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Monthly Archives: July 2009

Eileen and Mike and I were away at the New Wilmington Mission Conference last week.  During the conference, I found myself explaining the story of The Upper Room a dozen times, and I realized something about how we tell our story. I always start by sharing how Mike and I began praying in the fall of 2007, asking God whether either of us was called to church-planting. Then I share how we prayer-walked different neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, and then how we landed in Squirrel Hill and began dreaming up the vision for Upper Room.

At this point, the story could go two ways: Option 1 is how I usually tell the story:  We gathered a group of people who said they want to be the team starting this church with us and spent the fall of 2008 in Bible study, prayer, and book study with them.  Together we decided that in January 2009 that we would start Sunday evening house church worship services.  After three months, we ran out of space in my house and moved to Botany Hall of Phipps Conservatory, where we meet at 7:00 pm on Sunday evenings. The end.

Option 2: We gathered a group of people who said they want to be the team starting this church with us and spent the fall of 2008 in Bible study, prayer, and book study with them.  During this time one of our members began teaching ESL for a Iraqi woman living in our neighborhood.  A number of our members partnered with Pittsburgh Region International Student Ministry to befriend international students, mostly from China, who live in our neighborhood.  We planned a music festival in a nearby park, partnering with Urban Impact to have almost 100 kids from local youth groups participating in service and prayer activities during the festival. We support numerous mission opportunities, including a local couple working for InterVarsity, a young woman teaching English in southeast Asia, and someone in training with Christian Peacemaker Teams.  Oh, and we started worship gatherings as a house church in January, but then moved to a different place in April.  And did I mention that we’re only a handful of people?

Option 1, which is what I usually lapse into, tells the story of the “church” from the perspective of a building.  It reflects the culture’s assumption not only that church is a building (as opposed to a group of people) but that the purpose of church is only to get together on Sundays for a worship service (as opposed to participating in God’s mission of redeeming the world).  Option 2, the better option which I began using at the conference last week, tells the story from the perspective of mission, focusing on what we’re doing in the world and in our neighborhood.  It reflects the assumptions that a church is a community of people and that the purpose of that community is to bear witness to God’s Kingdom within the world.

If we chose Option 2 more often, I think we might be surprised at the results.  Which is more attractive when inviting people to church: telling them about our worship space, or telling them about the exciting things we’re doing as a community?  What effect would it have if more established churches described themselves by means of their mission activities rather than their buildings?  How can describing our life as a new church development in these terms help change the way the institutional church measures success and progress in ministry?

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One of the most used prayers in Church tradition is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”  While running on Monday, I decided to meditate on the Jesus Prayer by repeating it several times, each time expounding upon one of the words in the prayer.  If you’re familiar with the Amplified Bible, think of this as the Amplified Jesus Prayer Exercise.   

If I were writing out the prayer exercise, the first time  through would look like this:  “Lord [Master, Ruler, King of Kings, Prince of Peace, true Emperor, only One worthy of obedience and worship, . . .] Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”   The second time would look like “Lord Jesus [Salvation, Savior, Deliverer, Conqueror, born of Mary, teacher, healer, miracle-worker] Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”   Christ brought to mind “Annointed One”, “King”, and “Messiah”.

The elaborations on Son of God that came to my mind sounded doctrinal (“begotten before all time”, “fully God and fully human” etc.) as well as biblical (“Beloved of the Father,”  “Light of the World”).  Have mercy felt much more earthy (“deliver ___”, “heal ___”, forgive, pardon, repair, reconstruct, free, liberate, save).

Each repetition brought more and more words to mind that expounded upon each word of the Jesus Prayer.  One thing that surprised me was how much came to mind when I got to the words “me” and “a sinner”.  For “me” I listed all the ways I could be identified: “husband of Eileen, pastor of Upper Room,  son of . . ., barista, guitar-player, etc.”  As I defined who I am, the rest of the prayer became more personal.  Looking back at the words I had used to expound on “Jesus” and “Son of God”, they no longer felt abstract.  Instead they felt both intimate and concrete.  At “sinner“, I did a bit of a moral inventory, confessing my sinfulness and brokenness, and asking God to reveal other places where I need repentance and healing.

The exercise took me about five minutes, and I think it could easily be adapted for prayer stations in communal worship, or for personal use in other settings.

KaraYesterday I finished reading Siddharth Kara’s book Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery.  There are about 28 million people in slavery across the world today, only a fraction of whom are sex slaves.  But Kara’s book gives a horrifying glimpse into the very real evil of sex trafficking.  He spent years travelling to hotspots for this form of slavery, such as Falkland Road in Mumbai and the Salaria in Rome.  In each place he spent time interviewing victims of human trafficking, often doing his own detective work in finding the brothels that housed slaves and interviewing them secretly inside the brothel.  The stories are harrowing: young girls beaten, starved, drugged, and forced to serve customers 20 times a day.

