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Help for a Busy Season

The calendar always seems to be filled to overflowing between Thanksgiving and New Year. How are you supposed to focus on following in such a busy season?

Check out this short video for some practical help. This next step strategy is good year-round; and having a game plan is especially helpful when your calendar looks like a kleptomaniac’s Christmas tree.

What’s your plan for taking an Advent Next Step?



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Team Advent

When I went to write an Advent devotion book, I made a conscious decision to do something different; something more. (You can read more about it here: Something Different for Advent.)

And I also made a conscious decision to resource an individual rather than a small group. This is what I shared in the introduction:

We follow Jesus better when we follow him together. In order to consistently take next steps following Jesus you need other people on your rope, people on the journey with you.

And sometimes it’s good and helpful to spend some time in single player mode.

Even Jesus, who had his large group gatherings, his small group of 12, and his micro-small group of three—even Jesus regularly went off by himself to pray. He needed the support of Peter, James, and John; he loved his interaction with the Twelve. But sometimes he needed to be alone with the Father and filled with the Spirit.

Sometimes you need that, too.

The weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year seem to be some of the most hectic of the year! But you don’t want to miss the peace and joy you know Jesus wants to give you in this season.

With most small groups meeting only socially, it’s a perfect time to embark on a solo adventure in God’s Word. Some days will be busier than others; and if you miss a day or two, don’t feel guilty. Just get back to it. Jesus invites you to follow him through Christmas and into 2020 and beyond.

Today is a good day to take a small next step.

You, Follow Me: A Daily Discipleship Travel Log
for Advent/Christmas 2019
by Justin Rossow

I still think that core concept has some value. In my experience, the weeks surrounding Christmas are filled will so many rehearsals, parties, to-do lists, shopping trips, and get-togethers that the busyness of the season can overshadow the whole point. Adding the burden of a small group meeting on top of all the other activities on the calendar seems counter-productive. I am trying to be realistic, and one more meeting time seems like work to me rather than delight.

I don’t want to add burden to your Advent; I want to add delight. So the whole concept of single-player mode doesn’t negate the fact that we follow Jesus better when we follow him together; there just may be times or seasons when we need individual rather than team support.

I still think that’s all true. And I have had my concept of single player mode broadened in a wonderful way.

First of all, a friend actually asked if it was OK if she went through the material with some other people. She wanted to respect the whole “solo adventure” feel of the book, but she also wanted other people to be part of her Advent preparation.

I love that she asked; it showed care and respect. And of course the answer was of course! The more the merrier! We follow Jesus better when we follow him together!

The material in the book is designed for personal, individual growth; and nothing spurs on personal, individual growth like the support of a team.

A couple of days later, I saw another friend post an invitation on Facebook. “I’m gonna do this for Advent!” she said, “Anyone else wanna join me?”

It turns out, the woman who originally asked if it was acceptable to do an individual devotion with a group is leading a Facebook Pop-Up group just for Advent. And my other friend is not only getting on board, she is inviting others to join her.

Reading down the comments on her invitation post is pretty fun:
“Ooh me!!”
“I’m in!”
“I think this might just be what I need. “
“Yes!”
“I have been wishing for something to get me into the word a little more. What a great answer!”
“Share this in the MOPS group!”

One of my favorite responses was a maybe, followed by a further invitation, “We could even get together on Friday mornings and add it to our chats!” with this gracious caveat: “No pressure. I’ll sit with you either way.”

As the author, of course it feels good to hear perfect strangers talk about your material that way. But more importantly, as a follower of Jesus, the group response to a resource geared to the individual drove home the point once again: We follow Jesus better when we follow him together.

Even when you are spending a focused time in individual meditation or prayer, that experience is deepened and supported by having other people on your rope.

Think of Jesus, who has just spent some time with his small group in the Upper Room on Maundy Thursday. His small group heads out to Gethsemane together, and what does Jesus do? He takes his three closest companions–the people in his inner circle or micro-small group–he takes Peter, James, and John with him into the olive grove.

