Tuesday, December 12, 2017

A Song Beyond Comparison - An Advent Sermon

Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

The Christian Calendar begins with Advent, a season in which we’re invited to entertain the possibility of an alternative reality, an alternative reality that subverts life as we know it. The Calendar doesn’t start with a conference, or a seminar, or a discipleship intensive – the downloading of facts and certitudes, doctrines and truths. It starts with an invitation to imagine other possibilities; new possibilities. This is significant because this whole “following Jesus” thing is about new possibilities. Newness of life, new ways of living, God declaring through Isaiah – “Behold, I am making all things new.”

We’re not always quick to embrace the “new” though. Often it is only in a slower process of re-imaging things that we find an openness to some new possibility begins to come alive. Most of us linger in wistfulness as we consider and re-consider alternative ways of being and alternative ways of arranging our lives. Alternative understandings, newness that is demanded of us, is more likely to shut us down and put us on the defensive; we start to defend the old and resist the new – we even start to resist the idea that there could be anything “new.” Thus ultimately, we’re not taught “into” something new, we’re “imagined” into something new. This is why the best teachers are not those who can explain a subject with great clarity, but those you can capture the imagination of students in regard to the subject at hand.

The Christian Calendar, an annual cycle-of-discipleship based on the life of Jesus, understands this, and begins with a season designed to capture your imagination. We don’t begin with teachings of Jesus, not the miracles of Jesus, certainly not the Cross – that’s a surprising part of the story that comes later. We begin with the excitement and anticipation that God is up to something new in the world, something never seen before, a Messiah, a Christ, a Saviour is coming. And his name will be Jesus and he’ll save people from sin. Imagine that!

This is a challenging idea for those that aren’t very imaginative.

Years ago, some friends and I were at the movies watching the first installment of the long-awaited Lord of the Rings trilogy. The movie closes with Fordo and Samwise in their canoe paddling to the far side of a river. Off they go, all by themselves, carrying the Ring of Power to Mount Doom. In a silent theatre with the closing credits rolling, a friend up mine pipes up; “That could never happen in real life!”

“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). “That could never happen in real life!” Or, as John puts it, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” (1:14). That could never happen in real life!” Or, as Luke puts it, (with angels singing to shepherds), Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (2:14).

Could these sorts of things happen in real life?

In our Gospel reading, Joseph has his doubts, of course he does. He has it in mind to quietly and respectfully call off the marriage – a baby conceived by the will of God. “Yep, of course Mary – wink, wink, nod, nod, say no more, say no more.” But then, he has a dream, where an angel speaks to him, tells him its true, all of it. The child will be the Saviour, the one who rescues people from their sins. This is all out of the box, this is something new, but Joseph is open to this newness and takes Mary as his wife.

Sometimes it feels it would be easier to cope with the uncomfortable known than imagine that something genuinely “other” could happen. Sometimes it is easier to imagine things could never change, that’s easier to cope with at times. What we know, even the pain and hurt, can at times be comforting. Imagining Mary had been unfaithful and calling everything off, surely that wouldn’t be as painful as embracing this risky new thing? A virgin birth? The Son of God?

If we can imagine something other than what is, we tend to imagine only a “hyper” version of reality, not an “alternative” version of reality. But this is a failure of imagination. We imagine our lives being turned around because we win lotto – we imagine all the things we would do and could do if our numbers come up and we win the $36 million-dollar power ball – Christmas come! Here though, the world doesn’t change, rather you simply get to place all of your trust in the power of money to turn your life around, rather than trusting in the power of God to make all things new!

This is also why a popular understanding of eternity, rather than a biblical understanding, is ultimately a failure of imagination. Because it doesn’t imagine this world renewed and restored and healed, it imagines another world, a “hyper” version of this world with mansions and crowns for everyone and streets paved with gold in a pearly gate – eternity in a safe and secure gated community. This is little more than a super-sized, upgraded, “hyper world” – birthed in escapism, materialism and consumerism rather than in a biblical vision of a renewed cosmos.

Advent is a season where we are invited to re-imagine the world through the eyes of God. To allow something other, something from elsewhere, from outside of ourselves, outside of the plausibility structures of the world – to capture our imagination and offer an “alternative” vision for the world as we know it. God’s vision for this world.

Paradoxically though, this doesn’t mean we need to look elsewhere or look far off – through a telescope to the edges of the universe, for something distant. Rather, we need to look deeply into the recesses of our own hearts, for the aches, the longings, the hopes we have as humans for a world of peace and joy, that are birthed of God. Hopes that we all carry, though they are easily lost under the baggage of sin and death. Hidden because of pain or heartache, or disappointment and loss, maybe great poverty gets in the way, or maybe great wealth – we can lose sight of God’s vision for this world for many reasons.

Deep down though, I think faith, hope and love is always desperate to spring to life. And, it seems to me, that in the countdown to Christmas, this is a more palatable possibility than any other time of the year.

In The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis, Digory and Polly, Uncle Andrew, the Cabby and the evil witch Jadis, find themselves present at “the founding of Narnia” where Aslan’s sings the world into being; it’s described as “a song beyond comparison.” It’s a magnificent scene. At one-point, Aslan selects animals to be the walking, talking, animated, stewards of Narnia. Digory and Polly are awestruck when they hear the animals talking to each other and Aslan – it's positively magical.

