Invisible Things

The gravestone of Immanuel Kant reads, “Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.”

Today I visited the Getty Villa, a museum in Pacific Palisades.  On display was the Cyrus Cylinder, a 2500 year old clay cylinder Cylindercovered in cuneiform writing.  An edict of King Cyrus, it prescribes freedom of worship and the release of slaves from the conquered Babylon.  This was the king who set the Jews free from slavery to go and rebuild Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1-4).  The cylinder is a statement from the ancient world that we have a deep intuition that life and liberty are inherently valuable.

Later, my family and I stopped by the Santa Monica beach and watched the sunset.  I turned to my son and said, “Which is older, the Cyrus Cylinder or the ocean?” He said, “The ocean.”  Then he paused hesitantly and added, “Is that right?” And for a six year old, it is right.  But for a Sunsettheologian, the answer is, “It was a tie.” The beauty of moral values deeply impressed on the human heart and the beauty of a well-painted sunset sprang from one and the same mind before the world began.  I am constantly aware of a compelling morality that makes me conscientious and an awe-inspiring beauty that leaves me breathless.  Both make me look  from the shore, across the waters, at something that seems too far away to see, yet something that I can’t stop looking for.

Fire and Water

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You’ll hear a couple of phrases floating around ECO circles. One is that you care about what you measure. If we are paying attention to something enough to document how it’s going, we probably care pretty deeply about where it ends up. Secondly, you’ll hear us say that our goal is to baptize more than we bury. I was at an ECO conference where a friend of mine said that from the stage, and one of my staff turned to me and whispered, “Does that mean we should just outsource the funerals?” While my staff is as creative as they are clever, I’m not sure that was the point.

Read the rest here.

Ritual and Wonder

The fifth and sixth things I’m teaching my kids for Christmas this year go together.  The fifth is something that’s only appealing to grandparents.  The sixth will make sense to grandchildren.

I remember visiting a Greek Orthodox church for a wedding.  The service was two hours long.  We stood for most of it.  The couple processed in and circled the room three times, signifying the Trinity.  The priest came in carrying the Bible over his head, representing its authority over us.  The couple wore crowns made of flowers, symbolizing the return to the innocence of Eden, as I recall.  Everything was bound by timeless and meaning-rich rituals.  Everything had purpose.

This Christmas, we set up a tree; we pull out an ornament dated for each year your mother and I have been married, some of which have younger pictures of you; we have dinner with the family; we attend Christmas eve services at church; we tell stories of a mysterious saint who leaves presents.  All of this can be written off as frivolity, but in fact, it’s something very different.  Ritual enshrines the value of family in memory and in culture.  Ritual has deep meaning.  Ritual is the museum in which great truths are kept on display.

Conversely, ritual can become the yellowed notes behind which a tenured professor hides.  Ritual can be the keeping of traditions that no longer engage the cultural imagination, like a stained glass window outside of which a new brick wall has been built.  Ritual has cobwebs.  It only gains life when its outward expression is no longer separated from its original emotional content.  It only has content when someone is there to translate the meaning of the symbols.  It only serves its purpose when it can be seen through the eyes of a child.

So remember these two great truths: ritual is deeply meaningful, and wonder is better than ritual.

Out of Print

ImageThe irony of Newsweek going out of print is that you would think a news agency would see it coming.  With the realities of a 1991 sales peak, declining revenue, and all cultural signs pointing towards the digital media replacing print, you’d think that…I don’t know…someone who was used to reporting on current trends would catch on.  I guess no one got assigned to that story.  Instead, the editor is tearfully promising layoffs and the staff are nervously giving anonymous interviews.

In churchland, we’re doing the same thing.  The realities are plain to the naked eye: declining attendance for 45 years in Protestant denominations, worship styles that no longer appeal to the modern ear, theological conversations that address questions no one is asking, congregations from which young adults have evacuated.  So what kind of reporter do we have to assign to this to get us to see it?

I wonder if the staff of Newsweek didn’t sit contentedly at the breakfast table flipping through paper journals while their kids sat at the same table tapping screens with their thumbs.  Kind of like heading off to church and failing to notice that you left the kids at home, which is in fact what is statistically happening to church attendance in America.

So I have a four steps that might help Christians attend to present realities rather than waiting for it all to come crashing down.  This is how to be your own reporter at church.

1.  If you haven’t invited anyone to church in a year, stop going to church.  Jesus put you in the world on a mission, and you’re not doing it.  You’ve become a consumer of religious goods and services.  If you miss church enough, it might actually motivate you to do what he’s told you to do.

2.  When you come back, walk to church very, very slowly.  Starting from the time you can see the church down the street, take time to note everything you see, hear, and feel.  Think about what those sights, sounds and feelings would do to someone who was nervously coming to church for the first time.  If you have the sense that it would be like waking up on an episode of Survivor, it might be time to rebuild your entrance way with better hospitality, clearer signs, and intentional welcome.

3.  Take note of everything in your church that is counter-cultural, and then decide why it’s counter-cultural.  If it’s counter-cultural because the gospel is counter-cultural, keep it.  If it’s counter-cultural because fifty years ago the culture changed and you didn’t, pitch it.

4.  Stop making excuses.

The bottom line is the value of one lost sheep over and against ninety-nine safe ones.  Of course, this is not the path of least resistance.  This one involves change, misunderstanding, and rejection.  But then it’s better than having to tearfully explain failure to your people for something that you could have seen coming.