They aren’t there to join Jesus for small group bible study: their job is to watch from a distance and pray. Jesus goes a little farther by himself, but he wants his team to support him even as he goes off by himself to pray.

It turns out, part of his suffering, part of his abandonment was the fact that even his closest friends let him down in his hour of need. But I think Jesus longed for their support and relationship even in the midst of the most personal and individual of his prayers.

And I think Jesus invites us to long for that, too. As you walk through Advent and Christmas and into the new year, you don’t walk alone, even when you are by yourself. We need other people on our discipleship journey, even when we go on a solo quest.

So who’s on your rope this Advent? Who will you invite to be on your Team Advent? Who will encourage you and support you and pray for you and process with you, even if you aren’t meeting in an official group at a regularly scheduled time?

It doesn’t have to be hard. “I’m planning on going to Wednesday worship this Advent: who wants to come with me?” “I’ll be reading through Luke in December: who’s in?” “I’m going to early service on Christmas Eve: anyone want to share a pew?”

Make a relational invitation to someone in your circle as you step into this busy time of year. You just might find that Team Advent will be a blessing to both of you. After all, we follow Jesus better when we follow him together.


Photo by Flo Maderebner from Pexels

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A Sign of the Times

[Warning: this blog is a little difficult to process, but it is worth it!]

Right before we piled into the minivan to start our journey home, I thought I would visit the park facilities just to be safe. In this case, the facilities were a very nicely kept public restroom that nonetheless was little more than a fancy porta-potty.

As I washed my hands, a sign caught my attention. With a plea to common sense if not common decency, it implored: “PLEASE… DO NOT put trash in the toilets, it is extremely difficult to remove. THANK YOU”

On the surface (and in spite of some punctuation issues), this sign is nothing special; you understand immediately what the sign is saying and you recognize the force of the argument without having to think about it.

But stop and think about why you don’t have to think about it, and this clear and obvious sign can give us an insight into the way our culture operates without even thinking about it.

[Stay with me here: I think it’s worth the extra effort.]

“PLEASE…
A) DO NOT put trash in the toilets,
B) it is extremely difficult to remove.”

What is the logical connection between A) and B)? Why does B) count as an argument in favor of A)? What is the nature of the appeal?

I think our immediate and natural understanding of that public restroom sign hinges on several Conceptual Metaphors working together. Weird, right?

Don’t get me wrong–the language of the sign itself does not contain any metaphors: the trash is just trash; the toilets are just toilets; the literal removal of literal trash from literal toilets doesn’t point to some deeper meaning. Still, in order to understand the logic on which the sign depends, several Conceptual Metaphors common in our culture come into play. By noticing those Conceptual Metaphors, we can better understand why things make natural sense to us (and maybe even where our natural sense-making goes wrong at times).

You could describe the conceptual dynamics behind this porta-potty sign in more than one way, but it probably involves several aspects of the following.

In our culture, things that are important are naturally understood to be big, heavy, up, and expensive. We can label some of these obvious and natural inferences with language from Conceptual Metaphor Theory.

  • IMPORTANT IS BIG (that’s a huge opportunity)
  • IMPORTANT IS HEAVY (his opinion carried a lot of weight)
  • IMPORTANT IS UP (she was the top dog in her field)

The phrases in parentheses, above, are instances of language use that point to a connection in our conceptual system: we might all say, “That’s a huge opportunity!” without noticing the conceptual mapping going on behind the scenes, but we are nonetheless culturally trained to view things that are big, heavy, difficult, up, or expensive as more important than things that are small, light, easy, down, or cheap.

There are some logical chains built into our conceptual system. For example, things that are big tend to be heavy; things that are heavy tend to be difficult, big and heavy things are important, ergo difficult things are important. In German, the metaphorical chain has been lexicalized: schwer, by definition, can mean either “difficult” or “heavy” (or both).

So when the sign says trash is “extremely difficult to remove,” we immediately understand that this is very important, because difficult things are important! But that’s only part of what makes the appeal serious; the logic of the appeal actually hinges on another set of Conceptual Metaphors.