The Cabby on seeing everything unfold comments; "Glory be! I'd ha' been a better man all my life if I'd known there were things like this." Uncle Andrew sees things quite differently though, he wasn’t awestruck.

Lewis writes: For what you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are. Ever since the animals had first appeared, Uncle Andrew had been shrinking further and further back into the thicket. He watched them very hard of course; but he wasn't really interested in seeing what they were doing, only in seeing whether they were going to make a rush at him. Like the Witch, he was dreadfully practical. He simply didn't notice that that Aslan was choosing one pair out of every kind of beasts. All he saw, or thought he saw, was a lot of dangerous wild animals walking vaguely about. And he kept on wondering why the other animals didn't run away from the big Lion. 

When the great moment came and the Beasts spoke, he missed the whole point; for a rather interesting reason. When the Lion had first begun singing, long ago when it was quite dark, he had realized that the noise was a song. And he had disliked the song very much. It had made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel. Then when the sun rose, and he saw that the singer was a lion ("only a lion," as he said to himself), he tried his hardest to make believe that it wasn't singing and never had been singing - only roaring as any lion might in a zoo in our own world.

And so, when at last the Lion spoke and said, “Narnia awake,” he didn’t hear any words: he heard only a snarl. And when the Beasts spoke in answer, he heard only barkings, growlings, baying, and howlings. And when they laughed – well, you can imagine. That was worse for Uncle Andrew than anything that had happened yet. Such a horrid, bloodthirsty din of hungry and angry brutes he had never heard in his life.

Uncle Andrew missed the magic. He was all too practical. As Digory puts it earlier in the story; “Grown-ups are always thinking of uninteresting explanations.”

At Christmas time there is a certain “magic” in the air that is hard to miss, but, it’s not impossible to miss. If one wants to you can come up with uninteresting explanations and right Christmas off as consumerism, pressure and commercialization. It’s all just noise, barkings, growlings, baying and howling. Like Uncle Andrew, you can avoid thinking and feeling things you don’t want to think and feel.

But, if one pays attention, you can tune into the magic, the deeper longing embedded within the core of the whole vast Christmas industry, and if you listen carefully enough, discover that there is still a “song beyond comparison” being sung. Trees are decorated, Christmas movies are watched, Christmas lights are set up, gifts are bought and wrapped, cards are written, soldiers fighting pause to play soccer and share cigarettes, even those with only a little do what that can to give to others – ultimately because faith, hope and love still desperately wants to spring to life and is stirring people’s hearts.

While some find it easy to dismiss God, a novel idea, a myth, a theory of everything; dismissing Christmas isn’t so easy. Luther and Nora Krank try to do this in the movie, Christmas with the Kranks, it’s not so easy. Christmas is all-encompassing.

To dismiss Christmas is to dismiss a part of ourselves, it’s to dismiss some of the most wonderful and some of the most enduring aspects of our childhood, and at the same time, some of the most fragile aspects as well (the hopes and fears of all the years, the tears and the laughter). In one sense it is to dismiss the child that still lives inside each of us. To dismiss Christmas is to dismiss the sense that there is more to life than the ordinary and the mundane, that life is also somehow mysterious and magical. It’s to dismiss the possibility that reindeer really know how to fly.

It’s to dismiss that leap in your heart as you wake to another morning only to quickly remember that it isn’t another morning at all – it is a morning as different to any other morning as you can get. And, in doing so, it’s to dismiss the possibility that some way, somehow, someday – this once a year Christmas feeling, could actually become an every day of the year feeling. It’s to dismiss the idea that peace on earth and goodwill to all – might actually be possible.

Which, whether we realize it or not, or accept it or not, is to dismiss the idea that Jesus Christ is actually Emmanuel, God with us, the one who will save us from our sins and make all things new.

How is this all going to happen? How can a baby, born in a manger, be the beginning of some whole new thing that God is doing? Well, that’s the story that unfolds in Epiphany and Lent and Easter and isn’t the issue at this stage of the story. For now, in Advent, the invitation is to re-imagine this world turned right-side-up. And to embrace all of the excitement, anticipation, risk and fear that comes with daring to imagine such a thing.

It’s to imagine new possibilities for your life over the next 12 months.

That, in our lives and in the world – pain and heartache could find healing, that anxiety and worry could fade away, that waring and fighting could give way to peace, that disappointment and heartache could become joy and laughter, that faith, hope and love can actually spring to life. It is an invitation to re-imagine this world and to tune into a song beyond comparison that is being sung today. A song of heaven that still plays in the quiet of our hearts today.

