“Authentic and intimate faith must often arise out of some personal wasteland.” – Carlen Maddux

a-path-revealed2016 was the first year in my ministry that I performed more funerals than weddings. I knew such a change would come when we left Pittsburgh to return to Colorado and serve where I now serve. Regarding the inevitable memorial services that come with serving an older congregation, another pastor told me, “That’s fertile ground.”

Fertile ground. That’s because death, illness, and other hardships can become catalysts for deeper relationships with God. Not all people accept them as such. But for those who do, the “desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus” (Isaiah 35:1b).  As Carlen Maddux put it in his book A Path Revealed (Paraclete Press 2016), “Authentic and intimate faith must often arise out of some personal wasteland.”

A Path Revealed recounts the diagnosis of Maddux’s wife with Alzheimer’s disease, and the unlikely but very necessary spiritual journey which followed for Carlen. I read A Path Revealed this fall while also reading two other books that related to the spirituality of aging. In Pittsburgh I co-pastored a church plant made up of mostly Millennials. At the present time in Berthoud, I’m pastoring a traditional church with people who could be the parents or grandparents of my former congregants. Maddux’s journey, I learned, is not unlike the journeys of a few of the saints in our congregation here.

richinyearsenTaking another step to familiarize myself with the concerns congregational demographic, I invited them to study another book with me: Johann Christoph Arnold’s Rich in YearsLike other books by Arnold, Rich in Years  addresses difficult topics with remarkable simplicity.
Whether or not congregants agreed with Arnold, the book was a springboard for lively conversations about aging, death, nursing homes, assisted suicide, forgiveness, and other issues. The one portion of Rich in Years which garnered the most criticism, however, was the chapter on “Living with Dementia.” Arnold sought to focus on the a “positive aspect of the disease: the return to childlikeness” (p. 76). Influenced heavily by his namesake, Johann Christoph Blumhardt, Arnold encourages readers to consider sickness and suffering as opportunities for sanctification. Elsewhere he quotes Blumhardt:

When you suffer tribulation, keep in mind that you must do so in such a way that it is not just a victory for yourself but a victory over suffering in general. I have experienced this among epileptics, among the blind, the lame, and the deaf, and in general among the so-called incurably sick. I tell them: Be glad you are like this. Now bring something of Jesus’ death and his resurrection into your situation . . . Then you will help to gain a victory for the whole world.

Our book group found “Be glad that you are like this” to be insensitive and harsh advice. We didn’t argue with the idea that suffering can bring about our sanctification. But we were reluctant to rejoice in it, or to romanticize it in the way that some felt Arnold did.

solace-of-fierce-landscapesThe sanctifying power of suffering is treated with deeper empathy in both Maddux’s A Path Revealed and in Belden Lane’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. One part memoir of his mother’s final years with Alzheimer’s, one part academic history of desert spirituality, and one part travelogue, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes is a rare book. Because Lane blends rather raw narrative of his own experiences of both suffering and contemplative prayer with a studied assessment of the writings of the saints on these topics, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes was the most compelling book of these three. While Maddux and Arnold present simpler visions of the journey through personal wastelands into deeper faith, Lane’s presentation is complex, nuanced, and still mysterious. While Arnold invites readers to encounter God in their suffering, and Maddux shared his personal experience of that encounter, Lane goes beyond those levels to thoroughly introduce the reader to the practice of contemplative prayer as the place of such encounter.

Different as these three books are, their commonalities have been instructive for me as I’ve started pastoring a congregation more well “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:7). Illness, death, grief, and other sufferings can be used for deepening our spiritual maturity and sanctity. Such growth requires a willingness to yield to God’s sovereignty and God’s purposes, to genuinely encounter God rather than trying to comprehend or control him. And the place to cultivate such submission is in the desert, whether figurative or literal. Silence, solitude, and desolate landscapes remind us of the grace that God is God and we are not.

Years ago I read Jürgen Moltmann’s memoir A Broad Place. The book was so titled because Moltmann likened his experience of new life after military service in WWII to the words of Psalm 18:19: “He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”

Our experience of moving home to Colorado has likewise felt like being brought out into a broad place, and not only because the streets are wider and straighter than any in Pittsburgh. We loved (and very much miss) Pittsburgh, but our pace of life there left me feeling both wearied and claustrophobic. The pace of life here in Berthoud is more gradual and gentle. That’s partly because I am now serving an older congregation. But there’s more that makes this feel like a broad place.

