Matt Woodley: This is Matt Woodley with Monday Morning Preacher, where we care deeply about the craft and calling of preaching, and each episode we analyze one aspect of preaching. Today, I'm with my guest host, Aaron Damiani from Immanuel Anglican Church in downtown Chicago.
Aaron Damiani: Hey, Matt.
MW: Good to have you here, Aaron. So tell us a little bit about your church and your ministry context.
AD: I pastor Immanuel Anglican Church in Chicago. We're in the Uptown neighborhood, which is a crazy mix of Millennials, those who are in housing transition, and Nigerian ex-pats. It's a big, joyful gathering every Sunday.
MW: I got to preach there in October and you even invited me to preach again.
AD: They love it when you preach, Matt.
MW: Well, it is awesome to be there. I love your church. So it's an Anglican church which means it's a liturgical church. So what does “liturgical” mean in 30 seconds or less?
AD: To be liturgical means that you take on practices that shape your life. So it's like practices that involve your body that shape your soul. So brunch is a liturgy. The whole process of getting brunch is liturgy. The process of waiting for the next episode of Netflix to fire up is a liturgy; it shapes your soul. So we take on intentional practices that shape our souls.
MW: Okay, and part of a liturgical church is celebrating the church year, and part of the church year is the Lenten season, so that is why you are on this podcast. Because you wrote an entire book on Lent called The Good of Giving Up: Discovering the Freedom of Lent. So we're going to talk about that book a little bit. But I've got to say, a lot of people don’t have a good impression of lent. They think it's dreary and depressing.
AD: Debbie Downer.
MW: Yeah, dreary, legalistic, give up chocolate. So tell us a little bit about the case for Lent.
AD: Part one of my book helps us answer the question of why do Lent at all. If you're an evangelical who loves the gospel, why would you bother at all with Lent, isn't it legalism? The case that I did my best to make was that Lent is about Jesus, Lent is about being yoked in a gentle, powerful way with our Risen Savior. I think a lot of people are not ready for Easter. The awkward, "He is risen" and then "Yeah, he is risen indeed." We're not ready to celebrate his resurrection. So Lent prepares us for Easter and shapes us in such a way where we're ready for heaven, we want to be with the Lord. I find that, more and more culturally speaking, we need to keep Christian time in order to be counter-formed so that we don't go down the lazy river of the culture.
MW: Logistically, Lent is 40 days, obviously a lot of biblical images of 40 days, Jesus in the wilderness 40 days, children of Israel 40 days, all that kind of thing. Starting with Ash Wednesday and then going all the way up until Easter.
AD: That's right.
MW: And it comes around every year.
AD: It does. Each Sunday is like a little Easter. You are celebrating Jesus' resurrection even though it has a Lenten flavor to it, or at least it can. So it's a total of 46 days.
MW: Okay, so let's talk about you and Lent. When you came out of the womb, did you love Lent, or did you have to learn to love Lent?
AD: I had to learn to love the Lent. I did not grow up practicing Lent. When I was engaged, my wife and I, on a fluke we stepped into a church that was liturgical and we happened to visit right before Lent began. So even as we were planning our honeymoon, they were planning for Easter. Our intention was pointed in the direction of having a great time on a 10-day cruise, so that meant that I was on the look-good-naked diet, not successfully. It meant that my money was being saved for paying for the cruise. Meanwhile, everyone around me at our new church was preparing for Easter. That's where their money was going, that's where their habits were going, that's what was engaging their imaginations. So right around the time that Easter rolled around, we went on our cruise and it was so disappointing. I have to say, at first maybe doing mini-golf on the deck of the ship seems luxurious, but after a while it gets really old. I think a lot of people in our culture feel the diminishing returns of over-consumption. We certainly did. But back at our new church, Easter was blown up and people were celebrating that Jesus had risen from the dead, and no one was in a state of legalism there, it was joy and freedom. So I discovered the freedom by watching people live it out. Now I have a family, we lead our family and our church through Lent and that's where the book came from.
MW: That's awesome. We're going to talk at the end for preachers that are probably never going to do Lent. They're just never going to go all out liturgical about Lenten season. So we're going to get to that, so hang on if that's the kind of preacher that you are right now. You say in your book, and this is a direct quote: "Lent is one of my favorite times to preach." Why?
AD: I, like other preachers, really appreciate a receptive audience. When people's hearts are open to the preached Word of God, something changes in the sermon. So here's what happens in Lent: I do the work of a pastor in talking about the season to our people, and giving them a vision for becoming like Christ in Lent. What happens is they think, Oh, okay, we're going to go on a 40-day pilgrimage. So they show up to church a little bit more often, they come with open hearts, and it's a personal thing for them. It's coming at a cost to them. So what happens when I'm preaching is that people have an appetite for the Word of God that wasn't there before. That means that the sermon is more connective and that there's more spiritual fruit that's born. So that's why Lent is one of my favorite times to preach.
