Escaping Christmas craziness

ImageIf you’re like me you have a love-hate relationship with the American “holiday season,” perhaps skewed slightly more to hate than love. On the one hand, it’s so much fun to see our kids get excited about wearing their new Christmas pajamas–snuggly little bundles of holiday-themed energy. On the other hand, there’s the traffic and decisions about budgets and gifts. I often experience a strange melancholy in realizing that some of the things I most want–more time, a sunny vacation with Anna, a PhD–aren’t going to be under the tree on December 25. Sometimes the holidays seem like a straightjacket more than a celebration–a period of crazy added to an already full life. 

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us;

and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins,

let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,

be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

Prayer for the Third Week of Advent, Book of Common Prayer

There is a growing body of literature demonstrating that human beings are innately inclined to benefit from ritual and habit. In a sense, contemporary research is demonstrating a long-forgotten theological truth that freedom is not the ability to choose between alternatives without coercion, but the ability to choose the good. We learn to choose the good by practice.

That’s why the church calendar is a pre-modern resource that can help combat what I call Christmas craziness. You may be new to the practice or it may be something you’ve experienced your whole life. I find that those who are new often benefit from a guide that can orient them to the church year. Those who’ve always practiced it often benefit from this sort of guide too. Liturgical practices may become so comfortable that they lose their theological moorings and become disconnected to their purpose.

A new book offers help to both types of Christian. Let Us Keep the Feast provides an overview of the theological meaning of the seasons of the Christian Year and guidance in how to observe it.

For each season of the year the book provides:

  • An introduction to the season
  • The calendar days the season occupies
  • Traditions–old and new–that are associated with the season
  • Explanations of how the season is observed around the globe
  • Ways you can observe the season in your home and in your community
  • Resources you can use.

The publishers website makes the following observation:

Our days and our weeks are part of God’s created order; the sun setting and rising, the regular shift from work to rest: all of these form a rhythm for our lives, a rhythm that the church has historically observed through a set calendar of feasts and fasts.

Maybe you’ve used an Advent calendar to count down the days till Christmas. Or you might have recently tried giving up something for Lent. These practices are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the riches of the Christian church year.

Why do we celebrate seasons in the church? How can we do it well? And what does it mean for you?

Thousands of Christians wrestle with these questions, and others like them, every year — even every season. In this series of books, these questions are answered!

The first installment focuses on Advent and Christmastide. I encourage you to pick up a copy and choose a new tradition to incorporate into your family life this advent and Christmas.

The publisher agreed to send one of my readers of free copy of the Advent and Christmas volume. If you’d like to get a copy please complete the form below. I will choose randomly someone to receive the book.

Are there really two marriages? (Part Two)

In his brief anthology of blog posts entitled, There are Two Marriages: A Manifesto on Marriage (2011), Tony Jones argues that the church ought to seek the strict separation of what he calls “legal marriage” and “sacramental marriage.” A result of this change would be the removal of much of the church’s resistance to same sex marriage.

Yesterday I rehearsed Jones’s historical and theological objections to the connivance of state and in marriage. I will argue today that Jones fails to recognize that marriage is, for the Christian, necessarily the union of religious belief with the physical world:


….Marriage matters because we are embodied and what we do with our body matters.

The church has affirmed over the centuries—almost with no exception—that marriage exists not only for the mutual aid and comfort of husband and wife, but also for the procreation of children.

“The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.”[1]

We’d likely all agree that a marriage may be legitimate without children being born to the couple—having children does not a marriage make. However, it is a relatively recent innovation to believe that childbearing and marriage are totally unrelated.

Jones seeks to trace the changing nature of matrimony as grounds for a continued development of marriage to include same-sex couples. For example, in the ancient world marriage was simply the exchange of property with the consequent production of progeny.

Today marriage has become simply, “formalizing and cementing a romantic attraction.” It is emphatically not about having children. If it were, we would not allow “celibate, infertile, post-menopausal, non-producing” people to be legally married.

The reference is to restrictions on marriage, principally state laws that forbid consanguinity but that fail to forbid marriage between people unable to conceive. To derive a mandate for the church simply by the absence of state law on the matter is not a terribly good way to do affirmative theology.

As a pastor, were a couple to ask me to marry them and state up front that they would not be sexually intimate with one another nor would they even consider attempting to conceive, I would likely not marry them. Marriage is intrinsically linked with both sexual intimacy and with procreation. That some are unable to conceive doesn’t invalidate the rule, rather it’s the exception that proves it.