Living God, I pray for my brothers and sisters,
May they know your presence in this season of possibility.
Give them the ability to see as you see – to re-imagine this world
As one made new, reconciled and restored.
Give them a heart that is obedient,
A faith that is kingdom-focused and a love that is neighbourly.
Awaken them to your song, a song beyond comparison
A song that is being sung today.
Act in us, through us, and beyond us,
That we might see a weary world rejoicing.
As we go this morning, may we go in
The grace of the Father
The love of the Son
And the comfort of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks to C.S.Lewis for The Magicians Newphew, Frederick Buechner, Barbara Brown-Taylor and Walter Brueggemann, for shaping elements of the above. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Advent; the Moment Before THE MOMENT

Advent is the four-week season that leads into Christmas; the moment before The Moment. Advent is an invitation to consider words like anticipation, expectation, hope, and waiting. What are you hoping for? What are you waiting for? What are you counting down to? During Advent we’re invited to fix our hearts and hopes on Jesus. We’re invited to join with Joseph, Mary, Simeon, the Wise Men of the East, the shepherds of the field, the people of Israel, in their waiting for the Messiah, for the birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago. We’re invited to consider our own need of Jesus today, to allow an excited anticipation to stir in our hearts as we trust Jesus to show up in our lives in different ways. And, of course, we’re invited to put our trust in Jesus as we consider a world that desperately needs Jesus to come again, to bring peace on earth, and God’s good will here as in heaven. 

Advent starts on the 3rd of December, only a couple of weeks away, so here are some tips to help you to engage in the season as Advent as we prepare and countdown to our celebration of the coming of Christ at Christmas.

1:   Get your hands on an Advent Devotional of some sort. If you Google “Advent Devotional” plenty of options will come up. This year I’m using Walter Brueggemann’s Celebrating Abundance. The Bruegg-Master is always top shelf and was only $3 on Kindle. There are plenty of other great options as well, see… Bonhoeffer and Annie Dillard, N.T. Wright, Richard Rhor, Spurgeon, Tozer etc. There is even one by Heidi Haverkamp called Advent in Narnia.  

2:   During Advent, when you find yourself waiting – for an appointment, in traffic, for the kid's sports practice to finish, for your turn at the supermarket check-out – don’t let it be a moment of stress and impatience; let it be a moment of peace. Celebrate the waiting. Celebrate that things are out of your control. Celebrate that the world doesn’t run according to your time-frames. Celebrate that life is a gift to be savoured not a “to-do-list” that must be completed as quickly as possible. Remember that whatever you are hoping to get to next, isn’t as important as what you think. What is important is peace on earth. Choose the peace of God in that moment, and remember we’re counting down to the one who declares “peace on earth, and goodwill to all.”  

3:   Read one book from C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, let their magic remind you that all of this is pretty “magical,” the gift of a loving God.

4:   Head to your local shopping mall and park yourself somewhere where you can sit and watch and take it all in. Revel in the hustle and the bustle, the decorations, the lights and the people out and about buying gifts for one another. Don’t let the consumerism of Christmas (which is nasty) distract you from the fact that there is something in the air. Even secular people see Christmas as something “other” than ordinary time. Smile when you see people obviously enjoying themselves, humming away to the Christmas tunes. Pray for those that look stressed, anxious, argumentative, consumed by consumerism and what has disintegrated into a silly season. (In regard to consumerism you could watch What Would Jesus Buy?)

5:   Watch a Christmas movie, with your spouse, with your kids, in your flat. Maybe pick one you loved as a child. One that makes you laugh or one that makes you cry. Life goes quick, so pause and enjoy the moment together.

6:   Buy something to either eat or drink that is a genuine treat, something “other” than what you’d normally buy, something even a bit extravagant. And then share it with someone, with strangers or friends. Let it be a delight, a reminder that we are blessed and that God is good. Let it be a sacramental nod to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb; that we’re waiting for Jesus and for a time where we no longer fast but will feast with all being healed and restored.

7:   Simultaneously, ask how you could simplify Christmas. What could you do this year to take some of the stress out of Christmas? What do you need to say “no” to? What pressure to conform do you need to resist? Advent is a chance to intentionally prepare for Christmas and you need not get caught up in the rat-race of the world’s corruption of a festive season into a silly season.  

8:   Appreciate that others are not as fortunate as you. Look beyond your family this Christmas, how could you bless someone in need?

9:   Instead of a Christmas wish list of gifts and toys you’re longing for, hopefully you’ve moved beyond that, take a moment to make a list of spaces and places in your life, in your family, in your work, in your church, where you need the love and light of Christ to shine. Let this be a prayer list for Christmas and bring this before God. An invitation for Jesus to turn up.

10:   Throughout the entire season of Advent, as we count down to Christmas and the coming of Christ, remind yourself again and again, that nothing will truly bring the satisfaction, the fulfillment, the peace, the wholeness, the hope that we all long for in different ways; other than Jesus. That new phone, winning lotto, getting into that new relationship or out of that old relationship may feel life-giving for a moment, but you’ll soon find yourself feeling empty again. Jesus is the reason for the season, and honestly, the only thing that brings fullness of life.

Grace and peace all. 

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Craft Beer and Christian Spirituality

Based on the title above, it might be hard to appreciate that what follows could in anyway be a serious exposé – especially given that in some Christian circles alcohol is, well to put it bluntly, entirely of the devil. To my way of thinking though, linking Christian spirituality and craft beer has some promising possibilities.

