Advent, delayed

Christmas has always been my favorite time of the year, but I had a difficult time getting in the spirit of the season this year. I figured it had something to do with not having any snow or because things had been busy at work and I had a cold, but then a few days ago I realized what had made this Christmas different from the previous twenty-nine.

The church season leading up to Christmas is called Advent, which means “coming” or “arrival,” with the celebration of Jesus’ birth being the culmination of season.

Advent is a season I’ve experienced true to its definition in the past, a time when I’ve been filled with excitement for all the traditions and family time along with the peace and hope of celebrating the birth of Jesus. All those things happened again this year and I enjoyed them as much as I could, but then it was January and life pretty much went back to normal.

Only a few days into the New Year something unexpected happened, I realized it was Advent. Not on the calendar or in the church, but because I was anticipating the birth of a child with more eagerness and excitement than any Christmas before.

I shared the story of my nephew a few days ago, but the short version is that my sister was pregnant and due on Christmas day three years ago but then became sick and went into labor much too early and the baby didn’t make it. Regardless of how many other details you know about what happened, you can imagine my sister and her husband (and all of us) have been through a lot. One thing that has remained obvious to me through everything is that my sister and her husband would be incredible parents and they really want a child, so it was one of the greatest surprises in the world (no exaggeration!) when they shared the incredible news earlier this year that they were expecting a child.

After all the struggles and pain they’d experienced, this seemed almost too good to be true, but after it settled in we anxiously (and a bit cautiously) began preparing for this miracle baby to arrive.

There were more doctor visits than with a normal pregnancy, and due to everything she had been through it was decided she would have a c-section at least a few weeks before her due date, but everything was going well and they were told to expect a healthy baby girl. That’s right, a girl, so for those of you keeping track at home this would be my third niece.

Fast forward to the middle of last week when it finally hit me that my sister was going to have a baby soon. All the emotions of the past mixed together with my love for this unborn girl and I knew that for the first time, despite all the excitement I had for Christmases in the past, I was fully experiencing Advent.

My family gathered at my sister and her husband’s house on Thursday night to have dinner and hang out. It was fun looking at the baby room and seeing all the little clothes and other gifts they had been accumulating in the living room, but it was also clear we were controlling our excitement. We were ready to celebrate emotionally but after all that had happened it wasn’t quite time to party yet.

When I went to bed on Thursday night I realized that to me it was Christmas Eve, so the next day would be Christmas, which was odd since it was actually January 5 (my mom’s birthday).

I set my alarm for much earlier than I would normally wake up so I could send my sister a text message, then slept a few more hours before going to work. I hadn’t scheduled anything that day to make sure I could go to the hospital whenever. There was a brief time of concern when I hadn’t heard anything in the mid-morning, but as soon as the good news came I ran to my car and drove to the hospital, getting to their room just after they had settled in. My mom was already there and my sister was sitting up in the bed, still a bit out of it from the surgery but obviously happy and very relieved. My brother-in-law was sitting near the window holding a little girl wrapped in blankets, it was his daughter, my niece…the child we had been waiting for.

I had spent a lot of time dreaming and praying for this moment to become a reality, but the emotions still snuck up on me. Tears had already pooled in the corners of my eyes when my brother-in-law placed that little girl in my arms, and as I held my niece my sister asked how I felt about being a godfather again. I can’t quite remember what I said, but am quite confident my mouth made a sound because it felt like a question that called for an answer with words and not just a nod of the head. It was a moment I will never forget, and I wouldn’t have thought it could get any better except that today I went back to the hospital and held her again. This time for much longer because there were fewer people around, and as I looked down at her tiny face while she quietly slept I realized that by some great miracle she was even cuter than the day before.

As if the story couldn’t be filled with any more meaning and beauty, they chose a name today; Natalia, which comes from the Italian natale and means “birthday.” It’s a word often used in specific reference to Christ’s birthday, and the Italian phrase for “Merry Christmas” is actually buon natale! So Natalia actually means “Christ’s birthday.” The quick explanation for why they chose the name is that my brother-in-law is Ethiopian where they celebrate Christmas on what is January 6th and 7th in America. So quite literally, Natalia was born on Christmas!

My experience of Advent may have been delayed this year, but when the child I had been anxiously awaiting was finally born it was the happiest and most joy-filled Christmas I could ever imagine, so even if it seems a few weeks late to you…

Merry Christmas, or I should say buon natale!