There is something humbling about expanses of nature beyond our control – plains or oceans or mountains – reminding us how small we are. It’s easier to “Be still and know” that God is God and I am not when, instead of city traffic, I see this every morning:

Our last weeks in Pittsburgh are a blur befitting the frenetic pace of our life there: saying goodbyes to jobs and friends, preaching my final sermons at The Upper Room, shooting a video to promote a new seminary certificate program, moving out of our house, volunteering at the New Wilmington Mission Conference. On our last day in Pittsburgh, I left the New Wilmington Mission Conference, served communion at my best friend’s mother’s memorial service, drove my wife and daughters to the airport, picked up my father and began a three day cross-country drive through the broad place of middle America.

That drive through rolling Ohio hills to flat fields of corn and soybeans that lasted all the way to Kansas was healing for my soul. The Great Plains are full of space – space to breathe, to pray, to be still. I needed that drive to slow down, to catch my breath, and to prepare for a new life here in Colorado. 

In Fairview, Kansas, we stopped to see the church my great-grandfather pastored a hundred and ten years ago. 

James A. Hunsicker was born in Pennsylvania, but his pastorates moved further West with every new call. After several years in Kansas, Grandpa Hunsicker moved to Colorado to be a fruit rancher, teacher, and pastor. A few days after arriving in Berthoud, I took my oldest daughter to a family gathering at the church he founded in Eckert, Colorado. Seeing her in the portion of the church’s garden which commemorates their centennial anniversary, I couldn’t help but think that the Lord led our family out into a broad place generations ago, and now he’s led us along a similar path.

So what does life look like in this broad place? It’s not all empty space. Today I prepared to interview our church’s next secretary, visited two homebound members, and met with the mayor to ask how our church can seek the well-being of the whole town. Today was a full day, but it didn’t feel like I was striving or forcing anything. Another translation of Psalm 46:10 says, “Cease striving, and know that I am God.” Such steadiness, peace, and trust is ideally possible in any context, but I’m finding it easier here, and I’m grateful to be entering a season of life where the Lord is letting us live in such a broad place. 

This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog.

“We need more five-year church plants,” said John Ogren. He was Skyping into our “Planting and Leading New Churches” class at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, part of the M.Div. Church Planting Emphasis, and reflecting on his experiences in a new church that started, lasted a few years, and then for a variety of reasons, didn’t continue.

It was the first day of class, and our students who had assembled to learn how to plant a (presumably successful) church, seemed relieved to begin with a story of supposed failure. John described how ministry and mission have a “cruciforming” effect upon us. We can receive this as a grace: By following Jesus in mission, we are formed more into his likeness, including his death. Sometimes success is crucifixion and failure is preserving our lives.

“Failure” is not uncommon in church planting. One study suggests that only 68 percent of church plants last for four years. Two speakers coming to Pittsburgh Theological Seminary this month have been a part of new churches that didn’t continue: A church plant which Rachel Held Evans (Being Church, June 10-11) was part of failed and Mark Scandrette (Invitation to Simplicity, June 26-29) has written about his failed attempt to plant a particular kind of church in San Francisco.

The way we approach church planting can make a significant difference in how likely our new worshiping communities are to be sustainable. But there are also a host of other factors beyond our control which affect sustainability. And when for any combination of reasons a ministry has to call it quits, a ministry’s task becomes dying with faithfulness to the mission Christ gave it. So what does a faithful death look like?

I like Mark Scandrette’s approach. A dozen years ago he wrote that in the wake of seeming failure, his community “needed to go back to the Gospels and rediscover the goodness and beauty of the kingdom of God. Jesus is the place where reconstruction begins.”[1] Death became a launching point. Experience of failure led Mark and his family to explore “a more primal pursuit of Jesus and his kingdom . . . practicing and imitating Jesus’ life in our neighborhoods: eating with the homeless, creating art, engaging in classic spiritual disciplines, practicing hospitality, etc. Our vision has changed from a house-church movement to an indigenous Kingdom movement.”[2]

Sometimes our expectations have to be crucified so that Jesus’ reign can be fully displayed.

Christians believe resurrection follows death. Otherwise we would be “of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor 15:19). We’re supposed to be set free from the fear of death (Heb 2:15). So what might our ministries—new and old—look like if we didn’t fear institutional death?

Last fall, our Church Planting Initiative hosted a conference at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary about multi-cultural church planting. In one of his plenary talks, Jin Kim, founding pastor of Church of All Nations, described his church’s identity as a “high risk, low anxiety church because Jesus is Lord.” If Jesus is sovereign, we can take risks for the sake of witnessing to him, even risks that may lead to worldly “failure.” So why do we think we can add one hour to our churches’ lives by worrying about them?