In all, Jones fails to build a compelling case for changing the nature and definition of marriage either in the state or in the church. He assumes that since people will always be gay—which is true—we should incentivize gay monogamy in the context of marriage. On the surface this may appear sound. However, Jones’s contention fails to consider that in the Christian view it is not simply that homosexual polyamory is wrong, but that all homosexual practice is not only inconsistent with Christian holiness, and is detrimental to human wholeness. To change marriage means more than “live and let live,” it necessarily encourages destructive behavior and, moreover, will inevitably lead to restrictions on religious groups that fail to recognize the appropriateness of same sex marriage.

[1] Book of Common Prayer

Are we a church separated by a common language?

Disclaimer: This post is designed to be neither polemical nor apologetic. I’m attempting to describe what I am observing in the midst of the current unrest in the PC(USA). While it is a generalization, I think there a significant degree of accuracy in this observation. -JBG

An American walked into an Oxford pub and addressed the bartender, “I’d like a beer and some chips.” The response puzzled him, “It’ll be five minutes on the chips, they’re in the fryer.” Looking behind the bar, the man noticed row after row of different types of chips–regular, salt and vinegar, barbecue–lined up ready to go. It’s been observed that the United States and Great Britain are two nations divided by a common language. In Britain, chips are crisps and the word chips refers what we might call fries.


The Presbyterian Church (USA) is a denomination separated by a common language. It’s not our only challenge, but certainly ranks among the top five.

This reality often escapes the casual observer who reads our Book of Confessions and Book of Order. When any of us reads, we pour into the words before our eyes a meaning we associate with those words based on our education, experience, and convictions. In other words, we engage in interpreting those words–that is, we translate. This is why lawyers (and philosophers) are so precise with words. At least one job of a good lawyer is to ensure that her client clearly understands what, in reality, he is agreeing to. There is, of course, often a difference between what we think we’re agreeing to and what the other person thinks we are agreeing to. The difference often lies in the interpretive act.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), we share a common theological language. That language, however, is filled with varying and often competing interpretations. We all say “chips,” but some of us are thinking french fries and others Baked Lays. Same words. Different meanings.

One example of this is the theological phrase, “the Lordship of Jesus Christ.” Every part of the church, perhaps with the exception of those who object to the term “lord” in the first place, affirm that Jesus is Lord. Technically, it is inaccurate to say that the denomination rejects the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The reality is that there is a diversity of meaning in this phrase.

What does this phrase mean? Are we talking chips or fries?

When evangelicals (broadly) say the “Jesus is Lord,” they typically understand this phrase to refer to a constellation of affirmations.

These include, but aren’t necessarily limited to,the following:

  • Jesus is the only way by which we may be reconciled to God;
  • this reconciliation is accompanied by a conscious recognition of it if not a conscious decision to repent of sin and believe the gospel;
  • as Lord, Jesus lays claim to every element of the believer’s life;
  • this claim requires the study of and submission to the teaching of Scripture;
  • the teaching of Scripture is best captured by referring to those interpretations whose currency comes in the form of longevity rather than novelty.

Typically, evangelicals will focus more closely on personal piety or personal righteousness and less on what might be called social righteousness. This is the residue of revivalism in the creation of modern evangelicalism.

Again, broadly, those who are not evangelical will mean something different with the phrase:

  • Jesus is the only (some would not agree to this) way to be reconciled to God;
  • this reconciliation may or may not be accompanied by an awareness of it;
  • as Lord, Jesus lays claim to every element of the believer’s life;
  • this claim requires the study of and submission to the teaching of Scripture;
  • the teaching of Scripture is best captured by referring to those interpretations that consider the insights of modern critical scholarship and recognize the significance of the interpreter in assessing the meaning of a text.
  • Older interpretations are more likely to be affected by social realities that no longer exist and which may (although not necessarily should) be rejected.

Those outside of the evangelical camp will tend to emphasize the corporate or social nature of righteousness and see in Scripture that a key component of the nature of the church is it’s commission to stand for God’s justice in the world.

See the tension?

I’ve written elsewhere about how tensions have to be managed rather than resolved. This tension in the PC(USA) will not go away nor will it dissipate. In the end, every minister and church has to decide to what extent are they willing and able to manage the tension. Those who are both unable and unwilling ought to be free to appropriately depart. Those who believe they can remain should do so.


Milbank’s critique of some missional church expressions

John Milbank offers a biting critique of Fresh Expressions, a missional church movement in the Church of England. As ever, Milbank’s words are insightful and a helpful challenge to some problematic elements of missional praxis. I’ve embedded the article below and recommend that you take a read.


By way of a brief response to Milbank let me offer the following observations:

  1. Missional does mean participating in the mission of God in the world.
  2. Part of that mission is the establishment of particularized churches.
  3. These churches ought to be the base camp from which missional Christians go forth.
  4. These churches ought to preach the Word rightly, administer the sacraments, and equip the saints.
  5. The homogenous unit principle, though understandable, is not rooted in Scripture but in capitalism.
  6. Sacramental worship and missional ministry are complimentary rather than contradictory.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Where is God in the world?

