Life-Giving Liturgy

“The Church, through the temple and Divine service, acts upon the entire man, educates him wholly; acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind, and will, by the splendor of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrance of the incense, the kissing of the Gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the prosphoras, the singing, and sweet sound of the readings of the Scriptures.” -St John of Kronstadt

gospel-book-2In my early years as a Christian, it was easy for me to dismiss liturgy as being ritualistic. Unfortunately, there are too many anecdotes that validated my belief. As I matured over the years, I observed two things. First, many who dismissed liturgy as ritualistic only replaced one form of liturgy with another, albeit a much simpler one. For example, at the Vineyard, we had an unspoken liturgy that we followed at virtually every service — 30-45 minutes of singing, announcements, sermon, altar call, and then prayer time. Similar liturgies were performed in other churches and denominations I attended.

The second thing I observed is that liturgy is truly life-giving. Within its well-thought movements, a community can commune with God. That’s because liturgy is a divine “drama,” an embodied story infused with God’s grace that is grounded in time and space and simultaneously spans across time and space.

Grounded within time and space, liturgy at its best, engages the entire person and community. As expressed in the quote above, God uses “everyday” tangible elements within the liturgy to transmit his presence to his worshippers. Simple things like bread, wine, oil, water, incense, and pictures combined with physical activities like crossing oneself, lighting a candle, and kissing an icon or the Gospel book join us with this grace-infused drama. Our entire being enters into worship and communion with God. And we experience this together as a community, young and old, carrying the entire spectrum of human thought, emotion and experience.

Transcending time and space, liturgy at its best, unites us with God’s family through the ages, generations who have come before and the generations who will come after. And it also unites us with our past younger worshipping selves as a child or young adult and with our future older worshipping selves. And ultimately, liturgy is a moment when God’s future New Creation manifests within the present creation. It’s when the “now and not yet” of God’s kingdom becomes tangibly more “now.” It’s that special moment that the Bible calls “kairos” when the New Creation manifests itself concretely within the fabric of history.

But all of this can be easily missed when one attends liturgy. Instead of flashing lights, one sees the flickering of candles. Instead of peals of thunders, one hears the quiet refrains of “Lord, have mercy.” Instead of a majestic vision of God’s throne room, one watches a humble priest praying for God’s people. Instead of saints glowing with glory, one sees normal people stretching their aching backs, fighting distraction, shuffling their tired feet, praying, bowing, crossing themselves, and eating bread and wine in reverence and devotion.

And through it all normal people receive Life as they commune with God, each other and all God’s worshippers through time and space.

Misguided Zeal

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. -Luke 9:51-55

This is another moment in a string of episodes demonstrating the inability of Jesus’ followers to truly understand the scope of his mission. Sometimes, I think we’re so quick to judge Peter for his many missteps, that we forget James and John, two of Jesus’ closest disciples, blundered as well.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for his ultimate demonstration of God’s love. Yet, two of his closest followers want to call down divine judgment upon a village because the villagers won’t welcome their entourage. You can almost hear the slap of Jesus’ palm on his forehead.

Warning PoleChristian history is replete with this type of misguided zeal. A serious problem occurs when protecting the fidelity of the Faith eclipses the actual values of the Faith. While we may not literally call down fire, we resort to other tactics. We’ll label ourselves and others so that it creates an “us” vs “them” dichotomy. We’ll denounce others who are not in our group while we exalt ourselves as being genuine Christians. We’ll resort to “straw man” tactics or compare our group’s best with their group’s worst.

Every group has its overzealous members.

When I was a young Christian in Calvary Chapel, I remember some speaking of Roman Catholics as adherents to dead ritual, implying that they weren’t really Christians. And they described mainline denominations as “liberal” with a similar insinuation.

During my short involvement with YWAM, the organization’s evangelism efforts were focused in middle eastern countries like Turkey. I remember hearing some stating that Eastern Orthodox Christians needed to be evangelized because their religion was dead.

As part of the Charismatic movement, other Christians were viewed as not having the Holy Spirit and being spiritually dead. I remember some stating about non-charismatic churches, “If God didn’t show up to their church on Sunday morning, no one would notice.”

When I was part of the Emergent/House Church movement, I heard some speaking suspiciously of professional pastors because they actually made a living from pastoring.