My own church plant might be starting to think this way. I’m accepting a call to a church in another part of the country and will be gone in a couple months. The church we planted in Pittsburgh has dedicated and incredibly gifted leaders, but the transiency of our young demographic means we keep sending people out each year, and those losses are getting harder to replenish. As our elders imagined what could happen in the church in a couple years, one said that if it were to die, it shouldn’t be because of complacency. Rather, she said we should “take the reins and do something big” so that if we die it happens “in a blaze of glory” because we’ve remained faithful to our mission.

Amen. Jesus didn’t die because he gave up. He died because it was essential to the mission the Father had given him to bring resurrection life to the whole world.

For any church to follow that pattern will mean it takes a few risks, wades through lots of uncertainty, and experiences some suffering. But that’s what we’re called to do. The PC(U.S.A.)’s Book of Order actually says that the Church is called to be faithful in mission, “even at the risk of its own life.”

Death for a new church (or any other ministry) can be success as much as it can be failure. Sometimes it will be both at the same time. But a ministry’s degree of success and failure is not determined in terms of sustainability, as though sustainability is an end in itself. Rather success and failure are determined in relation to faithfulness to the mission God has given. A church or ministry can be sustainable but unfaithful. Or we can bear faithful witness to the reign of Jesus Christ and find ourselves broke and worn out. In which case do you think God’s power is more likely to be displayed?

As Romans 8:28 says, God works all things for the good of those who love him. The next verse says that we’re destined “to be conformed to the image” of Jesus. That conformity again includes both crucifixion and resurrection. The death of a ministry can be holy if it dies like Jesus: giving wholly of itself in fidelity to God’s mission in the world. Out of such deaths, the Spirit will bring new life.

Earlier this afternoon, I sent the email below to our church community here in Pittsburgh announcing that we’ll be moving this summer. It’s been eight years since I wrote here that I was Thinking and Praying about Church Planting, and now God has called us on to something new. Eileen and I are delighted to be moving closer to family and are excited about new possibilities in ministry, even though we’ll miss our many friends in Pittsburgh. I hope to write more in the coming weeks and months about our discernment process, the move from being bi-vocational to tri-vocational to being a full-time solo pastor; and the other things God is showing us in this season. For now, here are the words I wrote to our church:


Beloved Friends of The Upper Room,

We often speak of The Upper Room as a “sending church.” In John 20:21 Jesus says, “As the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” For almost eight years, The Upper Room has sought to invite people into living relationship with Jesus Christ, nurture them in faith, and sent them out into the world to participate in God’s mission wherever the Holy Spirit leads them.

Now Eileen and I are asking you to send the Brown family out in the next stage of our vocation as well. On Sunday, May 8th, I preached a sermon at the First Presbyterian Church of Berthoud, Colorado, as the candidate to become their next pastor. After the service the congregation voted to extend a call to me to become their next pastor. I will be begin serving as a solo pastor for them on August 15, 2016.

As I explained to Upper Room’s elders, and to the congregation when this was announced at Upper Room on Pentecost, a pivotal moment in this journey came last fall when session committed to prayerfully ask God, Who should lead The Upper Room in 2016? The answer I sensed from God was that for The Upper Room to thrive in the next season of its life, I would need to move on from leadership here.

So, Eileen and I began asking even last fall where God might call us next. Mike has also been a close conversation partner in this discernment and has known about this possibility in Colorado since we first found out about it. Throughout this season I’ve processed these decisions in regular conversations with my spiritual director and with a few other trusted friends and pastors. The Lord called Mike and me to plant The Upper Room together and gave us a vision for its inception. At the turn of the year, we made the decision to continue serving together at quarter­-time hours because we wanted to honor that vision until God showed us what was next.

Now the Lord has shown us what’s next by placing before me an opportunity to continue to fulfill my vocation as a Minister of Word and Sacrament (Teaching Elder), while also nurturing my family and (I pray) better fulfilling my vocation as a husband and father. Berthoud, CO, is close to where Eileen’s parents live, and we look forward to raising our daughters closer to grandparents. The church which I will serve is a small traditional congregation in a rapidly growing town, and I feel called to help them discover how to relate to new neighbors in a changing context.

My last official day at The Upper Room will be July 15, with July 10 being my final Sunday in worship. Following our denomination’s Book of Order, Mike will become the solo-pastor of The Upper Room upon my departure. There will be other opportunities for goodbyes in the next two months, and I want to remain fully present with you all in this time to help prepare for a good transition. I am confident in the leadership that Mike and the elders will provide in the coming months and ask you to pray for them throughout this season.

