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If you look closely, near the center of the picture, underneath the leaf, you’ll see a little brown spider. He appeared while I was weeding a week ago, probably annoyed that I was uprooting his little green canopy. Once he spotted me, he froze, and he remained still for several more minutes while I continued weeding. I wasn’t out to hurt him, but he, of course, perceived me as a threat. And what makes this little spider worthy of a blog post is his response to a perceived threat: stillness.

In the early Church, the spider was a favorite image of the desert monks for the pursuit of stillness. For example, St. Hesychios the Priest, whose name means stillness, wrote this:

If you wish to engage in spiritual warfare, let that little animal, the spider, always be your example of stillness of heart; otherwise you will not be as still in your intellect as you should be.  The spider hunts small flies; but you will continually slay ‘the children of Babylon (cf. Ps. 137:9) if during your struggle you as are still in your soul as is the spider; and, in the course of this slaughter, you will be blessed by the Holy Spirit. (no. 27, p. 166, of “On Watchfulness and Holiness” in volume 1 of The Philokalia)

Here stillness refers to a peacefulness of mind through which one can objectively analyze one’s own thoughts.  “Children of Babylon” refers to evil thoughts or temptations. The violent imagery of the Psalms and other parts of the Old Testament was reinterpreted by these monks and applied to the unseen spiritual battle waged in our minds.  Our enemies are not flesh and blood, and we fight against them by taking our thoughts captive (2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Through meditating on the name of Jesus and choosing to reject all distracting thoughts, the person pursuing stillness acquires a purity and clarity of mind which allows one to recognize an untrue, tempting, or harmful thought and reject it.

As one grows in stillness, stillness can be both a defensive and offensive posture. When we are attacked by temptations or disturbing thoughts, a response, we can defend ourselves by stepping back, slowing down, and patiently waiting. The spider in the picture above was not deciding how to respond; stillness was his response. This is the idea behind John Climacus’ advice for fighting off anger: “The first step toward freedom from anger is to keep the lips silent when the heart is stirred” (p. 146 of The Ladder of Divine Ascent).  Stop. Be silent. Wait. Call upon Christ in stillness of heart and allow whatever is attacking you to pass by.

The offensive side of stillness is the deliberate practice of it through which we learn to catch, or “take captive” our own thoughts. Hesychios says the spider “hunts” flies; stillness is an active offensive pursuit. When we withdraw into stillness on a regular basis, even without a direct threat, we can cultivate a life of prayer and watchfulness enables us to actively pursue purity of mind. Here the spider imagery would focus on the web a spider uses to catch its prey. The spider spins the web, sets the trap and then it waits. By clearing our minds of unnecessary thoughts through practices like repeating the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me”) we spin a web in which we take our other thoughts captive.

The monks who pioneered this practice all believed the name of Jesus was essential to the pursuit of stillness.  Climacus wrote, “Let the remembrance of Jesus be present with your every breath.  Then indeed you will appreciate the value of stillness” (p. 270, Ladder of Divine Ascent).  Hesychios wrote “The name of Jesus should be repeated over and over in the heart as flashes of lightning are repeated over and over in the sky before rain” (no. 105, p. 108). By calling on the name of Jesus, we both replace the unwanted thoughts in our minds with thought of Christ, but we also invoke his help and assistance. He is faithful to come to the aid of those who call upon him. For more on how calling upon the name of Jesus works to cultivate stillness, read “Prayer Without Thoughts” by Lisa Sayre. This habit takes time and discipline to develop, but its rewards are purity of heart and sure defense against temptation.

Not long after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the newborn Church became the persecuted Church. In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested. In chapter 5, the Apostles are arrested again. In Acts 6-7, Stephen is arrested and martyred. The suffering of the Church continued in waves throughout its early centuries.  Though Christians experienced peace in some places when their religion was tolerated or endorsed by the government, persecution continued elsewhere. There were tens of thousands of Christian martyrs in Persia in the mid-fourth century. Christians in Africa suffered various forms of persecution under Muslim rulers. The trend continued throughout history. Untold numbers of Christians were martyred in Russia and China in the twentieth century.  And persecution continues today.