Kara blames the rise of sex trafficking on several factors.  First is economic globalization, including IMF policies that crippled the economies of former Soviet republics and some southeast Asian countries in the 1990s.  This led to poverty than in many such places created a desperation for jobs which allowed people to be tricked into believing that traffickers offering legitimate jobs in the cities, only to discover too late that they were becoming slaves.    Second is gender bias against women in many cultures, especially in India, Nepal, Albania, and parts of southeast Asia.  Third are poorly implemented governmental strategies to oppose trafficking, including a lack of extradition agreements between certain countries, policies which focus only on the transport of slaves, and corrupt and easily bribed judges, prosecutors, police forces, and border-guards.

Given this analysis of the situation, Kara gives a detailed proposal for a way to fight human trafficking in general and human trafficking in particular.  Included are suggestions for more just economic policies and improved techniques for governmental opposition to slavery.  The goal of these policies, for Kara, is to increase the cost of doing business for slave-owners to the point that slavery is not an economically sustainable business model.  Current fines imposed on convicted traffickers are surprisingly small, and the rates of conviction are so low that human trafficking is (bizarrely) a low-risk venture.  If fines and prison sentences (and of course prosecution and conviction rates) were raised to the levels he suggests, Kara believes that slave-owners would no longer think the money they generate from slaves is worth the risk and the business side of human trafficking would crumble. 

So, writing as a pastor, I’m wondering what can the Church do to fight against this manifestation of evil?  Certainly we can give. Numerous times in the book Kara relates how non-profits and NGOs that work against trafficking or provide shelter for victims are underfunded and poorly supported. Kara gave part of the proceeds from the book to Free the Slaves . At a conference a year ago I met Mark Wexler, of Not For Sale.  Their I am page has ideas of ways to help presented in such a way that its accessible to anyone.  For people of faith, they have the Underground Church Network.

Yet even beyond the scope of these practical human attempts, I wonder is there more the Church can do?  Some stories in the book seemed to reveal the blatantly demonic.  Nigerian Edo women, frequently trafficked to Italy, undergo a ritual that gives their captors and owners a “spiritual” power over them, preventing them from even testifying against the traffickers.  Kara writes that when forced to testify, “Some suffered epileptic fits or entered catatonic trances rather than break their juju vows” (p. 16; see also pages 89-92).  Thinking of Ephesians 6:12 where Paul says “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but . . . against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places,” I wonder what this means for evils such as slavery and human trafficking.   On another level, how much of the problem really lies in the human heart?  What if “customers” who purchase prostitutes repented of lust?  What difference would it make if the Church were serious in its discipleship and proclamation about promoting gender-equality (Galatians 3:28)?  Or if we really confronted the sin of greed that drives the capitalist imperialism that Kara says created the economic conditions that allow slavery to flourish?

This Sunday we’re going to sing a traditional African American spiritual at Upper Room called “Guide my Feet”:

Guide my feet while I run this race. Guide my feet while I run this race. Guide my feet while I run this race, ’cause I don’t want to run this race in vain.”

It’s a simple song, but it’s poignant for where we’re at as a community right now and has meaning in the story of how Upper Room came to be.  Two winters ago, when Mike and I were first walking around Squirrel Hill and other neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, praying about where God might be calling us to plant a new church, this song became a theme for me.  I would sing it in my mind while we walked, literally praying that our feet would be guided to where God wanted us to be.  In the first few months of this adventure of planting a church, I sang this song often thinking about how long a journey we had ahead of us.  It’s a simple prayer for guidance that God answered months ago when we first prayer-walked through this neighborhood, and is still answering today as we look for what direction to turn next.

This past Thursday, a handful of folks from Upper Room came out to prayer-walk through Squirrel Hill.  We began by explaining that people can prayer-walk in different ways: sometimes you pray out loud and it looks like you’re just conversing with the person next to you, sometimes you pray silently, sometimes you just seek to be attentive to the Spirit’s leadings as you walk and observe what’s going on around you.  Then we set off for an hour of doing this in two groups.  This is part of renewed emphasis on prayer in Upper Room, which is already starting to bear fruit. 

I tweeted a few weeks ago that I’m grateful for presbytery staff who encourage me to pray more.  The encouragement they gave that day was directed at the entire community of Upper Room.  We began through and with a heavy emphasis on prayer, and it’s good to be returning to that prayer now.  As one of my favorite quotes from the Philokalia goes, “Pray persistently about everything, and then you will never do anything without God’s help.  Nothing is stronger than prayer in its action, nothing more effective in winning God’s favour.” – St. Mark the Ascetic, 5th Century –