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Emmanuel

I’m posting this in memory of my nephew who would have turned three years old this Christmas. Read my note after the sermon for an update on the story.

Emmanuel: God is with us
Message by Andy Jolivette
December 21, 2008

Christmas is going to be different for me and my family this year.

This is usually my favorite time of year. I love everything about Christmastime. In my family and among my friends, I’ve been known to get out the Christmas music as early as September because I just can’t wait any longer.

This Christmas was going to be one of the best ever for my family, even topping the year I got a pair of Air Jordan basketball shoes when I was about 11 years old. You see, this past summer my oldest sister and her husband announced that after years of trying, they were pregnant and would be having their first child. We were all very excited, and you can imagine how much more excited we were when only a few weeks later, my other sister announced that she was pregnant too. As if that wasn’t exciting enough, it turned out they were due within a week of each other…the week of Christmas.

We were all preparing ourselves for two little ones. My mom couldn’t contain her joy about having grandkids, and you could tell my dad was loving the idea of being a grandpa. My sisters were glowing, happily surprised to be going through their first pregnancies together, and the idea of their children having an instant friend and cousin was pretty cool too. My brothers-in-law had the typical nervous/excited look of “I’m going to be a dad” on their faces, and I couldn’t imagine my sister’s having chosen better men as husbands and fathers. I was obviously excited about being an uncle too.

My family spends a lot of weekends together at our cabin during the summer, and during a weekend in early August my oldest sister and her husband told us they were having a boy. Yes!!! On the ride home that weekend, they asked if I’d be his godfather and told me they had picked a name, Emmanuel Andrew. A great name!

Sometimes, even when you don’t think you can get any more excited about something, you do anyway.

The next day I flew to California for a week, and on the second day of that trip I got an email from my mom saying something about visiting my sister in the hospital. I had no idea what she was talking about, so I quickly called her and found out that my sister had gone to the ER the night before complaining of stomach pain. She was being kept overnight to do some tests and find out what was going on. I was nervous, since getting pregnant had not been easy for her, but assumed it was just an inconvenience the doctors would take care of. So I checked in with my family every day and went about my trip. She had an emergency surgery at the end of the week and I nervously waited to hear that she and the baby were still doing okay. She was still in the hospital the day I was scheduled to fly home and I was planning to go straight to the hospital, still hoping for the best. But then it all changed in one short voicemail message. While I was getting ready to leave for the airport that morning, my brother-in-law had called to tell me that she was going into labor because her body could no longer take care of both her and the baby. She was only 20 weeks pregnant, and the baby would not live.

I flew home through a cloud of confusion. While waiting for my ride at the airport, I called my mom and heard the story of my nephew’s birth. It was much different than the story of a little baby boy entering the world that I had imagined it would be.

The next few days, weeks and even months are a blur, but I know they included a lot of time spent at the hospital. There were hugs, tears and prayers, and lots of pain and confusion.

Remember, my other sister was…is…still pregnant throughout all this.

Christmas is going to be both really hard and really exciting (all that the same time) for my family this year. My oldest sister was due on December 25th. My other sister will be having a baby girl a few days later. She’s due on December 30th.

We’ve had a lot of time to think about all that’s happened since August, and even if we’ve accepted it and know we can’t change anything, that doesn’t make it any less painful. My sister was supposed to become a mom this Christmas, her husband was supposed to become a dad. I was supposed to have a nephew…but that’s not going to happen.

Every time I think about my nephew and start feeling sad, I remember his name, Emmanuel. I remember what it means, and I remember that God is with me.

It doesn’t make anything easier, but it does offer some comfort.

Christmas might be the “most wonderful time of the year,” but it’s not always the easiest time of the year. It can bring back memories that are difficult and we all have painful stuff from our past that might make it hard to truly enjoy this time of year. Let’s not ignore that, but let’s also not dwell on it, because this is also a season of joy and giving. A time of peace and hope.

My sister is going to have a daughter sometime in the next few weeks. That is still exciting. Someday, that little girl is going to be old enough to hear the story of a little boy who was supposed to be the same age as her, who maybe would have even been her best childhood friend, but she’s only going to know that he’s not here anymore because he’s up in heaven. But she’s also going to hear the story of another baby boy who was born a long time ago. A boy who became the Savior of the world, who, like her cousin, died too early…only he died so that others might live. She’ll learn both stories, and as she gets older, they will hopefully both have an influence on her life.  She will learn that one of the baby boy’s was named Emmanuel, and the other Jesus.

