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Monthly Archives: February 2012

During Lent this year, I’m reading The Ladder of Divine Ascent by John Climacus. John of the Ladder was the abbot of St. Catherine Monastery on Mt. Sinai in the first half of the seventh century. He wrote the Ladder as a guide for monks, describing what he saw as successive stages of growth in holiness on the road to sanctification.

While I’ve read other monastic literature before, such as the Philokalia, I’m finding The Ladder more difficult to translate into application for life as a non-monk. So, I want to do some external processing and share short reflections here on what I’ve read each week.  From last Wednesday to today, I read through the first six steps: (1) Renunciation of Life, (2) Detachment, (3) Exile,  (4) Obedience, (5) Penitence, and (6) Remembrance of Death.  While in one sense these are successive steps, they can also be thought of as additional tools or practices which one adopts on the journey toward Christ-likeness. And while the context of our lives today may be different from John’s context, the tools themselves can still be quite useful.

Step 1 is “Renunciation of Life”, referring to the movement of a monk out of the world and into the monastery.  Though John is exhorting his readers to abandon the world, he does have some direct advice to those of us still living in the world:

“Some people living carelessly in the world put a question to me: ‘How can we who are married and living amid public cares aspire to the monastic life?’  I answered: ‘Do whatever good you may.  Speak evil of no one.  Rob no one.  Tell no lie.  Despise no one and carry no hate.  Do not separate yourself from the church assemblies.  Show compassion to the needy.  Do not be a cause of scandal to anyone.  Stay away form the bed of another, and be satisfied with what our own wives can provide you.  If you do all this, you will not be far from the kingdom of heaven'” (page 78 – all quotations here and in successive posts are from the Classics of Western Spirituality edition [Paulist Press 1982]).

Such advice seems straightforward and direct.  It’s a bit like Jesus’ words to the “expert in the law” who recites the commandments to Him: “Do this and you will live.”  But doing this and living isn’t easy. Most of us living in the world would find John’s simple list of directions incredibly difficult if we took it seriously.  So we need help learning how to fulfill even such simple commands.  In the world and the monastery both, holiness requires work, training, and discipline. This is precisely why the principles of ascetic practice presented throughout the book can be so helpful for anyone.  More on that will come up in future posts.

But even we who seek such discipline in the world must be careful why and how  we practice such discipline.  Climacus writes that  “those who have lived in the world, and have endured nightlong vigils, fasting, labors, and suffering,” practiced “fake and spurious asceticism” (page 82) .

 “I have seen many different plants of the virtues planted by them in the world, watered by vanity as if from an underground cesspool, made to shoot up by love of show, manured by praise, and yet they quickly withered when transplanted to desert soil [i.e., the monastery], to where the world did not walk, that is, to where they were not manured with the foul-smelling water of vanity.  The things that grow in water cannot bear fruit in dry and arid places” (page 82).

What makes the spiritual disciplines of those who live in the world “fake and spurious”? Vanity.  John’s criticism of those seeking to live a godly life in the world is like Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees who “do all their deeds to be noticed by men” (Mt. 23:5).  True virtue does not seek to be noticed. Rather, it’s done “in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you” (Mt. 6:4, 6, 18). Much of what Climacus writes is frankly harsh and demanding, but in all of this there is an echo of Jesus’ own words in the Gospels, particularly His words to the religious elite, precisely those with whom a devout monk might be tempted to identify.

The opposite of such vanity is humility, which John says is learned through submission and obedience (Step 4) to an abbot or spiritual father: “Humility arises out of obedience, and from humility itself comes dispassion” (p. 109).  John tells tales of extreme acts of discipline completed in the name of obedience to one’s master. But how can does this principle apply to someone outside a monastery? I’m applying it to my own life by asking, “To whom has Christ called me to be obedient?” My answers: My wife. My co-pastor. The community of the House of St. Michael and its leadership. My colleagues and supervisors in ministry in my denomination. My boss at the cafe where I work part-time. All of these relationships provide myriad opportunities to learn humility. Whether in a monastery or in the world, God has already placed us all in relationships where we can practice submission in order to learn humility.

But because of our Climacus gives helpful advice on how to keep our hearts soft toward those closest to us.  When we’re tempted to dismiss those whom we’re called to obey or love submissively, we should remember the great ways in which others have blessed us in the past: “we must write their good deeds indelibly in our hearts and preserve them in our memories so that, when the demons scatter distrust of them among us, we can repel them by what we have retained in our minds” (p. 93).  Surely this is applicable to all of our closest relationships. Whether concerning a spouse, or friends, or co-workers, or family members, our hearts will be healthier if we focus on the love those persons have shown us rather than the ways they have wronged us.

