent, but here's some FREE Easter music that my friends and I put together.  You may be familiar with our little Good Night & Good Morning, Christmas & Easter collective series.  This is our fourth record now!

On this record you'll hear a mesmerizing rendition of the Resurrection as experienced by Thomas by my friend Jess Strantz, which happens to be my favorite song on the record.  This record also introduces Levi Smith with his incredible take on "On Christ the Solid Rock," the end of which will sweep you away into the heavens with our ascended Lord.  My contribution this time around is a folky, quasi-bluegrass version of "Crown Him With Many Crowns."  Also, many thanks to Sean Carter and Jeremy Dunn for making this happen.

We hope you enjoy.  If you cannot view the widget below, just click this link and follow the instructions to download: http://noisetrade.com/goodmorning/good-morning-happy-easter-2

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Turn and Trust

For the Fourth Week in Lent, here is another short Lenten reflection by my friend Scott Erdenberg of Church of the Shepherd in Hyde Park, Chicago. This will probably work best if you give yourself about 10 minutes away from hustle and bustle. Maybe you could ask someone to join you. Begin by reading Psalm 27, followed by the reflection.  Then ask yourself the questions at the end, which are meant to take this exercise from reflection to action.  Peace to you as we draw closer in our Story to the death of Christ.

Turn and Trust 

Psalm 27

Every time I’ve encountered this Psalm I’ve been faced with an unrelenting question: do you honestly trust God completely, or do you prefer to be in control when life or circumstances send your mind and heart into a nosedive? The psalmist has surrendered any confidence that he has reserved for himself and instead put all of his chips on the fact that God will vindicate him. At the same time, the psalmist has refused to make his trust and confidence passive or assumed. Over and over he turns and fixes his eyes on God, pleading for his help, asking for his guidance, and waiting with active expectation.

As we walk through this season of death and repentance, we are called over and again to examine where we have sought our own comfort or placed our confidence in our own efforts to make it through stressful days. God invites us to pray with the psalmist as he reorients his heart to face God and seek his face. We are not called to ignore our problems, adversity or stress – instead, we are encouraged to pay attention to all of these knowing that God has our back.

How about you? When you face adversity in life, is it your natural response to turn to God in trust, or do you try to manage it yourself? Describe the outcome of both? How did Jesus respond to adversity in his life? How could you cultivate a deeper sense of God's presence with you, even in the midst of conflict?  In what tangible way could you turn and trust in God, to repent and believe the Good News, today?

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"You're Just Setting Yourself Up for Failure." Yeah. And?


"You're just setting yourself up for failure."  We're all familiar with the expression.  It usually comes as someone's last ditch effort to get you to rethink doing something stupid.  But it rarely works, because the stupid thing you're about to do is driven by such a deep desire, ain't nobody gonna stop you.  In fact, you're well aware that you're probably gonna fail.  But you do it anyway.

I have been fairly unsuccessful in my main Lenten practice this season.  But there is a less prominent "practice" I've given myself to that is a constant, itchy reminder of God's grace in my life.  I don't have to try to grow a beard.  I have no control over it.  What can I say?  God has blessed me (nearly up to my eyeballs, as my sister pointed out to me yesterday) with hair.  It may sound silly, but my beard reminds me of God's grace in my life.  His strength is made perfect in my weakness, in my inability to control myself.

A friend of mine recently tweeted, "failure is where we live grace."  We're in Week 3 in Lent now.  For those who are practicing Lent, renouncing and re-ordering our rhythms into Christ, failure is part of the deal.  Otherwise we wouldn't have much need for a Savior, would we?   I suspect one of the reasons some Christians don't practice Lent, whether conscious of it or not, is because they don't want to fail.  But I think inevitable failure is one of the best reasons to do it!  Failure might be the best thing that could happen to you this season.

When you fail, what comes out of you?  How do you respond to failure?  What does is look like in your life to freely receive the grace of Jesus?