Someday she might even read these verses from the Bible…

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14, NIV)

“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” (Matthew 1:23, NIV)

And although she’ll notice – and eventually understand – why her mom and dad, along with her aunts, uncles, grandma and grandpa get sad every year around Christmastime (which is just before her birthday), she will hopefully also notice that it’s a time of year when they experience hope and happiness.

Confusion and sadness are as much a part of the Christmas story as joy and hope.

I pray that no matter what is going on in your life this Christmas, you will experience the joy, peace and hope that comes from knowing that what the angel told the shepherds is true…“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

Emmanuel. God is with us. God is for us. God is in us.

Amen.

Update: my sister and her husband will welcome their daughter into the world Friday morning (they have a scheduled c-section). I can’t wait to meet the little girl, and my three-year old niece is pretty excited to meet her new cousin as well!

Today was a good day

Today was a special day for my dad. He got a new car. It was also a special day for me because he invited me along for the ride. That version of the story doesn’t even begin to explain the significance of today for my dad, and it also doesn’t make clear why this morning will probably become a story I will tell people when people ask me to share a great memory of my dad.

To put it in perspective we have to visit rural Iowa in the late 1960s when my dad was a skinny high school kid who had five siblings; a Lutheran pastor for a dad and a mom who found ways to feed and clothe her family that would make Dave Ramsey appear careless with money by comparison.

As a kid, my dad developed a deep interest in cars. Not that he or his parents had enough money to buy the coolest vehicles of the time, but he still knew about them all. To this day when he sees a car from his childhood era he’ll tell you the make, model and year. And although he has now owned dozens of cars he can still tell you the details of each one as if it’s still in his garage.

Mustangs have always been his favorite, and ever since he first saw the 1968 model he has dreamed of owning a “red Mustang convertible with camel [tan] interior.” He’s been talking about that car since I can remember, and as the youngest child in my family his dream was often mentioned as being directly connected to my educational progress, as in “when you graduate from college I can finally get my convertible,” or “my next tuition payment is going to be for a Mustang.”

The irony in this story is that my parent’s owned a 1968 Mustang when I was a little kid (in the mid 1980s). It wasn’t a convertible, but it was red, and the story I’ve heard is that the heater didn’t work and my mom didn’t like driving it on ice and snow, which seem like legitimate reasons – especially since we lived in northern Iowa where it’s winter half the year and a sports car is not at all a practical vehicle for a family with two young kids. So my parents sold the car to a high school kid in town. I have a faint memory of seeing it in a parking lot a few years later and watching my dad look at it, longingly. I somehow ended up with a key for that old car and I still have it today, along with a childish thought that someday I’d randomly find the car and use the key to reclaim it for my dad.

Fast forward to just a few days ago when my dad, who works at the same school as me, pulled me out of a meeting to see if I was available to help him with something on Saturday. When I said yes and asked him what was happening on Saturday he shared the reason behind the glow that was on his face…he had finally found his Mustang! It was in Iowa and he needed to go pick it up. The Ford dealership (which my uncle owns) arranged for a few guys to drive the car an hour south of the twin cities where we’d meet them in the parking lot.

So I woke up bright and early this morning, on a Saturday(!). One of the first things I did after turning off my alarm clock was post the following status on a few social media sites: “up early on a saturday to help my dad track down a dream he’s been chasing for over 40 years. this is going to be a fun day.” I had no idea how fun today was going to be.

My dad picked me up after stopping to get coffee and we headed south. It became clear right away that I was living out a great scene in a cool story.

As we drove into the morning sun my dad talked about how long he’d been dreaming of this day, again going back to his love of the ’68 model. He talked about all the different Mustangs over the past 40+ years and told me he had test-driven many of them (something I didn’t know). He said none of them looked and felt quite right to him until a few years ago when the 2010 model came out, the version of the car he was now about to own. He mentioned the mixed emotions he was feeling about having his very own red Mustang convertible with camel interior, explaining that after wanting this car for so long he wasn’t sure how it would feel to actually have it. What would he dream about now?