The same is also true of the pastors, worship leaders, or spiritual directors whom God has placed in our lives. The sins and failures of the Church’s human leadership have left many in my generation distrustful of spiritual leaders.  I was once one such distrustful congregant.  Now as a pastor, I can see the other side.  While aware of my own failures and weakness, I can also say that it is difficult for a person to grow spiritually without trusting a leader.  This is really John’s greatest concern regarding the monks under his charge.  He labored long to become a trustworthy leader.  All of us who dare to leader others should likewise constantly seek purification and illumination in order that we, too, may be trustworthy.

A final thought: While obedience and submission is a helpful practice, this discipline is not to be confused with people-pleasing. In his teaching on exile in Step 3, Climacus tells monks who miss their families: “Offend your parents rather than God” (p. 87).  Once again, this is reminiscent of Jesus’ own words (see Matthew 10:37).  Most of us will not apply literally John’s direction to “drive out love for your family” (p. 87), but such teachings do rightly challenge any place where we desire to please other people more than God.  As Paul says in Galatians 1:10, “If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ.”  And if we really want  to please God rather than people, we must become immune to both praise and criticism. Accordingly, John believes we should accept all forms of criticism. “Drink deeply of scorn from every man, as though it were living water handed you to cleanse you from lust.  Then indeed will a deep purity dawn in your soul and the light of God will not grow dim in your heart” (page 111).  I don’t enjoy accepting criticism, but I know I can grow by receiving it.  John Climacus would say it is better to receive rebuke than vanity-begetting praise, lest my spirituality become “fake and spurious”. May God grant us the grace to shed such vanity that we may worship in Spirit and in Truth.

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In less than two months, I’m going to attend the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College.  I first heard of this festival shortly after I graduated college, where I had double-majored in Religious Studies and Creative Writing with an emphasis in Poetry.  Faith and writing were both obviously close to my heart, so I was immediately interested in the Festival.  Then seminary happened, and for several years schoolwork took precedent over writing for the sake of writing.  Now, I write mostly sermons and blogposts (here and for the House of St. Michael), but writing is still one of the most life-giving activities in which I engage. And I want to write more.

So, one of my goals for 2012 is to sharpen my writing skills. To do so I’ve both been writing more often and reading about writing.  Earlier this month, I read several essays from A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Art (Paraclete Press 2008).  Some of my favorite writers have essays in this book, including Scott Cairns, whose essay on poetry made me hunger for The Lord’s Supper.  But the chapter that left me thinking the most was by Richard Foster.  In it, Foster describes the work of “spiritual writing.”  In this genre, you might include the great devotional writings of Church history, the sort of books listed in 25 Books Every Christian Should Read, as well as the hundreds of other spiritual classics that didn’t make that list.  They’re books that have shaped the Church as a whole by shaping the souls of countless individual Christians over the centuries.  Spiritual writing, as Foster puts it, is “heart writing. It aims at the interiority of the reader: the heart, the spirit, the will. Spiritual writing is highly relational.  It is personal.  It is in close.  It is intimate.  It is never at arm’s length. Never.” (p. 169). And because spiritual writing is up close and personal it cannot leave the reader untouched.  The best leaves the reader transformed.

So what advice is there for a young writer who wants to write works that transform people spiritually?   Foster says “As writers, our first incarnational task is to be ourselves filled with this life we are talking about” (p. 173).  To be a spiritual writer, you have to be spiritual.  So Foster advises that we learn to listen.  “The best spiritual writing comes out of the silence.  As writers, we learn to be quiet and still; listening, always listening” (p. 172).  And listening includes reading the works of those who were filled with the life they wrote about: The “best way to understand spiritual writing is to read the best of these writers throughout history” (p. 178).  Listening, praying, worshiping, acting, learning, submitting, reading – this is how we start to live the life we want to write.

I think the act of writing itself can be added to the list of practices one must live and internalize in order to become a spiritual writer. I have a long journey ahead of me as I seek maturity in Christ, but I take comfort in the fact that writing is also a process of discovery. And that means writing is a process that can be used by the Spirit to lead the writer to greater maturity in Christ. Every time I sit down to write, I’m surprised by the final product.   Henri Nouwen, one of the most well-known spiritual writers of the twentieth century, describes the act of writing as a process, a revelation, and a journey.  These sentences from Nouwen’s Reflections on Theological Education (as quoted in Philip Yancey’s book Soul Survivor [Doubleday 2001] p. 298) show what this means:

Most students think that writing means writing down ideas, insights, visions.  They feel that they must first have something to say before they can put it down on paper.  For them writing is little more than recording a pre-existent thought. But with this approach true writing is impossible.  Writing is a process in which we discover what lives in us.  The writing itself reveals what is alive. . . . The deepest satisfaction of writing is precisely that it opens up new spaces within us of which we were not aware before we started to write.  To write is to embark on a journey whose final destination we do not know.