Let me have a go…

In the church genre that I grew up in, alcohol was something frowned upon. Those involved in church leadership were required to refrain from drinking. A staunch adherence to this (not something practiced by all leaders) meant a cold pint on a hot summer day was off-limits. By implication it also meant that if time travel had been possible and you could have attended that famous first-century wedding in Cana, you would have been prohibited from toasting the bride with that most divine of red wines! Imagine that, imagine not being able to sip away on a lovely glass of “Mother’s Command, that one-off Canaan Syrah, heralded by one sommelier as the finest of the fine wines! [Vintner Jesus Christ. Vintage approx. 29 AD). Certainly, for me, the thought of turning down a glass (or two) of this delectable oinos in favour of a raspberry lemonade, well, it puts my head in a spin.

Writing in Tasting Beer, connoisseur Randy Mosher makes the following comment regarding those who came-of-age during America’s prohibition; “A whole generation grew up viewing alcohol as forbidden fruit, which makes it all the more tempting, but in a dirty, creepy sort of way.”[1] This is a keen observation, and something that is often true, especially when that which is forbidden is actually something that can be engaged-with in an appropriate manner. Likely, some who came-of-age in a “church of prohibition” ended up with a perverted attraction to alcohol as well, at least in their younger years. More common though, would be a more basic and legalistic type objection to alcohol: it is evil, bad, wrong, unwise, to be avoided at all costs, dangerous and corrupt. Essentially, you could say, something to be feared.

Too much fear though (and too much worship), empowers realities within creation that were never intended to be feared, worshipped or empowered. It establishes them as what the Bible calls principalities and powers; false gods. Most ancient cultures venerated a god of wine or beer; Dionysus was the Greek god of wine, Liber the Roman. Ninkasi was the Sumerian god of beer, Sucellus the Celtic god of ale. In our twenty-first century context, we may not refer to these gods by name, nevertheless many people still live either in the worship of, or the fear of, alcohol as a false god. There is a better way.

Alcohol is neither to be feared or worshiped; this is the domain of God alone. Alcohol is an entity within creation and should be related to accordingly and not empowered inappropriately. This requires wisdom, something which should be about as clear and obvious as the chocolate in Behemoth’s Triple Chocolate Milk Stout. i.e. pretty darn obvious! But this is the point. When you practice wisdom in situations where it is obviously required, it makes it that much easier to practice wisdom in areas where it doesn’t seem so necessary. By making alcohol a “forbidden-fruit,” even with the best intentions of keeping people safe, it removes the need to learn wisdom, and instead, promotes avoidance, disengagement, and disapproval. Certainly, these are appropriate concepts at times, but wisdom trumps them all. 

Further, when we don’t learn to exercise wisdom where it is obviously needed, it makes it that much harder to learn how to exercise wisdom in areas where the need is less obvious. We get lulled into a false dualism where things are either “bad” and to be avoided, or “good” and anything goes. The world doesn’t work like that though. There is no such thing as anything goes. Every facet of life requires wisdom in some way, shape or form.

Sin hasn’t only damaged humanities relationship with God, it has also damaged the internal relationship we have with our very own self, with other people, and with the rest of the created world we live in. As a result, everything can and does get out of hand if one’s not careful. Wisdom is needed in all things; the food we eat; how much we sleep; the technology we develop and how we use it; the exercise we engage in; how we look after our lakes and rivers; how we engage with social media; the way we manage our fisheries; the forests we cut down to plant crops; how we organise social infrastructure; the sugar we consume; the television we devour; the stories we allow to frame our lives; the stories we resist. And on, and on, and on.

Avoidance doesn’t teach wisdom.


So firstly, when it comes to alcohol the movement needs to be away from worship (at one end of the spectrum and sadly highlighted by alcoholism), and away from inappropriate fear (at the other end of the spectrum and often expressed in legalism), and towards a relationship of wisdom.

In wisdom, one can then make choices about abstinence or consumption, free of both fear and lust (inappropriate desire), and free from any need to judge the choices of another.

The obvious need to develop wisdom in relation to alcohol serves as a catalyst in developing wisdom in areas of life that don’t immediately appear to require wisdom.


Everything so far, I think, is good stuff, but the link to Christian spirituality is still probably a little tentative. Craft beer turns things up a notch though, so let’s push on.

In contrast to growing up in a church genre opposed to alcohol, for many Christians in the monastic communities of Belgium, cottage industry craft brewing served as a standard means by which they’d raise the funds necessary to support the life of their order. Modern churches pass the bucket and look for wealthy donors, but the older monastic orders would brew fine ales and export them around the world. How cool is that?! Surely a possibility for St Luke’s, especially given St Luke is the Patron Saint of Brewers?

The more famous of these monastic breweries are referred to as Trappist breweries and are run by Catholic monks who live as cloistered contemplatives, in accordance with the Rule of St. Benedict. Over the years many of the successful Trappist breweries have been bought out by industrial brewing companies, and their beers are now referred to as “Abby” beers. There are still eleven officially recognised Trappist breweries running today. Six of these are Belgium monasteries; Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvletren. The others are in Holland (2), Austria, Italy, and the United States.