The conversation we were having was about a car, at least that’s what it would have sounded like to a casual observer, but knowing my dad like I do it was obviously about so much more than just a car. The car represents not just his childhood dream, but now it also seems to embody the humbling reality that he can afford his dream car. What an incredibly blessing. He didn’t seem to have regrets that it had taken this long to get the car – since every instance of waiting was an example of making other things, like family, a priority – and at the same time he also wasn’t overcome with excitement about finally getting the car he’d always wanted.

I’m not sure what word describes my dad’s spirit this morning, and that’s probably because he was experiencing a culmination of memories and emotions that covered every dimension of his adult life, and for certain that’s a lot more than I can comprehend, but what I can say is just riding in a car and talking with my dad this morning is something I’ll never forget.

There are two moments in particular I’ll always remember about today, and thankfully I had the presence of mind to capture them both on video.

Pulling up next to his new car:

Reflecting on his dream car and driving it off the lot:

the [good] news 2.0

If you’re anything like me, and I think a lot of you probably are, the way you receive the news has changed drastically over the past two or three years. Ever since the internet evolved into something called “Web 2.0” (which is just a cute-techy way of saying the web is in it’s second generation) the way we receive and consume newsworthy information has quickly moved away from the old standards of opening a newspaper or magazine / turning on the radio or tv and being told what’s happening in the world (news in a structured, edited and rehearsed fashion), and it’s quickly moved toward things like blogs, message boards and perhaps the most influential of all the immediate news sources – status updates on social networks like facebook and twitter.

I’ll be honest, I get a lot of my updates on what’s happening in the world by reading what others tell me is going on, and rarely are the people telling me what’s going on doing their job (in other words, they’re not paid to report the news). While I don’t “tweet” very often, I do visit twitter a few times a day to see what’s trending (list of most commonly discussed things, updated in real time). I also find myself frequently scouring my facebook news feed (collection of updates on the activity and updates of my 600+ “friends”) as if it were the front page of the paper…and in many ways, it is. Think about it. If you looked at any major event that happened in the past several years – from Obama being elected president, Michael Jackson’s death, swine flu, the economic recession and federal bailouts, and who could forget one of the worst events in recent memory, Brett Favre becoming a Viking – all of these events were well-documented by the media, but perhaps more than anywhere else they were discussed on facebook and twitter (to the point where both sites were nearly shut down on June 25, 2009 because so many people were trying to share their reactions to Michael Jackson’s death, at the same time).

Why do I share all this?

This morning while eating breakfast – a time of the day when previous generations would have probably been sitting at their kitchen table reading the newspaper – I was sitting at my computer desk skimming through people’s status updates on facebook. Like most people, I’m not all that close with all of my facebook friends (although I do have a few rules about this: 1) I know them in real life, 2) they are at least 18 years old and out of high school).  Due to this new reality of what it means to be “friends” with someone, I often find myself reading very personal statements written by people I don’t know very well (which is a whole different topic for another day), but I also find out about all sorts of interesting events, organizations and causes because people are constantly sharing links or inviting me to join their groups and attend events for things they are involved with. And sure, sometimes people share funny videos, express frustrations about their job, coworkers, boss, etc., or my least favorite use – shamelessly plug the stuff they sell (realtors are the worst at this), but this morning, as I was finishing my oatmeal (I know you don’t care what I ate for breakfast, but this is a blog and by it’s nature that means sometimes you get more info than you care about); so like I was saying, this morning I was checking my facebook news feed while getting ready for work and eating my Quaker Apples & Cinnamon oatmeal (which by the way is delicious!). Similar to how a friend in the 1980s might have suggested a movie to watch or a book to read, one of my facebook friends posted a link in their status to a magazine article that I otherwise never would have known about. It’s an open letter from Shane Claiborne to his “nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends” and it was published by Esquire magazine. (In case that’s not an unexpected combination to you, read Shane’s wikipedia page and then visit the Esquire website.)

Shane writes a great letter full of confession and proclamation. I’m thankful to have read it, but I’m even more thankful that so many others will read it (and to have been “told” about it by a very credible news source; a guy named Charlie who I went to seminary with, and who I apparently share 40 friends in common with).

Anyway, since I wrote all this to share the letter and link with you, possibly making me a news source for you and others, I’ll now post a portion of the letter (please check out the full article on Esquire).

What if Jesus meant all that Stuff?
by Shane Claiborne (Esquire, Nov. 18, 2009)

It starts out simple and engaging, with an apology on behalf of all people who would categorize themselves as “Christians.”