In our culture, TIME IS MONEY, with the result that more time is more valuable than less time. Because things that are DIFFICULT also take more time, DIFFICULT is not only IMPORTANT; DIFFICULT IS EXPENSIVE (there’s another logical chain: more difficult = more time = more expensive; difficult = expensive).

In our culture we value–in the fullest sense of the word, we pay more for–we value things that are difficult above things that are easy. That may seem obvious and natural, and there is a certain kind of experiential sense to that logic–if it takes three times as long it seems like it should cost three times as much money–but these natural connections are a kind of logical shorthand. Because they apply so often and so well, we apply them always, without thinking about it.

And that, my friends, is the point: we use logical shorthand embedded in our culture without thinking about it. That’s fine for exegeting bathroom signs, but not so much when it comes to exegeting Scripture or interpreting our lives of faith.

[Hang in there! The payoff is coming!]

“A) DO NOT put trash in the toilets,
B) it is extremely difficult to remove.”
 

img_4058
A Sign of the Times

So what is the logic behind the sign? I think the whole thing hinges on our cultural understanding of economics, time, and difficulty:

A) DO NOT do something easy that takes almost no time and is therefore not important and not valuable (like putting trash in the toilets) BECAUSE

B) it is extremely difficult to remove, and therefore it takes time, it is expensive, and it is important.

You might imagine having to do something difficult like taking trash out of a toilet, and you might not do it because you are nice and empathetic and wouldn’t want someone else to have to do what you don’t want to do.

But the actual logic of the sign does not address your character or your empathy; the argument is an appeal not to human decency, but to economic free-market principles. You might be nice, but you might also be a jerk. Either way, the signs wants to point out that the economic value of A does not correlate with the economic value of B, and even if you are a jerk, surely an American jerk would understand the value of time, money, and difficulty and not do something so economically unbalanced as putting trash into a toilet where it takes time and money to get out! Where do you think we are? Communist China?

Based only on the logic of the sign, we could assume that if it were easy and took little time to take trash out of the toilet, it would be OK to put trash in there. (Or even, if it were really difficult and took a lot of time and effort to put trash in the toilet, it would be worth the time and expense to get it back out. Of course, that’s ridiculous in this case; but the logic of the sign actually hinges on a pattern of thinking that would technically allow that inference.)

[OK; here it comes: this is what makes this whole article worth the effort.]

So, who cares about a porta-potty sign? I don’t; and you shouldn’t either. BUT WAIT! Look at the logic that allows the sign to make sense, and you get an idea of some of the assumptions you walk around with every day. You even apply them uncritically to your life of faith. Now that matters!

So you and I naturally think something that takes time or is difficult is more valuable and more important.

  • How hard is it to say a short prayer before you put your kid or grandkid to bed? Pretty easy.
  • How much time does it take to read ten verses of Scripture in the morning and say the Lord’s Prayer? Not much.
  • How much effort or expertise does it take to speak a word of comfort or encouragement or forgiveness? Like, none.

Some of the most important, most foundational, most formative activities in our life of faith are easy, take little time or effort, and require no formal degree or training. Our culture demands that we devalue or even ignore these faith essentials: they are not worth our time or energy because they are not difficult or expensive. You don’t devalue the common, ordinary activities of faith on purpose; but you are naturally trained by your culture to think less of things that aren’t expensive or heroic.

As a good member of your culture, you would never put trash in the toilet, because it is so difficult (and therefore important and expensive) to remove. As a good member of your culture, you will likely ignore prayers at bed time, a few verses of Scripture with your coffee, and ordinary, everyday forgiveness. If you want to value those ordinary parts of your common life of faith you will have to consciously fight against the way you have been hard-wired to think.

That’s not always easy; but it is important.

Even when it is easy, it’s still important.

Don’t give up on the simple and the easy and the common, ordinary, daily expressions of faith. They are just as essential, and perhaps even more important, than the breakthrough, conversion, mountain top experiences. 

Jesus is part of your ordinary, every day life. And that is the most important thing of all.

