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Monthly Archives: June 2012

The PC(USA) General Assembly is about to start in Pittsburgh. This is our biennial national governing meeting, when hundreds of elders and ministers from around the country come together to make significant decisions about the future of the denomination. And those who commissioners and delegates need your prayers over the next week. Though our process of decision-making is intended to be a way for the Church to discern God’s will together, the way the assembly functions actually makes it very difficult to listen to God. Information comes at commissioners faster than they can process it. Decisions are made without people being fully informed. And though we purport to be open to prayer, the noise and busyness of the assembly tend to drown out the still, small voice of God.  As Jack Haberer from the  said in his latest editorial, “Listening to the voice of God won’t come easily amid the convention-style cacophony.” 

Since I’ve been using the Prayer Book of Early Christians, I’ve come to appreciate the openness and humble submission to God’s will which characterize many of these prayers from the Eastern Church. Something about these prayers says, “Thy will be done,” with more confidence and trust than many prayers I’ve heard in our denominational meetings.  So this prayer, used in several of the Orthodox liturgies for praying the hours, is going to become my regular prayer for the General Assembly:

Christ our God, who at all times and through every hour are worshiped and glorified both in heaven and on earth; you who are so patient, full of mercy and compassion; who love the just and show mercy to sinners; who summon all to salvation through the promise of good things to come: Lord now receive our prayers at this present hour and direct our lives in accordance with your commandments. Sanctify our souls, purify our bodies, clarify our intentions and deliver us from every calamity, evil, and distress. Stand your holy angels around us, that guided and protected by their ranks, we may come into the unity of faith and the knowledge of your unapproachable glory: for blessed are you to the ages of ages. Amen.

Two lines deserve special comment here: Sanctify our souls, purify our bodies, clarify our intentions and deliver us from every calamity, evil, and distress. Stand your holy angels around us, that guided and protected by their ranks, we may come into the unity of faith and the knowledge of your unapproachable glory. The prayer presumes, in line with the thinking of the Church Fathers, that unity of faith and knowledge of God’s glory come through God’s sanctifying work within us. In other words, only the Holy Spirit conforming us more and more to the likeness of Christ can overcome the divisiveness which plagues the Church. And that means such unity and knowledge require God’s sanctifying action in our individual lives. So we pray for God to sanctify our souls and clarify our intentions, to make us holy people with selfless intentions.  Purifying our bodies matters, too.  We’re holistic creatures, which means that what goes on in our bodies affects our minds and souls.  If you’re a delegate or commissioner at the assembly, try thinking carefully about what you eat this week: fasting or eating lighter, simpler meals may make it easier to be attentive to God’s voice. Seriously.  Lastly, we pray for the protection of God’s angels against our unseen enemies. Spiritual warfare is real, and meetings like this provide plenty of opportunities for the powers of darkness to attack. Again, seriously.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on your servants at this General Assembly.  Amen.

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The Story: Last fall, I spoke at a retreat for Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Evangelical Student Fellowship.  The topic I chose to speak about was Truth. Evangelicals like truth, and they like to defend it when they feel that truth is under attack.  I took a slightly different approach: The Gospel of John says that Jesus is Truth. And if Truth is a person, then Truth is more than an abstract idea to be defended. Taking it a step further, in John 3:21, Jesus says that one who “practices the Truth comes to the Light”.  If Jesus is Truth, and if in Christ we’re called to become more and more Christlike, then we’re called to act truthfully, do the truth, practice the truth. With this in mind, my talks for the retreat became a call to seek truthfulness and integrity in our personal lives and our ministries. The talks seemed to be well received.  I started thinking that maybe this idea of practicing the truth deserved more attention.

Then this spring, I attended the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College.  I knew ahead of time that publishers there would be open to receiving book proposals, so I started putting together  a book proposal for Practicing the Truth. I wasn’t able to complete the proposal in time for the Festival, but after encouraging conversations with several people there, I returned home, finished the proposal and sent it in to an editor I had met.  A few weeks went by.  Then I got an email.  They wanted a second sample chapter.  This was getting exciting.  I wrote the second sample chapter and sent it in.  A couple more weeks went by, and then I got an email from an editor saying that my ideas didn’t fit within the genre of that particular line of books (understandable) and that my platform wasn’t yet developed enough (i.e. my name isn’t famous enough to sell books, also understandable). That was a bit discouraging. But I am encouraged that my proposal was seriously considered. And the amount of positive feedback I’ve received in talking to others about this project over the past couple months far outweighs one rejection.  So, I’m going to keep writing . . .

