People of the Spirit, worshiping Jesus in all places, at all times

Advent began on Sunday for most Western Christians (Eastern Christians have already gotten there, but they have a longer Advent). It’s an incredible season–the start of the Church’s calendar. It begins with the end. We come into Advent remembering the Day of Doom–the Lord’s Day, the Day of Judgment, Armageddon. We come remembering that on the heels of our declaration of Christ’s Kingship the week before, that every one of us in the world will have to give an account before the throne of God and His Christ. It’s a portrait of blinding darkness and pitched light. And we are called by the Spirit of Christ to wait in faithfulness and hope, confident that faith in Christ shall stand in the day of judgment.

But we also look back to the season when Christ first came–to the waiting of God’s people, longing for redemption, groaning under oppression and the ignorance of the Gentiles waiting to be enlightened. We prime ourselves for the announcement of Christ’s birth by heeding the call of John the Baptist to repentance, to be ready, and to know for certain that our rescue is close at hand, and when the Savior comes, we will find rest and solace.

It’s a beautiful season. And the Church has its calendar from ancient times as a way of framing our lives, remembering the story of Jesus, and seeing our stories transformed by that grace. But it’s not the only calendar. There are secular calendars that reinforce what James K.A. Smith has referred to as “cultural liturgies.” The day-to-day of American life has its own messages and warnings that it offers, which we could spend a fair amount of time discussing, but what I’m interested in right now, is what has just occurred in the secular calendar. In the past week, the American public has celebrated to one degree or another: Thanksgiving, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday, and Giving Tuesday.

We began Thursday with the expectation of feasting with family or close friends, in a cadre of delightful culinary traditions. We have some vague notion that we are commemorating the first Thanksgiving held by Non-conformist Christian settlers at Plymouth Colony and indigenous American tribes who helped them to survive. The more learned and attentive might even be able to say how “abundance” was not really the thing that was being celebrated by the community so much as “survival.” But, whatever. We’re Americans. We’ll supersize it to something worth eating. At any rate, it’s supposed to be a happy time, filled with sentimental traditions and our favorite nostalgic games and memories. The media even plays along by replaying old holiday movies in marathon format to be carried throughout the weekend.

But early or not, Black Friday comes quickly on the heels of the tryptophan engorgement. The idea of extreme savings in a consumer mob across stories that mythically places companies from being in the “red” of loss into the “black” of profit has driven a number of experiments and loud arguments that would embarrass most liturgists and worship leaders. But the fanfare of buying things for loved ones (including oneself) at heavily discounted prices has motivated a nationwide pastime and the creation of “traditions” for families. Even those who refuse to participate in the rush are defined by it, as they intentionally determine to not shop on Black Friday.

Newer additions in recent years have joined Black Friday’s corporate bailout by the American people. One is Small Business Saturday–where we are encouraged to remember our local sellers, crafters, artisans, and others, and to offer them our patronage. The other is Cyber Monday, where we are reminded that no matter the deals of Friday, the internet always has a better offer (and one wonders how many spent money on Friday to repent of not waiting for Monday…). These activities are certainly more “minor” by comparison to Thanksgiving and Black Friday but they still consume a great deal of attention and investment, and they will probably grow in importance. The American people, after all, have little to say about themselves that doesn’t involve the purchase and consumption of goods to be enjoyed. If you want to read more on that, I’ll refer you to James K.A. Smith’s description of “the liturgy of the mall” in Desiring the Kingdom.

Finally, the parade of secular feasts ends with “Giving Tuesday.” With the rise of social media, this one has gotten very big, very fast. Yesterday, I saw some dozen or so charities and non-profit fundraisers being hosted by personal friends. Philanthropic organizations were giving out matching grants like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Colleges and seminaries, social service groups and advocacy agencies, and more, were raising money. More than that, they were getting it (and as a church planter trying to find funds and grants, let me tell you it burned a bit!).

But now it’s over. Today is Wednesday. Just Wednesday after Thanksgiving on the secular calendar. But what story have we heard? What does it compare to Advent?