[There! I told you! This blog was DIFFICULT and took time but that means it was IMPORTANT and VALUABLE so that reading to the end was WORTH the effort. Even your evaluation of this blog has been shaped by the metaphors you are reading about, while you are reading about them, and you might not even have noticed!]


Featured image by Julien Delaunay on Unsplash

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A Piece of the Wall

11 November 2019.

30 years ago today, the Berlin Wall came down; and I was there.

Well, the wall took longer than one day to actually, physically come all the way down (and you can still see pieces of that most famous symbol of the Cold War standing in museums around the world). But on November 11, 1989 the wall between East Berlin and West Berlin became obsolete. People from both sides of the border celebrated on top of that wall, a symbolic gesture of reunification that would take almost a year to make official.

But November 11, 1989 was the start.

Or rather, November 11 was the next, most visible step in a process that had started long before and would take even longer to come to final fruition. And I was there.

Well, when I say “there,” I mean “there in Germany,” not “there on the wall.” At least not right away. I had classmates at the Max-Plank Schule, Kiel who drove through the night to join the festivities. But I showed up for my history course the next morning.

That same history class had been on a field trip to Berlin just weeks before. The same history teacher who bemoaned the fact that so many student were missing class on November 12th had given us strict instruction not to try to climb the wall, or get too close to the wall, or do anything that might make the guards with the Uzis nervous. You see, right up until the Berlin Wall didn’t matter any more at all, it was a matter of life and death.

me-on-the-wall.pngI got to go back to Berlin a couple of months later. The wall was still standing, though the gaping holes were impressive. I got to take my place on top of that wall, a symbolic gesture that all the human power in the world is in the midst of becoming obsolete.

I got my own hammer and took home my own piece of history. My personal memento of the Berlin Wall isn’t very impressive: just a small chunk of concrete, rough on one side, pock-marked, a trace of spray paint the only hint at the graffiti artwork that once covered the 96 miles of barrier.

The real value of that piece of concrete is the way it connects to a moment in history, to a broader cultural story of change and struggle and freedom and celebration. I’ll never forget that Fall night in Germany, while the world watched in disbelief, and everyone walked around as if in a dream. That moment of change–that moment that came so slowly, but arrived so suddenly–that moment of change left everyone in a mild sort of euphoric shock.

And I have a piece of that wall, a relic of history; evidence that I was there.

30 years later, I am reminded again that all the human power in the world is in the midst of becoming obsolete. God touched human history in the person of Jesus. Jesus came, not out of nowhere, but as the most visible step in a rescue mission that had started long before and has not yet come to its complete fruition. Cosmic reunification has been accomplished; we’re just waiting for it to be made official.

The evidence of God’s activity isn’t found in physical relics or holy souvenirs; the evidence of God’s victory, already accomplished and not yet realized, is you. You who belong to Jesus–you are the sign and symbol and evidence that God was here.

Your life may be more than a little rough around the edges; your faith may be pock-marked or vandalized. But your individual story is caught up into something bigger than you; you have stood on the wall the separates heaven and earth and danced. You have partied on the border and drunk the banquet wine of heaven and had your future changed in a moment.

Of course there will be hard work to do as we strive to live out this reunification. Of course the Final Party hasn’t started yet. But you were there. Not there, on that first Easter morning, when the women ran from the tomb frightened out of their wits to bring an unbelievable message to skeptical disciples. But you have been to that open tomb since, and been joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus in your baptism, and you walk away knowing that everything is changed. (And yet you still have to go to history class in the morning.)

November 11, 1989: 30 years ago today, changed history and the shape of Europe as we know it. I have a rather nondescript souvenir of that historical event that reminds me how I got caught up in a bigger story.

You also have been caught up in a Bigger Story. And your day-to-day life, as nondescript as it may be, is a souvenir of a historical event that reminds the world, there is a Bigger Story.

Come quickly, Lord.

 

 

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Tiberius Maximus: A Study in Scenes

Scene

Since I didn’t pay the extra $11 to choose my own seat, I was in the middle (of course) between a woman with a yellow cardigan at the window, who was flying to a family funeral, and Tiberius Maximus, with his bright blue eyes, strawberry-blonde hair, and contagious smile.