I want to embark on that sort of journey.  Or rather, I want to continue the journey the Holy Spirit is already leading me on, one which is still a process of discovery, opening up new spaces.  All I know about my destination is that I want to seek the Kingdom of God.  And I want to write as I travel the path that leads to Life.

“Wake up! Strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God.” Revelation 3:2 NIV

Atrophy.  Jesus’ words to the Church in Sardis in Revelation 3 were written to a community suffering atrophy. “I know your deeds,” Jesus says, “you have a reputation of being alive but you are dead” (v.1).  On the outside they appear to be alive, but inwardly they are wasting away, decaying.  And Jesus says this decay is related to the insufficiency of their deeds: “I have not found your deeds complete . . .”  LIke a muscle that atrophies and shrinks from lack of use, the community in Sardis weak in exercising the deeds which should have grown out of their faith.  So Jesus calls them to fight against atrophy: “Strengthen what remains. . .”

Training.  While training for the Pittsburgh Marathon last year, I learned first hand just how painful atrophy can be.  A few weeks into the training season, I stared to feel a burning pain in my heels and arches.  It turned out to be plantar fasciitis, a condition which can be caused by atrophied muscles in the foot.  The simple explanation (at least as far as I can understand it) is this: When the muscles in the foot are weak, they can’t support heavy weights or the repeated pounding inflicted upon them by exercises like running.  So the plantar fascia ends up bearing more stress than it should, resulting in pain.  When I started feeling that pain, the first advice that was given to me was get more support.  Shoes with arch support, socks with extra elastic around the midfoot, special insoles – anything to prop up the weak arch under the pressure.  Then I read Born to Run and realized there’s another, better way: strengthen what remains.  The simple explanation (again, as far as I can explain it) is this: barefoot runners use muscles in their feet which the rest of us have allowed to atrophy ever since we started running (and walking and living) in more heavily cushioned shoes.  By stripping away the extra padding, the runner not only starts running differently and more efficiently, but strengthens everything involved in the act of running in such a way that over time should make them less prone to injury.  So, I bought a pair of Vibram Five Fingers and started wearing them to walk the dog. It definitely felt different. Then I started going for short jogs in them. Sore.  This new style of running required a lot more work from my calves than they were used to, and they burned.  But the more I ran in the Five Fingers, the more natural it felt.  Now I’m doing half of my training runs for this year’s half-marathon in them.  And the plantar fasciitis is gone. 

Lent.  As we begin Lent this year, I wonder if it would be helpful to think of it as a season to “strengthen what remains.”  What if we asked the Lord to reveal the places where we’ve atrophied, where our deeds are incomplete?  Then, in the places where we are weak, we can either choose to add cushioning to protect against the assaults of life, or we can choose to exercise those weak spots more vigorously and restore them to strength.  Like the transition to barefoot running, choosing to strengthen what remains may mean learning how to walk and run again.  It may mean starting out slowly and getting accustomed to the pains and stresses of such training, hurting in places we’re not used to hurting.  But with patience and perseverance, what remains will be strengthened and healed. And the reward of that healing will be great. 

“He who overcomes will . . . be dressed in white. I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but will acknowledge his name before my Father and his angels.  He who has an ear let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” Rev. 3:5-6 NIV        

This week I officially began training for the Pittsburgh Half-Marathon.  Last year I ran the full marathon, and this year I’m running the half with my wife Eileen, our plan being that I’ll finish ahead of her so that I can cheer her on as she finishes.  With twelve weeks left until the race, training season is upon us, meaning several additional hours of exercise per week.  That means several more hours per week at the gym. And even though we go to a gym that calls itself the “judgment-free zone,” the truth is that fitness clubs are not usually places where we can honestly say “we regard no one from a worldly point of view” (2 Cor 5:16 NIV).  For many, going to the gym too quickly becomes a temptation to regard both others and ourselves form a worldly point of view.   Working out can easily become an exercise in our culture’s obsessive search for the perfect body.

Nine years ago, I weighed 70 pounds more than I do now.  I had always been chunky as a kid and remember frequently being teased on the playground for being fat.  By the time I reached my sophomore year of college, a variety of factors left me weighing about 225 pounds.  I was unhealthy physically, spiritually, and emotionally, and didn’t want to make the changes necessary to become healthy.  But the summer of 2003 found me on a mission trip to Thailand, where for the first time in my life I had no choice but to regularly eat fresh vegetables.  Picky eaters starve on mission trips. So, no more picky eating.  That later proved to be revolutionary for my health.