To be designated a Trappist brewery there are certain criteria that must be met.

Firstly, the beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision. The brewery cannot be relocated as an industrial enterprise.

Secondly, the brewery and the beer must be of secondary importance to the monastery. In other words, the monastery’s main reason for existence must be monastic pursuits; contemplation, prayer, the study of Scripture, service and the worship of God. The brewing of beer comes after these endeavors.

Thirdly, the brewery is not to be an unfettered capitalistic-type profit-making venture. The income drawn from the production and sale of beer is to cover the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the monastic buildings and grounds. After that, any other profits are to be donated to charity.

Trappist beer is thus brewed in smaller quantities than other beers. On average 4,400,000 litres per year. The least per year is 200,000 litres (Tre Fontane Abbey and Stift Engelszell), the most is 14,500,000 litres per year (La Trappe which you can find in your local New World Supermarket here in NZ). While this is a lot more than your average homebrewer, it is a long way short of companies like AB InBev which owns 500 different beer brands, with multiple beers brewed under each brand, including the likes of Corona (985,320,000 litres), and Bud-Light (something like 14,662,500,000 litres). That’s a thousand times more beer than the largest Trappist produce, and that’s only one beer within 500 different beer brands.

La Trappe (Holland - 1884) 

These smaller quantities are not to suggest that Trappist beers are second rate; far from it, Westvletren is widely regarded as the worlds “best” beer. It is hard to get one’s hands on though, as it is generally only sold at the actual gate of the monastery in Belgium. By the time it does get to New Zealand, if it does get that far, being so rare the price skyrockets. A 330ml bottle goes for $101 NZD (Belgian Beer Café off Queen Street, Auckland).

Here though, we’ve craft beer at its finest. We’ve monks brewing away, in all things working whole heartedly for the glory of God (Colossians 3:23). We’ve intense flavour profiles, delicious to some, off-putting to others – but that doesn’t matter, it’s not being brewed for mass consumption but rather for connoisseur-like enjoyment. The connoisseur part is important. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

How is this for a business ethic though!?!

1) The business, in this case beer, is secondary to the main pursuits of life; prayer, study, service, worship, community. Business is a means, but not the end in and of itself. But, rather than money being the end, other pursuits are the end.

2) Statutes of limitation are put in place; the goal is not maximum production and profit. One knows when to stop. This makes space for others; monopolization is avoided, which creates gaps in the market that other business can fill and in doing so creates jobs and opportunities for others to flourish in life.

3) The product produced is top shelf quality. It never sets out to be a mass produced, or appeal to as many as possible type product. In this case, one-size-fits-all beer-flavoured-water (Bud-Light). It’s happy to be unique even to the point of alienating some while appealing to others.

4) Once a certain level of profit is achieved the rest is donated to charity to make the world a better place. The business exists mindful of the needs of the wider community within which the business operates. There is a concern for one’s neighbours.

One of the key attributes of wisdom is awareness. This is business awareness at its finest.

So before we even get to talk about conscientious consumption, Trappist beer hits us with conscientious production – this is awesome!


Most craft beers are produced with a “similar” ethos. Though the profit and the charitable aims wouldn’t align. Nevertheless, they are small batch brewing with little desire (or hope of) monopolizing the market. (And, when certain craft beer breweries take off, eventually “selling-out” to the big multinationals, more often than not, consumers are annoyed and often move on to other brands – Emmerson’s, Ballast Point etc.). In terms of flavours, craft beers offer deep, contrasting, complementary, complex, and sometimes even off-putting flavours.

Ultimately these beers aren’t designed for mass production or mass consumption, they are so flavoursome they actually fatigue the pallet. Like a good lemon meringue pie, the first piece is simply divine, once you’ve had that you’re pretty much done. “A second piece?” “Ah, no thank you.” Craft beer is a bit like that. Randy Mosher, again in Tasting Beer explains; “Large brewers know that their drinkers value drinkability above all else. Drinkability basically requires drinkers to stop drinking because they know it is time to stop even though they don’t want to. [Though of course many consumers don’t]. Hence the bitterness in mainstream beers is incredibly low, and corn and rice is often used instead of malt. The beer is light and watery. In contrast, the complexity of the hoppy bitterness and malty caramel in craft beer are intended to fatigue the pallet.”[2]  (Paraphrased).

Hence, craft beer is really an invitation to drink as a connoisseur rather than simply as a consumer. And this is the big game changer.  

The difference between a consumer and a connoisseur is ultimately one of awareness and appreciation. Consumers are mostly concerned with taste, convenience, price point, and quantity. Connoisseurs though, they want to know the bigger story. Where is the beer made? What is the brewer attempting to do? What flavour profiles should I be expecting pick up? What are the tasting notes that accompany this beer? How does this compare to other similar styles of beer? What’s the history of this style of beer? What is the alcohol percentage in is this beer? What glass would highlight the flavour profiles in this beer? What food should I match this beer with? Etc. etc..

The whole process is slower, more thoughtful, more engaged, more present. There is a deeper awareness of what is going on. Both in the production of the beer and in the consumption of the beer. As a result, one ends up paying more for less, but in return gets so much more. But the connoisseur is in their happy place.

