December 31, 2009

Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith - A Book Review

Why is it that the everydayness of many Western Christians' lifestyles often reflect the values of their culture instead of Christ? How do our ways of engaging and teaching discipleship often leave our actions thin but our heads heavy? What is it that our actions betray our words or beliefs so that we proclaim God as highest but pay homage to the other gods of entertainment, consumerism, or nationalism? James K.A. Smith's newest reflection on education at its core is a reflection on discipleship. In this quest, he gives a fuller and more correct understanding of humans as affective, desiring animals in able to work towards a deeper discipleship, but fails to go beyond classical liturgical practices. This book is valuable to many: students, teachers, Sunday Schools, professors, preachers, and academics.

While I'll hold off on a full review I will say that he takes off better than he lands. Part I of the book is devoted to constructing a deeper philosophical anthropology than the anthropology modernity or romanticism. The core argument of Desiring the Kingdom is that humans at their core are not thinking or even believing animals, but rather are precognitive, pre-rationalist lovers. We are what we love, we are what we worship. Furthermore, the first part of the book reflects upon the power of "secular" liturgies that form and shape human desire and love, so that our love is misdirected. Much of my aggravation from my own as well the discipleship of the Western church, is that the true formative practices of our daily lives come less from the church than the mall, White House, flag, Jerry World (the newest Mecca of entertainment and competition: the Dallas Cowboys Stadium). While these things are not evil in themselves, they should not be the focus of our desire as they tend to claim.

Overall, the power of Part I is Smith's aim is to unveil the truth that behind every pedagogy or practice for teaching is a philosophical anthropology, or understanding of human existence. I fully appreciate Smith's understanding of human anthropology: "loving, desiring, affective, liturgical animals who, for the most part, don't inhabit the world as thinkers or cognitive machines."
So, instead of being pushed by our beliefs, we are "pulled by a telos that we desire."

Part II builds off of the anthropology of humans as "fundamentally and primordially- lovers," to instill worship as the creation of habits that "constitute the fulcrum of our desires." Smith claims rightly that instead of focusing on changing beliefs or worldviews, the church or particularly the Christian university must inculcate habits that counter the cultural practices that are "thick"- or powerful enough to (mis)guide human desire. The final section of Desiring the Kingdom reflects on the worship practices in the Christian tradition that are "formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life." Possibly the most important piece in this section for myself is Smith's argument that the imago die is basically the participation of humans in the missio dei, but not in those words.

This is where Smith gets closest to being right. The practices that will ultimately guide human desire lie with and beyond the Sunday morning worship service. "[T]he image of God is a task, a mission," writes Smith. Thus, beyond classical liturgical practices found in "worship," the church must create an ethos and ethic of participation in the mission of God. It is only by moving from doing mission and worship, to being mission and worship through ministering, living among, and fighting for caught up in God's mission of redemptive love that the church will claim once again the hearts of the church with "thick" practices. Counter-formation must occur beyond the walls of Sunday morning.

December 10, 2009

Sermon: Hope and Advent

Text:Revelation 21:22-22:5

If you had asked me when I first became a Christian, moving from atheism to Christianity, what THE Christian hope was…I’d probably have said something along the lines of “heaven.” Jesus died on the cross for me, so that when I die I’ll go to heaven. As Charlotte my wife likes to recount, when we first started dating, I was often quoted as saying such things as “I think only the right Baptists are going to heaven” and other things like “this world is not my home.”

See, I had met the grace of God in the muck of a legalistic tradition, a tradition that taught me all the right words and gave me all the right answers.

So at odds with my introduction to faith, a few summers back I went on a pilgrimage to India…the land of openness and difference. Landing first in the Western capitalist landscape of Hong Kong, I decided everything was up for grabs. The question I needed answered for myself was…

so what am I hoping for, what do I place my hope in? Do I believe in Jesus so I can go to heaven? So I can be a nice or good person? Do I believe in Jesus because I was born in the USA had no other choice?

Certainly my earlier faith had outlined it simply enough: Believe in Jesus, get to heaven. My hope was not of this world. But this was no longer enough.

The final book in our sacred Scriptures, the Book of Revelation may be the most popular book in all of the Bible…at least, the most popular to misinterpret and misread. Certainly much of my own shortsighted hope, my fire insurance Jesus, came from a different emphases found in Revelation.