The second revolutionary change in my health came near the end of our stay: Two of my English students invited me to join them for Chiang Mai University’s annual walk up Doi Suthep, a nearby mountain, to the huge Buddhist temple at the top.  The walk lasts for 11 kilometers, climbing about 1300 meters, or 4,200 feet.  Being from Colorado, I was used to hiking, so I agreed to walk with my students.  There was just one problem: some students like to run up the mountain.  Partway up the mountain, my student Aon turned to me and asked me if I wanted to run.  I tried to say no, but he insisted, asking me just to try it.  Finally I gave in, and we began jogging.  I was dripping sweat, out of breath, jogging up this mountain in Thailand with my student who kept asking if we could go faster, and all I could think was “I can’t wait until this is over.”  I wanted to stop, but Aon told me I had to run at least one full kilometer.  So, we kept going.  And with Aon as my coach, I became a runner.

When I came back to the states that fall, I began running regularly.  It wasn’t much – just a slow mile a couple of mornings a week on a treadmill at my apartment complex.  I could barely do that at first, but soon it was two miles, with a walking break.  Then two miles without a walking break.  And soon I became a much healthier person. And I don’t just mean physically.  My spiritual and emotional health both improved as well. I learned that our physical bodies are intimately connected to our mental and spiritual well-being. Several months later, I had lost sixty pounds and was a much happier person.

My new life – and that’s seriously what it felt like – was great.  Except that now I was haunted by a new obsession.  People made such a big deal about the weight that I lost that I became paranoid about gaining it back.  Like Peter Sagal described a year ago in the article “A Thin Line“, the memories of being overweight and the fear of gaining the weight back nagged at me. A year later when Eileen and I got engaged, I worked out obsessively and ate sparingly.  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was close to the disordered sort of eating described in this month’s Runner’s World article, “Running on Empty.”  I had swung from one extreme to another, and failed to realize that both extremes were symptoms of my sin.

In all of this search for the perfect body, I never stopped then to ask, “How does God define the perfect body?”  Years later, I think I have better sense of how to answer that question. And it has little to do with our culture’s definition of a perfect body.

Consider these scriptures (all quoted from the NASB): “I will give thanks to You for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14). Our bodies are already beautiful because they are God’s magnificent creations. “Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, but God will do away with both of them.  Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body.  Now God has not only raise the Lord, but will also raise us up through his power” (1 Cor. 6:13-14). Our bodies are for God’s glory, and God’s glory will be revealed in our bodies ultimately at the day of resurrection. In the meantime, we should seek to use our bodies “for the Lord”.   “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well” (James 3:2b). Taming the tongue is more indicative of an inner degree of self-discipline that can tame the rest of the body’s appetites, as well.   “. . . discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness, for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:7-8). Self-discipline and exercise may overlap, but training for godliness is more profitable because its effects ripple out into all of our existence. Whatever “improvements” we make on our bodies pale in comparison to resurrection glory that our bodies will have one day when we are raised with Christ.

From God’s perspective, the perfect body is the body that is submitted to his will. Our bodies are gifts given to us by God, which we can then use either for God’s purposes or for other purposes.  To be sanctified in body, as well as soul and spirit (1Thess. 5:23), is to learn how to steward our own bodies wisely and to care for the bodies of others, so that our physical bodies can be used to glorify God. That may lead to health.  But more importantly it should lead to holiness.  When considered in this light, I think exercise can be a spiritual discipline, but I say this because it cultivates deeper qualities of self-discipline and perseverance, qualities which are within the “purpose of godliness.” And I pray for the grace to seek such discipline for the purpose of godliness the next time I go to the gym.

How do you learn to love and serve God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind? Not by using the conventional ways the world approaches learning.  I’m a pastor who’s been to seminary – a very good seminary for which I am grateful and which am happy to support – but I think the Church has become a bit too worldly in the way we train our leaders.  Learning to love and serve God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength is not merely an academic exercise.  It requires the use of all your heart, soul, mind and strength.  Discipleship is meant to be holistic, teaching us to love and serve God using relationships, our experience, prayer, worship, mission, service, and the intellect.

