April 28, 2017

Preparing for the New Church Year (2)

wonter-mucha

Last Sunday I gave five primary reasons why I think it advantageous for Christians to form their spiritual lives — their walk with God through Christ — around the liturgical year.

  1. It enables us to live in God’s story.
  2. It keeps the main thing the main thing.
  3. It recognizes that one’s calendar forms one’s life.
  4. It links personal spirituality with worship, family, and community.
  5. It provides a basis of unity and common experience for Christians everywhere.

Today, let’s talk about the first point; what it means to be people who are…

Living in God’s Story

Spiritual theology, using Scripture as text, does not so much present us with a moral code and tell us, “Live up to this,” nor does it set out a system of doctrine and say, “Think like this.” The biblical way is to tell a story and invite us, “Live into this – this is what it looks like to be human in this God-made and God-ruled world; this is what is involved in becoming and maturing as a human being.” We don’t have to fit into prefabricated moral and mental or religious boxes before we are admitted into the company of God. We are taken seriously just as we are and given place in his story – for it is, after all, God’s story. None of us is the leading character in the story of our lives. God is the larger context and plot in which all our stories find themselves.

• Eugene Peterson

b0704066-7ea5-423a-9fa5-5f84ed31ee14-1020x1020God created humans, so the old Jewish saying goes, because he loved stories so much. What we have in the Bible is His Story; as Peterson calls it, God’s “immense, sprawling, capacious narrative.”

  • How did God make the world into a place fit for humankind? People may want to analyze and come up with scientific models, but God tells stories.
  • Why is the world in the shape it’s in, filled with selfishness, conflict, and trouble? Social scientists study data and develop social theory and then policy. God tells us stories about people — people who hide from God in shame, people who refuse to accept that they are their brothers’ keepers, individuals, families, and nations that live for money, sex, and power.
  • Do you want to know how God works to turn the world around? Look at this gaggle of slaves, set free from the world’s powers, and how God shapes them through a journey home. Stories. About people. About life. Stories that, together, become the Story.

Oh sure, there are sayings too. Commandments. Instructions. Warnings. Promises. Reassurances. Propositional truth is spoken, sages impart wisdom, prophets spout diatribes, psalmists chant inspired lyrics, apostles write Gospels and epistles, but these words are spoken always and ever in the context of what God is doing on the ground, in the lives of people, as the Story plays out.

When the Promised One came in the Story’s decisive act, he too told stories. What is God like? Let me tell you about this father who had two sons. What is his Kingdom like? The kingdom of God is like a farmer, who went out to sow seeds in his field…. What will it be like when the Kingdom comes in fullness? Well, let’s hear a story about a great banquet. His own life, in fact, becomes the greatest story ever told — an unforgettable narrative played out in familiar locales: Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Galilee, Golgotha, the Garden.

And when Jesus disappears from human sight, exalted to heaven, the Story goes on. From Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and even to the uttermost parts of the earth.

The simplest answer to the question, “What does it mean to live a Christian life?” is: It means to take our place in God’s Story.

Just like the people of Israel in every generation are taught to view themselves as those who have Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as their ancestors, as those who, along with their forbears have been redeemed from slavery in Egypt, who are cared for by God in the wilderness, made a holy nation at Sinai, and led into the Promised Land, so Christians see themselves as the new Israel, the people of God formed by the Story of Israel’s Messiah. Called by Jesus to follow him, we walk with him among the poor and needy, we scratch our heads and try to figure out his teaching, we receive fish and bread from his hands and distribute it to the hungry, we turn to him when our boat is overwhelmed by the storm, in awe we see him transfigured in glory on the Mount, when he stoops to wash our feet we blush in shame, we sense impending doom in Gethsemane, we weep helplessly and feel all hope leave our hearts as he breathes his last on the Cross, our mouths drop open in bewilderment when he appears alive and transformed among us.

This is our Family Story, our heritage. It is who we are. We are Christ-ians. In each generation, we tell our children the family name and what it’s all about. We recall the stories. We celebrate the family holidays and mark the special occasions. We practice the family rituals. In baptism we relive every Biblical story about how God brought his people safely through the waters, from life to death, from chaos to new creation. At the Lord’s Table, we give thanks for God’s provision and receive sustenance as we feast together in love and fellowship. When we marry, we speak of Cana, remember water turned to wine, and share the joy. At the grave, our grief is tempered by hope of resurrection and new creation — concepts made real by the fact that it happened before — in our family! It is our Story!