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The Way of the Cross: Artwork by Michael O'Brien and Music by The Brilliance

A longstanding tradition during the Lenten season is to journey with Jesus on the Way of the Cross.  Many churches pray through the Stations weekly throughout Lent.  This is a practice in which the Church renounces and re-orders its rhythms into Christ.  Those who go on this journey identify with Jesus in his agony, betrayal, accusation, denial, condemnation, mockery, abandonment, forsakenness and ultimately his death and burial.  And if we are honest, we realize that we are the ones inflicting this pain upon him, joining with the crowd: "Crucify Him!"

The depictions in the video below come from John Paul II's Biblical Way of the Cross, which is a variation of the traditional Stations of the Cross.  Michael O'Brien is the artist.  I loved his work so much that back in 2009 when the booklet was first published by Ave Maria Press I contacted Mr. O'Brien and asked permission for our church to print and use his paintings in our worship space.  He was incredibly generous to send me the digital files to enable us to do so!

The music in the video comes from the song "Mercy" by The Brilliance off of their self-titled record.  At the end of the song is the beautiful (and eerie) refrain, "Kyrie eleison," which means "Lord, have mercy."  I think it complements O'Brien's artwork nicely.

I invite you to take a few minutes to watch this video.  As you're reflecting on this part of the story, consider your own participation in the death of Christ.  How are you entering into the sufferings of Christ?  What in your life needs to die?  Who in your life are you inflicting with pain or even murdering in your heart?  How can you take up your cross and follow Jesus more closely this season?


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Lent Reflection: A New Exodus, a New Temple, and a Coming Kingdom

This is a guest post by my friend Scott Erdenberg. Scott is a fellow lover of worship theology and struggling practitioner at Church of the Shepherd in Hyde Park, Chicago. This Lent Reflection (and another to come) is one way he is faithfully leading Church of the Shepherd and readers of this blog to renounce and re-order our rhythms in Christ this season.



A New Exodus, a New Temple, and a Coming Kingdom

Luke 9:28-36

In this famous passage often called “The Transfiguration” we discover a brief glimpse at what Jesus intends to do as he walks to Jerusalem to face his passion. In verse 31, Moses and Elijah speak to Jesus about his “departure” – the exact word Luke uses here “exodus”, which Jesus was “about to bring to fulfillment in Jerusalem.” Just as God delivered his people from bondage and death in Egypt, he once again planned a new exodus – this time for all people.

Peter’s exclamation seems to make more sense in light of this fact – he suggests that they build three “tabernacles” (or “shelters”) on the mountain for God to dwell with his people once again. During the exodus God intentionally inhabited a temporary tabernacle as his people journeyed from Egypt to the Promised Land. It was in this tabernacle (and later the temple) where heaven and earth intersected in a unique way – it was there where God was fully King, and invited his people to be agents of his kingdom to the rest of the world. Upon hearing Jesus, Elijah and Moses discuss the new exodus, Peter wrongly assumes that this would be the new place where God will dwell with his people again.

God here interrupts Peter for the very best of reasons – instead of building a new tabernacle here, Jesus intends to replace the temple with his own body. In him and through him heaven and earth would again intersect in a unique way – and through his exodus (his death and resurrection), God’s kingdom would finally defeat the powers of death and evil that stood in rebellion to God’s kingdom being all in all. God urges Peter, James and John to listen to Christ in the following days as he marches to Jerusalem to claim his rightful place as God’s true presence in the world.

Here we may stop and reflect together – where is God inviting to deliver you from sin and death? In what areas of your life are you being asked to pray that God’s kingdom would once again break-through into our world, that his “kingdom would come, and will be done, on earth as it is in heaven?” And how is God acting through you by His Spirit to embody His kingdom and invite others to dwell in his presence?

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Preparing for Lent

"Ash Wednesday" by Carl Spitzweg

Not unlike most mornings, I woke up this morning feeling anxious.  The first thing on my mind was, of all things holy and blessed, Facebook.  I have found myself the last couple of weeks participating in (even provoking) some controversial conversations.  I don't handle these kinds of conversations well, let alone have the time for them.  They oftentimes keep me up late into the night and disable me from being fully present with my family.  It's no wonder I'm a ball of anxiety.