This is why I love the World Christian Discipleship Program. It’s a nine-month program designed for recent college graduates who want to learn to follow Jesus in community together.  The goal is to prepare them to live as missional Christians in any vocation.  Participants study early Church writings, create rules of life as they learn about spiritual formation, and  world mission.  During this time they’re volunteering in a local church and learning to practice living missionally in their workplaces. Participants also go on a short-term mission trip (international or domestic), giving them a cross-cultural mission experience as part of their missional and spiritual formation.  And this isn’t just for people who think they’re called to traditional ministry. It’s open to anyone. The congregation I pastor now has three people participating in it – one’s a nurse, one’s a social worker and future missionary, and one’s a seminary graduate preparing for overseas mission. And I believe that WCD will prepare each of these young women to glorify God wherever he calls them after this.

The biggest reason why I’m excited about WCD, though, is that I’ve experienced the transforming power of its components myself.  One of the books participants read is The Philokalia, a collection of monastic writings from the early Church which has completely transformed my own personal discipleship, the way I pray, the way I read scripture, and the way I approach my role as a pastor. In short, writings like this have encouraged me to pursue prayer and holiness in ways that I never before thought possible.  And with the way WCD is designed, such powerful material for spiritual formation is connected directly to mission.  Participants seek sanctification for the sake of mission in the world.  So they read Lesslie Newbigin beside St. Teresa of Avila. They learn to pray without ceasing while working part-time jobs in the neighborhoods where they live. They laugh and cry together and learn from each other what it means to be the Body of Christ.

I’ve spent three years as a church-planter doing bi-vocational ministry, learning what it means to be engaged in mission in a post-Christendom environment.  WCD offers both the training that I wish I had when preparing for ministry and the transformation I want members of the congregation I lead today to have. Anyone who wants to be truly transformed by God for the life of the world should consider applying.

What is Church unity?  Seriously, what does it mean for the Church to be united?

Later this afternoon, I’ll attend a Presbytery meeting where we’ll discuss the creation of a “gracious dismissal” policy for churches from our Presbytery who want to leave the Presbyterian Church (USA).  To state it plainly, our denomination is dividing. The reasons are complex and more than I want to write about here, but across the country churches are leaving either for the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church or for the newly created Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).  I attended part of the Fellowship of Presbyterians conference in Florida two weeks ago where ECO was unveiled in John Ortberg’s compelling vision-casting sermon.  More than 10% of the congregations in the denomination were represented at the Fellowship’s two gatherings in the past year.  Almost as many people attended each of those gatherings as attend the PC(USA)’s biennial General Assembly, our national governing meeting.  These divisions can’t be ignored or dismissed.  And I have very mixed feelings about all of  this.

On the one hand, I grieve any division in the Church.  Schism is never God’s intention for the Church.  But on the other hand, the creation of a new denomination is really only giving concrete shape to an ideological schism which has been present for decades.  In the New Testament, unity in the Church often means being of “one mind” (Acts 2:46, Philippians 2:1-2). But what does it really mean to be of “one mind?”  There was room in the New Testament Church for ethnic and cultural diversity (Acts 2, Acts 10, Acts 15, Galatians 3).  And theological diversity was even present to an extent.  The writers of the New Testament clearly emphasize different theological concepts and different aspects of the faith. But for the most part, these cultural and theological differences in the New Testament are harmonious.  They’re different notes that still sound like they fit in a chord or scale together. Unfortunately, the PC(USA) is, and has long been, at the point where the different notes we hear aren’t even in the same key. The differences make a cacophony rather than music.

Ephesians 4 begins by calling the Church to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (NASB).  These verses are quoted in our Presbytery’s “Guidelines for Presbyterians During Times of Disagreement”, the intention being to emphasize tolerance.  But I think we often ignore what Ephesians 4 goes on to say about Church unity.  Paul says gifts were given to the Church to build up  the Body of Christ . . .

until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.  As a result, we are no longer to be children tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness and deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fittted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:13-15 NASB)

Maturity in Christ, according to this passage, includes unity in doctrine.  But the passage doesn’t speak about such maturity or unity as something which we’ve already attained.  It’s a process. We’re growing together toward maturity in Christ, and as we become more mature in Christ individually, the more united we become in terms of our belief. We’re not there yet.  We’re far from it, and it will take a lifetime to get there.

I personally have no intention of leaving the denomination.  Neither does my church. But I can’t say I’m of one mind with everyone in the PC(USA).  And yet I don’t want to invest my energy in division.  I sympathize with those desiring “gracious dismissal”, but at this point I would rather spend my time and energy seeking maturity in Christ.  I have close friends in this Church with whom I disagree on certain issues, but I’m confident we’re seeking maturity in Christ together.  I want to trust that if we are each on the road to sanctification, each trusting that “He who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6), each striving to enter through the small gate and walk the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 6:14), God will lead us to such unity in faith and maturity in Christ.