Oddly enough, gratitude, judgment, hope, and repentance are themes in both stories. But the way they play out is very different. In Thanksgiving, we demonstrate gratitude with incredible consumption. In Black Friday, we demonstrate hope in continued luxury by encouraging all income brackets to join in the American dream’s promise that we can all have good, enjoyable and often unnecessary things. In Small Business Saturday, we offer some repentance to our local businesses by doing penance and purchasing their goods and services. Because while we may have sold our soul to Wal-mart, there’s still just enough left to benefit them. And in Cyber Monday, we are reminded that the physical constraints of our geography and schedules do not overcome our fundamental identity as consumers. The barriers will and must be overcome.  Finally, we have Giving Tuesday, because at the end of the day, we do realize it’s not only about us, and that others should be empowered, enabled, and embraced as part of this great American vision to consume. That we should be so privileged to give excesses in order for the do-gooders to have some resources with which to be a part of the community.

So, this American Thanksgiving season is very powerfully insistent as Advent breaks. Because it declares a different kingdom: where consumption is king, and our identity and rights are oriented around the hope for the things we have yet to get. It stands, silently enough, in defiance of the announcement of the Kingdom of God in Advent: where the waiting are blessed, the ready are repentant, and the haughty establishment is cast down. This is no condemnation of our various family traditions in and of themselves, but let’s be wise and make sure that story of our feasts and fasts is the story of Jesus, to whom we give thanks, and who is always present to us in the gift of Himself– in waters of baptism, in the Spirit’s outpouring, in the common meal of bread and wine (Eucharist–the true Thanksgiving feast), and in the loving fellowship of Jesus’ people in all times and all places.

O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth….

The Great Litany begins with a blaring, intoned address to the Almighty God.

O God the Son, Redeemer of the world…

It’s staunch orthodoxy refuses to bend to contemporary innovations.

O God the Holy Ghost, Sanctifier of the faithful…

It’s movement of penitent supplication and confident faith embraces the totality of Christian life and discipline.

O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, one God….

But it continues to draw more and more of me into prayer and intimacy with God. It reshapes my mind, my heart, my body in a way that is oriented toward God, that advocates for my enemies and friends, and somehow lets me pray for the life of the world and the life of the Church at the same time.

Liturgical prayer is anything but dead. I can feel the cloud of witnesses join with me. I know in my bones that my ancestors prayed these same prayers, responding to the officiant’s supplications with “Good Lord, deliver us” and “We beseech thee to hear us, good Lord.” In the United States, and in England and Wales, and in Ireland. I know my brothers and sisters pray these prayers– in Nigeria, in Australia, and in other parts of the globe. It’s tremendous. It’s a prayer that is larger than me.

And, oddly, it’s the reality of the life-giving nature of liturgical prayer that helps us guard against our own liturgical eclecticism. As Pentecostals, we should be in tune with the Spirit’s guiding the prayers of the Church through the ages and around the world. And if we are embracing that path, and giving the Spirit room to reshape us, change how we pray, and enter into words that have been handed down from one generation of apostolic faith to the next, then we will find that we are not doing anything strange at all. Instead, we are being formed into the people of Pentecost, devoted to the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. And in that, we will see the release of God’s work among us in great acts of love and stunning signs and wonders — all to authenticate and draw attention to the great love Jesus has shown us.

One thing that the Pentecostal and catholic traditions have in common is an undistracted devotion to the spiritual discipline of fasting. The catholic tradition’s practice of regular fasting–days from the early church for each week, each season of the year, and guidelines for the faithful– and the Pentecostal’s warlike ethos of fasting for the sake of spiritual breakthrough come together in some unique ways in my life. As someone raised in the Pentecostal tradition, I do believe fasting is an act of war–not only against the indwelling sinner, but also against the powers and principalities who are arrayed against the people of God and His Christ. It’s a heritage that has taken the words of Jesus to heart: “this kind can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29).

Much has been written by pastors and practitioners over the years of the impact of fasting. The practical results, the typical psychological and physical effects, and the “pro tips” for holding up your commitment. Those may well have their place, but if the Pentecostal experience–and the stories of great ascetics like St. Antony of Egypt, St. John Climacus, or St. Colum Cille– bears out, then the spiritual battle that we enter in fasting is of far greater import and impact than any of the practical tips offered by these leaders.