With craft beer, it’s not about mowing the lawns, working up a sweat, and then popping the caps and chugging down a couple of bottles faster than you can say; “Heineken equals water,” rather as Mosher puts it; “Presentation is half the game. It’s not cheating. A great beer poured into a perfect glass at just the right temperature, in the best possible setting, with friends old and new should always be the goal. Anything else cheats the brewer and the drinker alike.”[3]

And then he describes drinking a beer as follows… “Consider the beer-filled glass in your hand. Look closely. Study the rich colour and slight viscosity [thickness] of the liquid. Observe the way the light plays on the shimmering highlights. Watch the bubbles as they form and rise lazily through the beer, adding to the creamy foam on the top, hushed and peaceful as a snowfall. Lift the glass to your lips, but first, pause to inhale and ponder the aroma. Draw in the bready, caramelly, or toasty foundation of malt, the brisk green counterpoint of hops, and the swirling cupboard of spices and fruit, earth and wood. These scents can fire off neurons in the forgotten happy corners of your memory, as powerful an experience as any art form. Finally, have a taste. The beer floods in, cool and crisp or warm and rich. Observe the first blush of flavour and the tart tingle of carbonation. As the beer warms in your mouth, it releases a new round of flavours and sensations: malty sweetness, bright herbal hops, a touch of toast, all building to a bittersweet crescendo. It’s not one single taste; it’s an ever-evolving cinematic experience unspooling as you drink. A soft inward breath stirs a new layer of beery perfume. The grand finale comes as a long-fading aftertaste, with lingering wisps of resin, toast, or honey, concluding perhaps with a gentle warming alcohol sensation in your throat.”[4] 

That’s just glorious.

He adds; “If you can read the meaning in these sensations, the whole history of brewing opens up, and the long process reveals itself in the beer."[5]

Or, perhaps you could put it like this; when you learn to drink like a connoisseur you discover an invitation into a story far bigger than you ever imagined, a story of golden barley fields, brew houses large and small, hop harvests, toasting racks, tasting notes, fermentation, contemplation and taste sensations.  

Ultimately, to drink as a connoisseur means to drink slowly, carefully, considerately, with some knowledge, with some awareness, with some appreciation and understanding of what is going on, with wisdom, with an eye to the far larger story.

When you add your Christian faith to that mix you’re not far away from engaging in a sacramental appreciation of life. Perhaps you could say it like this; connoisseur like appreciation is the doorway to sacramental living. Perhaps you could even say it like this; a Christian connoisseur can’t help but be a sacramental Christian.

And what is a sacramental Christian? One who finds their way to God via the signposts of everyday ordinary life. They are aware that there is no such thing as everyday ordinary life – it’s all a gift and part of a far bigger story. A story of grace and love and hope and possibility. Of a God who created the universe and looked at it all and said; “Good, good, good, good, and very good!”

When it comes to craft beer, a Christian connoisseur, as a sacramental Christian doesn’t simply drink with restraint (or abstain entirely when that is appropriate, aware of the dangers of over indulgence and not causing others to stumble etc.), that’s just entry level wisdom. Rather, they drink with eyes-wide-open to the wonder and glory of God. There is an enhanced degree of wisdom.

At the end of the day a Christian connoisseur – a sacramental Christian – takes the things of the world far more seriously than folk who think of themselves as worldly. Every facet of life is appreciated as a gift from God; the birds of the air, the stars of the night, the laughter of children, the glory of a sunset, the embrace of a friend, the intimacy of a spouse, the bread and wine of communion, the waters of baptism – and even craft beer. 

The glory is not the beer itself, but rather, the glory of God that it points to.

The secret is not the beer itself, (Liberty Brewing’s Knife Party IPA rather than Steinlager’s nonsense) but rather, the mindset of a connoisseur.

The call is not for everyone to suddenly start drinking craft beer, but rather to quit being a consumer and to become a connoisseur of life.

Our consumer driven, capitalist, modern growth economy requires an almost superficial attachment to people and things. We need to be free to follow the market – the new, the novel, the next thing. Spouse 2.0, church 5.0, iPhone 8.0, purchase 13.0 – moving from one thing to the next, devouring, consuming, forking out more dollars in the hope of finding satisfaction – you won’t!

Quit being a consumer and become a connoisseur. 

Consumers; they don’t like this or that or the other thing, they are never satisfied, they are quick to judge based on personal tastes and instant gratification. They are surface deep and miss what is going on.

Connoisseurs realise there is more to the story – their insight, understanding, appreciation, knowledge, grace, wisdom, and ultimately love – helps them to see things with different eyes.

God is not far off, God is near. God is not stingy, God is generous. God doesn’t add heavy loads, his yoke is easy and his burden is light. God is present in all things, it is in him that we live and move and have our being.

It’s all a gift to be savoured and should be appreciated with the passion of a connoisseur.

The call is to become a connoisseur of life!

A connoisseur of friendship.
A connoisseur of marriage.
A connoisseur of creation.
A connoisseur of parenting.

