Capturing our Sacred Imagination

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We become what we worship.
Cathedral inside
I’ve written of this before:
When we spend our lives focused on and chasing after power, money, sex, adoration from others, we become like those things. We become shallow, insatiable, discontent. Yet when we, here in this glorious temple of creation, spill our very lives in worship to God, we become like Him. We become joyful, content, full of peace.
We are, in the deepest places of ourselves, lovers. We are not primarily thinkers, we are not essentially believers, we are first of all imaginative, desiring creatures defined by what or who we love.
Trinity Lutheran
All of our thoughts and actions spring from what we desire, from our vision of what we see as the good life.
The secular world has this figured out.
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Shopping Mall
Walk into any mall, step into any sporting arena, and you are immediately drawn into an experience that seeks to change you at your deepest level into someone who wears only Gap clothing or who is a die-hard Cardinals fan.
No one is holding classes on the reasons you should purchase from Gap or handing out pamphlets about the top ten reasons to root for the Cardinals. Rather, an immersive experience is created using all of our senses, an experience that sets in front of us a vision of a good life and then shows us how to pursue that life.
It is incredibly effective.
We in the Church, however, seem to be convinced that humans are primarily thinkers. Brains on a stick, if you will. We seem to think that if we can just teach the correct doctrines, if we can only put forth enough convincing arguments in favor of Christ, people will change their lives, our  children will never leave the Church, and the world will fall to its knees in worship.
Clearly, this is not working.
What if we sought to discern not the essence of Christianity as a system of beliefs (or sumarized in a worldview) but instead sought to discern the shape of Christian faith as a form of life? ~ James K. A. Smith
St Peter altar best
We become what we worship.
The things that we do, the practices in which we participate, shape our desires and thus direct our thoughts and actions.
In other words, to become people of the Kingdom, we must practice being people of the Kingdom.
Lived worship is the fount from which a worldview springs, rather than being the expression or application of some cognitive set of beliefs already in place. ~ James K. A. Smith
If we want our children (and our own selves) to fall in love with Jesus, we must put practices into our days, our months, our years, that work to aim their desires toward God’s Kingdom. We must use all of our bodily senses to pursuade our hearts that God’s will done on earth is the best vision of the good life.
There is a reason God commanded the Israelites to celebrate all of those festivals throughout their year.
There is a reason the Church followed a holy calendar.
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Notre Dame rose window inside
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We see this happening some in the liturgies of our churches: the sounds of the music, the colors of the spaces, the feel of the baptism waters, the taste of the Eucharist, the scent of the incense in some faith traditions. These bodily experiences train us to be the humans God created us to be, to be lovers of God and lovers of each other.
Yet once a week for an hour and a half is not enough.
How often during the week do you shop or watch sports events? How many hours do you spend relaxed in front of the television or iPad?
We must put more of these practices into our days. We must weave God and His Kingdom all through our time and space in order to aim our desires, our children’s desires, toward the Kingdom.
1 Dome St Peters
Imagine.
Imagine praying with our families or friends multiple times a day.
Imagine opening our homes to others once a week.
Imagine serving with our families or friends regularly.
Imagine meeting with another family once a week to do life together.
Imagine following the Church holy calendar with your family or with a friend, adding sights, sounds, and tastes to the various feasts and celebrations as you follow the liturgical calendar.
Let the Spirit capture your imagination.
Make no mistake, this is a war. It is a battle for our desires, for our sacred imagination.
You only have to look around at how similarly Christians live compared to those who do not follow Jesus to know who is winning this war.
Let the Holy Spirit give you a vision for what life could look like when we are aware that we are lovers rather than thinkers. Allow Him to give you ideas for capturing your heart and your children’s hearts for Jesus.
Cathedral inside
Ask Him to help you weave practices into your life that aim your desires at their deepest level. Ask Him to help you avoid those secular practices that are currently shaping your desires.
We become what we worship.
We worship what we love.
Shape your life in a way that will aim your love toward God and His Kingdom.

The ideas in this post come from Desiring the Kingdom by James K. A. Smith (affiliate link)

Art credits: Busch Stadium photo by Rick Dikeman; shopping mall photo by Jakub Zasina; all cathedral photos by Kirk Sewell

