We Need to Repent: A Reflection for the Beginning of Advent

If this article from the NY Times isn’t a call for us to repent of our consumerism and greed, I don’t know what is. The article reports that this morning (the morning after Thanksgiving) a Walmart employee died after being trampled by a stampede of shoppers who broke down the doors of the store just 5 minutes before it was supposed to officially open. Jdimypai Damour was one of a handful of employees trying to keep the doors shut until the store’s opening by pressing themselves against the door. They were eventually overcome by the large crowd of shoppers pushing on the other side. The doors snapped open, and people began falling onto one another. Mr. Damour was at the bottom of the pile. As he layed there, shoppers ignored him, stepping over and around him. Even as police arrived and tried to give him CPR, shoppers continued to ignore him and even pushed the police.

I’m tempted to rant about how shocked and appalled I am, and I could do that very honestly. More than anything though, I feel sober and humbled. This tragic act shows the ugliness of our culture’s (or perhaps our race’s?) greed and consumerism. Human beings are actually capable of being this greedy; so greedy that we’ll step around a dying man, even push the police officers trying to help him, so that we can get a good deal on an item from Walmart. On top of that, most of the items sold that morning were probably some product of injustice (unfair wages, not environmentally friendly, etc.).

I wonder what those shoppers who were there are thinking now? What about the parents who were there, ignoring this hurt man and rushing to buy toys for their children? What’s going to go through their minds on Christmas morning when their children open those presents and say to them, “Mommy! Daddy! Look what Santa brought me!”?

Sunday begins the season of Advent. It now has the reputation of being the time that begins the Christmas season. We think of it as the four weeks or so that we spend shopping for gifts and decorating houses. It’s also the time we start going to party after party, giving and receiving gifts, and eating more in one evening than some on this earth will ever see in their lifetimes. It grieves me that this is what Advent looks like for most people, including myself.

It’s time for Christians to put an end to the consumerism of Christmas, and a great way to start is to recover the original meaning of Advent. Advent was originally meant to be a penitential season (like Lent). It’s a season in which we reflect on this world’s need for Jesus to return and bring the Kingdom of God in it’s fullness, and a time for us to spend waiting and praying for that day to come. In the past (and in the present still for some Christians) Advent was a time of fasting and self-denial, not feasting and self-indulgence.

I’ve often heard it said by pastors to their congregants that we should take time to “pause” in the midst of the chaos Advent and Christmas bring and remember “the reason for the season.” I don’t think this is enough. We can’t just pause. Pausing won’t bring change. We need something more radical than pausing. We need to stop. We need to stop expecting to give and receive gifts that put us into debt and that we don’t need anyway. We need to stop consuming more than we need and start loving our neighbors. If we don’t our consumerism and greed will continue to reveal the worst in us, as it did this morning at Walmart.

Incarnating the Word, or Scheming for More Money?

A couple weeks ago, Chris wrote a post about a couple of unique Bible versions published. Following up on what he had to say, a couple of catalogues came to me in the mail last week, and I can’t believe some of the Bibles now being sold. Here are two of my (least) favorites.

41ls4xbf2bxl__ss500_First, we have “The Espresso Bible.” Who knew that espresso drinkers required their own Bible? Not me. Even moreover, espresso drinkers apparently can only handle “small sips” of the Bible, and not the whole thing. Here’s the description from Amazon:

This little book provides a condensed and accessible version of the “Bible” for those who want it quick, simple and concentrated. Experienced author, broadcaster and “Bible” commentator David Winter presents readers with the ‘essential’ passages of the “Bible”, linking them with bits of introductory and explanatory text. This enables readers to go through the “Bible” in shortened form, while giving an understanding of the Bible’s story and the way it all fits together. This is an excellent book for anyone wanting to read the “Bible” without wading through every word. Unlike the recent “100 Minute Bible”, it uses actual “Bible” text (from the CEV translation) rather than summaries of passages.

So, The Espresso Bible apparently takes out the “non-essential” parts of Scripture. I wonder if the editors considered Revelation 22:19 an “essential verse.” (“… and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”)

519zr84m66l__ss500_1Second, we have “The Duct Tape Bible.” The description on Amazon begins, “Experience the latest rage.”

Where to begin….

First, I have a number of friends who have wrapped their Bible covers in duct tape, for the good reason of keeping their Bible’s in tact. But, I’d hardly consider this practice a “rage.” In fact, I’m pretty certain that about 100% of my friends who have done this did so to make their Bible last longer, and the thought of trend setting was probably not even on their radar.

Second, who on the planet will actually pay to have their Bible come prewrapped in duct tape??? Isn’t half the fun of this “rage” doing it yourself?

Third, (and this applies just as much to the “Espresso Bible,” what is the point of packaging the Bible with these kinds of marketing labels? I can see some value in putting target-specific covers on Bibles to make them more attractive and subsequently read by the owners. (i.e. The “Peacemakers’ Bible” designed for police officers.) But what is the target audience of the Duct Tape Bible? If the Amazon description is any indication, it’s targeted for those who are familiar with the “rage” of wrapping Bible’s in Duct Tape. And these people are individuals who are almost certainly Christians who already own a Bible. The Duct Tape Bible is nothing more than a marketing scheme.