Connoisseurs realise it is all a gift from God. And that changes everything. There is a new awareness of the divine that begins to shape the entirety of one’s life. When wisdom discovers Wisdom everything changes.  

Colossians 1:15-20
We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment. And when it comes to the church, he organizes and holds it together, like a head does a body. He was supreme in the beginning and—leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end. From beginning to end he’s there, towering far above everything, everyone. So spacious is he, so roomy, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. Not only that, but all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.


The official Catholic prayer in relation to beer is as follows…

Priest: Our help is in the name of the Lord.
All: Who made heaven and earth.
Priest: The Lord be with you.
All: May He also be with you.
Priest: Let us pray. Lord, bless (make the sign of the cross +) this beer, which by your kindness and power has been produced from kernels of grain, and let it be a healthful drink for mankind. Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul; through Christ our Lord.
All: Amen.

Craft beer and Christian spirituality – it’s a thing.
But really, it’s about a connoisseur mentality that leads to sacramental living.
Which actually makes it all about discovering the wonder and glory and gracious life giving the presence of God, not in the "things," but in the realisation that the "things" point to God.

Well, I'll drink to that! 

[1] Randy Mosher, Tasting Beer; An Insider’s Guide to the World’s Greatest Drink, (North Adams, MA: Storey Publishing, 2009), 21.
[2] Ibid., 65.
[3] Ibid., 2.
[4] Ibid., viii.
[5] Ibid., viii.

Friday, August 4, 2017

If the Holy Spirit "lives in you," then where?

The following is some thinking out-loud...

I’ve been having a great back and forth discussion with a good friend regarding the ontological make-up of human beings; bodies, souls, spirits, hearts, minds, bio-mechanics, neurological capabilities etc. My perspective is that humans are indivisible-wholes, we are fully embodied beings whom at death cease to exist. In other words, there is not a “soul” part to us, that at death detaches or flies from the body to another place or realm. Rather our story simply comes to an end. However, this end is not the end. Our story is not forgotten and in the eschaton (the age to come when God judges, heals and renews all things), God (who knows our story even better than we do), will bring about resurrection life and the continuation of our story. This will include forgiving, healing, restoring and renewing the broken and damaged parts of our story as well – there will be no more tears, no more pain, and no more heartache.  Thus, in our “storied-existence,” death at the bottom of page 91 (for example), gives way to resurrection life at the top of page 92, meaning that to be absent from the body (dead) is indeed to instantly be present with the Lord; irrespective of the years that go by in the space, time and matter universe of earth.

In terms of the “soul,” I’m not trying to do-away with it, but rather, to rescue it from dualistic ideas that all-to-often compartmentalize our lived experiences and hinder us in our journey to become fully human – to become Christ-like. As a pastor, I’m trying to minister the life-of-Christ to the life of our church community, in order that they might become whole and healthy humans – fully human in their reflection of Jesus who shows us what it means to be truly human! Attempting this, without a clear understanding of what it is to be human, has the potential to result in all sorts of disconnect and frustration – our ministry is not to “souls,” or “bodies,” or “spirits,” or “hearts,” or “minds,” but to fully embodied people.

I would understand the “soul” to be our inner-self, our accumulated reflections, thoughts, feelings, hopes, passions, dreams, fears, and anxieties – ultimately the product of our natured, nurtured, neurological, biomechanical embodied life. In this sense it is our story, not in terms of an historical-narrative though (that’s too liner), but rather in a more three-dimensional and alive sense; we can go back-and-forth, up-and-down, in-and-out, to-and-fro within our story. It is part ego, part shadow-self, part enlightened, part known, part unknown, part shared and part kept as a secret. In this manner, the “soul” is very real and very much alive. But, it isn’t a ghost that flies away at death, nor the real us to be set against our “body” as simply a “house.” The “soul” only exists in an embodied story and thus, like the body, is extinguished in death. But we have hope! (Did I mention that?)

In our conversation, a passage in 1 Corinthians came up…

1 Corinthians 6:19
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, which is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own.

If the Holy Spirit lives in us, where does it live? It’s an ontologically framed question in light of our ontological discussion. Quite frankly though, it’s not a question I’d ever considered from that perspective. So, here is my attempt to explain this aspect of this verse. We’ll start with 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and then look at 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, I’ll make some comments as we read. You may like to read the whole of 1 Corinthians though – it wouldn’t be a bad thing.

1 Corinthians 3:16
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 

Here in chapter 3, Paul’s reference to “you yourselves” being the temple of God is a reference to the Corinthian church as a collective community rather than a reference to individual bodies. God dwells in the “community,” the “relationships,” the “gathering” of the Christian church. In this 1st Century context temples always reflected the nature, name and images of their respective gods or goddesses. For the Christian church, the nature, name and image of God was not a reality reflected in carvings or statues but rather in the people of the church, God’s image bearers and their relationships with one another. God makes himself present in their midst and the Corinthian church community serves as God’s sanctuary.

1 Corinthians 3:17
If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.

The sinful divisions of the Corinthian church though (see early in 1 Corinthians), their vainglory, jealousy and partisanship is damaging their common life together. More than that, it is a form of sacrilege because in sinning against “consecrated persons” who are corporately God’s temple, it defiles the joint sharing in the Spirit who consecrates the temple.  This behaviour has the potential to destroy God’s temple, that is, the Corinthian church.

