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Monthly Archives: August 2012

Two weekends ago, I was on vacation in Colorado. More specifically, I was at the Planet Bluegrass Folks Festival. It was a beautiful end to a restful week in my home state. Good food, good beer, good music, good friends and family. And, during the lazy afternoons at the music festival, time to read a good book.

One of the two books I brought along on vacation was Peace Be With You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World. David Carlson, the author, shares throughout the book stories of visits he made to Christian monasteries in America, interviewing monks and nuns and see how they responded to September 11th. Carlson was searching for, and found, examples of more Christlike responses to 9/11 than were ever heard in the American media in the wake of the attack. I’ll save the message on loving our enemies for later. For now I’m concerned about one particular quote from one of the visits (which, incidentally, was with an artist, and not a monk).

Sitting in the afternoon sun at the Folks Festival, I read about Carlson’s encounter with Richard Bresnahan, a potter who was then working in a studio at the Benedictine affiliated St. John’s College in Minnesota.  Recalling Bresnahan’s comments on the American lifestyle, Carlson wrote:

As evidence of our falsity, he cited the modern preoccupation of being “true to one’s self,” a goal far different from the traditional understanding of integrity.  “If you’re going to be ‘true to yourself.’ that’s that hollow voice yelling in a soundless cave. If you’re going to be true to others, your self is understood.” For Bresnahan, integrity is not being loyal to one’s own narcissistic whims, but being loyal to that which brings balance to human community life. (pp. 192-193)

I was struck by Bresnahan’s insight that integrity is about being faithful to others, not being “true to one’s self.” Though the book doesn’t portrays his religious views as explicitly Christian, Bresnahan was articulating a fundamental Christian truth. Our selves are frankly deceitful. As the Biblical prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 NASB). Because we’re naturally given to self-interest and self-preservation, being “true to ourselves” may just be a euphemism for “being selfish.” If this deceitful heart is the “self” to which we should be true, how will we ever survive the fickleness of our emotions?

How should our “self” is defined: in an individualistic way, or in terms of social relationships?  Should I, as Chris, seek to be “true to Chris”? That sounds vague because it is vague.  It gives no way to determine what integrity looks like apart from a general appeal to my own feelings. A better way of defining who I am is through my commitments to others: I should be true to who I am as a husband, a (soon-to-be) father, a pastor, a writer, a friend, a son, etc. That gives concrete meaning to what integrity should look like in my life. And it means that a faithful search for integrity should include a healthy measure of self-doubt, humility, and willingness to submit to those to whom I’m committed. When our vision of integrity is about being true to our own subjective definitions of our selves, we’re little more than slaves to our own desires. But if our “self” is defined by virtue of our real relationships to others, and the gifts we’ve been given for the sake of loving and serving others, then being true to our selves is the same as being true to others.

But too often in our culture, being true to one’s self is reduced to obedience to one’s own emotions or desires. Back at the Folks Festival, later that night, I heard a different message through the loudspeakers at the festival.  Lyle Lovett was singing “Isn’t That So”, a song whose chorus goes, “Isn’t that so / Tell me, isn’t that so / You got to go when your heart says go / Isn’t that so.”  I enjoy listening to Lyle, but I get sad when the song says “Let that line of least resistance lead me on.”  The line of least resistance is usually the line which tells us to follow our own fleshly desires. And those desires are exactly what the song calls us to indulge: “Well, he [God] knew what he was doin’ / When he put eyes into my head / If he didn’t want me to lookin’ at them pretty little women / He’d’a left my ol’ eyeballs dead.”

Yes, God gave us the gifts of beauty and the sight to apprehend beauty. But to turn recognition of such gifts into a theological justification of lust is the sort of demonic distortion of the good which lies behind all sin. Jesus, who knew what He was doing in giving sight to the blind, had different words to say about the promiscuity of our eyes: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:28-29). I do not hear Jesus calling us to “go when our hearts say go.” But I do hear Jesus calling us to a radical commitment to integrity, defined not by our own whims, but by submission to His Lordship and fidelity to the relationships in which He’s placed us.  “The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).

Later this morning, I’ll be speaking to a group of students at Pittsburgh Seminary, sharing the story of Upper Room as a case study in a class for their new Church-Planting M.Div. Specifically, I’ve been asked to share about vibrant faith in God, a characteristic which the course’s instructor identifies in his book as an essential trait for successful church-planters.  Most of what I’ll say will focus on prayer.  I’m taking the advice of St. Mark the Ascetic from the Philokalia: “If you want with few words to benefit one who is eager to learn, speak to him about prayer . . .” But after I wrote out my notes for the talk – filling it with illustrations about the importance of prayer in the life of Upper Room, the way we use the Jesus Prayer, the way Mike and I pray together –  I realized there was something missing: How do we maintain a vibrant faith and an active prayer life? It’s one thing to say to someone “pray more” and expect them to do it.  It’s a much bigger question to ask: What actually makes us want to pray more? What motivates us to stay active in our spiritual lives?