What Is Lent and Why Should We Practice It?
Lent is the season in the Christian year when followers of Jesus walk with him to his death and burial. The season lasts forty days (not including Sundays).  It begins Ash Wednesday and ends Holy Saturday (the day before Easter Sunday).  It is a time for the church to re-order its life once again into the Story that defines who we are.  We do so by simplifying our lives, centering on Christ and joining together with others while we do it.  Glenn Packiam spells it out nicely here.

Lent is about rhythm.  We are rhythmic creatures.  We do things in sequences and steps, marching to the beats of drummers.  The problem is, as Jesus constantly pointed out to his disciples, there are lots of drummers out there, pounding away to capture our attention, calling us to follow them and submit to their story.  Lent is the Jesus drum, calling us back into the left-right-left of God's Story.  If it's not Jesus' drum that we're marching to, it's someone else's.  If it's not the Story of God that we're submitting our lives to, it is someone else's story.  I promise.  So Lent is also a time for the church to renounce all the other stories we have lived into, and to submit singularly to God's Story.

But this is not a robotic submission.  Robots don't have hearts.  We march to the beats of drummers because we actually like the music they're playing.  We desire the life they present to us, and so we follow them.  With every beat and subsequent step we are being formed to look like the drummer we're following.  This is why it's so important that we get in step with Jesus.  We want to be like him.

In a phrase, Lent is a season to renounce and re-order our rhythms into Christ.

The Practices of Lent
Renouncing and re-ordering our rhythms takes practice.  Practices shape us into the kinds of people who love certain things.  The practices of Lent are intended to spiritually transform us, to re-shape our desires toward the things of God.  Lent will only do the work it's intended to do if we submit our hearts and bodies to its practices.  There are both communal and individual practices.

The communal practices of Lent are pretty straightforward.  You could call them the "family traditions" of our faith that great men and women in history have discerned and laid our before us.  Your local church may also have some practices that the leaders have discerned to fit your unique context.  The communal practices of Lent allow Christians to unite together in prayer as one body.  It begins with Ash Wednesday, when the church gathers to consider our mortality: "From dust you came, and to dust you shall return."  The communal practices continue throughout Lent as we gather around the table in our churches and homes, centering our lives on Christ, strengthening one another.  And finally, we enter fully into the Passion Story by corporately proclaiming and re-enacting the events of Holy Week.

The individual practices of Lent require a different kind of discernment.  God is doing a unique work in each of our lives, and each of us is responsible for our own heart and actions.  But before we know how to act, and to ensure that our hearts are engaged (that our actions aren't merely robotic), we must hear what God is saying to us.  So as you're discerning what to "give up" and/or "take on" as an individual practice, I invite you to reflect on these questions, first listening for what God is saying to you, and then responding accordingly.  You may want to invite others to help you discern a practice.

  • Why should I "give up" or "take on" something this season?  How will this re-order my life in Christ?
  • Am I willing to submit to the practices of Lent?  If not, why not?  Could I make it my individual practice to submit to a communal practice?
  • Is there a "drummer" in my life that I need to renounce?  What small step could I take to begin marching to the beat of Jesus?
  • What activities are already part of my daily life rhythms? How can I be present with God more fully in the midst of them?
  • Is there something I tell myself I cannot live without, but I actually can live without?  Can I abstain from it for a season and replace it with another practice?
  • What rhythm (or spiritual discipline) have I always wished was a vibrant part of my spiritual life? Why isn't it?  Could I replace something in my life with this rhythm?
  • What in my life makes me anxious, angry, or afraid?  Why?  What could it look like to surrender this to God?
I hope this is helpful.  I haven't discerned an individual practice for myself yet.  I will submit this to my wife and a few friends and see what they think, but my practice might involve laying off the Facebook and perhaps giving myself over to more healthy rhythms of sleep and family time.  May God bless you as you enter faithfully into this season of renouncing and re-ordering your rhythms into Christ.

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