Monreale_god_resting_after_creationFollowing the Church Year is how we do it. The seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost form our family traditions.

  • In Advent, we take our place in the Story alongside the people of the First Covenant, who longed for God to rend the heavens and come down that this groaning world might give birth to a new creation.
  • In Christmas, we celebrate the Incarnation of the Promised One, who joined us in our poverty that we might have our Father’s eternal riches.
  • In Epiphany, we follow and watch as Jesus is baptized and set apart for ministry. We walk with him through the villages and towns of Palestine, amazed at each word and act which shows the compassion and glory of God.
  • In Lent, we learn that following him means taking up our own cross. He bids us come and die with him. We know this death has arisen from our willfulness; we recognize our failures, weakness, our sins, and utter hopelessness apart from him. Without Jesus, our story is “ashes to ashes.”
  • In Holy Week, we join him in the streets, in the Temple, in the upper room, in Gethsemane. We stand at a distance in stunned disbelief as Roman soldiers nail him to the Cross. Overwhelmed by the shock of grief, we return home in silence.
  • On Easter Sunday, and for fifty days following, it is suddenly and unexpectedly springtime. Light breaks through — Jesus is alive! God raised him from the dead. We see him, we hear him, we touch him — we try to take it in. He ascends to his Father, and bids us wait for the next part of the Story to begin.
  • On Pentecost, it does. Fire falls from heaven! Good News is proclaimed to all people, in their own languages! Jerusalem is shaken. The Church is born. No matter who you are, or what you’ve done, you can join the family. Come, take your place in the Story! It’s all about Jesus! For everyone, everywhere.

Practicing the Church Year is how we live in the Story.

The concept should not be unusual to us. Our families, communities, and nations celebrate special days and seasons annually. We follow a pattern of life that forms our identity. These commemorations reinforce who we are, what we believe, how we live, and what our values are.

Just so, in God’s family, the cycle of the Church Year has been developed so that we might live in the story of the God who created us, redeemed us, and is making us new in Christ forever.

Comments

  1. Christiane says:

    just a thought . . .
    if a Church celebrates one of the liturgies that follow the Church Year, won’t it bring a very large portion of sacred Scripture into the public work of the people (this translates as ‘being read aloud during the service’) ?

    in other words, doesn’t journeying with The Story revealed in the Church Year liturgical celebration
    also orally tell The Story in community over the course of the year ? It may be also that the Church Year WAS the way the Church used the arts to help people who were illiterate during those times before education became more prevalent and the printing press brought an opportunity to publish sacred Scriptures and distribute those copies extensively ?

    Over the millenia, the use of the arts by the Church is a whole discussion in itself, as the various arts brought light to the celebrated feast days along the journey of the Church Year.

    • I was pondering this last week when I went to our contemporary service. 1. all the music was in a minor key and 2. there was not the passing on of tradition with songs sung at All Saints – in fact you had no way beside the announcement minute to know it was All Saints. (I view All Saints in an Episcopal church as a “gateway drug” to evangelicals coming into the liturgical church. We can agree that we are all saints of God as the song says and then talk about the great cloud of witnesses that have come before.)

      The music of Bach and other church based musicians following a liturgical tradition allow for exuberance in celebration and deep sadness when seasons call for contemplation and mourning. I found the organ experience in the “traditional” sung Rite 1 to be far more indicative of the day than the “contemporary” low church Rite 2.

  2. “God created humans, so the old Jewish saying goes, because he loved stories so much. What we have in the Bible is His Story; as Peterson calls it, God’s ‘immense, sprawling, capacious narrative.'”

    Can I just say how much I love this?

    One thing that has awed, haunted, and comforted me the past few years is the thought that most of the Biblical record is a series of stories, in which any particular character, writer, or generation only has a limited perspective on what might be going on, one bound to some degree by time and place. Even the really great patriarchs and writers have no crystal clear picture at what is coming next in Israel’s story, much less surprises of the gospels. Nonetheless, God is there across all the separate stories, and presumably present as well in the long spaces between and outside them the Biblical narratives. What individuals and generations experience is vital and real. Thus individual stories both have their own integrity *and* are caught up inside the bigger Story.