Revelation I was taught, gives us a picture of what the last days, the end times will be like. Ultimately the picture I was given was one of separation: people like me and with my beliefs on the inside, those without my beliefs on the outside.

Here is where hope is often confused. We oftentimes confuse hope, with anticipation. We’ve all anticipated something: anticipation means an expectation within the realm of possibilities, anticipating what we can already see and know, what we can enact and bring about. Anticipation- centers on our human activity, and because of that anticipation often reflects human belief.

“God created man in his image and then man returned the favor.” Reflected Voltaire.

Anticipation is the creation of God in our own image, created by our own expectations and wishes. Even in my early stages of faith, my anticipation of the afterlife was a wish to be free from the cares of this world and to be separated from all those I disliked: all the sinners, drinkers, smokers, etc.

But the Christian hope weaved throughout the narrative of Genesis to Revelation, is a radically different hope: the hope of resurrection.

Unlike expecting something within the realm of possibilities, within what I can do as a human…hope is something new, hope creates new possibilities within my realm because it relies on God’s coming to us.

Many have written off the historical possibility of Christ’s Resurrection or the idea that God came down as a baby as ill-logical…not fitting within the realm of rational possibilities.

But this misses the point of resurrection and incarnation: this is God’s action toward us, this is a new possibility in the realm of possibilities. And so we see in this final picture of Revelation, a restored creation, everything resurrected and made new. The hope laying not in some ethereal heaven, but the hope laying in God’s newly created world, where those whom Christ has died for gather to worship.

To be honest, I still struggle with this idea of hope at times. I remember standing in the halls of an amazing Hindu temple, irreverently gawking at statue after statue of Krishna, Ganesh, Ram, and many more in the form of their avatars: elephants, turtles, boars, and many more.

And while as an outsider I cannot pretend to value or understand the truth of Hinduism or any other culture or religion, I encountered God in the streets of India more than it’s majestic temples. I experienced God more in the lives of men and women who devoted their lives to serving the HIV positive, considered dalits and untouchables in that culture, and in the lives of the sisters at Mother Teresa’s home of the dying.

And the place I learned to see God among the untouchables, the experience that gave me eyes to see and ears to hear God among the cast out and nameless, was in the unique person of Jesus Christ. And while I consider the conversation of world religions, universalism, pluralism, truth, and God in many forms valuable, and there’s certainly not sufficient time to cover that subject tonight, I walked away from the land of difference and otherness with a fresh grasp on Resurrection: hope: the person of Jesus Christ.

So what I learned from the sisters who served the poor in the streets of Calcutta, what I’ve learned from people in our church that adopt and work with the homeless in our own city is that Christ died, as NT Wright likes to say:

To give - Hope for life before death, not life after death.
And this for me is what changes. What is Christian hope, what does it mean to put your hope in Christ.

It is significant that the author of revelation ties the new creation to the city of Jerusalem, and certainly this a metaphorical city pertaining not to the actual city, but rather it could be any city where God resides.

Aristotle once wrote that “people come together in the city to live; they remain there in order to live the good life.”

Hope is a learned activity, and the question is, who is teaching us? We find throughout the world cities that capture the imagination in their ability to transcend time and space, their ability to be more than national, but international. Cities like Hong Kong, London, New York, and possibly even Austin.

It’s now the cities that are informing rural youth how to live and dress, college students what to dream for and where to live. Billboards, flashing lights, and larger than life ads distract us into what to hope for…the good life.

Thus, we are taught the good life, lies in the realm of human possibilities, that we can act and achieve happiness if we live right, get the best education, reside in the best part of town, drive the newest car, own the newest device, wear the hippest clothes…hope becomes the anticipation of the good life.

The Christian season of Advent is a season pregnant with hope, as sacred and sacred as the virgin Mary. The Incarnation, God with us points us to the reality that God is active and working in the world and the Resurrection is teaching hope for the good life.

What will give the church, Christians the ability to resist the manipulation by the international city, in hopes of God’s resurrected city? The same thing that gave Mother Teresa and the many nameless sisters serving the nameless the ability to live in poverty, the same thing that gave Martin Luther King strength and endurance as he nonviolently worked toward racial reconciliation, and the same thing that gives people all throughout the world the ability to suffer for another’s sake: the hope of the good life.