Echoes of Creation

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He is risen!
He is risen
He is risen from the grave and He is alive!
He is alive
We rejoice in knowing that our debt is paid, that we will one day be with the God we love.
Yet perhaps you sometimes wonder. Is Easter only for our someday? Is there no piece of Easter that gives purpose for our today?
In the beginning…
In the beginning
John the Apostle begins his gospel with echoes back to Genesis.
In the beginning…
As he tells his gospel story, you can hear the reverberations of creation all throughout.
On that first day of creation, God spoke and there was light.
In the beginning was the Word…and the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
Skipping ahead, on the sixth day of creation, God created man.
Michelangelo
On Friday, the sixth day of the week, Pilate brings Jesus out before the people and declares, Ecce homo!
Behold, the man!
The new man. The new Adam. The man who was as we were created to be, who shows us what it means to be human and then offers himself as a sacrifice, thus making it possible for us to become like him.
On day seven, God rested.
On Saturday, the seventh day, God is in the tomb.
And then.
Listen to the way John tells what happened next.
Early on the first day of the week…
Early in the morning
Do you hear it?
John is so deliberate with his words.
The first day of the week.
This is what Easter brings to our today.
The first day of the week. The first day of new creation.
On the first day of the week
Christ, his death and resurrection, has made a way for us to begin again. The old is gone away, the new has come. God’s kingdom is come to earth bringing restoration and healing in its wake.
As we obey Jesus’ instructions to love each other, to feed his sheep, we are allowed to help bring God’s kingdom to earth.
This is what Easter gives.
A chance to be a part of the new creation as it happens.
new creation
Rejoice!
He is risen!
He is risen indeed.

Art credits: Space photo by NASA; Creation of Adam by Michelangelo; light photos by Kirk Sewell; all other photos by Elizabeth Giger, copyright 2017.

Is God Truly in Control?

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God is in control.
This phrase seems to float around a lot, especially after events like presidential elections.
At the end of the day, everything will turn out okay because God is still King.
God as King
What do people mean by this?
Do they mean that everything in their lives will be beautiful? Do they mean that crises will never plague them?
Since this is clearly not true, since suffering is common to us all, either God is not in control after all or that is not really what God meant.
Yet God Himself did claim to be in control.
If being in control does not mean that justice reigns, that love wins, that pain vanishes, what does it mean?
beautiful result of labor pain
It means that somehow, in some inexplicable way, all that is hard in this world is only labor pain. The beautiful end is already decided and all that we go through in this world is somehow necessary to bring about that glorious end.
I don’t pretend to understand how this works out. I certainly don’t mean that every evil thing a person chooses to do is required for God’s plan. Yet a world in which free will exists and thus in which a broken mankind and a broken creation is possible is crucial to God’s plan.
In that moment in time when God broke into our broken world, He caused the end of the story to come crashing down into the middle. The end of death, the rescue of man and creation, our glorious new bodies, all of this has already happened in the first century, in little Israel.
this life
storm of life
Just as winter storms can still throw blizzards and hail to destroy the tulips after the calendar has already declared it to be spring, Satan is still casting icy lances to destroy as many as he can after the resurrection has already declared God’s victory.
It is our mission, our part of God’s story, to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth, to plant our tulips in the certain hope that spring is on the way.
God is in control, but that doesn’t mean that everything will happen now the way we may wish.
It does mean that the end is decided and that everything that happens is bringing us swiftly toward that end.
So plant your tulips in hope.
hope is here
Our faith is certain. The warmth of spring is on its way.

Art credits: Woodcut for “Die Bibel in Bildern”, 1860; tulips photograph by Kirk Sewell

Stop Slicing Off Ears

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It is early October.
An election is fast approaching, along with all of its requisite vitriol.
Flag with light
As emotions become more volatile, as words become our weapon of choice, I offer a word of warning. A plea, to myself as well as to you.
I’ve already spoken of how important it is for us, the Church, to be unified.
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Not for us to agree on everything, but to love each other. To love each other no matter what.
This is so important that it was one of the last things Jesus asked of God before He was crucified.
Why is this particularly important right now, in this month, in this country?
Flag on brick
As this election looms closer and larger before our wide open eyes, we are afraid.
And fear causes us to do crazy things, both to each other and to those around us who are outside of the Church.
You and I, we who claim to follow Christ, we are falling out of power.
The America of the past – the America of white, Protestant government, is becoming just that. A thing of the past.
Abortion.
Gay marriage.
Transgenders in the military.
Whatever you personally believe about these and other similar issues, most would admit that they are not generally promoted as God-sanctioned by the Evangelical church as a whole.
Just a look at these issues in our country today strips away the illusion that we are in control.
Many are fighting back against this. “Make America great again!” “Take back America!”
We as a Church are good at fighting.
crusades
Throughout our history, we have fought wars, both collectively and personally, against anyone who tries to take away our power.
Our earthly power, that is.
You can look as far back as the first twelve leaders of our church, as far back as Peter, to see our blind tendency to misinterpret what Jesus actually seems to teach.
When Jesus speaks of His kingdom, we assume that He means a kingdom here on earth.
A kingdom that forces everyone to live under God’s rule.
The sort of kingdom we seem to want America to be.
This is what Peter believed. Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God and how close it was, and Peter decided to help it along by using his sword to start slicing off ears.
st-_peter_cut_slaves_ear_by_duccio
Jesus, however, picked up that ear, placed it back onto it’s owner’s head, and walked quietly off to meet His death.
We are losing power in this country, and perhaps this is a good thing.
The kingdom of God has never increased by force; rather, the kingdom seems to expand most quickly when those who are in power are against it.
Jesus speaks over and over again about His kingdom coming through the humble, the weak, the foolish. He is adamant that the kingdom of God is not about force or any kind of earthly power.
Jesus tells His disciples in Matthew that all of the kings and rulers exercise their authority in one way but you, you who call yourself My disciples, are to do things another way.
He tells them that you are to bring forth My kingdom by becoming a servant, by giving up your life for all.
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Everything we do to live out God’s kingdom here on earth must be done under the shadow of the cross.
Perhaps we should stop fighting to regain political power and start figuring out how to further God’s kingdom in this new America. Perhaps we should remember that God’s kingdom grows best one soul at a time through lives lived in quiet love and service.
Perhaps we should stop slicing off ears and instead begin the work of healing by dying to ourselves as we live as Jesus did. We can start by loving each other.