To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.

That was the confession part. He then moves into story/observation mode, pointing out that he (as a person of faith) has experienced the same negative reaction to the behavior of a lot of “Christians” that others seem to have.

The other night I headed into downtown Philly for a stroll with some friends from out of town. We walked down to Penn’s Landing along the river, where there are street performers, artists, musicians. We passed a great magician who did some pretty sweet tricks like pour change out of his iPhone, and then there was a preacher. He wasn’t quite as captivating as the magician. He stood on a box, yelling into a microphone, and beside him was a coffin with a fake dead body inside. He talked about how we are all going to die and go to hell if we don’t know Jesus.

Some folks snickered. Some told him to shut the hell up. A couple of teenagers tried to steal the dead body in the coffin. All I could do was think to myself, I want to jump up on a box beside him and yell at the top of my lungs, “God is not a monster.” Maybe next time I will.

This is where he starts to proclaim a bit of the Gospel (aka “the good news”), but it’s also where he points out the harsh reality of how Christians are perceived in society (the bad news).

The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to disbelieve. And the sort of Christianity many of us have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus.

At one point Gandhi was asked if he was a Christian, and he said, essentially, “I sure love Jesus, but the Christians seem so unlike their Christ.” A recent study showed that the top three perceptions of Christians in the U. S. among young non-Christians are that Christians are 1) antigay, 2) judgmental, and 3) hypocritical. So what we have here is a bit of an image crisis, and much of that reputation is well deserved. That’s the ugly stuff. And that’s why I begin by saying that I’m sorry.

Although it may not be clear, Claiborne is actually a very positive dude with a deeply rooted faith and hope in God’s love, as seen in these thoughts…

I want to invite you to consider that maybe the televangelists and street preachers are wrong — and that God really is love. Maybe the fruits of the Spirit really are beautiful things like peace, patience, kindness, joy, love, goodness, and not the ugly things that have come to characterize religion, or politics, for that matter. (If there is anything I have learned from liberals and conservatives, it’s that you can have great answers and still be mean… and that just as important as being right is being nice.)

Amen, Shane. I was in a meeting at the seminary where I work last week and we were talking to several staff members from a graduate social work program we partner with to offer a joint degree. Near the end of the meeting we were talking about the reality of working for social justice as a person of faith, and how often times that means working against the perceived understandings people have about Christianity, which is a sad situation. One of my colleagues from the seminary patiently waited as others shared their thoughts, then made the profoundly true statement that “the Christianity you see in the media is the not what Jesus lived and preached.”

Claiborne’s closing comments get at the basics of the belief conversation; namely, what does it finally mean to be a Christian, or not? And how does the distinguishing, self-selecting or labeling of “Christian” vs. “non-Christian” effect how we interact with each other, since God created us all in love and we have no choice but to live together on this earth (so we might as well get along)?

In closing, to those who have closed the door on religion — I was recently asked by a non-Christian friend if I thought he was going to hell. I said, “I hope not. It will be hard to enjoy heaven without you.” If those of us who believe in God do not believe God’s grace is big enough to save the whole world… well, we should at least pray that it is.

Your brother,

Shane

Dear God

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted anything. To the handful of people who have noticed, I apologize. It’s not that I haven’t been thinking about life and observing culture through the perspective of my faith, I just haven’t been making time to share my observations. Let’s not pretend this is the rebirth of anewdoxology.com, but if new content starts finding it’s way to this URL more often I hope a few people will see it as a good thing.

Like anyone else, my musical preferences have been changing, evolving, even maturing throughout my life. The first CD I owned was Hi-Five, but back then I pretty much listened to whatever was on Casey’s Top 40. I also had a Shaq CD (as in Shaquille O’Neal, the now really old basketball player). I’m not one to talk about liking “good” music, at least not when I was younger. In high school I listened to a lot of hip hop (2Pac, Notorious B.I.G. and Outkast being some of my favorites). I played basketball into my first couple years of college, so the rap thing never quite left my system, but I also began listening to a lot more acoustic and folk rock in college.

I realize that many young people’s musical tastes are influenced by their college experience (parties, friends, whatever the people down the hall decided to play LOUD), but for me I think it also had a lot to do with the specific college I attended. The Dave Matthews Band had been to Luther College twice in four years before I arrived in the fall of 1999 (including a live album that was released during my senior year of high school). During my four years as a student at Luther we hosted concerts by Live, Guster, G. Love, Jurassic 5, Blues Traveler and a couple singer-songwriters who at the time I had hardly even heard of; named Ben Harper and Jack Johnson.