To be able to dream and end when all will gather and worship God, when every person, no matter of color or creed will have enough to eat, have choices beyond menial tasks, and been given a place at the table of dignity- the good life of resurrection, the good life found in the counter-cultural Resurrection and Incarnation of God.

So while our cities of glitz and glamor, celebrity and wealth may capture our eyes…it’s the hope of new life for all, worshiping the true God that gives us the ability to here and now embrace an alternative future. For what we do now, whether painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, caring for the earth, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself- will last into God’s future.

So the invitation this Advent is to reflect resurrection, to work alongside God who is here and now in the midst of our busy lives, and bring the future hope into the present.

December 7, 2009

My Second Sunday AM to Preach

Well, I recently had the opportunity to preach my 2nd Sunday morning worship service at First Baptist. While I definitely felt more comfortable in the pulpit, I wasn't overly excited about the sermon itself. If you want, here's a link to listen to it here and click on 2009-11-29 or click here for the Itunes link.

Here's the sermon:

I’m very fortunate in that my sister and I have almost always had a good relationship. Separated by 3 years in age, and probably 6 years in maturity levels we hardly ever fought, only because I knew who would win…and I hated to lose. The only fight I may have ever won was well, do you remember the hot-wheels airplanes? Unlike the hot-wheels cars, these little planes were akin to weapons, in that their wings were very pointy. And in the intensity of an argument, I chunked one at her face. She still wears the scars of that battle.

Besides those few fights, we mostly played, colored, and laughed together. Certainly one of our favorite times of the year was Christmas. Not having a grown up in the church, this time of the year held a certain mysticism, it was a magical time. Every December, we’d load up as a family in my dad’s old, Ford pickup and drive down to the Rotary Club Tree Lot and spend about hour finding the right tree. Then we’d toss it in the back of the yellow truck, drive home, and with Alvin and the Chipmunks playing on 13” vinyl, we’d adorn the house and tree in glitter and gold…all in anticipation of Christmas morning.

Slowly over the next few weeks, we’d watch as the Christmas tree’s skirt filled with gifts of all shapes and sizes, waiting for mom and dad to leave the room so we could shake and hold the wrapped gifts guessing and hoping for what lay inside.

But one year, I noticed that the house adorned and lit, filled with a decorated tree …was missing on element: gifts. Unlike all my previous experience with Christmas, no presents magically appeared under the tree, the few gifts were to be found were for aunts and uncles, but where were my family’s gifts? more importantly, where were my gifts?

Unbeknownst to me, my parents decided to hide them a few weeks longer seeing that my sister and I..mostly me…would shake and really try to figure out all the presents. By the time the last week before Christmas came, I was getting nervous. How would I celebrate Christmas morning with nothing under the tree for me?

Distinctly I remember one night my father had returned from work and all of us were sitting in the living room, I began to inquire about the lack of what obviously we all had known. And so I just asked, innocently and nicely, “But where are my gifts?”

You have to understand, my dad has always been a bit of a prankster, so his quip back to us was, “well, this year things are different. Since you’re sister got braces just a few months ago, we weren’t able to get you anything. Maybe next year.” I forgot to mention, but sister had just gotten braces.

I didn’t know what to think…“Maybe next year…nothing” I remember being dumbfounded, certainly my dad was mistaken…could we get a refund on all that metal in my sisters mouth…my sister…it’s her fault. So I turned to my sister, who to this day says that was the meanest look she has ever received from anyone, even more than the time she had a toy airplane thrown at her face and scowled.

Once my dad realized how well I was taking to this joke, he sprung up and left the room into the garage. I was sure we had checked all the hiding places in the house, but I guess we hadn’t discovered the garage. And within seconds, there standing in the living room was my dad with a big box of presents with my sister’s and my name on them.

Well, we are once again into this time of year we call Christmas. Unlike my childhood anxiety and angst over what I would or wouldn’t get under the tree, my anticipation of this Holiday has greatly changed in the last 5 years or so.

This morning is the first morning in something I never knew existed growing up: the Christian season of Advent: the intentional weeks leading up to and preparing us for the most radical interruption in human life and history: the Incarnation: God with us.