Erin Dunigan wrote a blogpost called “The Beautiful Shop” a few days ago, in which she shares about her recent trip to Southeast Asia with several other PC(USA) representatives. In the post she shares a quote from a pastor who, like other Christian leaders in his country , has spent time in prison for his faith: “We must keep one leg in the prison and one leg in the Church.”  As his denomination thankfully experiences greater tolerance from the government, he is recognizing a need for the Church to hold on to what it gained through decades of persecution.  I visited some of these same pastors four years ago with a group from my seminary. The picture here was taken by my wife during that trip. Children from one of the villages we entered looking through a window at us while we met with one of the only Christian women in that village.  Having heard stories of persecution during that trip, I tried to remember regularly our brothers and sisters who faced persecution there. But four years of distance had let what was out of sight fall out of mind, until I saw Erin’s pictures and read her post this week.

And this raises a troubling question for me: What happens to the Church when we forget about the suffering which our faith entails? Tertullian’s oft-quoted proverb says “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Do we lose some of our vitality when there ceases to be a cost for living our faith? Is that why the Church is growing rapidly in less hospitable parts of the world? For those of us in places where it’s relatively comfortable to be Christian, how do we keep “one leg in prison”? Here are two answers I would suggest. I hope to hear others.

(1) Suffering. When freedom from persecution provided new temptations, the fourth-century Church developed patterns of monasticism and asceticism that helped them keep one leg in prison.  Voluntary suffering was seen as a way of becoming “white martyrs,” the term applied to ascetics who pursued purity and holiness through denying themselves.  Following the same principles of self-denial gives us an opportunity to both pursue holiness and share in the sufferings of others.  How could disciplines such as fasting unite our hearts and minds with our brothers and sisters who suffer persecution? When we experience other forms of involuntary suffering (sickness, loneliness, grief), can we offer that suffering up to God as a prayer of solidarity with Christ and those who have suffered for Him?

(2) Stories. Today many Americans celebrate Memorial Day, honoring those who gave their lives for our freedom. Our nation recognizes that fallen soldiers are worthy of remembrance. Why would the Church think any less of its saints and martyrs throughout history?  Surely the Church would do well to frequently remember and honor the saints past and present who suffered for their faith in the reign of Jesus Christ. This is one place where we Protestants are at a disadvantage: our heroes are Reformers, not saints.  We know the stories of people who changed the Church better than the stories of people who died for the Lord of the Church.  But this can easily be changed. One doesn’t need to dig far in our history books to discover the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. Thankfully people like Erin are sharing the stories of our brothers and sisters from around the world in such a way that we can hear not just the voices of history, but of the present day. How would our life as the Church in our context change if we knew the true stories of the Church in less comfortable places?

This Sunday is Pentecost, the day when the Church celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles in Acts 2:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.  And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4 NASB)

The Holy Spirit rested upon the Apostles and they spoke in tongues.  Thus was introduced to the Church a spiritual gift which would create controversy from the First Century to the Twenty-First.  The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians bears witness to the confusion the early Church had about the gift of tongues. In our world today, I’ve known people who have thought that speaking in tongues was the only proof that one was filled with the Holy Spirit. I’ve also known people who’ve insisted that such a gift was no longer given to the Church.  In my experience, both of these extremes have been untrue.  God does still choose to give this gift to individuals within the Church, but it is one of many signs or fruits of the Spirit, and to each member of the Church, different gifts are given. We’re not all called to speak in tongues. The desire to speak in tongues is admirable because it is a desire to yield control of our speech to God. But we would do well to ask: What does it really mean to have our speech controlled by the Holy Spirit? Is speaking in tongues the only form Spirit-controlled speech, or are there others which are more accessible to everyone? 