The Idea: I’m working with this title in mind: Practicing the Truth: The Spiritual Discipline of Living Truthfully.  For more on the ideas and structure of the book, read the Practicing the Truth page on this blog. The general goal of the book will be to present dedication to truth and integrity as a spiritual discipline which conforms us to the likeness of Christ, who is Truth.  I think that when Christians practice such dedication to truth, we’ll see powerful transformation in our relationships, our spiritual lives, our mental health, and our ministries.

Moving Forward: (1) At the advice of a close friend, I’m going to keep on writing, but do so with the congregation I pastor in mind. If these ideas are of value, they’ll be of value to the community I find myself in right now. And if this is a book which calls us to greater openness, honesty, and authenticity, then the process of writing it should be marked by those characteristics. So starting in August or September, I’ll roll out one chapter per month.  Those from Upper Room who’ve expressed interest are invited to read the chapter, and then gather as a group with me for an evening of conversation about the ideas presented in that month’s chapter. I pray that God will use this to make us even more into a community of honesty, authenticity, and integrity. I also think this will make it a better book. Friends from Upper Room, if you want to be involved in reading the chapters as they come out and discussing them, just let me know. (2) I’ll also keep blogging about topics or illustrations which are relevant to the content of the book. Posts which are related in one way or another to the theme of the book will show up under the category “Practicing the Truth.” Keep checking back to see where this project is going. (3) I may submit my proposal to other publishers. We’ll see what happens. For right now, though, the priority will be on writing for my congregation. If the Lord wills that this will be used to bless a broader audience, then let the Lord’s will be done.  If the Lord wants only the people of Upper Room to grow in truthfulness as a result of this writing, the let the Lord’s will be done.

Thank you, friends, for joining me on this journey towards the One who is Truth!

A few nights ago, I started reading Poustinia: Encountering God in Silence, Solitude, and Prayer by Catherine Doherty. Tired from a busy day, and not looking forward to my early-morning shift at the cafe the next day, I started crying when I read this passage:

If we are to witness to Christ in today’s marketplaces where there are constant demands on our whole person, we need silence.  If we are to be always available, not only physically, but by empathy, sympathy, friendship, understanding, and boundless caritas, we need silence. To be able to give joyous, unflagging hospitality, not only of house and food, but of mind, heart, body, and soul, we need silence. (p. 4)

Poustinia is the Russian word for desert or wilderness.  Following the pattern of the monastic saints of the early Church sought who communion with Christ in the desert, the Russian Church developed a tradition of the poustinik, a person who retreated to solitary and silent places in search of deep communion with God.  For the person seeking poustinia, the “desert” could be any secluded place to which one would retreat for a time, short or long.  Perhaps you build a hut or cabin in the wilderness, like the one pictured on the cover of the book. Perhaps it’s a corner of your home dedicated to prayer. Wherever your poustinia is, go there alone. Listen to God. Take only your Bible. Fast. Listen. Pray. Wait for God in solitude and silence

It was this sort of solitude and silence that I had in mind when I read the quote I shared above.  To be available to others, to witness faithfully in the midst of our crowded lives, we must have a rhythm of life that allows us to retreat periodically into silence and solitude. At least that’s what I thought she meant. And that’s what I wanted. But the further I read in the book, the more I realize that the quote above referred to what Doherty calls a “poustinia of the heart.” Not all of us can practically get away for solitary retreats as often as we’d like.  Nor would it be faithful for some of us to hide in solitude when we’ve been called elsewhere: I would have been like Jonah on the ship to Tarshish if I had awakened Tuesday morning and decided to take a solitary retreat that day instead of fulfilling my obligations to work the opening shift at the cafe.  Apparently I need a way to learn to listen to God in the midst of life just as I would in the midst of the desert. But how?