The denial and dissimulation of grace, though always a human temptation, became especially pronounced and systemic in the modern world. While it is common to refer to this development as the ‘desanctification’ or ‘disenchantment’ of the world, the key element in this process is the emptying out of the world’s divine referent. What begins to emerge is the idea of pure ‘nature,’ a conception that reduces material reality to a mathematical and mechanical core that operates according to ‘natural laws’ and can be appropriated by us as a resource for our own ends. As natural, the world does not find its origin or end in God. It does not bear witness to a divine intention. If it has any purpose at all, it is of a wholly immanent sort that can be understood–and exploited–through scientific and technological effort.

Norman Wirzba, “Agrarianism after Modernity” in J. K. A. Smith, ed., After Modernity (2008), p. 249.

The surprising benefits of dumping Facebook

Each year I choose a discipline to add to my life during the season leading up to Easter, known as Lent. For the last several years I have intentionally chosen to dump Facebook–that is, to not log onto the site and interact with people through it. Caveat: I continue to automatically post blog posts to Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites. I also periodically check to make sure that I am not missing any important messages. This year, I’ve done a pretty good job of steering clear of the vacuum of Facebook and I’ve experienced at least five benefits that have surprised me.


Each year as I enter Lent I wonder whether it’s really worth giving up Facebook. It seems like there’s very little cost to being on the site. In fact, as the number of people you know who are “on Facebook” increases it can almost seem like there’s more of a cost to giving it up!

All things considered, I’ve made some surprising discoveries about Facebook which have proven beneficial.

  1. Facebook will give you as much time I as you give it…and more. I have about 900 friends on Facebook, which means that once I jump down that rabbit hole I can spend an hour just skimming status updates. 
  2. Facebook can be depressing. People often use Facebook to share their good news–engagements, new jobs, closing a big deal, a hot vacation, or a new car. Get one of these types of status updates in a day: great. Get a couple hundred and you start to think: what the heck is wrong with me? Aggregating stories of others’ affluence, professional competence, or other pieces of good news can actually be depressing. Why? At least in part because you don’t have access to the crap that lies beneath the surface in everyone’s life.
  3. Facebook needs to be managed. Just as in real time, there are people on Facebook who are just plain enervating. Their incessant banter about this topic or that gets on your nerves and drains you of energy. You have options: either “unfriend” them or “hide” their comments. You’ll thank yourself later.
  4. Facebook clutters your mental space and makes concentration harder. Honestly, I have used Facebook in different ways over the years (I’ve been “on Facebook” since 2005). While I was on sabbatical, I used it to connect with friends and to try to replace the community I had lost in stepping back from work relationships and student and faculty friendships. Prior to that, Facebook served two purposes: 1) it was an escape, and it was 2) a resource-gathering tool. Mostly, I’d work on some task I didn’t like (administration) and then as a reward spend some time “recovering” by going to Facebook. Often when there, given that I’m a learner, I’d discover some article, book, story that intrigued me. I’d explore it then or at a later time. This added mental stimulation often meant that I carried unfinished and unrecorded tasks through the day and, frankly, clogged up my mental bandwidth to do more important tasks. This gets back to the management element, it’s important to streamline and limit the information you take in from the internet. Too much information can be as paralyzing as too little.

Once Lent is over, I will return to Facebook with the proviso of placing boundaries on my usage. It’s likely, however, that on Shrove Tuesday 2014 I’ll be putting a status update on my Facebook account saying: “back in Easter!”

Time famine and future church

I often find myself wondering what church will look like in the future. I’m a member of a large (ish) downtown church that is evangelical in theology while being a member of a mainline denomination. We have a large campus: sanctuary, worship center, educational building, annex for youth and college ministries, etc.

We have a fairly large budget, including a significant budget for mission giving (which we, as campus missionaries, benefit from). We have a lot of staff on the payroll, both ordained pastors and program staff. Traditionally, our ministry in Winston-Salem has been centered on programs.

I find myself wondering about the future of program-centered ministry. Programs take two things that I think are going to be in short supply as we look to the future: time and moneyThe late Michael Spencer wrote about the “coming evangelical collapse” referring to a diminished future for evangelicalism as Christianity moves to the margin of society. This may well mean fewer resources for ministries and churches. Combine this with our culture’s embrace of a manic and consumerist way of life–measuring costs and benefits for every social engagement, invitation, meeting–we are going to be facing a stiff headwind in the next 5-10 years.


I’m not here to say that this model of church is wrong–I’m saying it’s not enough. The church has to have a hybrid culture, part missional and part attractional. I like to say that the church has to be centripetal and centrifugal–it has to go out and to bring in. The church is ever gathering in worship and scattering on the mission of God in the world.