    As this post so beautifully puts it, just as Israel was to keep repeating its stories, the church does too. Everything in ordinary life tucks inside the larger narrative and is given significance by it, without being erased by it, so that the Story is played out simultaneously in the past and present; then and now are replete with escatological hope.

    In the face of the overwhelming diversity within human experience, and seeming impossibility of ever knowing Everything, and the sheer brutality of history, and the unbelievable smallness of individual lives, and presence of our inevitable individual and collective flaws, the really striking thing is that this story-based picture of the divine-human drama seems to acknowledge and dignify these confounding details. Despair turns into something more like waiting. The specifities of experience, time, and place become vehicles through which God is known, rather than mere barriers to insight. All that can be said before one even approaches the topic of incarnation, or the ability of ordinary things to become sacraments.

    Neither liturgy nor the church year are the only vehicles for conveying this meaning. However, it helps to have vehicles that encourage us to recite and re-enact our narratives. For me at least, it helps me to get inside them – not just plumb the tales for data points I can use to establish some principle for which I want to argue. There’s something about having to plod through Advent to reach Christmas that makes the universal and specific experiences of ‘advent’ palpable. It helps to actually be stuck there for a while, before being allowed to turn the corner.

  3. Steve Newell says:

    I was raised in the SBC where there was not concept of a formal literary, lectionary, or church year. These where “Roman Catholic” things. Now that I am part of the LCMS, I have come to value these things, along with the Creeds, that tie us together and tie us to the past.

    One observation is that many churches follow the civic calendar. They will observe Christmas (only if it fulls on a Sunday) and Easter, and maybe Palm Sunday. But they have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day; Independence Day; Memorial Day; etc. They don’t observe the great days such as our Lord’s baptism, his transformation, his accession.

    • Yes, Steve. And following the civic calendar forms us as good Americans, which so many confuse with being Christian.

    • The more I think about it, the more liturgical I realize my childhood Restorationist church was (and am the better for it). Weekly Communion, doxology after offering, and we observed the four weeks of Advent, Christmas, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter. Plus days on the civil calendar sometimes!

  4. Thank You for this mornings poem. Another weekend working… Oh well the hour and half ride will be filled with choruses of hallelujah from the Messiah. No time to proof it.

    Living between the lines

    Ever flows the sands of time
    The hour glasses turning over
    So many places fill my mind
    A love song with grand composer

    First of touch and smells I’ve known
    To all the little things I’ve watched
    In all the way the toddler’s grown
    Never counting love as cost

    Turbulence in hormones raging
    Where time it just stood still
    Inside where a war was waging
    As I climb to king of the hill

    Only the hill became a garbage dump
    With so much clutter on the way
    The well became a sewer sump
    Bringing me to where I am today

    In the smells of garbage burning
    There was a light upon a hill
    Love has caught this head in turning
    In that heart He’s with me still

    Now the tide is coming in and out
    Like the rise and falls of my chest
    I learn to what this love’s about
    Without a doubt I receive the best

    Inside of time I have a story
    Yet endless is this loving tale
    Living inside love’s gracious story
    Everything else has gone to pale

  5. David Cornwell says:

    Thanks for this thought provoking post. So often we get bogged down in the fine points of propositional theology, disputing the other persons’ understanding when we cannot even agree on definitions of theological terms. Added to that we have the baggage of translating language that comes to us from a context that may be centuries old, which we totally fail to understand in our own day.

    But we are being invited into God’s story which pulls us out of our negativity, defensiveness, and sin. it’s the same Story the early Church HEARD week after week before the advent of a printed Bible or the ease of large screens and soft cushions.

  6. Really thought provoking post, thanks.

    “The simplest answer to the question, “What does it mean to live a Christian life?” is: It means to take our place in God’s Story.”

    I really like this quote, but it also leads me to take it a step further and ask, where is this Story going and how does this divine Story make sense of the story of the entirety of human existence in all times and places? I know that there are people from a wide variety of theological traditions on this forum who might have different answers to the question of the who, what, where, why, and how of this Story. As far of the “who”, there are various ideas as to who is “in” and who is “out” and why. Where is it going for individuals?