I think part of the answer is thankfulness.  Not long after my revelation earlier this summer that I needed to be more thankful, I read these words from my missionary hero, the monk Charles de Foucauld:

O beloved Bridegroom, what have you not done for me? What do you want from me? What do you expect from me, that you have so overwhelmed me? O God, give yourself thanks through me, create remembrance, gratitude, fidelity, and love in me; I am overcome, I fail, O God; create my thoughts, words, and deeds, so that they may all give you thanks and glorify you in me. Amen. Amen. Amen.

As I read this passage again this morning, I was overwhelmed. Brother Charles had such a deep sense of God’s blessing and presence in his life that he knew he could not thank God enough, and he believed this even in the midst of living a very ascetic and lonely life.  I can’t help but think that this very sense of thankfulness was part of what allowed Charles to be so bold in mission to the Tuareg people group of the Sahara. Thankful for the grace bestowed upon him, Charles responded both by expressing deeper love and affection for God and by eagerly seeking to share that blessing with others.  May the Lord grant us such thankfulness.

Later today, my co-pastor Mike and I will meet to pray together. For almost five years, we’ve done this nearly every Friday. And these times of prayer have become the center of both our friendship and our shared ministry.  We say that our greatest strength as co-pastors is that we pray well together, and would both agree that our friendship has been a case of “iron sharpening iron” (Proverbs 27:17). Such kinds of spiritual friendship are gifts from God, and they should be prized.

I’ve learned a lot from Mike, and from God, through this gift of friendship. And today I have a post about some of those lessons published on the Conversations Journal Blog. It’s called When God Chooses Friends For Us. The title comes from the words of C. S. Lewis: “Christ, who said to the disciples ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,’ can truly say to every group of Christian friends, ‘You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another'” (The Four Loves [New York: Harcourt Brace 1988] p. 89). Thanks be to God that He chooses us not just for himself, but for fellowship with one another.

While cleaning out my home office a few weeks ago, I found a memento from one of my last visits to my home state of Colorado.  It was a napkin from my airplane ride home. On one side was an advertisement for the airline I had flown. On the reverse side, which had been blank, I had made two lists. The left-hand column contained a happy list of the Colorado beers I’d tried on that trip. The right-hand column was more sobering: a list of resolutions I wanted to make about how to live my life after returning to Pittsburgh.

Sometimes vacation puts life in perspective, giving us a clearer sense of what our priorities in life should be. On that flight home two years ago, some of those priorities were simple choices I wanted to make in order to add more joy to my life: make time for music, move through life more slowly, read something other than theology textbooks. But the biggest and most important resolution of all that September was live with integrity. Not that there was a severe lack of integrity in my life, but there was enough to make me aware that something had to change. I said yes to things when I should have said no, lied about my feelings, and didn’t always live according to my convictions. So I made resolutions: live with integrity, stand for my convictions, be honest. All written in blue ink on that scratchy white napkin. And then never seen again until surfacing in my office earlier this month.  

Ironically, though the napkin could have easily been thrown away, I saved it. But saving it in a pile of other papers meant I might as well have thrown it away. Resolutions, commitments, and vows of any kind are meant to be revisited regularly. When we hastily make such commitments and then forget about them, we cheapen both ourselves and the language we use. Our yes becomes a no (cf. Matt. 5:37) and we become snared in our own words (Proverbs 6:2-5). No one else knew about those napkin resolutions two years ago, so the hypocrisy of my failure to reflect on them could have remained hidden forever. I made those resolutions to myself, but it turns out that I couldn’t even be trusted to remember them.

That was two years ago. Last night, as my plane descended into Pittsburgh, returning from this year’s vacation to Colorado, I looked at another airline napkin in my hand.  Blank.  Recalling the memento I’d found earlier this month, this seemed like an invitation and an opportunity. I jotted down some notes regarding new resolutions I want to make: Make time for family (especially with Baby Brown due in a few months). Pursue single-mindedness. Reduce multi-tasking. Focus attention on true priorities. Make time for writing; it’s a spiritual discipline.  And again: live with integrity. There’s been quite a bit of progress on that resolution in two years, enough that I’m writing a book about it. But this year I’m emphasizing what I forgot two years ago: remembering the commitments I’ve made. And that’s going to require intentional action. For example: What would it look like to reflect regularly on my ordination vows? I remember making them every time I come across a verse Psalms which refers to the vows we make to God (“From You comes my praise in the great assembly; I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him” [22:25 NASB] or “Make vows to the Lord your God and fulfill them” [76:11]). But can I really fulfill them if I forget their original meaning or intention? Probably not. Some sort of intentional reflection is needed. And the same is true of all the other commitments we make: marriage vows, commitments to friends or communities, even job descriptions. Wouldn’t we all benefit from reflecting on such commitments and asking whether we’re fulfilling them with integrity? If we don’t, they can become mere napkin resolutions, forgotten or thrown away.

