Advent Preparations 2014

Someone asked me about Advent, recently.  This is how I responded:

What is Advent?

Advent is a time of tension.  We are ever so hopeful . . . and also remember strongly that our hope is the future, not the present.  Things are really bad now.

Our society wants to rush to Christmas, to the big celebration, without thinking about a reason to celebrate.  Why is Christmas good news?  Putting off some of the celebrations until after a season of preparation (that is, Advent) helps us to live in that tension.  On the other hand, the celebration is unavoidable, because Advent is also a time of hope.  So, I think any sort of movement to remember the ugliness of the present world is good.  If the entire society was sad and mournful during this time, we would have to emphasize the hopefulness, I think.

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And, quite honestly, remembering the ugliness of the world today helps us to have more hope for the future, more longing for the future, perfect kingdom that is coming, which means our celebrations are so much more celebratory.

What Should Advent Look Like, Practically?

Quite honestly, my family is still wresting with the tension, for sure.  For a few years now, we have extremely plain breakfasts (plain oatmeal, or plain rice) for the entire time of Advent, but our diet doesn’t change much otherwise.  Then, we take the food we were going to eat (vegetables, beans, fruit, cereal, eggs, bacon, etc.) and give them to a food bank.  Then, on Christmas morning, we have a huge (I mean HUGE) spread of all kinds of wonderful foods for breakfast, which lasts the whole 12 days of Christmas.

As for decorations, we have a plan to decorate a little bit each day of Advent.  Each day we open a present (which is wrapped in Christmas wrapping paper) which is a decoration of some kind.  Then we decorate the house.  So, at the beginning, we have very few decorations (but not nothing) and as Advent progresses, the house begins to look more and more joyful and more like typical American Christmas.  Actually, about half the decorations (or more) go up the last week, one day at a time, and the Christmas tree goes up Christmas Eve.

“Seriously, how do you live like that?”

We do not have things all figured out for sure . . . but I know that Americans hate to mourn, we hate to lament, we hate to reflect on the evil in the world, hate to cry.  We want to rush to celebrate, rush to smile, rush to laugh.  And so we have tried to find ways, tangibly, to remember the tension of the season.

We try hard not to impose this on other people, because most people don’t understand, and I think most people don’t want to understand.

Maybe another way to say it is this . . . the “silly, empty traditions” of Santa, romantic sleigh rides, sweaters, baking, etc. are only silly and empty (from a spiritual, religious perspective) if you are neglecting the tension, and only experience Christmas as future hope.  Of course, the traditions are always quite meaningful as they connect us to family, friends, society, culture, etc., which can be said of fireworks on the 4th of July, costumes at Halloween, etc.

Ugly-Christmas-Sweaters

How to make Advent and Christmas Better:

But if you work hard to put tangible reminders of the present brokenness of the world into place, and you do the hard work of using those reminders to meditate and internalize the reality of the world’s brokenness all through the Advent season, I think you’ll actually find that baking, caroling, sweaters, music, decorating, movies, sleigh rides, etc. actually become far more meaningful.  They become a statement of faith.  They become actions that give the middle finger to the world, the flesh, and the devil . . . they become a way of saying, “My Jesus will rescue us!  He will come for us!  He will redeem us, no matter how horrible it looks right now!  I’m not giving up hope!  I am so sure that he will keep his promise, that I am going to celebrate it even before it happens!”  And that confidence in the face of our brokenness is what Advent is all about.

Without that perspective, I think those traditions are not nearly as meaningful as they could be.  So, don’t abandon your “traditional” celebrations . . . they connect you to family and friends, that’s wonderful . . . but if you put yourself in the place of Mary and Joseph, of Elizabeth and Zechariah, of Anna and Simeon, waiting, longing, desperate for his advent . . . all those celebrations could be far more meaningful than they have been in the past.  You could turn mere “warm fuzzies” into something that goes far deeper than skin, and reaches your heart, and gives life to your soul, while maintaining the warm fuzzies.

Am I the only one who thinks about this?

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Taking God at His Word

Kevin DeYoung‘s most recent long pamphlet (or short book) is Taking God at His Word.  I have read several of his others in recent years, and so I was quite happy to receive an advanced copy from Crossway to review.