Perhaps Spirit-controlled speech looks less like “speaking in tongues” and a lot more like “taming the tongue.” When Paul says “I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others than ten thousand words with a tongue” (1 Cor 14:19 ESV), he’s indicating that our language should be used to benefit others.  “Prophesy” is superior to tongues for Paul because “one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Cor 14:3 ESV). That sort of speech requires wisdom and deliberation.  Control is still yielded to God, but that giving up of control may mean choosing to speak less. I think Paul’s exhortation to pursue prophesy agrees with James’ calling to tame our tongues:

If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.  Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of pilot directs. (James 3:2-4 ESV)

The taming of our tongues is a sign that we are growing in sanctification. “Self-control” is one of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:23, and exercising self-control with our speech is surely a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our hearts.  In the long run, a lifetime of careful, discerning, wise speech may be just as profitable and equally indicative of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit as speaking in tongues.

The great spiritual writers of the early Church understood this. For them, discerning and careful speech was more indicative of the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  The famous prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian asks the Lord not to give us a spirit of “idle talk”, but instead to give us “a spirit of soberness, humility, patience, and love.” St. Diadochos of Photiki saw talkativeness as dissipation of the Holy Spirit. He uses the imagery of a sauna to explain:

When the door of the steam baths is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good.  Thereafter the intellect, though lacking appropriate ideas, pours out a welter of confused thoughts to anyone it meets, as it no longer has the Holy Spirit to keep its understanding free from fantasy.  Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts. (“On Spiritual Knowledge” no. 70 in The Philokalia vol. 1 p. 276)

Similarly, John Climacus wrote this in The Ladder of Divine Ascent:

Talkativeness is the throne of vainglory on which it loves to preen itself and show off.  Talkativeness is a sign of ignorance, a doorway to slander, a leader of jesting, a servant of lies, the ruin of compunction, a summoner of despondency, a messenger of sleep, a dissipation of recollection, the end of vigilance, the cooling of zeal, the darkening of prayer. (p. 158)

The sort of careless speech that Climacus is criticizing here isn’t speaking in tongues, but it’s something that’s much more relevant to everyday life. The mindless speech which we engage in every day can detract from our spiritual lives.  Pursuit of holiness, on the other hand, will both be aided by and will produce greater discretion in what we say.

So how do we pursue tame tongues? I’ve found it helpful to make Psalm 141:3 a regular prayer: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.” Whether before writing, preaching, speaking in a group, or counseling people, this simple verse has helped me yield more of my speech to the Spirit’s control, though I certainly have a long way to go.  I’ve also found that it’s helpful to question my motives for saying (or writing, or tweeting) something. Why do I want to say this?  Will it benefit others? Am I simply trying to attract attention to myself? Am I trying to control or manipulate others by what I say?  The answers to such questions usually quickly reveal whether it’s right to speak up or keep my mouth shut. The challenge is learning to slow down and examine one’s thoughts closely enough to ask such questions before saying something regrettable.

This Pentecost, let us pray that God would grant us the grace of increasingly tamed tongues:

Set a guard, O Lord, over our mouths, and keep watch over the doors of our lips.  Purge us of idle talk and fill us with your Holy Spirit that we may speak with soberness, humility, patience, and love. Tame our tongues as we yield them to your control, in order that you would be glorified, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

Imagine a saw.  Now imagine trying to hammer a nail with the blade of the saw. It’s not going to work.  It’s more likely to break the saw, or damage the surface which is being nailed, or cut the person using the saw. It’s better to hammer with a nail and saw with a saw. Obviously.

But the same principle is less obvious when it comes to the way we live out the spiritual gifts God’s given each of us.  When we try to do something we aren’t called and equipped to do, we often hurt ourselves and others. For an example from my own life, I’m an introvert. Days of work like yesterday where I have to pretend I’m an extrovert for 15 hours straight leave me cranky and irritable. Sometimes my life feels like hammering with a saw. And I don’t think I’m the only person who ends up in these situations.