We are immensely grateful for the family God has provided for us through The Upper Rooma family that proves true Jesus’ words in Luke 18:29­-30: “No one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life”. Eileen and I left Colorado to follow God’s call to Pittsburgh for seminary and we were surprised by a call to stay and plant The Upper Room.

In our relationships at The Upper Room we’ve discovered not only friends and partners in God’s mission, but a surrogate family who has walked with us through these eight years. As we prepare to return to a homeland, I feel like Jacob: a man who had to leave home to mature and be formed through his service on Laban’s farm, all the while “longing to return to his father’s household” (Genesis 31:30). At the proper time, the Lord sent Jacob back to his home, and I sense that such a transition is before us.

My prayer for the future of The Upper Room is simply and earnestly that the Lord’s will would be done here and that Jesus Christ would be glorified through The Upper Room’s witness. I hope that The Upper Room will continue to be a sending community, genuinely preparing and commissioning others to serve the Lord across the nation and world. I also hope that The Upper Room will continue to live as a faithful family who welcomes others into Christ’s love in our part of Pittsburgh, thus laying deeper roots with long­-term members in Squirrel Hill and its surrounding neighborhoods.

Beautiful things are happening through The Upper Room’s ministry now: We are a family for people who lack family, a community that strives to worship in spirit and truth, and a community with much latent potential and many yet­-to-be discovered gifts. We participate in God’s mission through our members’ lives and through significant local partnerships such as Young Life and the Squirrel Hill Food Pantry. I pray for those gifts to blossom, those mission partnerships to continue to flourish, and for many in the coming years to find a family of people devoted to Jesus Christ at The Upper Room. Naming those hopes, I again pray that the Lord’s will would be done and that Jesus would be glorified through us all.

Thank you for the joy and privilege of serving as a pastor to you all. Feel free to contact me, or Mike, or any of the elders if you have any questions about this transition.

Grace and Peace,
Chris

 

My three year old daughter just entered the “Why?” phase of childhood. Everything around us provides endless possibilities for questions. Why is it dark out? Why do I have to go to sleep? Why don’t we eat boogers? As I’ve listened to her unending curiosity, I’ve become convinced that this inquisitiveness is one reason why Jesus called us to become like little children (Mt 18:2-4). Childlike curiosity actually enables us to more faithfully participate in what Jesus is doing around us in the world.

That means that for pastors and churches in rapidly changing ministry contexts, questions are far more valuable than more static programs or tools. Asking questions puts us in postures of humility and dependence, a posture where we wait upon God and learn to listen to the Holy Spirit. Once we adopt that posture, it’s time to think critically about what kinds of questions we ask. Here are three kinds of questions which can help you engage your whole congregation in more vibrant mission and ministry:

Who is our congregation?

A recent blog post at “Hacking Christianity” tells the story of Brad Laurvick, a Methodist pastor in Denver whose vision for ministry was transformed when another pastor identified himself as pastor to the people of a whole city, not just pastor to a church. That expansive vision of a parish led Laurvick to look for opportunities to serve the community outside the church, including serving ice cream for charity at a local creamery. His thinking demonstrates the ideas of the book The New Parish which encourages churches to recapture their mission to serve and witness to their immediate geographical contexts.

Who is included in your parish? Would the members of your church include their unchurched neighbors in their “congregation”? Do you define yourself as pastor of First Presbyterian Church, or as pastor to the town of Indiana, Pa.? To whom has God sent you?

What is right in our church/neighborhood/town/community context?

It’s too easy to identify and dwell on what is not going well in and around the Church. But what if we asked what is right? This practice is called appreciative inquiry. Consider it an application of Philippians 4:8 to your parish or your ministry context: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable – if there is any excellence or anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Look at your community: Where do you see truth, justice, and beauty happening? How can we lift up the people, events, or parts of a neighborhood culture that are commendable? A world that often hears the Church pointing out what’s wrong might be pleasantly surprised to encounter Christians with eyes to see how God’s latent goodness within the culture we inhabit.

What actions is God calling us to take?

Scott Belsky, argues in his book Making Ideas Happen that most great ideas never come to fruition because we lack the discipline to translate them into action items. My own denomination – the Presbyterian Church – is often caricatured for forming committees to talk, plan, debate, brainstorm, and discuss various ideas, but then failing to translate those ideas into action.

If you lead a church, pay attention and ask these questions in your next meeting: What concrete actions need to be taken in response to our discernment together? Who will take those actions? This doesn’t mean that you need to act on ideas haphazardly. Waiting, praying, and learning are all actions that we can take to ensure more well-informed decision-making. But there always comes a time to move from waiting to going, from praying in the church to praying in the street, and from learning with our heads to learning with our hands.