As part of the Eastern Orthodox Church, I hear some using words like “heterodox” and “heretic” too easily to describe non-Orthodox forms of Christianity. Quite frankly, some of the Protestant-bashing I’ve heard in my limited experience in Orthodoxy is sickening.

I’m familiar with these incidents because, to my shame, I’ve participated in this misguided zeal.

It’s taken more time than necessary, but I’ve finally learned that Evangelicals have no more of a personal relationship with God than Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and mainline Christians. Nor are Charismatics any more Spirit-filled than their other siblings. House churches are no more genuine than their institutional counterparts. Eastern Orthodoxy is no more truer, enlightened or faithful than any other form of Christianity. Everyone needs to be evangelized with God’s Good News.

In the midst of all this zealous craziness, Jesus demonstrates God’s love for everyone by dying upon a cross. Three days later, he bursts from the grave to launch God’s New Creation for all.

I’m not saying everyone simply needs to embrace a wishy-washy undefined faith. Quite the opposite. Our faith must develop, mature and become well-defined. As such, distinctions will always exist. But the more mature our faith becomes, the more it should align with the actual values of the Faith — faith, hope, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, holiness, compassion, humility, repentance… I think you get my point.

Jesus’ followers defend the faith by living the faith.

Part of living the faith means living in loving communion with all of Jesus followers — valuing each other and each other’s tradition so we can talk with and learn from each other.

Earlier this year, I wrote the following “classified ad” but never had the courage to post it on social media:

“Wanted: A small group of Christians who gather regularly with the sole agenda of becoming Jesus’ apprentices through spiritual formation. This group would welcome Jesus’ apprentices from all traditions — Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. It would not be affiliated with any organization nor would it replace anyone’s local church or parish. Rather, it would be a group of friends committed to learning with and from one another about how to follow Jesus. This group would discuss Scripture and supplemental writings, pray for one another, support one another and learn from each other’s traditions, theology and practices in the ultimate effort of becoming like Jesus for the sake of the world.”

I would love to be part of a community whose members are learning to carry the cross rather than calling down fire.

Struggling In Prayer

Unto My Words-sRGB“I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favorably received by the Lord’s people there.” -Romans 15:30-31

I have to be honest. After being a Christian for over 30 years, prayer is still a mystery to me. There are certain aspects I understand. For example, I know prayer is relational conversation with God. And in that conversation, I pour out my heart, be it praise, thanksgiving, remorse, confession, desperation, or petition.

But prayer is also more than that. So there are other aspects of prayer that are shrouded in mystery for me, even after all these years. The passage in Romans is one of them. How does one “fight the battle” for another in prayer? Is this just dramatic imagery for simply praying for a person’s needs? Or is there something more?

Throughout my Christian life, I’ve participated in groups that had their particular answer to these questions. I’ve been in some prayer meetings where praying was spiritual warfare performed by audibly “binding and loosing” spiritual powers influencing situations.

I’ve been in groups where lists of requests were gathered and a small group would pray over the various needs.

I’ve been in groups where the participants would physically lay their hands on a person and wait for the Spirit to bring specific prayers and prophetic messages to mind.

I’ve also been in groups where prayer is quietly whispering a liturgical prayer and lighting a candle for a person, requesting God’s mercy and presence in their life.

I suspect Paul and the early Christians understood something that is often missing in our modern concept of prayer. Too often we see prayer as petitioning God and expecting an answer. What if that isn’t necessarily the prayer’s primary purpose. What if prayer is more like training — learning to wait on God, sense his leading, praying appropriately, then rinse and repeat.

In most Christian traditions, the “Lord’s Prayer” is the model for prayer. But Jesus wasn’t giving us categories or words to pray. He was showing us how to become “mobile Temples,” how to become God’s presence where heaven and earth are stitched together through love.

What if prayer is like working out on an exercise machine at the gym. In this example, we don’t do a few reps and expect to have fully developed muscles. It takes months or years of training to hone our muscles.

So perhaps prayer transcends mere petition and answer. Perhaps prayer is working out in cooperation with God so our interior life is reshaped and renewed into the place where heaven and earth are joined and then expressed naturally through our exterior life.

So what if Paul’s request is similar to Jesus’ model prayer. Surely he needs their prayers on his behalf. And immediate answers would be greatly appreciated. But he’s a pastor. He knows there are tensions between between Christians and non-Christians. And there are tensions between the Roman Church and the Jerusalem Church.