In the chapter “Poustinia in the Marketplace,” Doherty provides the image of a womb in which Christ is present within us. Like Mary, we have a poustinia within us, a place where we can internally commune with Christ in the midst of the world and from which we also bear Christ’s light and presence into the world. This poustinia within us doesn’t require us to hide in the desert to commune with Christ. Rather:

It means that within yourselves you have made a room, a cabin, a secluded space. You have built it by prayer – the Jesus Prayer – or whatever prayer you have found profitable. You should be more aware of God than anyone else, because you are carrying within you this utterly quiet and silent chamber.  Because you are more aware of God, because you have been called to listen to him in your inner silence, you can bring him to the street, the party, the meeting, in a very special and powerful way (p. 64).

Notice that she says this inner desert has been built by prayer, especially the Jesus Prayer.  She goes on the following pages to describe in different terms what the desert monks called watchfulness, the capacity to objectively observe our own thoughts and attentively respond to them.  In the midst of a crowded room, the watchful person can be non-anxiously aware of all that is happening within themselves and submit those internal operations to Christ. This requires the cultivation of an interior silence which quiets all voices but God’s. And how do we cultivate this? Doherty says, “The answer is simple: you pray more” (p. 65). 

She recommends other practices as well: attentiveness to Christ’s presence in the Eucharist, occasional solitary retreats, fasting, vigiling, simplifying our schedules, and limiting our recreational activities.  But the goal of all these practices remains prayer. By praying, we learn to pray. By communing with Christ in prayer and worship and simplicity, we learn to commune with Christ in the inner desert of the soul. After listing examples of saints whom she thought achieved this, Doherty says, “The secret of all those people I am talking about is that they prayed continually, while all the time they served their people” (p. 69).

This is a difficult calling, but if Doherty was right that we really need silence in order to minister effectively today, then we have no choice but to accept the challenge.  So, I accept the call. I want to pray for my cafe customers while I make their drinks. I want to pray for my congregation in the midst of meetings about budgets and the expansion of our space.  I want to pray while leading a wedding rehearsal tonight and officiating a wedding tomorrow. I’m not there yet; I’m a long way away. But I want the poustinia of the heart. Lord have mercy on your servants, and grant us the gift of unceasing prayer.

B is for . . . 

. . . Bruiser . . .

. . . Big Brother?. . .

. . . Baby Brown! . . .

We’re happy to announce that Eileen and I are expecting! She’s twelve weeks pregnant, meaning that (if the Lord wills) Baby Brown should arrive sometime near the end of December. We could have a Christmas baby. Please keep us and our child in your prayers!

I’ve been commuting by bike a lot recently, riding from home to work at the cafe, to Upper Room, to the seminary, to meetings. And my legs are sore.  This isn’t because I’m out of shape; it’s because I consistently forget to stretch before or after riding.  When I go for a run, and know that my purpose is exercise, I can easily remember to stretch and save myself later pain.  When commuting, I forget.  There’s pressure to get somewhere quick, so I hop on and ride without adequate preparation. Then, as I start to slow down midway up Forbes Avenue, I think, ‘I really should have stretched.’  Rushing to get where I need to go, I end up moving less efficiently and feeling sore afterward.

I realized this week that the same pattern shows up in my prayer life.  Just as exercise requires stretching and warming-up before a strenuous workout, prayer requires preparation. When I enter into a time of prayer after reading Scripture or other spiritual writing, prayer flows more smoothly, naturally. The same is true if I’ve been listening to worship music that sets my heart in a prayerful place.  This is also another reason why I’ve found using liturgies for daily prayer immensely helpful. To continue the bike analogy, prescribed liturgies can function as training wheels, guiding us until we can balance on our own. I value extemporaneous prayer, but without these ways of “warming-up”, extemporaneous prayer can be clumsy and confused.  Tools like liturgies do not guarantee prayer from the heart, but they can help us get our balance so we can move forward freely. Without these forms of preparation or support, my prayer life becomes disorderly, uncoordinated, awkward.