    For Reformed types, the answer might be that God wanted some people to be part of the Story, but never really wanted other people to be part of the story (at least not in a positive way, perhaps their role is to be the villain). God wanted all KINDS of people to join the story, but not all people. Arminians/Evangelicals might say, God desperately wants all people to take their place in his Story, he just can’t really make it happen. These are probably simplified answers, but I don’t think that they’re caricatures, and I don’t find either of them satisfying. Both of these seem tragic.

    How would you answer this? I’d love to have a few of you jump in and comment.

    • My admittedly over-simplistic answer is…

      To me, God is clearly some mysterious mix of all the theologies and denominations that have tried to capture His truth and put it in some sort of box. I brislte at the Calvinistic box, but I have to admit that Calvinistic aspects are in the Bible, so clearly God has some “Calvinistic tendencies.” That said, He also has the tendencies of other denominations, like the Arminian/Wesleyan box of truth.

      So the bottom line for me is: we all have some of it right, but we also have lots of it wrong. All of man’s efforts to put God in a box will ulitmately fail, for He can’t be put in a box. We simply can’t capture the full expanse and majesty of His essence and put them in human terms. And looking at your example, He’s apparently a God who wants ONLY SOME to be a part of His story and picks and chooses AND He’s also desperate for ALL people to be a part of His story and would like for them to come to know Him of their own. If you can figure out what that means, Bravo!

      My other bottom line is this: Jesus Christ is our Lord and Sovereign. All that other stuff I try to figure out about God doesn’t matter, because I know I’ll never get it totally right.

      • OldProphet says:

        Rick; you say that your post is over simplistic. I think its possibly the most profound post I’ve ever read on imonk!

      • Christiane says:

        Hi RICK,
        “So the bottom line for me is: we all have some of it right and we have lots of it wrong. . . ”

        this reminds me of a Jewish story about ‘Tikkun Olam’ and broken shards of light . . . about our individual and collective duty to ‘repair the world’ . . . a strange story, yes, but there is something of truth in it and your comment seemed to make more sense to me because of that story.

      • I think you’re aim is true, Rick. I’m never going to get all the theology totally right, and I don’t have confidence in the ability of other human beings to get it totally right, either. Add to this the fact that there is evidently a great amount of paradox involved in the grace that God has given us in Jesus Christ, and you end up with different approaches that seem theologically contradictory, but may in fact be no more so than Jesus saying first, “He who is not with me is against me,” and then again, “He who is not against me is with me.” Maybe our ability to grasp the total picture, and the sense of security we think we would get from having such a grasp, are not high on God’s list of priorities, though we think that they should be.

    • David Cornwell says:

      Reading this my first reaction is to ask the question: Is it possible to read the Story and to admit ourselves into into it while leaving the context of our theological/denominational backgrounds out of it entirely? Probably not. We are all colored and shaped by where we find ourselves.

  7. Can you please share the title of the book where that Peterson quote may be found? I would like to read more.

  8. Chaplain Mike,
    As one who only dabbles in the “church cycle,” this is really good. I’ve more recently thought that piece (the Church Calendar) was missing from my spiritual growth, and what you say here helps me see why that might be. Thanks for taking the time to write this!

  9. I’ve spent most of my adult life in churches that observed the liturgical calendar, more or less strictly (I’m afraid that Advent is a constantly narrowing season, getting thinner all the time). Though I may wish I could say that I have felt myself swept up into, and spiritually formed, by the Jesus-shaped contours of the Church calendar and the story it follows, I’m afraid I can’t. My relationship to the liturgical calendar and its story is loose and ambivalent, at best, and hasn’t really shaped my day to day experience and life, which has been far more determined and informed by pervasive non-religious social influences. To a great degree, I remain an outsider looking in on the world outlined by the Church year; in this, I am like many alienated modern people, both inside and outside the Church.

  10. Chaplain Mike,

    Thank you for including the wonderful photo of the Orthodox church dome and the pantocrator. Do you have any idea what church this is?

  11. Hello, I’m wondering if you could provide a reference for the Peterson quote? many thanks. 🙂

    • Mark, it is in the introduction to 1-2 Samuel in the The Message, also in his book The Invitation, which is a book that combines those book introductions into one volume.