Tradition tells of St. Antony being attacked by demons when he retreated to the desert for prayer and fasting, and how the Lord strengthened him in the face of those assaults. St. Patrick recounts an assault by the devil while fasting in the wilderness of Gaul that prevented him from moving, and how he cried out to the Lord, and the weight was lifted. St. Moses the Ethiopian, St. John Damascus, St. John of the Cross, and many others throughout our history have other testimonies. Fasting puts a target on your back–but the Lord Jesus already has the victory, and communicates that grace to us through the Holy Spirit at work within us.

So, when you fast, fast in full confidence that God is already present, already speaking, and already giving grace to you. But also fast in the full knowledge that you have personally declared war on the world, the flesh, and the devil, and their wrath will be focused on you. But as Martin Luther wrote so many years ago: “The Prince of darkness grim; we tremble not for him! His rage we can endure for, lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.”

Ferguson. Houston. Baltimore. Charlotte. Tulsa. These names may well come to have the same powerful association that Selma, Birmingham, and Atlanta have in our remembrance of the Civil Rights Movement. These cities–and many others– bear witness to racial tensions, conflicts, and the demonic insistence that (a) we can and should be valued based on the color of our skin and (b) that the systems of the American continent are blind to such judgments.

Oh, yes. Racism is certainly demonic. And the idea that the experiences of people of color in America are equal to or have advantage over white Americans is a demonic lie. These things are demonic because they fly in the face of our common humanity, sharing the image of God, descending from the same first parents (Genesis 1-2). They fly in the face of our common fall into sin (pick any citation: as Chesterton notes, the doctrine of original sin has plenty of empirical evidence). They fly in the face of God’s revelation through the prophets and ultimately, through Christ Himself, that all people would be joined together as one nation gathered to worship the One True God (Joel 2, various Psalms, Matthew 28, Acts 2, Revelation 5, etc.). They fly in the face that Jesus has united us all through His blood (Ephesians 2)

This great redemption and reconciliation of people groups divided by sin (Tower of Babel, anyone) isn’t some mere footnote. It’s a consequence of Pentecost. It’s the creation of a Church–a holy people– that is truly catholic. The roots of the Pentecostal movement put the reconciliation of all peoples at center stage, as the common experience of the Holy Spirit bound people together in praise of Jesus and life together following Him. And the God of this Church will not brook denial, and he does not sanction self-deceit.

To be white in America is, in some sense, its own kind of wealth. It’s almost always a free pass to walk down the street, to speed down the highway, and to ride your bike home in a hurry on a late night. It’s a freedom to submit your resume without fear of judgment based on your name, or to show up to an interview and find a prospective employer unsurprised by your appearance. It’s a right to protest and advocate for lives under threat without any fear of reprisal, or assumption of guilt. I could belabor the point, but I will not. (Note: I will not suggest that white Americans never experience any of these things, but that they are not par for the course or expectation that they must prepare their children for).

Over the past year, I’ve heard from hundreds of my brothers and sisters in Christ–white, black, brown, and multi-racial–on social media, blogs, newspapers, and magazines, and what they tell me is appalling: injustice, oppression, fear, doubt, anxiety, anger, and a host of complex experiences and emotions that, despite my best efforts, I find impossible to identify with. I’ve only gotten far enough with it to be able to say it’s utterly wrong, unacceptable, and not to be condoned by the people of God.

Friends, this world is broken. Our culture’s systemic preference for white people is an artificial and demonic division of the human race which God has acted to redeem and reconcile once for all. I don’t know what our next steps have to look like, but I do know they involve repentance, asking forgiveness, praying and worshipping together as one people and seeking Jesus to do in us what he’s been doing in the world all along. Because if there’s going to be a witness against the sins of our culture, that witness needs to be the counter-example of the Church. May God make us one, and may we love one another deeply, as Christ has loved us.

I’m a church planter by practice and pretense (depending on the day, as few of us pull off wearing that hat non-stop). Church planting is by nature an interesting animal. It has that “new car” or “new book” smell all over it. And it’s tempting, because of that, for folks to walk into a church planting effort and expect that everything will be brand new–a church as fresh as the day of Pentecost.