So perhaps, Paul’s request gives the Roman Christians the opportunity to continually pray for both “unbelievers” and “God’s people” in Jerusalem so they may train into God’s love toward these people.

One of my earliest memories as a child was learning to swim. Every week, my mom would take us to Ms. Christie’s house for lessons. I remember clutching the side of the pool. Ms. Christie stood in the water several feet away, beckoning me. I would let go of the side, struggling with each stroke to reach her. But she always seemed just out of reach. With every few inches I achieved, she would move away from me. When I felt I couldn’t go any further, I was suddenly in her safe and secure arms as she quickly closed the distance between us and grabbed me. Over and over, we would do this. And I learned to swim.

Perhaps that’s what prayer is like. Perhaps our needs or our loved one’s needs force us to struggle toward God. But in love, he always remains slightly out of reach. By doing so, he’s helping us to grow into love, into the embodiment of his New Creation. And just when it seems like all is lost, we’re in his safe and secure arms. Perhaps we don’t have the answer we desired. But we have his presence and the transformation he intended all along.

So if love is the embodiment of God’s New Creation, then prayer is the exercise that develops it in our lives.

Not Chosen By God

PassionsThe other day I was reading Acts 1:21-26. This is the episode when the Apostles replace the fallen Judas as one of The Twelve.

Twelve is not just a nice round number. Twelve Apostles are necessary to continue Jesus’ work. Jesus is restoring Israel, God’s people, around himself. As the twelve tribes followed God’s presence in the pillar of fire, the twelve Apostles followed God’s presence in Jesus. They are embodying God’s renewed plan for Israel, so twelve Apostles are absolutely necessary to move forward.

So after a vetting process, the eleven Apostles find two qualified men — Mathias and Justus. And with a cast of lots, God chooses Mathias… and doesn’t choose Justus.

And the story quickly moves on. But I can’t.

My thoughts keep returning to Justus. Who was this man? What did he think and feel to be one of the two finalists to join The Twelve, only to watch God choose the other man?

Scripture provides us very little. He was known by three names — Joseph, Barsabbas and Justus.

Church tradition fills in some biographical gaps. Justus was a son of Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, from his first wife Salome. In other words, Justus was Jesus’ step-brother.

Now some people may be scratching their heads and asking, “Wait a minute. You’re saying Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph, was married to someone else before Mary?” Yes. The image of a young Joseph and Mary depicted in our modern Christmas story is incorrect.

According to Church tradition, Joseph was previously married to Salome. They had four sons and two daughters before she died and left Joseph a widower. These are Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” mentioned in the Gospels and include James (author of the Book of James), Jude (author of the Book of Jude), and Justus.

What about Mary?

Dedicated to God by her parents, Joachim and Anna, Mary grew up as a little girl in the Temple. Young women could not live in the Temple once they reached puberty. An elderly Joseph, now a widower, is selected by lots to become young Mary’s husband-caretaker. After birthing Jesus, Mary remains a virgin the entirety of her life. Joseph and Mary never had any children together.

So back to Justus.

Justus was among the original members of Jesus’ ministry. He was eventually chosen by Jesus to be among The Seventy, who were sent out as part of his ministry (Luke 10). Justus ultimately became the Bishop of Eleutheropolis and died a martyr. So we know that he faithfully served Jesus and his people his entire life.

Beyond the biographical information, Church tradition is as silent as Scripture regarding Justus’ thoughts and feelings at not being chosen by God.

At this point one can only speculate. I think it’s safe to assume that Justus was like any other person. So I wonder if he experienced disappointment, doubt or depression. What was going on in his head? One cannot be passed over by God without asking introspective questions. Was I not worthy enough? Did I do something wrong? Am I disqualified? Why him and not me? What now?

I also wonder if inactivity increased the volume of that inner voice. Jesus had instructed his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Father (Acts 1:4). And so they waited and prayed in the upper room. What did he feel when he saw Mathias now huddling with the other eleven Apostles? What were Justus’ prayers like? What was he saying to God? Was he repenting of envy over his friend’s new position? Was he praying for clarity over why he was passed over? Or was he praying for strength, safety and wisdom for his friend? From personal experience, I think his prayers were a mixture of everything.