Art credit: Photograph of cathedral by Kirk SewellImage of the Croisés from 1922; St. Peter Cuts the Slave’s Ear by Duccio di Buoninsegna

Prayer

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Prayer.
This one word means so many different things.
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Asking. Adoration. Doubt. Despair. Confidence. Confusion.
We pray with expectation; we pray with hopelessness.
We pray in altruism; we pray in selfishness.
We pray boldly stepping up to the throne; we pray pessimistic, not expecting a favorable answer.
Prayer.
Gethsemane_Carl_Bloch
Regardless of how you view it, aside from what you expect from it, no matter how you approach it, the Bible is clear.
We must pray.
From seek and you will find to the story of the widow who bothered the judge enough that he finally gave her justice, we are told to take everything to God in prayer. Everything.
Whatever else prayer is, if we are praying without ceasing, the words we offer to God permeate everything we do, everything we are.
Whatever else prayer does, if we continually give our hearts to God, we end up also offering our selves to others.
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If we offer our prayers to God while we offer ourselves to others, the power of God acts as a wireless network, acting for others to give rescue, healing, comfort, light.
As we offer our prayers to God, we become less ourselves and more a piece of a whole. A whole that covers the whole earth, bringing God’s love and kingdom to all.
We are woven into the fabric of God’s power and love, becoming a part of bringing His kingdom to earth, a part of His restoring of creation.
It (prayer) moves from God to others through us, because we have ceased to be self-centered units, but are woven into the great fabric of praying souls, the “mystical body” through which the work of Christ on earth goes on being done. ~ Evelyn Underhill (Christian philosopher and writer, early 1900’s)
All because of prayer.

Art credit: Gethsemane painting by Carl Bloch

In Which I Hate

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I see bombs going off, clouds of fire rising over a town, and I hate the brokenness of this world.  
I see women devalued and shamed, children murdered, and I hate the pain of life that can so easily be weighed down with darkness.
I see a sermon topic of parenting after divorce and I hate this sin-disease infecting all hearts which leads to the necessity of such a lesson.
I see my girls’ faces after I have yelled ugliness and I hate the struggle that wars inside of me.
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I want this all to end. I want our world and our hearts to be healed and made perfect.
Yet I think about Joseph and about Daniel, stories that tell about ugly, horrible things that turn out to be part of God’s overarching, glorious plan.
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If I could, I would convince God that He should come back right now and make everything right again.
Yet deep down, I know that God does have purposes and He does have plans, and I trust what He is about.
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Sometimes, though, it is difficult to raise my eyes above the fray. I hate this sin that has broken our hearts and our world with such passion that it is difficult to look away.
My heart is divided between hope and despair.
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What do I do?
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I could sit and fix my eyes on the ugly squalor of the sin and brokenness and fall quickly into despondency.
Or.
I could stand and fix my eyes on Him who has already begun the healing by His blood.
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I could raise my hands in awe of One who could change all with a word and yet allows us, instead, to help in the restoration.
I could ask God’s Spirit to show me ways to hasten the healing of our world.
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So I open my arms and hold my family close. I roll up my sleeves and look for ways to work.
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Just as these did:
 
(click on the photograph to read about some who responded to horror with courageous mercy)

A Lasting Character

I was writing last week about discipleship, about how we form our character. N.T. Wright says that we form our character by a long, slow change of deep, heart-level habits. Hard work up front to make small deliberate choices. These choices feel awkward and unnatural at first, but they allow the Holy Spirit to form our character.  This week, I want to write about why our character matters so much. 


Of course, if you believe that after we die is that we leave this earth and rest and relax with Jesus for all of eternity, then there is not much reason to develop our character. If, however, you believe (as I believe the Bible teaches) that God will give creation a complete makeover so that it is filled with the glory of God and that we will be given new bodies to live with delight and power in God’s new world, well, then the development of our character becomes very important indeed.