This is why I’m grateful for the wisdom Symeon the New Theologian shared about spiritual gifts in “Hymn 54” of his Hymns of Divine Eros. For Symeon, we are like “inanimate tools”, each fashioned by God for different purposes. “The artisan of each tool, for whatever desired purpose, / equips the tool to operate according to its art” (lines 9-10). Just as a saw is meant to be used as a saw and not as a hammer, so also we’ve each been given different spiritual gifts and not given others (Romans 12:4).  Because we each have different gifts and not others, pretending we have gifts that we don’t have is downright dangerous. Symeon writes, “if you were to use them for purposes other than for what they were made / then your life and all your works would destroy themselves” (lines 17-18).

How can we avoid such destruction?  What other choice do we have? Symeon suggests a pretty simple answer: to be what we’re made to be.  We have little choice over what our gifts are, but once we live into our gifts, we discover that they pave the road to joy. Symeon writes, “each person is suited not to whatever / art one wants, but to whatever art one was created for, / and to this art one is disposed suitably and affectionately” (lines 35-37).  Notice that we’re not necessarily given the gifts we want.  I may want to be a talented musician, or a gregarious community organizer, or a charismatic evangelist, but God hasn’t made me to be those things.  But once one begins to live into the “art one was created for” one finds that “to this art one is disposed suitably and affectionately.” When we start using our true gifts, we discover how powerful they are, and how much joy they can produce.

Symeon says this transition toward our true gifts requires repentance and humility (line 127). From what must we repent? Perhaps the lies we tell others and ourselves regarding our gifts. Pretending to have gifts we don’t have is simple deception and dishonesty. Let’s be honest about what our gifts are and aren’t. And if we’re being honest, we should remember that humility does not mean hiding our true spiritual gifts. Michael Casey writes, “To deny our gifts is to deny others the profit of sharing in their fruits. Such a refusal can have no part in genuine humility” (A Guide to Living in the Truth: St. Benedict’s Teaching on Humility: Ligouri/Triumph 2001 p. 24).  Humility requires not thinking of ourselves more highly than we ought to think (Romans 12:3). That means repenting of the pride that creates the false-selves and facades we use to impress others.  But humility also means acknowledging that, in the Church, we belong to one another (Romans 12:5). Our gifts are not merely our own, but they are given for the sake of the Church.  To hide gifts God has given for the building up of his Body is like putting a lamp under a basket.  When we repent of hiding our true gifts and humbly bring them into the Light, we become happier and the whole Church benefits.

But this sort of humility requires openness and trust. When Symeon calls us to “Hasten and be glued” to “the hands of God and of his saints”, and live “like inanimate tools doing, or moving, or operating nothing at all without them” (lines 147-148, 152-153), he’s not calling us to be mindless robots. He’s instead calling us to the humble submission to the creative intentions of God and the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us. That sort of humility is characterized by openness to receiving and using the gifts that God does want to give us. It also requires trust.  As an introverted church-planter, I’ve sometimes accused God of using wrong tool for the job. But that accusation both comes from a posture of pride and is rooted in a lie about God’s character.  To humbly pursue the true gifts God has given me, I’ve needed to repent of the mistrust and pride which make the clay question and accuse the Potter (Isaiah 29:16, 45:9)

And where does this road of humility and repentance lead? Symeon says, “as soon as you walk on the straight road / you will become numbered with all the saints, / and it will eventually make you all happy” (lines 161-163).  In context, what Symeon means by “the straight road” is the path of fulfilling the tasks which one was uniquely gifted to do. And this produces happinessHappy was not the first word that comes to mind when I think of Symeon the New Theologian. Throughout the Hymns of Divine Eros, I’ve seen Symeon extol the virtues of repentance, humility, and mourning one’s sins.  But there is a deep joy that lies beneath the surface of these hymns. It’s the joy that comes from intimacy with Christ, the intimacy of a tool in the hand of its Creator, fulfilling the purposes for which it was created.  It’s the happiness of freedom to be what one was meant to be, the happiness of hitting the nail on the head.