Taking God is the best introduction to the Evangelical doctrine of the Bible that I have read.  I read the 127 pages in one sitting.  I continue to be amazed at the way DeYoung can pack so much information into so small a space without sacrificing readability.  It’s really not hard to read.

He starts Psalm 119 and calls us to love the Bible as much as the psalmist.  That kind of passion is rarely the starting point of most theology books, but it should be.  For seasoned pastors and theologians, this book will serve as a useful resource for explanation and illustration, there is nothing radical or “new” about DeYoung’s doctrine, for sure.  For budding theologians, every page will be insightful and delightfully helpful.

Speaking of the various attributes of the Bible, DeYoung writes (p.43):

If authority is the liberal problem, clarity the postmodern problem, and necessity the problem for atheists and agnostics, then sufficiency is the attribute most quickly doubted by rank-and-file churchgoing Christians.

With footnotes including John Frame, John Calvin, B.B. Warfield, J. I. Packer, Herman Bavinck, Matthew Henry and Jonathan Edwards, we all know where DeYoung stands.  He is not making waves doctrinally.  On the other hand, I know of no other book that so helpfully, clearly and persuasively deals with the basic doctrine of the Bible, which is so fundamental to all Christians.  Another strong base hit for DeYoung.

Don’t look here for nuancing or serious interaction with other Christian traditions on the doctrine of the Bible.  Some will probably unfairly accuse DeYoung of skirting these issues when they are clearly not the aim of this book.  For that purpose, consult the annotated bibliography in the appendix, which I found to be a terrific list for Reformed/Evangelical authors who deal with much more nuanced and complex issues on this topic.

For those looking for a good introduction to the doctrine of the Bible . . . highly recommended!

Deep Change

Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within, by Robert E. Quinn, Jossey-Bass, 1996

Overview

All of us look inside ourselves (and our organizations) and find ourselves deeply unsatisfied.  At these times, we commonly try to use a “quick fix” when a deeper change is required.  Without such a risky and deep change, we will die slowly.  These changes, however, are very near to our identity, and so they are scary.  Fear of the unknown commonly locks us into the status quo.  Many people deny the need for change when confronted with the deep issues that plague their institution (or them, personally).  Most organizations have a variety of self-reinforcing structures to keep change superficial.  Deep changes require actions so risky that the death of the organization is at stake.  Many organizations resist such risk.  Excellence, though, can never come without risk.  One way an organization may begin to attack deep issues is to “discuss the undiscussable.”  Visionary leaders (who have moved away from mere management) will gain insights from their employees, but will lead the change themselves.

Critique

Quinn’s many stories make this book inspirational as well as informational.  He writes primarily about corporate business.  And though the preface states that he intends the book to be valuable to anyone in any organization, he assumes a knowledge and experience with the business world often.  His principles are generic, which allows a reader to think about their specific situation as they are reading.  However, at times, the generic language may lead some non-business-oriented readers to be confused.  Nonetheless, there are many good insights and helpful principles overall.  The book excels and good stories and the overall point of the necessity of risking deep change for the health of organizations.

“The fact that we have enough trust and belief in ourselves to pursue our vision is what signals to others that the vision is worth investing in.  Our message is filled with integrity ad good intentions.  However, it is usually our actions, not our words, that send the message.”  p.85.

The Critical Journey

The Critical Journey: Stages in the Life of Faith, by Janet O. Hagberg and Robert A Gelich

 

Overview

The spiritual life of faith is a journey which can be seen in 6 (or 7) stages.  Each comes after the other, and it may take many years to move through one particular stage.  Typically, a person has a “home” stage at any given time in his life.  However, he may revert back to previous stages for a short time depending on circumstances.  In the first stage, “The Recognition of God,” new Christians must deal with a sense of God’s enormity and their own frailty and finitude.  When a person then becomes part of a community, he enters “The Life of Discipleship” where he is open to learning about God, doctrine, faith and the church.  When a person learns, then, about himself and his gifts, he is ready to enter stage three, “The Productive Life.”  Here, a person is quite involved in serving the community through is unique gifting.  This, however, tends to lead to burnout and a crisis of faith.  Then, the person enters “The Journey Inward” where one seeks authentic relationship of intimacy with God.  “The Wall” describes the increased intensity of this struggle.  For those who find such intimacy, “The Journey Outward” allows a person to serve others vocationally with a more relaxed posture, confident in God’s grace.  Finally, “The Life of Love” is an adventurous time of surrender to God’s grace, and a willingness to serve him with very little self-awareness.