MW: So definitely not a Debbie Downer time at all.
AD: No, not at all. It's that light of Easter that we can see over the hills as we're walking in the 40-day pilgrimage.
MW: Yeah, that's really powerful. So you mentioned to me that one of your favorite sermons from that series was from Revelation 3 where Jesus addresses the church in Laodicea so let's listen to a clip from that sermon.
AD: Now, as we consider our own life, maybe the story of the Laodiceans hits home. Maybe we feel no need for God. Maybe we've over-assimilated to the air around us. Maybe we're lukewarm, we lack passion for God. We're no longer a source of God's refreshing, we're no longer a source of God's healing. Maybe our wealth or our independence or our learning, or our growing influence makes us feel like we don't need God anymore. Maybe we've become so blind to our spiritual need because we've become useful, we've become impressive like the Laodiceans. But you know what, maybe you can't relate with the Laodiceans. Maybe you don't. Because it's not so much that you don't need God, it's that for the life of you, you can't feel God. Something inside of you has gone numb. You're sitting at the table with Jesus but you can't quite hold His gaze because the thrill is gone. The love has died, and in its place is spiritual doubt, confusion, deadness and a massive disconnect between your head and your heart. If that's you, please know that Jesus has everything you need to return to your first love. His grace for you is inexhaustible. He's holding all the gifts in His hands, ready to give them to you, even tonight.
If that describes you and you feel numb, here are some diagnostic questions that Jesus might ask you tonight. When was the last time you ever let me satisfy you, really? Have you ever been hungry enough to be hungry for my love? Have you ever been watchful enough, attentive enough, or have every single time you've ever had any kind of hunger of the body have you completely satisfied it to the overflow with the means and the tools you have available to you? Do you just not need me at all, really? I mean think about it, do you need me at all in your life? Have you ever made space in your life for me to satisfy you? Because there's a real strong connection, friends, between spiritual numbness and bodily indulgence.
MW: So tell us about this sermon. Tell us about the broader context and what you're trying to accomplish and how this is a Lenten theme.
AD: You know, I find that most people in our ministry context, whatever their socioeconomic state are accustomed to satisfying every need, every craving, every desire to get all the alcohol we want, all the food we want, all the entertainment we want. It's so easy. You don't have to be intentional at all to satisfy your cravings. So I'm finding that what that does is that deadens people's hearts. So what I was trying to do in this sermon was to give people an opportunity to join the Laodiceans, to listen to Jesus in his warning to not let the satisfying realities of the world, which are so easy, to assimilate us, to assimilate our habits, to assimilate our hearts, to assimilate our lives to the broader culture. What happens when we trust the living Jesus with our desires is that he transforms us, but if we are so fearful of being physically uncomfortable, it makes us spiritually numb. So I wanted the Word of God to wake us up from that place of numbness.
MW: So I'm gathering, Lent is countercultural. You're convincing me. Well, I was already convinced, otherwise I wouldn't have had you on this podcast. But still, it's a good case.
AD: I think there is something about a spiritual pilgrimage that is culturally interesting, so I think that Lent is becoming more interesting to the broader culture. The path of Lent is very culturally surprising and counter-cultural. So as a brand it's probably getting better, unless you grew up doing it and it was legalistic, and in that case most people have a negative view of Lent. They were never given the vision, they were given the means of Lent, they were never told why. But I find that it is a very healthy counter-formation for us who live in America.
MW: So I was at a church in Long Island that was not necessarily real liturgical, I would call it liturgical light. We really didn't do Lent, but I did a Lenten series. So what would you say to preachers who are not going to all out liturgical, they're going to be themselves, but they really like this idea of the school of preparation with Jesus, something Lenten-like. What would you say to those preachers?
AD: I would say absolutely stay who you are, maintain your ecclesial identity and your preaching voice. But then catch the vision that Lent is pointing to. Use Lenten preaching to prepare your people for Easter. Don't let them be caught off guard when you're celebrating Jesus' resurrection from the dead and victory over evil. Take the vision of Lent and then adjust the means so that it fits your people and fits your context. So you can still call people to repentance, you can still call people to be formed into the image of Christ, you can still point to the Cross, the meaning of the Cross, you can still call people to an intentional 40-day journey, which I think a lot of people want. They want their pastor to call them on a spiritual pilgrimage that will shape them according to Christ's image and bond them to Christ. You can use the resources without turning people off using jargon that has baggage for people. You don't have to take the baggage. Take the vision and take the resources and adjust using your pastoral filter.
MW: That is phenomenal advice. Preachers, I hope you have a—can we say have a—not a merry Lent, a happy Lent?
MW: A deep Lent. Have a deep Lent and some deep preaching during the Lenten season.