Well, sort of. New works involve lots of Pentecost-type things: reaching out, sharing Jesus, baptizing everybody, and figuring out what it looks like to disciple and to gather for worship. They have a lot of the same growing pains that the book of Acts and the epistles of Paul bear witness to, as well. There are leadership questions, and cultural challenges, and discipleship gaps and experiments.

But that’s not all. Church plants have DNA–they have parents, friends, and bickering cousins who all have an opinion on the shape of things. In other words, there is tradition to take note of. For Pentecostals ministering in the Anglican Church or others in the catholic tradition, this isn’t a negative thing at all. As it’s been noted many times, tradition is a life-giving thing in Pentecostal discipleship.

But what does that look like in church planting? Tradition is what we are passing on in discipleship. Tradition maps out how we follow Jesus together. So, for an Anglican like myself, what that looks like includes:

  • When sharing stories and other texts from Scripture, the point of every single one is to reveal Jesus (Christological reading)
  • We pray together corporately, even the kids outreach has us reciting corporate prayer.
  • We make use of liturgical prayer. For example, baptism candidates will receive a small booklet including daily prayers derived from the family offices from the prayerbook.
  • We value the church year–Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter are especially highlighted in our children’s outreach, and I hope they will be an influence in our small groups as well.

So, yes, tradition provides hands-on discipleship for life in the Spirit as we are all attempting to follow Jesus together. Practice it personally and embrace it’s application in ministry–especially in new ministry like church planting.

On ordination

To be Pentecostal ultimately means the adherence to the catholic tradition of ordination: men and women of divine call and gifting being acknowledged and set in orders by the laying on of hands–receiving authority to preach the Word of God and administer the sacraments.

It’s tempting for many to look at ordination as commissioning (it is), passing permission or authority (it is), or an induction into the fellowship of other ministers (it is). But Pentecostal teaching on the Holy Spirit’s present work and the testimony of catholic tradition days “Yes, these and more!”

God gives the offices of the Church as gifts of the Spirit–apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. What the apostles passed on to us is the orders of deacons and elders, including the precedent of an elder being set apart as first among them. These offices (traditionally called deacons, priests, and bishops) carry authority and permission and a commission (like mentioned above) and in ordination, God empowers individuals with the anointing and capacity to fulfill that ministry.

So don’t snub at the laying on of hands. As Jesus breathed on the apostles, and as they laid their hands on the first deacons and elders, as the next generation laid hands on the rising deacons and elders and bishops, the gifts and capacities to fulfill those ministries was passed on.

It’s not magic. It’s not human tradition. It’s the faithfulness of God the Holy Spirit to empower the ministry of Jesus’ people to the glory of the Father.

I ordered this book at the recommendation of a dear friend. And started it twice. When I was too busy with ordination process details to even think about reading. But somehow an immersion experience in mission here in Germany has opened doors for time to finish it.

All I can say is: wow. Wow, such raw honesty about the absence and presence of God. Wow, such clarity about the questions we get from friends and acquaintances every day about faith and Christianity. Wow, such effective truth-telling about how much we as human beings suck (with our “Human Propensity to F*** things Up” as Spufford puts it). Wow, such compassion and tenderness for fellow human beings in our suffering and being weighed down by the realities of the world.

But above all, WOW. WOW, SUCH GRACE. Such an impressive grasp of the overwhelming, constant, annoying, enjoying, transforming and failure-ignoring forgiveness and love of God brought to us by Jesus. We can breathe fresh Gospel air reading Unapologetic.

But Spufford’s purpose isn’t immediately obvious from the title. So, Christians these days sometimes engage in apologetics: defending the faith. It’s a noble and necessary task. Most apologetics, however, is aimed at the teaching and ideas that we as Christians confess in creeds and affirm in other statements that we hopefully receive from the Scriptures. This book, uniquely, is a defense of Christian sanity–that we are not wrong to feel as we do about God, the world, Jesus and the Church. And he does it masterfully.

Definitely give this one a read.