For being such a slim volume, this book is heavy with the weight of glory. The Prayer Book of the Early Christians is a collection of prayers and prayer services modeled after the liturgies left to us from the ancient Church and used today in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. And having drawn from such deep wells, this prayer book presents its reader/user/pray-er with a treasury of “prayers that have been tried and proved” (p. ix). I am thankful to John McGuckin for editing this collection (and to Paraclete Press for sending me a copy to review). As I’ve used it over the past week and a half, I’ve noticed a few things worth sharing here.

(1) This method of prayer differs from what most of us evangelical-flavored Protestants have been taught. I’m not just referring to the many passages in the book which invite the Theotokos and the saints to intercede for us. (That deserves its own post.) The different I’m referring to here is that, in my experience, our approach to prayer relies heavily on feeling. We want to pray extemporaneously with feeling, from the heart. Unfortunately, this has the unintended consequence of quenching prayer whenever we don’t feel like praying. Correcting this, McGuckin writes in the introduction:

It does not really matter whether we feel fervent or dry as a bone.  It does not really matter whether we feel God’s presence breathing on our face or feel as if he is locked up behind a bronze heaven, never showing a sign of his presence.  What matters is how he sees us.  We do not need to ‘feel’ his presence at every turn, when we know, by faith, that he is more present to us, at every moment of our life, than we are present to ourselves or our most beloved family.  And if at morning and night we present ourselves before God and sing his praise, we have (no question about it) stood in the presence of Christ, prayed along with Christ our High Priest in the pure presence of the Holy Spirit of God, and offered our prayer like incense in the sight of the Father. (p. xiv)

Showing devotion through our actions, especially when our hearts don’t want to do so, can be one way to cultivate the heart’s participation in prayer. Over time, the disciplined practice of these prayers will yield the fruit of an inner disposition of fear, reverence, and deep love of God.

(2) This approach to prayer also requires a different relationship to timeIf you’re already accustomed to using prescribed prayers for different hours of the day, you might be used to shorter liturgies. One can pray through an office of The Divine Hours or Celtic Daily Prayer relatively quickly.  These take longer.  It took me thirty minutes to pray through the Matins liturgy on Sunday morning.  McGuckin notes that “Twenty minutes seems a long time for a pressed twenty-first-century dweller,” but once we dive into these longer and richer prayers, “those who swim the ocean of prayer find that time starts shrinking” (p. xv). Increased time spent in prayer is never something to regret. It’s time spent in the life-giving Light of Christ, and the more we experience this Light, the longer we’ll want to bathe in it.

(3) These are serious prayers.  There is a sort of joyful heaviness which permeates the prayers shared here. Though always mindful of God’s grace in Jesus Christ and our common hope of resurrection, most of these prayers have a somber, repentant tone. The Psalms included in the liturgies are Psalms of battle and lament. The selected prayers in Parts 2 and 3 include prayers of repentance like this:

Lord I stand knocking at the door of your compassion, seeking your forgiveness.  By evil I have been kept from the path of life.  My mouth has not praised you; my feet have not walked in your holy place.  Lover of our race, have pity on me. Your who are the splendor of the Father give light of my eyes that I may give thanks for your grace.  I have lain in darkness in this deceit-filled world.  Morning has passed and I did not repent.  Evening has fallen and my sins have increased.  But let your compassion now ascend before my face. (p. 162)

A few may catch the reader off-guard, only to reveal their profound meaning upon deeper meditation. For an example, read the fifth-century vegetarian grace before eating which includes these lines:

Far from us that hungering lust / That craves a bloody feast, / And tears apart the flesh of beasts. / Such wild banquets, made from slaughtered flocks, / Are fit only for barbarians. / For us, the olive, wheat, and ripening fruits, / And vegetables of every kind: / These compose our righteous feast. (pp. 184-185)

At first, I laughed at the “I thank you God that I’m not a carnivore” tone of this prayer (see Luke 18:11). But when I considered its deeper meaning, I was humbled and convicted.  The person praying this is thanking God for simplicity, not luxury.  How often do we thank God for the ability to make do with less?  And the person who prays this acknowledges the violence inflicted upon creation by our appetites.  When we eat meat, how often do we really give thanks for the lives of the animals whose flesh we consume? I’m not a vegetarian (at least for most of the year), but God did use this prayer to convict me about the excesses in my own consumption of food.  It seems these prayers provide avenues not only for us to speak to God, but for God to speak to us.