Today’s Old Testament reading in the Daily Lectionary, Ecclesiastes 5:1-7, suggests that the consequences of rushing into prayer are more than just clumsy words and confusion:

Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil. Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few. For the dream comes through much effort and the voice of a fool through many words. When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.  Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For in many dreams and in many words there is emptiness. Rather, fear God.  (NASB)

For the author of Ecclesiastes, what we say in prayer can actually cause us to sin in God’s presence.  Our words matter more than we realized, especially when we are speaking with the Lord of the universe, because words are an expression of who we really are. In Matthew 15:18-20, Jesus says,

It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of a mouth, this defiles a person . . . What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander. These are what defile a person. (ESV)

If our words reveal the state of our heart, what does the way we pray reveal about the sin and brokenness in our hearts? The words we speak to God may not convey all the sins Jesus listed in Matthew 15, but they do reveal other strongholds in our hearts: impatience, distrust, selfishness, pride.

Ecclesiastes 5 suggests we should be quicker to listen to God than to speak, and that when we do speak we should carefully consider our words and approach God with reverence.  Perhaps part of our preparation for prayer should include asking questions like Does what I’m praying express truth about God? Why am I praying in this way? Am I listening as much as I’m speaking?  Am I being rash in the things I say to the Lord?  We should also consider the warning in James 4:13-15:

Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow.  You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.  Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord, wills, we will live and also do this or that.’

How often do our prayers seek to tell God the way things will be, rather than submitting our plans and desires to God’s will? I find that when I rush into prayer, it’s because I want to set the agenda, rather than to say, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

I’ve been reading works by writers of the early centuries of the Church for a few years now, but this book was unlike anything I’ve ever read before.  Who knew that Gregory of Nyssa knew about “hedge-fund managers,” “supermodels,” and “bling”?

Well, Gregory didn’t exactly use those terms for them, but they are the words used as illustrations in this edition of his teachings. InterVarsity Press has a new line of books coming out called “Classics in Spiritual Formation,” a line which modernizes the language of the Church fathers in order to make them more “relevant and approachable for audiences today.”  IVP sent me a copy of Michael Glerup’s paraphrase of Gregory of Nyssa’s Sermons on the Beatitudes, and I think they succeeded in meeting their goal.

Just remember this: you are reading a paraphrase.  Paraphrases are good, and very helpful for understanding certain works, but they are different from the author’s original words.  This edition of Gregory’s Sermons on the Beatitudes is to Gregory’s original work what Eugene Peterson’s The Message is to the Bible. For many, Peterson’s paraphrase makes Scripture come alive and speak to  their hearts in new ways. Glerup’s paraphrase does the same. As I read through these sermons (or perhaps up these sermons, since Gregory envisions the Beatitudes as a ladder we can climb), I found that Gregory’s teachings still spoke to my heart, sometimes in gentler and clearer ways than I imagine they would have if I had not read a paraphrase. The paraphrase communicates.

Yet the paraphrase also means you’re not reading pure Gregory. This effort to make Gregory accessible to your average twenty-first century churchgoer also means that you’ll find Gregory speaking terms borrowed from pop culture, including “bling.” This is just like when The Message calls people to “raise the roof” multiple times in the Psalms. I found myself scratching my head in a couple of places wondering what Gregory’s original words were, even wishing there were footnotes with the Greek for significant terms. That’s what I’m used to from other editions of patristic works, but it’s not what the paraphrase was intended to communicate.  A Biblical scholar wouldn’t read The Message if they wanted to closely examine a text. But someone who’s not a specialized scholar, someone who is simply wondering what the text has to say to them today could pick up The Message and be enriched. So, too, with this paraphrase. Someone wanting to study the fathers deeply may want more than this series.  But for a first taste of patristic literature, or as a resource for small group study and discussion, this edition will be quite helpful. 

And this is why this edition (and probably the rest of this series) can bless the Church: not everyone who would benefit from the teachings of the Church fathers can or will sit down with the denser academic volumes of their works which are available. Even when pastors with seminary training read these works, it still takes a remarkable amount of effort to translate the lessons into our context. (For an example, take my journey through the The Ladder of Divine Ascent this past Lent.) By paraphrasing the text, Glerup has done much of this extra translation work for us.  He’s also added helpful sidebars in each chapter which explain concepts which were important to the Church fathers – remembrance of death, ladder imagery, martyrdom.  These sidebars will be helpful for those less familiar with the fathers and their worldview. The paraphrase doesn’t baptize readers entirely into the world of the early Church, but it shortens the distance. The Church today desperately needs to hear the voices of our ancient ancestors, and works like this can grab the attention of a broader audience,  increasing the numbers of those who listen to the voices of these saints.