Mere days later, God’s wind and fire would rest on Justus along with the other hundred-plus believers. In that moment, perhaps Justus’ thoughts and feelings of rejection are swept away in this amazing flurry of excitement and activity. Perhaps his questions are answered as he and the astounded community of believers realize they are now empowered to continue what Jesus had started. Regardless of position, there was new work to be done by all.

In a short reflection on Justus, NT Wright states, “Part of Christian obedience, right from the beginning, was the call to play (apparently) great parts without pride and (apparently) small parts without shame. There are, of course, no passengers in the kingdom of God, and actually no ‘great’ and ‘small’ parts either. The different tasks and roles to which God assigns us are his business, not ours.”

Knowing that Justus’ ultimate trajectory was to become Bishop and Martyr, I would like to think he quickly grasped that truth and found his fulfillment in whatever God placed before him. While God didn’t choose him to be one of The Twelve, he knew God had chosen him for service. And by embracing that vocation, he faithfully served God’s people and ultimately followed his Savior’s example, sacrificing his life in love.

And centuries later, Justus’ life still serves as a quiet example for all who feel they haven’t been chosen by God.

Father, some mornings I wake up wondering if I completely failed you and have been disqualified from your work. May Justus’ faithful life be an encouragement. There’s always work to be done in your kingdom. Keep my focus on that. And when necessary, remind me that whatever work you place before me, it is neither “great” nor “small”. It is work for which your Spirit has called and empowered me to do. May Justus remind me to be faithful to the end.

Farewell To Best Friends

img_6688Around 6pm tonight, Debbie, Chris and I watched our family’s best and dearest friends, Mark and Barbara Feliciano, drive away to begin a new phase in their lives in Idaho Falls. I’ve been dreading this day since October 1, 2015 when Mark and Barb shared with us the potential of moving to Idaho.

Almost a year later, that day has arrived. And our friends are gone.

I am so thankful that God brought our lives together twenty years ago. Who would have known when they first visited the Glendora Vineyard how deep our friendships and how entwined our families would become?

We worshipped and served together at the Glendora Vineyard. Some of my fondest memories were times of worship as the drummer on Mark’s team. Mark and Barb were an encouraging presence when I experienced burnout. Later, we would work together to create an experimental community at the Vineyard where we and dozens of others would explore authentic community and discipleship. Mark and Barb were also a light and comfort during our challenging last years at the Vineyard.

After leaving the Vineyard, our families launched a little faith community in their home and explored simply being God’s people together. We started a business together. And most recently, we joined the Orthodox Church together. But these are just milestone moments in our shared lives. Equally meaningful and cherished are all of the little details of life that filled in the nooks and crannies of our friendship together.

img_6772Mark and Barb’s home was like a second home to our family. My children were always welcome and  enjoyed authentic adult friendships from an early age. Our families have shared more meals, conversations, dreams, laughs and tears than I can count. And our family has benefited in untold ways from Mark and Barb’s wisdom, generosity, compassion, mercy, encouragement, and prayers. They have been such a constant source of love in our lives. Even as the last boxes were being loaded onto the trailer by the moving company, we shared a final meal filled with laughter and joy in their empty living room.

I always assumed we would live close to each other the rest of our lives. I imagined regular meals together, talking about life, looking forward to what God would do next, and slowly growing into our golden years together. But that is not meant to be.

img_6773As we helped Mark and Barb pack their last few belongings into their car, hugged them good-bye and watched them drive away, I was crushed by the reality that they will no longer be a few minutes away. Their home that was once filled with warmth and love is now an empty husk. There will be no more times of sharing stories from the past week, no more talking face-to-face about God’s activity in our lives, no more impromptu dinners, no more Super Bowl parties, no more hanging out and just being together.

Yet as much as my family and I will miss them, we are extremely excited for them. Not only are they beginning a new adventure together in a new home in a new city in a new state, but they will be surrounded by a strong and supportive network of family members. Now others will get to experience the joy, generosity, wisdom, and beauty that Mark and Barb embody. Their new home will become a place of love. Many will be blessed by spending time in their home, sharing meals, celebrating, conversing about God and life, and all the other relational gems our family has enjoyed for years. Mark and Barb embody God’s life in a precious and unique way and I’m glad others will now benefit from what God has created in them.