The Gospel reading from Luke paints for us a picture. He begins with a name, Herod, King of Judea, or Herod, King of the Jews. It’s easy to overlook this name and go straight into the story, but Luke makes sure Herod’s name stands at the top of story, as his name often stood at the top of Jewish life.

Herod’s job, procured at the hands of Roman authority was first and foremost to keep the peace for Rome. Thus, for 34 years he ruled Israel, manipulating everyone from Rome, to the many Jewish insurrectionists.

Everyone in Israel knew the name, and many shuttered with detest for his unscrupulous ways, murdering his favorite wife, his uncle, mother-in-law, and at least 3 of his sons as well as countless slaves.

Yet many in the area couldn’t help but be in awe.

For Herod’s way of creating and sustaining peace occurred through captivating the imagination with large building projects, structures strewn throughout major cities-amphitheaters, hippodromes, palaces, shrines, fortifications, aqueducts, forums, roads, new and restored cities, foundations, and of course his pinnacle of success…the rebuilt Jerusalem temple. It was as if Herod was trying to out-Rome, Rome. At every turn in Israel, one found reminders of the “King of the Jews.”

What captures our imaginations as a collective group of people, as Americans, as Christians, as mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons? As the church? Certainly as a church in downtown it’s not hard to see the pinnacles of architecture meant to grab at our attention and inform us who’s in charge or who really matters. We know what matters according to our culture: it’s easy to label those things: money, power, sex, influence, and fame.

But what is your imagination held captive to, what does your life reflect? This may be as simple as looking into your checkbooks…looking at your computer’s history or bookmarks…reflecting upon time spent or not spent with loved ones, hurting ones, and forgotten ones.

What is holding your imagination captive as to prevent you from asking those around you hard questions, or keeping your children or spouse accountable? What’s keeping you from having deep and meaningful relationships? Where do you spend your life?

Ivan Illich was once asked, how do you change the world? Revolution or gradual reform?

After thinking for a few seconds, he replied neither, you must change the world by telling a alternative story.

At face value this story of Zachariah and Elizabeth’s visitation and pregnancy seems simple enough, but Luke is a master storyteller, interweaving the thick narrative of God’s history found in the Jewish Scriptures.

Luke writing to a predominantly gentile, non-Jewish audience, and probably a gentile himself sets out to write a history of Jesus’ birth…therefore he makes the story very Jewish. I’m not sure if he expected his audience to know the history and stories from the Law, the Prophets, and Apocalyptic literature, but we see in this story several flashbacks to these things. Did you catch them all?

There’s the obvious illusion to the elderly barren couple: Abraham and Sarah. The couple that God gave the promise to bless the entire world through. The couple with whom God’s mission of love and movement toward humanity found its inception.

Then there’s a hint in Luke’s writing to another couple: Elkanah and Hannah- parents of Samuel, the last judge, the pre-cursor to Saul, the King. Samuel, debatably the best ruler and judge of the OT.

And finally, with the appearance of the angel Gabriel, Luke’s technique becomes more dominant. He not only ties the story he is writing to the Law and Prophets represented by Abraham and Samuel, he’s ties it to the last part of the Jewish Scriptures: the writings. The book of Daniel mentions Gabriel, the angel of the end times.

So as you can see, Luke is very purposefully writing in such a way to say that God is once again acting in continuation this story, but at the same time this is new and unique.

For every good Jew knew what the end times in biblical history meant, and it’s not the oft-portrayed destruction of apocalyptic movies like 2012 or the Day after Tomorrow. Rather, the eschatological end time meant that God would act in a new way, and this new age would be an age of mission, where every nation would gather in praise to God’s kingdom. Where the promise conceived in Abraham would be born into the world.

Thus for Luke, this age of mission began long ago with God’s promise to Abraham, but would be enacted in a promise to this elderly, barren couple: righteous before God, but without child…a curse in that culture.


And so I hope the foolishness of the story is obvious: on one hand there is this very powerful and fertile man who holds everyone in Israel captive with pomp: Herod who has built the magnificent temple, the place where God dwells. And instead of talking to Herod, God’s messenger comes down and gives a promise to Zachariah and Elizabeth, nobody’s in the grand scheme of things: righteous and holy, but impotent and barren.