Now, we’ll jump to 1 Corinthians 6, as in this passage we see the individual also referred to as God’s temple. Note here there are number of quotations representing things said by at least some members within the Corinthian church that have been reported to Paul.

1 Corinthians 6:12
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything.

Free from the law of Moses, it seems that some of the Christians in Corinth are abusing this freedom and embracing practices inconsistent with faithfulness to Christ and Christ-like living. Most likely regarding their eating habits, their drinking, and inappropriate sexual relationships.

1 Corinthians 6:13-18
You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit. Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body.

The general openness of the Corinthian Christians to this kind of living was essentially their advocacy of the quasi-Platonic thought of the day, that is, a dualism between the “physical” and the “spiritual.” Supposedly, one could do what one wanted with their “body,” eat what one wanted to and sleep with whoever one decided to, with this having no bearing in terms of sin or in terms of reflecting the nature of God. After all, these were simply physical acts and at the end of the day the “body” would be destroyed, whereas the “soul” would be saved into eternity. The attitude was thus, don’t sin with your “soul,” but do what you like with your “body.”

Paul absolutely rejects this perspective. Paul is all about a fully embodied life. The body is a temple sanctified by the Holy Spirit, united-as-one with Christ, and the mode of being through which and in which the Christian self brings glory to God. Paul rejects Corinthian ideas that freedom from the law now opens the door to licentious sexual relationships, that sin is a “disembodied” reality, and that our “embodied” choices and activities play no role in terms of our future destiny. We’re to live our “embodied” lives today, in light of our “embodied” future and Christian hope. Paul’s great affirmation of the body being the resurrection of Jesus himself! And, whom we are united with and with whom we share hope in regard to the same resurrection. One commentator writes; “Paul’s eschatology counters the dualism of those at Corinth who devalue the body by demonstrating how resurrection destiny is precisely what gives meaning, responsibility, and significance to bodily existence in the present.”

1 Corinthians 6:19-20
Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honour God with your bodies.

Now, in light of 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 and further to comments in the introduction, this dust-of-the-earth body and embodied existence, is not a house for the real us, our “soul,” but rather, is the real us and is instead a house/home/temple for the Holy Spirit – who takes up residence in us and will ultimately give life to our mortal bodies (Romans 8:10). Dualism is foreign to Paul, though popular to culture – then and now. For Paul, the whole embodied person belongs to God, therefore despite illicit union with a prostitute argued by the Corinthians to be merely physical, it effects oneness of relationship which contradicts the Lord’s claim over the body. Sin isn’t something outworked in the “physical realm” as distinct from the “realm of the soul,” this is an artificial division.

So, finally, back to our original question: If the Holy Spirit lives in us, where does it live?

In 1 Corinthians 3 the focus is on the collective community of the church serving as God’s temple. The Holy Spirit dwelt in-their-midst relationally, even as they were in relationship with one another. Their sinning against one another damaged their relationships with one another and served as a threat to themselves (as the church of Corinth) and their ability to exist as God’s temple. God was in-their-midst relationally and the challenge to the church was wrong relationships – in this case broken relationships and divisions with one another.

In 1 Corinthians 6 the issue is again that of relationships. Individuals in this instance, who are united in relationship to Christ, are now also uniting in relationship with prostitutes – the two bodies in sexual union becoming one body. Not ontologically one, but relationally one – a concept which in our day and age (as in Corinth 2,000 years ago) is not always perceived as being that “big” a deal. Biblically however, relationship is the biggest deal. God is a Trinitarian relationship. Creation was created to relate to God, self, others and the rest of creation. God enters a covenant relationship with Israel and is the faithful covenant keeping God. Marriage is to be a life-long covenant relationship. The church is a community of relationship with God, each other and the world. To become a follower of Christ is to come into relationship with Jesus and become one body. Again, not ontologically but relationally.

This isn’t to say there are not ontological implications that come about as a result of sexual union. Neurological pathways are developed, chemicals are released in the brain, associations and memories are created etc., all of which impact the totality of one’s embodied existence. That said, it is still more appropriate to think of two becoming one relationally rather than ontologically – and, we would do well in the 21st Century to re-invigorate our commitment and championing of “relationship” as the biblical value that it is. So, in sexual union a husband and wife become one flesh, they become one relationally, I now live in my wife’s story, and my wife now lives in my story. Relationally it is entirely inappropriate for a husband or wife to engage in sexual union with anyone other than their own spouse – that would be to enter into another story and would be an issue of unfaithfulness and a failure to use one’s body to its proper end – the bringing of worship and glory to God whose temple it is.

So then…

QUESTION: If the Holy Spirit lives in us, where does he live?
ANSWER: He lives in us relationally rather than ontologically.

The Holy Spirit now lives in our story and we live in the Holy Spirit’s story – God’s grand-narrative of scripture and ongoing work in the world. Relationally the Holy Spirit is with us always, and in us always, and us in the Holy Spirit. This is Jesus’ encouragement, to abide; John 15:4Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.