 Lastly, a question for you: What questions have you found to be clarifying or empowering for your ministry?

 

This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog.

Starting Something NewBack in September, I listed seven books which contemplative church planters ought to read. Now I’m adding one more to the list.

I requested a review copy of Starting Something New: Spiritual Direction for Your God-Given Dream because the title resonates so well with our approach to developing new Christian communities. Planting a church is about listening to the Holy Spirit as God sends us out into mission. We can’t do such ministry faithful unless we’re attentive to God’s voice. Spiritual direction helps us learn to live with such attentiveness.

Starting Something New offers a taste of such direction for those who would read it as they participate in the formation of a new ministry. As Booram writes, “This book is intended to be a companion guide offering spiritual direction for those who are wondering if they have a God-given dream forming inside them but don’t know what to do with it” (p. 14).

Booram succeeds in providing such direction in many places, consistently relating the principles she describes to points in her own journey or to the stories of over a dozen other Christian leaders whom she interviewed for the book. Each chapter addresses a different stage in the birth and growth of an emerging ministry and is followed by questions for inward reflection. All of this is laced with generous amounts of cheerleading for those who may not have the courage to follow their dreams.

But how do we know our dreams are God-given? How can we be sure we’re listening to the Spirit and not just following our own desires? Booram offers some of her best advice in response to this question: “Pay attention to what you are praying. . . . Prayers related to God-inspired dreams seem to be irrepressible” (p. 36). Also, discern whether you are feeling “drawn” into this new life, or “driven.” A feeling of being driven is often more indicative of human ambition or temptation, while God often invites us into something new through visions to which we’re genuinely attracted or drawn (p. 115).

As a church planter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I recognized many of the dynamics Booram names: the time someone told me to plant a church and I responded with skepticism (p. 97), the ambivalence one might feel after a dream-deferred again becomes possible (p. 133), the challenge of adjusting to the “new normal” of life in this dream and developing rhythms to keep it sustainable (p. 163). I can see retrospectively how relevant this book is for church planters. What a gift it would have been to have it as a handbook seven years ago.

Read this slowly and reflectively. The stages of discernment and growth Booram describes can spread out over many years. Let this be one of many companions in discernment throughout the long and joyful journey of starting something new.

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me with a copy of Starting Something New so that I could write this review.

In early 2013, Dave Harrity came to Pittsburgh to lead a writing workshop at The Upper Room. I wrote after the workshop that those who attended “came expecting to write, but left seeing our whole neighborhood through a different lens.” Poetry can help us develop a vision for transfigured reality. Dave’s guidance that day did just that: by writing together we pulled back the veil and glimpsed in a new way what the Holy Spirit was doing among us.

00_CASCADE_TemplateNow Harrity has a new book of poetry out called These Intricacies.  In it, he gives us glimpses of latent glory in the hills of Kentucky, the mysteries and challenges of fatherhood, the passing of seasons, and the endeavors of prayer. Though he has playful moments, the collection is sobering. Harrity’s pictures of family relationships are mysterious and full of longing. Firearms appear dangerous and unpredictable. Prayer yields frustration and bewilderment.

Fitting of our present turn of seasons, Harrity returns often to the humbling effect of winter calling it “Proof positive / that all you make can’t be that important after all”. A spring snowstorm smothering newly blooming flowers is God’s “way to remind us / that death is just / another word for patience.” One hears in these words a reminder that “everything is vapor,” that we are quite small in comparison to the grandeur of creation and the mysteries of God’s schemes.

From this place of smallness, Harrity searches for signs or sounds of hope. Musing on the rock fences of Kentucky – first built by Irish immigrants and then by black slaves – “How does a wall get made into an altar?” Can something which seems to be a monument to violence or injustice be transfigured into something beautiful and holy? Like the imagined altar made of stones once handled by slaves, the glory here is potential, latent. Seeds of the new creation have been planted, but are not yet emerging, and hope still lies beneath the surface of ground. In theological terms, there’s no over-realized eschatology here.

By offering a sobering vision of reality, Harrity invites us to search for what is true, what endures, what truly matters. This is wisdom literature, an invitation to patience and slowness, an invitation to near-contentment. After many poems of prayerfully questioning God’s silence and seeming absence, Harrity offers an image of himself fishing with his father, “all right with saying nothing.” God’s silence may not yet have been broken, but a lakeside moment with a father reveals a relationship beyond words. This is wisdom: to search for communion in patient silence. The pieces collected in These Intricacies are poems to inspire that search.

Thank you to Cascade Books and Wipf and Stock Publishers for providing me with a review copy of These Intricacies so that I could write this review.