Lord have mercy.

Maintenance or Innovation?

Last week, I was in Estes Park, CO for a national gathering of the Company of New Pastors. I spent the week with recent graduates from all of the PC(USA)’s seminaries who were selected for this program because of the particular promise that they showed for ministry. There were some good things about this week, but there were also some things that I’ve observed that leave me worried about the future of our denomination. Here are a few:

1.) We gathered for prayer three times a day. The first session was Tuesday evening. Chris and I were running late, and as we were walking down the hall to the meeting room, we heard the sound of voices singing “In the Secret.” We were both pleasantly surprised to hear passionate singing, no less singing of a song written this century. We then neared the meeting room, opened the door, and discovered a room full of young pastors sitting around and waiting for things to begin. The singing was coming from another room. Instead, our worship, (admittedly with some noble exceptions) slavishly followed the Book of Common Worship’s daily prayer rubrics. This made for worship that was theologically sound, but missiologically ineffective if ever attempted for use with laity (and even some clergy) under the age of 40 (and even some over 40).

2.) The retreat also included a panel discussion in which we could learn from several experienced mentor pastors, all of whom were very qualified for the task, and had good things to share. Since we’re all entering a ministry context in which the denomination we’re serving in is declining in numbers, young people are seemingly uninterested in the gospel (or at least they way in which it’s traditionally been presented), and we had a panel of entirely white pastors and the Company of New Pastors class was probably about 90% white (maybe even higher) despite the fact that ethnic minorities are all growing, you’d think there would be some significant discussion about missiological, evangelistic, and cross-cultural aspects of ministry. Nope. Most of the discussion centered on administrative issues of ministry; interacting with sessions and personnel committees, handling vacation and continuing education time, and so forth.

3.) There was also a time for people to meet in small groups based on ministry situations. (Solo pastor; associate pastor; still seeking a call; women in ministry). Given the context I described above in 2., and the fact that this was a gathering of the seminary graduates showing great promise, there would be a significant number of people going into new church development or the mission field. Once again, this wasn’t the case. Apart from Chris and I and those still seeking or not-yet-seeking a call, everyone else was in a traditional pastorate.

What bothers me about all of this is that our denomination is declining, even failing, and we desperately need new ministries and new structures if the ministry of the PC(USA) is going to continue. Instead, much of this retreat encouraged the maintenance of the present institution. The Company of New Pastors is an opportunity to challenge some of the PC(USA)’s best new leadership to taken on challenging and innovative ministries that can renew and revitalize our denomination. If only that challenge would be given…

Incarnational Ministry as Submissive Defiance

This evening at Upper Room, I’m preaching a sermon on Luke 2:41-52, the story of the boy Jesus in the temple. What struck me most about this text is how the incarnate Jesus interacts with his surrounding culture of religious institution and his family.

Firstly, Jesus is in some ways defiant to the culture. Jesus in the temple does not act like your typical 12 year old boy. Most 12 year olds don’t impress religious experts. He defies the expectations of the religious institution and remains in the temple even after the Passover feast has ended and everyone else goes home. He defies his parents and does not leave with them so that he can be “about his Father’s matters.”

Yet, Jesus is also submissive. When his parents find him, he submits to them and his role as their child. It seems to me that the text implies that Jesus was in some way punished by his parents for remaining behind. In other words, even though he was defiant, Jesus accepted the consequences of that defiance.

This is the pattern the church takes in Acts. Consider the example of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin in Acts 4. Peter and John’s testimony before them is this: “You must judge whether in God’s sight it is right to listen to you rather than God, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” In other words, Peter and John won’t stop preaching the gospel, regardless of how unpopular the message is. Yet, they also submit themselves to the consequences of that defiance as their culture dictates. They leave the judgment to the Sanhedrin.

I think one of the problems of post-Christendom churches is that they have forgotten this pattern of “submissive defiance.” As the Church loses it’s place in the center of culture, some churches have refused to be submissive to the culture, and attempt to assert their “rights” or whatever cultural influence they have left. Consider my previous post on the Focus on the Family Action statement regarding Obama’s election as an example. To what extent are such statements, largely coming from the right wing side of the church, nothing more than failed attempts to assert a power and influence the now-marginalized church does not have?

On the other side of the coin, there are churches that have lost their sense of cultural defiance. These churches have become so used to being at the center of the culture that they are willing, it seems, to go wherever the culture goes to remain in their place of privilege. Consider churches that have given in to “every wind of false doctrine” with regard to biblical standards of sexuality, or the uniqueness of Jesus Christ’s Lordship.

For the church to be faithful in the 21st century, it needs to recover this sense of “submissive defiance” that we find in Jesus’ incarnation and in the pattern of the Acts church. It means being relentless in the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the holiness of God, even when that message is an unpopular one. It also means submitting to the surrounding culture’s reaction to that message, even when that means being pushed to the margins of the society.