When I met Tiberius, he was strapped to a twenty-four-year-old woman who turned out to be his mom. She had the aisle seat. As I heard Tiberius Maximus being introduced to the lady in front of me, I made some side comment about a Caesar by that name. Mom blinked twice, slowly, and explained that her son was named after the TV show Star Trek and the movie Gladiator. (If you aren’t a fan of either, then you might not know that the T in “Captain James T. Kirk” is TIBERIUS and the lead character in Gladiator is, well, a gladiator named MAXIMUS.)

That got me thinking about my name and how I got it….

 

Scene

The Western house is full of memories, out-of-town relatives, and finger food. Following my aunt’s directive, I leave the hum of post-funeral conversation and climb the polished wood stairs to the master bedroom. My job is to see if any of the lawyer suits would fit.

Most I try are too short in the sleeve and too full in the waist. But they all smell like my mom’s brother, my Uncle Bill. One–a deep blue with light blue pinstripes–almost fits and will for years to come. If I wear cowboy boots with it, like Uncle Bill did, you can hardly tell the pant legs are too short.

The one time I remember Aunt Peggy smiling that day was when she came to check on me as I wore my uncle’s pinstripes. He would have been proud, she said, as she hugged me; maybe she hugged the suit more than the nephew.

His name was William Paul.

 

Scene

The small, formica dining table was pushed all the way to the wall to make the low-ceilinged room seem a little bigger. I am flanked by both of my dad’s parents, and we are alone.

“Your grandma and I wanted you to have this,” he says as he passes me a box designed for a book. The book, it turns out, is a Bible; but not just any Bible. The black leather cover bears the name and confirmation date of my uncle, Paul William.

At the age of 15, my Uncle Paul was killed in a car accident on my father’s birthday. Dad had just turned 19 and was in the car when the accident happened. Uncle Paul died in my father’s arms at the side of the road. I had never heard my grandfather mention Paul’s name; after 30 years, the grief was still too fresh.

I already had my own Bible with my own name and confirmation date on the black leather cover. I keep the two together.

William Paul. Paul William. Justin Paul.

 

Scene

Tiberius Maximus“I’m sorry folks; we’re going to have to deplane. This technical difficulty can’t be fixed immediately. We will have to take a different plane. Luckily, we have another one available. We’re sorry for the delay.”

After the thin voice of the captain cuts out and the groaning dies down, I learn that Tiberius Maximus is #4 of 4. At least for her. She is moving from Florida to Michigan with her husband (across the aisle) and two daughters (across the aisle, with dad) and her dog (also across the aisle, as it turns out). But her eldest son is staying in Florida with his dad.

She hasn’t seen snow in 22 years; since she moved from Kansas to Florida when she was two. I don’t do the math until later: she is almost exactly as much younger than me as Tiberius Maximus is younger than her. Depressing…

 

Scene

“I’m sorry folks; we are going to have to taxi back to the gate; we have a technical difficulty we can’t resolve. We’re sorry for the inconvenience.”

Different plane; same result. “It looks like we will have to ask you to deplane again and wait until another aircraft is available. Thank you for your patience. Your safety is our first concern.”

“We’re out of patience!” came a lone, frustrated reply.

The mother of Tiberius Maximus was sad she didn’t get to see her brother or sister before she left. Well, she got to see her brother behind a clear wall, but not hug him goodbye; we was in jail. Her sister she didn’t see at all. But her niece lives in Pennsylvania, she said, which isn’t that far from Michigan. She was trying to convince herself, not me, that she would be seeing her sister again soon.

 

Scene

I’m sitting next to Tiberius Maximus for the third time today. The third time is the charm, and this plane actually takes off (to the sardonic applause of disgruntled passengers).

Tiberius has been a real trooper: four months old and just a delight.

I am searching for a quote from a book I was reading on the way down to Florida. Tiberius made me think of it.