Jesus talks often of the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, implying that it is already here. That the transformation of our world and of ourselves has already begun in Jesus! This is huge. This is why what I do, what my character is, matters: because my character, the virtues that I practice and choose, every moment of every day, is permanent. It does not only last for this life, but for all of eternity. 

Let me repeat the C.S. Lewis quote from last week:

every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.

We are preparing ourselves for the day we become truly human.

As I have written about before, here and here, our ultimate goal is a dual one: to be stewards of God’s rule and care of creation and to reflect creation’s praise and worship back to God. This is achieved by having a character of holiness brought about by the Holy Spirit and our choices (Romans 8.12-17) and by prayer, as the Spirit helps us intercede for the whole world (Romans 8.26-27). 




We begin this now, and it is the permanence of virtue, lasting not just for this age but into the age to come, that makes character worthwhile to work at. These virtues will last: In I Corinthians 13 it says:

…where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears…And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Some things will not last, but others will. 

Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. ~ I Corinthians 15.58

This is why working at forming our character, working at developing virtues, is worthwhile. Because this is what will last. This is what prepares us for all of eternity.

Virtue is…part of the life of the future breaking in to the present. That is why it is both hard and glorious work. ~ N.T. Wright

One last reason why building our character is so important: When the Christian community, the Church, is truly striving after virtues (faith, hope and love) and working hard to produce fruit of the Spirit, it has a huge apologetic value. It shows the watching world a new way of being human. A Church that looks like this is a missionary body which puts forward the purpose of God to the world. 



Discipleship is hard. It is well worth the effort and sacrifice! So I will try to keep making those small, daily choices, those choices that now seem so awkward and false. Will you keep going too? It will get easier.


And someday, who knows? You might be mistaken for a native of God’s kingdom.


art credit: New Earth photograph by “King David”

Character for God’s Country

Discipleship is hard.



Sometimes I think that it should be easier. If the Holy Spirit was truly in control of my heart, I would be much more able to obey Jesus. If the Holy Spirit had changed my heart, I should want to live by God’s will at all times. It should be easy. Sometimes, because it isn’t easy when I think that it should be, I pretend. I put on a holy face and pretend that obeying is easy.



Sometimes it is difficult to know what to do as a Christ-follower. What, exactly, is it that we are supposed to do between our decision to follow Jesus and our death when we go to live with Him? Is it only that we are supposed to walk around telling people about Him? 

These are hard things. Too many Christ-followers, too many churches struggle with these ideas.




Recently, as I have been thinking about these sorts of things, I have been reading After You Believe by N.T. Wright. He is writing about the formation of character, what that means and how it is formed, and is also writing about how forming our character is the answer to many of my thoughts.

Wright describes our moral transformation as “a long, slow change of deep, heart-level habits”. Hard work up front to make small deliberate choices. These choices feel awkward and unnatural at first, but they allow the Holy Spirit to form our character.




This only follows what humanity seems to have always known, from Aristotle to modern neuroscience. That the very small, daily choices that you make forms who you are, it physically changes your brain. Some think that if they act before they “mean it”, they are being hypocritical. Rather, as we struggle to follow Christ, authenticity will follow. If you wait to practice virtue, to make character-choices, until you mean it, you will wait a very long time and will mess up a lot of lives in the process. 




Wright compares this idea of character formation to learning a second language. At first, it is awkward, uncomfortable, unnatural. Yet the more you work at it, the more you practice, the easier it gets. The goal? To be at home in the place where that language is spoken, to enable you to function here and now as a competent citizen of that country. The biggest compliment you could receive is to be mistaken for a native.




Isn’t that what we want? To be at home in a world that has been made perfect, that has been filled with the glory of God? To be mistaken for a native of God’s kingdom?

The habits of character is all about learning in advance the language of God’s new world. C.S. Lewis says that 

every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.

To be clear, the Bible is emphatic that we cannot form a Christ-like character on our own. We cannot work hard enough and practice long enough in our own strength to be able to become perfect. Instead, we are like members of a really awful choir. When we welcome God as our new choir director, we suddenly can hear our out of tune singing and ragged rhythms and we find a new desire to learn how to sing in tune. We can’t sing in tune immediately, simply because we have a new choir director, but the Holy Spirit gives us direction and guidance to help us acquire the right habits to replace the wrong ones. 

                                  


None of this would even be possible without the death of Christ and the Holy Spirit in us. We wouldn’t have even known that we sang horribly had we not accepted the rescuing grace of our Director.

Why, though? Why does this all matter so much? I think I’ll leave that until next week. 


art credit: bust of Aristotle, original by Lysippos; Cantoria by Luca della Robbia