(4) The book closes with a brief note on the Jesus Prayer, and an invitation to check out the movie about it which McGuckin produced: Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer. Much could be (and has been) written about the Jesus Prayer, but if the few pages about the Jesus Prayer here pique your interest, do check out the movie. It’s worth watching not just for an introduction to the Jesus Prayer, but for its portrayal of the entire ethos of prayer conveyed in this prayer book.  The film provides new depth and perspective as it displays the monasteries where these prayers have been prayed for centuries – the environments where these prayers have been “tried and proved.”

I’m headed out of town today for a Company of New Pastors retreat where we’ll be discussing Alan Roxburgh’s book The Sky is Falling.  Despite being a church-planter, it’s been a while since I’ve read one of these “the world is changing and we have to become missional before the Church dies” books.  As I’ve discovered the fruitfulness of reading works from the early Church, books in Roxburgh’s genre have become less appealing.  But this book did have some important ideas regarding the formation of leaders for the Church in our context and the roles those leaders then fill. I want to comment on these because I find his proposal both promising and lacking.

Anyone considering reading this book should know that the first nine chapters (140 pages) of the book are designed to set up the final 3 chapters (48 pages).   This last section of the book is where it actually gets exciting. As for set up, here’s what you need to know: The Church in our context is in a situation of liminality – a period of change in which one is in-between two different stages or places, a prolonged time of standing in a threshold. Think of Israel wandering in the wilderness, living in-between the life they’d known in Egypt and the life they would know in the Promised Land.  During such periods of liminality, the people going through this change discover a new sense of connection or bonding called communitas.  If you’ve ever been on a mission trip, you know what this feels like. It’s the sense of connection that you develop with that team of people while you’re experiencing an adventure in an unfamiliar context.  Roxburgh sees the Church in a period of liminality, and argues that both traditional and non-traditional leaders need to work together to create communitas in order to survive the transition.

Once you get to Chapter 10, Roxburgh starts to lay out a vision for leadership in the Church which sees Christian leaders with various roles and gifts and united under the leadership of an “Abbot/Abbess”.  These leaders with differing functions and spiritual gifts would ideally be trained not in modern seminary environments but through hands-on apprenticeship under masters of the faith. These ‘masters’ should be characterized less by academic credentials and more by experience, wisdom, and spiritual maturity.  Ideally this is already the goal of apprenticeship programs such as The World Christian Discipleship Program. Here I agree with Roxburgh’s general observations about leadership formation. After describing some of the roles which these leaders fill – poet, prophet, pastor – Roxburgh moves on to his proposal for an office of “Abbot”. The Abbot or Abbess functions less as a manager of an organization and more as a curator of an environment. Borrowing a term from Lawrence Miller, Roxburgh calls this person a synergist, defined as “a leader with the capacity to unify diverse and divergent leadership styles around a common sense of missional vision for a specific community” (p. 155). Surprisingly to me, Roxburgh envisions the Abbot not as the leader of one congregation, but as an overseer of many various ministries and congregations. (If you have the book, see the chart on page 182 which makes this clear.)  Essentially, Roxburgh is proposing having a bishop.  He avoids this word, probably because of its authoritarian and institutional connotations, stressing that the Abbot is “not a denominational executive” (p. 182), but I can’t help but think that Roxburgh’s Abbot is close to what a bishop should be. This is good, and I find it particularly relevant to our own context where Pittsburgh Presbytery is implementing a new mission plan which will eventually lead to us having four “branch ministers” who could each lead just as Roxburgh envisions his Abbot or Abbess leading. Good.