From my understanding, the church is this couple. We stand before God’s promise, chosen to be the parents of the one who prepares the way for God Incarnate. Not the hope itself, but to be witnesses to the Hope of the world.

But like Zachariah and Elizabeth, we must learn to listen in silence and wait until our hope is born.

This Advent, as we move toward Christ’s coming to us to redeem and make the entire creation new; let us wait and listen. In these two practices we will find that God equips us to Incarnate Hope in the midst of alternative stories, even in the Temple itself.

As Zachariah’s ourselves, it’s important to see that God placed a silence over him, so he wasn’t able to speak until he worshipped God at the birth of his Son, John.

The study of linguistics, how we communicate, reveals that we communicate more in silence than we do in words. Confucious says language is like a wheel: spokes centralize it, but the spaces make the wheel.

Anyone who has ever learned to speak a foreign language knows that it takes much more delicate understanding and listening to learn the silence of a language than its words.

First, we must become silenced in order to open ourselves to God’s conception of hope. We must be deep listener’s of God’s movement in us and around us. It’s easy to allow ourselves to get caught up in the Herodian structures and influences surrounding us, so we laugh at God’s way of working: coming down in human flesh, among the weak and forgotten, using the barren and impotent.

Of course, There is a silence that threatens true listening: this is a silence of apathy. The silence of a wife who tunes out her husband, the silence of a father who would prefer not intervene and correct his child, the silence of a friend who would rather let you hurt then hear the truth. This is the silence of someone who comes to church week in and week out, never committing to anything, as if perfection or conversion has been reached. This is the silence that allows for anger in the home to dwell, giving importance to the trivial matters of this world. This is the silence that moves people toward isolation and loneliness.

True silence, silence that opens one person to another for listening is never easy. It’s even harder when a greater difference in relationship exists: such as between a busy working father and a homeless mother, or a confused parent and hurting child. –but the greater the distance, the greater the sign of love and opportunity for God to work… for it’s much more difficult to listen someone’s deep passions than to talk about football or TV, or whatever we are comfortable talking about.

This silent listening must not only be practiced among those whom we are different from and called to love; but must also occur in prayer for no greater difference occurs than in the relationship between a person and God.

Only in silence is Zachariah prepared to make the faithful proclamation, and in silence we will learn to listen to and prepare ourselves to Incarnate hope.


After the silence of conception, allowing ourselves to become aware of others’ needs and God’s action; comes the silence of nurture. This is silently waiting for the right moment for hope to be born into the word; not forcing ourselves into situations, but working with God.

But this silence of acting in the right moment is threatened by our busy lives.

It’s ironic that there may not be a harder time in the year to make room for others and act patiently then the Christmas time. We run about shopping, cooking, decorating, working longer hours to pay for things unneeded, filling our hours with busyness.

We also jump past this prudence of acting with God, by short-circuiting his ways for the sake of our own efficiency, and speed.

G.k. Chesterton, one of the most influential writers of the 20th century wrote this about our his time, which is a greater reflection upon our own:

“the chief mark of our time is a profound laziness and fatigue; and the fact is that the real laziness is the cause of the apparent bustle. Take one quite external case; the streets are noisy with taxicabs and motorcars; but this is not due to human activity but to human repose…Our world would be more silent if it were more strenuous.”

All those years ago, God acted in one of the most strenuous of human activities to bring hope ..real hope ..the very definition of hope: new life…into the world not by acting according to the measures and expectations laid out by Rome or Herod; but rather by giving new life to an old, barren couple.

The church in the United States, Texas, and Austin is in the midst of change, we are finding ourselves less and less relevant or important to the pomp and power of our culture.

Much like this couple, the church, we at FBC have been given a promise and mission: to give our lives to the service of God acting in the world.

God is acting in the streets of Austin…are you listening?

God is alive in the conversations with your children…are you listening?

God is working on the hearts of your neighbors, coworkers, and family…are you listening?

God is calling you to listen…are you listening?

This Advent, make room for God in the world by setting aside time and energy to be silent and listen, nurturing the hard labor of hope, and getting out of the way, so God can get in the way.

Pastoral Blessing:

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships,

so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,

so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war,

so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world,

so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.