College is also the time in my life when I discovered Christian music (and it’s sibling genre “praise and worship” music). Being a person of faith who also likes a lot of mainstream music, I’ve always had a hard time finding music that connected with me on multiple, meaningful levels. During my early music-listening years I probably would have responded to questions about my favorite music by saying “I like what I like, because I like it.” Bring up the fact that a lot of the lyrics in rap music are vulgar, violent and speak poorly of females, I’d tell you “I don’t really listen to the words, I just like the beat.” Try telling me that the content of an acoustic or pop rock song is all air (fluffy and nice, but without any real substance) and I’d probably have said “but it makes me feel happy,” or “it’s good background music when I’m studying.” Ask me how I can listen to cheesy love songs about Jesus and I’d struggle to come up with a response but eventually say it’s “encouraging” even though it’s also corny and unrealistic. (Thankfully, music made my Christians has come a long way in the last ten years and we now have artists like David Crowder, Bethany Dillon, Shane & Shane and the Robbie Seay Band making music that speaks of God and faith while maintaining some sense of human reality and musical quality.)

The music I most enjoy today falls somewhere between genres or categories (by the way, “Christian music” is no more a genre than “80s music” is). I love music that’s difficult to describe, but can be felt (especially at concerts or through really good headphones). Really great music is a form of art, and when the lines between genre, style and even religion are blurred you can experience something that is truly real and beautiful. I love hearing Chris Tomlin and Phil Wickham sing specifically about God’s healing love and the hope they find in Jesus, but after a while I want to hear the vague words of Mat Kearney when he sings to a struggling young girl that “he hung in love just to draw you near” or even Kanye West when he honestly raps “I wanna talk to God but I’m afraid cause we ain’t spoke in so long.” (For an earlier example of this, listen to Jeff Buckley’s version of the Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah.”)

Music doesn’t need to include the name Jesus, or any of the other Christianese words to express faith and a longing (or searching) for God. I still remember the first time I heard Matt Wertz sing about life, love and faith in a style that spoke to the core of my music-loving soul, and it wasn’t long after that I discovered his buddy Dave Barnes and felt a similar response. More recently, I’ve discovered Brooke Fraser, Needtobreathe and MuteMath. They all make good music that is honest about life but also recognizes the role of God and the influence of faith. You can add your own favorites to this list, but these are just a few examples. I suppose two obvious bands that haven’t been mentioned yet are U2 and Lifehouse, whose music is laced with God and faith, whose music has inspired worldwide organizations, been used in worship, and even a youtube famed dramatic skit and other/lesser-viewed projects.

There are many artists or bands whose music doesn’t include consistent theological themes or undertones, yet in select songs (or albums) it’s definitely present. Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” is an example of this, as is Coldplay’s Viva La Vida album (check it, yo!). But in the end, the reason I started writing any of this on a Thursday afternoon while sitting in my office is because I ran into a student on campus here at the seminary this morning and he asked if I was going to the Monsters of Folk concert in Minneapolis tomorrow. I mentioned that I hadn’t really listened to their album much, but that I’d check it out soon. “Soon” became reality when not even five minutes later I was back at my desk facing MOF’s myspace page, listening to the first track from their album, “Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.).” Wow! Talk about music in the grey area between sacred and secular, the church and the world, theology and life…this is it. Click play on the video below to listen to the song. I’ll post the lyrics below in case you want to follow along.

Dear God (sincerely M.O.F.)
by Monsters of Folk

Dear god, I’m trying hard to reach you
Dear god, I see your face in all I do
Sometimes it’s so hard to believe in
Good god I know you have your reasons

Dear god, I see you move the mountains
Dear god, I see you moving trees
Sometimes it’s nothing to believe in
Sometimes it’s everything I see

Well I’ve been thinking about,
And I’ve been breaking it down without an answer
I know I’m thinking aloud but if your love’s
Still around why do we suffer?
Why do we suffer?