Promising as this is, there’s something missing in Roxburgh’s ecclesiology. And it’s something big. The problem with this book, and with so many other books on missional ecclesiology, is that it totally neglects the role of the sacraments in shaping and sustaining the life of the Church.  Despite occasional suggestions that we look to our history for guidance, Roxburgh doesn’t always present an accurate reading of Church history.  Contrary to the overview of early Church history in pages 148-150,  the early Church did have a defined pattern of leadership in which hierarchy did not always equal bureaucracy. The office of bishop evolved very early in the life of the Church not out of captivity to our culture’s professionalism or bureaucracy, but out of a desire to ensure proper celebration of the sacraments. Ordination was practiced by the Church to set people apart for the leadership of worship, not administration. Like other similar books, Roxburgh at times reflects anachronistic projection of contemporary emergent distrust of hierarchy onto the history of the Church. The primary concern of the early Church’s first bishops wasn’t paperwork.  It was a life of worship culminating in the celebration of Eucharist each week.  And if that’s the primary job description of a bishop, I see no reason to fear using the word bishop. Roxburgh’s choice of the word Abbot reflects a low ecclesiology, rather than a true sense of monasticism, in which the Abbot also lives a life of worship.

But this correction is no reason to abandon Roxburgh’s vision. Rather, the book’s proposal for leadership should be deepened to reflect the spirituality necessary for leadership of the Church in our context.  What if the Abbot or Abbess whom Roxburgh pictures overseeing multiple congregations and ministries was primarily concerned with cultivating environments of holy and beautiful worship? What if prayer and spiritual disciplines were essential parts of the apprenticeships which prepare the leaders who serve under the Abbot? What if remembrance of our Baptismal identity and celebration of the Lord’s Supper provide the connections to the “core Christian narrative” which Roxburgh says we need to recover? That’s a vision for the Church that I find appealing.

I was tempted to complain yesterday that there aren’t enough hours in the day. I’ve made this complaint before, and I’ve heard others make it. We say this as though we’re the victims of some grand cosmic scheme to suck up all our free time. It’s a complaint we’re more likely to make when we don’t enjoy everything we’re doing, when we feel like the time we really want to do something more important – spend time with family, exercise, rest, read, etc. – has been stolen from us.

Yesterday was no worse than any typical Monday for me. But as I looked at my half-completed to-do list late that afternoon, I found myself wishing I simply had more time. But then it hit me: what an insult such a complaint must be to God, who appointed the lengths of days and seasons.  As Psalm 104 says, it was God who “made the moon for the seasons.” In other words, the lunar cycles bear witness to the fact that certain rhythms are embedded in the structure of creation. The daily rhythm of light and dark is another example. And God put these rhythms in place for a reason.

The Psalmist continues:

The sun knows the place of its setting. You appoint darkness and it becomes night, in which all the beasts of the forest prowl about. The young lions roar after their prey and seek their food from God. When the sun rises they withdraw and lie down in their dens. Man goes forth to his work and to his labor until evening (Psalm 104:19-23 NASB).

As Psalm 104 suggests, all of creation is meant to live according to certain rhythms. Sleep. Sabbath. The poet writing Psalm 104 sees these rhythms as gifts.  But I think today we’re more likely to perceive these rhythms as limits, instead of gifts. And this is dangerous thinking, because as soon as we think we’ve become limitless, we’ve made ourselves into gods.

This is one more place where I think the spiritual discipline of dedication to the truth can be liberating.  Dedication to the truth means accepting the limits that define our existence as creatures, including the number of hours in a day, but that liberates us from unrealistic demands, whether self-imposed or thrust upon us by others. The truth that we are creatures liberates us from our pride that expects to be able to accomplish more than is humanly possible. The truth that rhythms of work and rest are built into creation liberates us to work well when we should, and to stop when it’s time to stop. Thank God that there are 24 hours in a day.