In light of this churches should to do several things:

  • Think before you build. The church is a relational matrix, not a building or an institutional structure. If you must build, please build in a way that advances the biblical notion of church as called-out, sent people. Remember too, every building decision locks you into a model of ministry. One day you might need to change that model but find it difficult because of your mortgage payment.
  • Think about tomorrow: plant a church. If you have to, call it a second campus. Give it a campus pastor and rent a location for it. It can organizationally be part of your church….just plant a church. We need more Gospel witness in our society and larger churches need to think about how their resources can be deployed to advance the mission of God in new and innovative ways.
  • Be wary of consumerism. Listen to the ways you describe your programs and ministries. Are you using consumerist language. Think about who you’re reaching with those programs. If people are coming from other churches because they like your programs, do you think that God is particularly pleased by that? Consumerism is the air we breathe and, perhaps more than the Gospel itself, it forms the ways in which we unconsciously think and act. Be wary of producing religious services for consumption by other religious people.

Why Lent is a gift

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that (for Christians) marks the beginning of our 40 day (excluding Sundays) journey toward Easter. I grew up in a culture with a significantly greater appreciation for Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day) than for Lent. I knew the word, but it was virtually devoid of meaning.


I have come to love Lent–in fact to view it as a significantly overlooked gift–because it provides a period of focus and, perhaps ironically, of freedom. Most associate Lent with refraining from something. Some associate it with adding a practice, perhaps as a substitute for the thing given up. This practice is almost always popularly depicted as a miserable, punitive experience.

This hasn’t been my experience of Lent, however. I find that Lent offers me the perfect time to make some deliberate recalibration to my life. Doing so has been profoundly freeing in a number of ways. So much so that I often anticipate Lent because it gives me a natural context to press the reset button.

Here are some things I love about Lent:

  • Forty days is long enough to create pretty significant change, but it’s not long enough to be demoralizing.
  • Lent may be the only time, other than at funerals, where we even try to take our frailty seriously.
  • Lent places Easter in sharper focus. The events of Easter unfolded because of God’s deep love for humanity that is wracked by sin.
  • Lent provides social reinforcement for a changed practice.

This year, as in years past, I will step away from Facebook for Lent. I will still blog and those posts will still be automatically posted to Facebook. I will not, however, be checking Facebook or replying to any content posted there.

I hope you have a very meaningful Lent.

A new resource for celebrating the liturgical year, at home

This Lord’s Day is the first Sunday in the new liturgical year–the first Sunday in Advent. It’s a wonderful time jump into the story of God’s redemptive work in the story of Christ. Anna and I have really come to value the church calendar as an aid to our spiritual development and Christianity maturity. We have found that following the rhythm of the church calendar provides a powerful counter-narrative to the one provided by our culture. In our postmodern period, narrative is the single most formative element both for a culture and for a people, the church.

If you’ve ever wondered how powerful the culture’s narrative is, you need only consider Christmas Day itself. Two examples:

  • Most evangelical Christians do not attend worship on Christmas Day.
  • If Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, many evangelical churches cancel worship.


To unpack this a little bit. By doing this, we are following in the culture’s story about Christmas–that it is a day for family, for fun, for lazing around in pajamas while opening presents. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for this.

However, Scriptures suggests to us that our sisters and brothers in the faith at the parish of which we’re a part are just as much, if not more, our family than those biologically or legally related to us.

This reality calls into question our forsaking corporate worship on Christmas Day. It also shows how important it is for us to have our faith shaped by the beliefs and practices of the Christian Church across the ages.
I’m happy to announce a new resource to help you and your family enter into this important spiritual practice. Doulos Resources is publishing a new title in 2013 with the working title, Celebrating the Church Year in the Home. This book is an excellent guide (both theologically and also in terms of practice) for individuals and families who want to deepen their faith through this important aspect of Christian spirituality.

Editor Jessica Snell summarizes the project like this:

It’s a book that will gather, in one place, all the information you need in order to match the rhythm of your home life to the rhythm of the church year. Is it Advent? Open the book to the chapter on Advent, and find seasonal prayers, recipes, and crafts, as well as the history of the season, and ideas for extending your celebration to include friends and neighbors. And the same for Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter . . . there’s not a season in the year we’re not covering!

My wife has written the chapter exploring the theology and practice of Epiphany. Anna has spent the last several years researching in the area of the theological meaning of the New Testament’s use of family metaphors for the Christian community (she is currently completing her thesis on this subject). In others words: I can’t think of someone more qualified to unpack the meaning of the church calendar for discipleship–both in the home and in the church–than her.

The book will go to press in 2013 and will be ready for your use at that time. Electronic copies may be available earlier.

I encourage you to pick up a copy of the book and let it help you and your family grow in the practice of the Christian faith.

Note: I also recommend Bobby Gross’s excellent book Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God