How I learned to let God do the creative work, and escaped the illusion of novelty.
I try to think of the Christian year less as a perpetual circle and more like an ascending cone. Tracing a circle, one goes around, eventually returning back to the point of origin. Tracing a cone, one can go around in a circle, yet never returns merely to the point of origin, but somewhere above—somewhere beyond.
I believe the church calendar is something like that.
Every Advent I find myself stepping into a new place in the river. This is the slow and winding journey of character formation—which happens to be one of the primary strategies the church has historically employed to grow her people up into the image of Jesus. This incremental formation is designed to occur over the course of a lifetime as we are shaped by the story of the gospel.
Our Jewish brothers and sisters have rhythms too. Some we have followed, many we have (sadly) left behind. One of their rhythms is to debate the Pentateuch each week before attending the Saturday Sabbath service. They finish at the end of their calendar year, and then immediately start all over again. So seven years ago I decided to join one.
Every Saturday morning I’d walk to the local Reformed Synagogue and politely listen as they hashed out Torah in community. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy—line after line, week after week—for the whole year. The experience was unforgettable. The theological imagination, the narrative creativity and the layers of understanding made my local Bible study feel like an afternoon round of bingo at a local retirement home. After six months I summoned the courage to ask a question. Engaging the elderly woman to my left, I wondered,
“Mam, how do all of you know so much?”
She replied, “Son, most of us have been chewing on these texts for over fifty years!”
But isn’t the Church calendar limited? Doesn’t it feel constricting to teach to the same story year after year?
Boundaries bring freedom
Mako Fujimura asserts that an artist learns very early that creativity demands boundaries and limits to thrive.
Contemporary art has sought to expand the borders of expression, claiming unlimited expansion for the sake of freedom of expression, often using shock as a means to draw attention to herself, and blatantly challenging boundary making. Freedom of expression, then, became an overriding goal, and any boundary making would be seen as anti-freedom, and anti-art. And as a result, we have dehumanized ourselves in our obsessive focus on self-expression. What if we considered limitations as the beginning of our creative acts? Then, paradoxically, we may see beyond them. Limitations can be a catalyst to find freedom. That is what the Incarnation of Christ teaches us. Following Christ is also to recognize and honor the limits and boundaries of being human; less is more.
Like Mako in art, I have come to find a freedom in boundaries pertaining to following and preaching the Church calendar.
Following the Church calendar year after year is simply the spiritual discipline of narrative recall. We are like spiritual amnesiacs, often forgetting who God says we are before lunch.
In the Scriptures, the command to “remember” as a spiritual practice occurs at minimum 219 times. I’d call that emphatic. Therefore, living (and preaching) the calendar over the course of every year, the Church learns the movement of God toward and through creation.
But if God has a movement toward creation that we are called to remember, what is that rhythm? The calendar is one of the ways to best comprehend God’s activity in creation. In short, it is among the best discipling tools to be formed by the shape of the gospel. God’s relation to creation, which the calendar annually guides us into, is prepositional.
What do I mean by this? A preposition is defined as “governing word preceding a noun/pronoun and expressing a relation to another element in the clause.” In other words, first and foremost, God is relationship; God is expressive. The God who is is also the God who reveals relationally.
We find God’s movement toward creation best articulated though the story that the Church calendar re-enacts. Consider four movements:
Movement 1) Over and against deism, Advent through Epiphany reminds us that God is with us.
Movement 2) Over and against an angry God, Lent through Easter instills within that God is for us.
Movement 3) Eastertide through Pentecost is the signpost that God is in us. The Spirit of the Risen Christ indwells the Church, making her holy.
Movement 4) Finally we enter into Ordinary time, which makes up more than half the calendar year. But make no mistake, Ordinary time is anything but ordinary by the world’s standards. This time of the year is the promise that God works through us.
Think about it: a theology of the ordinary is no ordinary theology. After all, isn’t this where we learn the sacramental nature of all things? More often than not, God has chosen to move through ordinary elements like bread and wine, water, flesh, and nature to bring about the fruit of the Kingdom.
Faithful is greater than novel
By living the boundaries of the calendar year, we enter into the freedom. Simply put, we trust that the Spirit of God will move through the arc of the story to bring about transformation.
It was winter of 2006. I was 24 years old pastoring a young adults community that had grown to average 1000 congregants on a Sunday. Without a clue as to what I was doing, it became obvious to me that we had succumbed to the self-imposed pressure of needing more innovative and clever preaching series. This meant more thematic videos, which meant trendier graphics, and so on. Within a year of planting the community I was exhausted.
In the freneticism of that season, my path crossed with a young Anglican church planter who pastored a similar demographic in another city. Toward the beginning of our conversation I asked him how he designed the preaching series' throughout the year. I’ve never recovered from his response (in truth I never plan to). He said, “Years ago, I grew weary of funneling the best of my creative efforts into coming up with preaching series’ month after month. Now I just teach the calendar, follow the story, and allow God to be the creative One in our Church…”
For years I bought into the illusion of novelty. Since then I’ve discovered the transformation of human souls lies more in the pursuit of being faithful than being novel. To follow and preach the Church calendar is an act of trust—trusting that the story that got us here is the same story we should faithfully pass on to the next generation. By participation in the sacred year of the Lord we become part of what we celebrate, and it slowly but surely becomes a part of us.
Aren’t boundaries liberating? Isn't the pursuit of faithfulness superior to novelty? Isn’t following tradition beautiful? The Austrian composer, Gustav Mahler, said it best: “Tradition is not to preserve the ashes but to pass on the flame.”
Appendix for preachers
Consider how Trinity Grace Church in Manhattan is utilizing the calendar for preaching series in 2014-2015:
"A Light in the Dark"
"Light of the World"
"A Table in the Wilderness"
"Did Our Hearts Not Burn?"
Post-Resurrection (Pre-Ascension) Narratives
"Come Holy Spirit"
Ordinary Time (Summer)
"Into His Image"
Selected Narratives on Formation from the Old Testament
Ordinary Time (Fall)
"Exiles in Hope"
A Study in 1 Peter
*Note: This chart does not detail special services such as Christmas Day, Christmas Tide, Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Ascension Sunday, and so on. On those days churches at Trinity Grace typically preach one of the lectionary readings.
AJ Sherrill is pastor of Trinity Grace Church in Manhattan, New York.