Dr. Alyce McKenzie, in her book Making a Scene in the Pulpit, was talking about how many in today’s culture have little ability or interest in understanding life in terms of a grand narrative. Having been indoctrinated into a state of perpetual partial attention, today’s hearers not only don’t know the story of the Bible, they often don’t have the tools or desire to understand the story they are living. Instead, they experience life as a series of unrelated episodes or scenes.

It helps me make sense of Tiberius Maximus and the mother who named him after a TV show and a movie. Scene: growing up in Kansas, where it must have snowed, but I don’t remember. Scene: husband (?) #1 and son #1 who are staying in Florida. Scene: new husband and kids: two daughters and Tiberius and a mild-mannered dog who likes to fly. Scene: saying goodbye to family, but not getting closure. Scene: on the plane. Scene: off the plane. Scene: on the plane. Scene off the plane. Scene…

I find the quote I am looking for on my Kindle Fire:

I am convinced that we are still story makers—plot providers—but that our skills have atrophied. Drawing people into one episode or scene and then helping them connect it to God’s encompassing story exercises their weakened story-making skills.

McKenzie is right, I think; there is hope. If only we can enter these disconnected scenes with Jesus and see how he might join the disparate strands to the tapestry of his story. I’m still musing on this as Tiberius Maximus grabs my arm with his tiny fingers and smiles.

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Something Different for Advent

“Why write a book of Advent devotions?”

That’s what I kept asking myself this summer. And I couldn’t come up with a very good answer.

I mean, friends and family who enjoyed my Lenten Thy Will Be Done prayer book have been asking about an Advent resource for a couple of years. But really, does the world need another collection of readings and prayers and devotional anecdotes to help people mark time from December 1 until Christmas?

“Not really,” was the best answer I could come up with. Or maybe, “Not from me.”

yfma cover thumb.jpg

So the Kindle edition of my Advent devotional book is now available at https://amzn.to/2r5npap, along with  both a paperback edition https://amzn.to/2NpSkH8 and a large print edition https://amzn.to/2qsFS0y (paid links).

Surprise!

So what changed? How did I go from no mas (or at least, no Christmas) to publishing in time for Advent? Well, therein lies a tale…. Continue Reading »

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Empathy at Biggby’s

So I’m sitting at a coffee shop waiting for my kids to get done with a play rehearsal and I can hardly believe my ears.

One of the Biggby Coffee employees is on her knees not twenty feet from me cleaning up the floor and wiping down one of the lime/pea-soup-colored retro chairs. She’s chatting with the woman behind the counter from her vantage point on the floor.

“I saw a mom over here with a little one earlier, and I felt so bad for her!” That got my attention. Remember, this whole monologue is punctuated with the movement of a wet rag and broom, and delivered from one of the least dignified postures we know.

She continues:

“When the mom left, I came over here to clean up, and there was coffee all over the chair, and colorful sprinkles ground into the floor, and donut crumbs all over. I can only image that she was just trying to have a quiet cup of coffee, and her kid was bouncing around, and making her spill her coffee, and making a mess. I felt so bad for her! I hope her day went better after that!”

Now, wait a minute.

This worker is on her hands and knees cleaning up the mess some insensitive and inattentive parent let their demon-spawn of a 2-year-old make in a public place, and she turns around and exercises empathy??

Where’s the cussing? Where’s the “woe is me?” Where’s the personal offense at someone else being so insensitive and making my job harder than it has to be?

Who does she think she is? Jesus?

And that’s what made me think of another scene. And another Someone who was in one of the least dignified postures we know, as on His knees he washed the dirt off of my feet. He knows my mess; and He know it’s my fault. I certainly didn’t make it easy for Him.

Yet, rather than the self-righteous anger I might have expected, He shows love instead. And then, from a yet more humiliating position, His words betray no trace of self-importance or bitterness, as He says, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.”

Heading off to pick up my kids, all the spilled coffee and ground sprinkles in my life seem somehow insignificant. I might be a little faster to empathize; a little slower to blame; maybe less likely to take personal offense at someone else’s bad day. At least, I hope I am.

How could you not leave changed, when you encounter Jesus at Biggby’s?

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