Dear god, I wish that I could touch you
How strange sometimes I feel I almost do
And then I’m back behind the glass again
Oh god what keeps you out it keeps me in

Well I’ve been thinking about,
And I’ve been breaking it down without an answer
I know I’m thinking aloud but if your love’s
Still around why do we suffer?
Why do we suffer?

the jerusalem experiment

I had lunch with my friend Bryan today and we talked a lot about an experiment/adventure he’ll be embarking on this coming year. Bryan is a seminary student at Bethel and is about half-way through an MDiv program, so he’ll be a pastor when he’s done. As part of his studies, he’s decided to take an unpaid leave from his position as director of high school ministry at a church in Minneapolis so that he can live and learn in Jerusalem and the surrounding “holy lands” this winter and spring. He’ll take classes at Jerusalem University College to study the ancient culture, settings and languages of Christianity while also taking “field trips” to several of the key biblical locations outside of Jerusalem (places like Egypt, Galilee and Bethlehem). I’m guessing to some of you it might seem like he’s basically studying abroad for a semester — which I’m sure many of you did in undergrad — but this is where the “experiment” portion of what Bryan is doing in Jerusalem comes into play. While he’s in this holy places, he’ll not only be experiencing the stories of Scripture in new and powerful ways for himself personally, he’ll also be including/inviting all of us (the Church) to join him in his adventures and learning. In fact, the very reason Bryan is doing this is as much for the Church back home as for himself (a bit like a missionary, but opposite).

Not everyone can go to the Middle East for 4 1/2 months, but Bryan has come up with a multi-dimensional project that will allow others to travel there with him (virtually), learning along the way about the God who revealed himself to the world through a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth.

Through daily online journal entries at www.jerusalemexperiment.com (including pictures, video and discussion questions), a weekly podcast (weaving the stories and learnings of his travels into sermons) and culminating in a book titled A Land of Dust and Sun, Bryan will highlight several of the biblical sites he visits — writing about the geography, retelling the biblical narrative, sharing ways in why our lives can/have been shaped by those stories and inviting readers to find themselves within those stories and places — allowing us as his “fellow travelers” to discover intersections between our lives and the life of God’s story.

Bryan states as one of his deepest passions, “witnessing the Word of God come alive in the hearts of those who had formerly understood the ancient book as one that rarely (if ever) intersects our 21st century lives.” In light of that passoin, I believe the experiment he is taking on is incredibly relevant, and the resources that he will develop for the church as a result of this experiment will be invaluable. As you might assume, an undertaking like this requires plenty of support; spirirtually, emotionally and financially.

Here’s a few easy ways you can support this project:

  • Visit The Jerusalem Experiment website and watch the video Bryan made to explain more about the trip.
  • Add Bryan to your prayer chain at church or in your small group.
  • Tell some friends about what he’s doing (forward them the link to the website or to this entry to explain more).
  • Join The Jerusalem Experiment facebook group.
  • If you’re at all able, show your support by making a donation (big or small, it all helps) – there’s a link on his website to donate online using a credit card or through paypal. (Note: everyone who makes a donation will receive a free copy of Bryan’s book A Land of Dust and Sun, regardless of how much they give.)

goodbye to good friends

Boyz II Men was right when they jacked that Beatles song back in the 90s…it’s hard to say goodbye to yesterday. Yesterday, without even realizing it, I walked into an emotional trap. I was forced to say goodbye to some very good friends earlier than expected. There were several people involved, all of them real characters, but it was most difficult to say “see ya later” to a couple of guys who could always get me to laugh – even if I wasn’t having a very good day. That’s probably what made them such good friends, they knew how to cheer me up. Their names were John Dorian and Chris Turk, and for the last few years they’ve been my best TV friends.

Yesterday, as I sat on the couch to hang out with them, I assumed it was like any other week, but somewhere near the middle of that hour (44 minutes not counting commercials) I realized we were about to say goodbye, whether I liked it or not. And although I’ll miss Elliot, Carla, Ted, Todd, Bob, Perry, Janitor and the others – like Snoop Dogg intern/resident – it was Turk and J.D. who I was closest with, and they are the guys I will miss hanging out with the most on Thursday or Wednesday nights, depending on what year/channel I’m looking back on.  And sure, I realize I could hang out with them four times a night on several different channels (reruns), but that’s just not the same. It’s like looking at a photo album to revisit past memories compared to doing things that are photo-album worthy and making new memories. Remembering is never the same as experiencing something new.

So, although I’m not quite ready to say it…farewell friends, thanks for all the laughs (mostly in seasons 1-6).