I am grateful beyond measure for the years we have shared with Mark and Barb. Our friendships are the closest thing to the New Testament idea of “fellowship” that I have ever experienced. And I love them more than I could ever express.

goodbyeA beautiful piece of our lives drove away today. There is a gaping hole in our hearts and I am sad beyond belief. We will miss them dearly.

Father, I cannot fully express my thanksgiving for joining our lives with Mark and Barb’s lives for all these years. Through them you have loved us, encouraged us, challenged us, and comforted us. Our family has experienced your amazing love in countless tangible ways through them. Be their companion, guide and protector during this new phase of their life. Fill their new home with your love and presence. And may many others receive the blessings our family has enjoyed through the years.

Present In The Moment Through Photography

I have quoted Zeb Andrews on this blog several times before. There are many photographers that inspire me to become a more skilled photographer. But there are a select few who actually inspire me to become a better person through photography. Zeb Andrews is one of those unique photographers.

One of the original reasons I fell in love with photography was because it helped me see normal, everyday things from a different perspective; to see details that I would have ordinarily overlooked. Photography has helped me to become more aware. And in the process of becoming aware, it helped me to become more thankful.

Yesterday on his Flickr account, Zeb posted the following image and reflection that shares my original passion for photography:

roundabouts-zeb_andrews_2016“Roundabouts” by Zeb Andrews

“I have said this before, but I have no problem talking about it again because good things have a tendency to come back around… and around… and around.

“I try not to be a photographer to do things. I mean, my goal isn’t to take photos. It isn’t even to make photos. It just so happens that in my normal course of photography that I make lots of pictures, but I see this as a side benefit. I am a photographer to be things, not do them. I want to be creative. I want to be inquisitive. I want to be attentive. I want to be in the moment and I want to be hopeful of the future. I want to be fascinated and awe struck at the myriad subtleties to life and the world. I want to be aware of the fact that no matter where I go or when I am that there are so many things that are different than where I came from… and there are also so many things that are the same. I want to enjoy the pattern that a leaf makes skittering across the road in a gust of wind. I want to look back in uncertain curiosity at that cat crouched in the windowsill watching me. I want to spend some portion of my life wondering about the coincidence of that red car parked in front of that red house with the bush full of red flowers right between them. Who thinks these things up, after all?

“Because then, regardless of whether photos come of the moment or not, I get something vastly more rewarding.

“Take revolving doors for a moment. This is a revolving door I have walked past countless times. It is a door I have barely noticed. I have never felt a shred of curiosity about it. I have never walked through… never been tempted to walk through it… never had a reason to be tempted to walk through it. But this is what photography helps me to be… curious, with reason and cause.

“I am well aware that there is a vast gulf of things we are blind to in our daily lives, things we take for granted or fail to notice. I know I never can, but I want to notice it all. I want a revolving door to be as fascinating as an ancient church in France.

“Anyway, that is what this image is really all about.”

Chris Turns Seventeen!

Chris' Seventeenth Birthday

Today, Chris turns seventeen. Being the youngest of our four children, he has carried the moniker “Baby of the Family” all his life. But he’s not the baby and hasn’t been for years.

Chris is a remarkable young man. He’s handsome, intelligent, witty, creative, perceptive, and compassionate. If there’s a Bible verse that summarizes Chris, it would be Micah 6:8, “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

From an early age, he’s possessed a strong moral compass as well as compassion for people. He’s a deep thinker and continues to startle me with his thoughts and perspective. He also takes his relationship with God very seriously. And can that kid make me laugh!

Honestly, I wish I had a friend like him when I was growing up. And those who consider him a friend probably don’t know how fortunate they are to have someone like him in their lives.

As with all of my kids, I look through old photos and videos and wonder how they grew so quickly. But because Chris is our youngest, I think the nostalgia is felt more deeply. It seems like only yesterday that I was holding him in my arms. And now he towers over me both in physical and spiritual stature.

As a senior in high school, he will soon cross the threshold of graduation into a more adult world. But I’m confident that he will find his way, walk with God and do very well.

Chris is awesome! I love him and I am very proud of him! I love being his dad and his friend and he brings so much joy to our family.

Father, thank you for Chris. Thank you for creating him to be such a delightful and wonderful man. Please draw him close to you so that he may experience and know your abundant and intimate love. Continue to shape him so that his life is a living Gospel to all around him. Show him your ways so he may walk with you all his life. And thank you for the absolute privilege of being his dad and his friend.