 

Critique

What a terrific paradigm!  I found myself seeing all kinds of patterns in the journeys I have witnessed in others.  This book will allow the reader to understand how people who are in different places in the journey value different things in their spiritual life.  Some strongly desire small community groups, while others see little need for them.  Some strongly desire deep theologically-driven sermons while others prefer soothing, comforting sermons.  They are in different places on the journey.  This little paradigm is helpfully explained, and the stages are compared and contrasted in helpful ways to make it easy to learn and digest.

 

“Because [ordained clergy] are deemed close to God, we feel God should respond to our requests.  Substituting our own will for God’s has become our weakness.  How painful for us to realize that we, the leaders of the flock, also have to go through the Wall.”  p.118.

 

Transitions

Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, by William Bridges

Overview

Life’s transitions are difficult to navigate.  While everyone’s transitions look different, there are some tell-tale patterns that indicate a transition, and there are guidelines to help make a transition smoother.  In a transition, a person will feel restless, anxious, and will lose interest in regular activities.  Each transition begins with a death of some sort, which must be mourned.  In this time, one must separate himself from something, which can be quite disorienting.  Only then, can one enter into a fallow time of reflection and malleability.  This is where the real work of the transition takes place.  Finally, a new birth brings freshness and a kind of new identity.  All people experience transitions throughout various stages in their lives, even though it is impossible to make any certain set of stages normal.  How we deal with transitions in early life will usually dictate how we deal with other transitions later.  Transitions of all kinds deeply affect interpersonal relationships and can even jeopardize those relationships.  Many people experience transitions in their work life from a kind of apprenticeship to “householding” to some kind of “final chapter.”

 

Critique

The author spends a great deal of time in the myths of the ancient Greek world.  Unless the reader has significant knowledge or great interest in these myths, it will be difficult to understand the (very) extended illustration.  Further, the author weaves a variety of stories from his personal experience with students throughout the book.  These stories are all similar (since they all deal with transitions), and so only a very careful reader will not be confused.  Nonetheless, it is easy to see why this book has sold so many copies.  The information is quite valuable, and his exposition of transitions is easy to understand.  The practical advice is the most valuable part of the book.

 


“First, the process of transformation is essentially a death and rebirth process rather than one of mechanical modification.  Although our own culture knows all about mechanics, it has a great deal to learn from the past about death and rebirth.”  p.140.

 

Alan! Alan! Alan!

 

TrueFaced

TrueFaced: Trust God and Others With Who You Really Are, by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNicol and John Lynch.

Overview

Christians regularly feel the need to wear a mask that hides their true identity.  They think that they must project an image of holiness and perfection in order to be accepted and loved by God and others.  Underneath the mask all people are guilty for sin committed by them and hurt for sin committed against them.  Unless Christians deal with these sins, they cannot mature and achieve the dreams God has for them.  The Room of Good Intentions is the place where people pose with masks for each other and people are trying hard to please God and others, first.  The Room of Grace is opened by the knob of humility.  Here, everyone trusts God before they try to please him.  They are not afraid of their guilt and hurt because they are confident in the grace of God.  This confidence allows them to receive and then give love.  It allows them to repent (not just confess), and to forgive others truly and deeply.

Critique

This book was written for church leaders and mature Christians, or, at least, those who have been in church communities for a long time.  A new believer will struggle to understand what the authors are saying.  Nonetheless, this is a fantastic book to help understand what Tim Keller calls, “the sin beneath the sin.”  The summary at the end of each chapter is a helpful way of using the book in a small group discussion.  I must agree with Dallas Willard, it is “one of the best books o practical theology I have seen.”

“Sin will not be managed.  Behavior change and sin management are deceptively tricky boxing opponents.  We win some earl rounds.  This increases our confidence and by the firth or sixth round, we break into a rendition of the Ali Shuffle.  Hey, this isn’t so hard.  Soon, we’re mugging for the cameras . . . and the next thing we know, we’re on teh canvas, knocked into another world by a devastating left hook.”  p. 66.