A few weeks ago, I posted that I’m writing a book. Since then, I’ve learned that making a deliberate effort to write is a lot like church-planting.  When we started Upper Room four years ago, I had no idea what the future would hold. I knew God had called me to plant a church with my friend Mike, but I had no idea how to start a church. Stepping out into that unknown world of church-planting meant practicing self-discipline and taking a risk. I know more about writing than I did then about church-planting, but my early forays into writing more than sermons and blog-posts have shown me that this combination of discipline and willingness to take risks is necessary to succeed in both.

1) It takes self-discipline.  Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a satellite viewing of the Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit with some friends and colleagues from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  Of the many great presentations, Jim Collins’ summary of his new book Great By Choice had the most insights which I want to put into practice.  One of these ideas was the 20 Mile March. Collins used the illustration of Ronald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer of Antarctica who reached the south pole thanks to the remarkable self-discipline of proceeding twenty miles per day, no matter what the conditions.  While other explorers would race ahead in good weather and sit still in bad weather, Amundsen had the discipline to push ahead consistently when it was difficult. He also had the discipline not to overextend himself when he could have done more.

In the first two years of Upper Room’s history, there weren’t any established patterns of congregational life to determine my schedule or priorities. I had to have discipline to make time and space for the various work that needed to be done.  No one was looking over my shoulder to make sure I did it.  This is so much more true in the practice of writing. I have more ideas to write about than I have time to write. Solution: The 20 Mile March. I need to create a regular rhythm of writing that requires effort and discipline but doesn’t overextend myself. My intention is to get into a routine of rising early and working on my writing for two hours in the morning, three days per week.  I say intention because I disagreed with my alarm clock this morning. But I know that once I get into the rhythm, it will pay off.  20 Mile March.

2) Willingness to take a risk. Notice that the example Collins chose to illustrate self-discipline was that of an Antarctic explorer.  There are millions of people who could serve as great examples of self-discipline. What made Amundsen noteworthy is that he applied his self-discipline to a creative and adventurous undertaking. He combined his self-discipline with a willingness to take a risk.  Taking risks without self-discipline can lead to tragedy, as it did for the explorer Robert Scott, a contemporary of Amundsen who died during his expedition to the South Pole.  But taking risks with self-discipline can lead to great accomplishments.

When we answered God’s call to start Upper Room, the only secure thing about the work was the fact that God had called us to it.  We applied for grants, of course, and knew that we had the support of local Presbytery members.  But grants weren’t guaranteed.  There were always chances that people wouldn’t come, that things wouldn’t work out, that we would end up like one of the many new church starts that simply fail. That was a big risk to take for our first ordained positions in ministry. But I think the self-discipline God gave to Mike and me as co-pastors has enabled us to get through the unstable times in our church’s short history.

Similarly, starting to write more has felt risky. It is emotionally risky – writers put ideas forward, knowing they’ll be valued by some and criticized by others. Writing can be financially risky; most writers don’t earn much by writing. (Don’t worry; I’m not quitting my day-jobs. Pastoring Upper Room is still my primary calling and I don’t expect that to change. As I’ve indicated before on this blog, I see writing as an extension of  that ministry.)  But I’m willing to take risks to pursue the gifts God has given me in writing, and I trust that, when pursued with discipline, those risks will be worth taking.

Every day millions of sights and sounds compete for our attention. Surrounded by stimulation from smartphones, computers, televisions, and billboards – not to mention any ordinary human interactions – most of us passively receive this onslaught of information. As we do, we miss the voice of the One who calls out and reveals himself to us in the midst of the world. Somewhere in the midst of the noise, the “still small voice” speaks. What do we hear?

Thankfully, Richard Peace has written a book to help us learn how to be attentive to God’s presence and voice in the midst of this cacophony.  The book is called Noticing Godand IVP sent me a copy to review several weeks ago.  And I am thankful, not just for the free copy of the book, but much more for the lessons it taught me about disciplining my mind to cultivate gratitude for God’s work in my life.

Peace’s book is a challenge to take active control over our attention, to deliberately try to notice God’s presence and activity in and around us. He writes, “God’s presence pervades our world. God is not hiding. The problem is with us. We don’t know where to look or what to expect. We do not seem to notice.  We need to learn to notice”  (p.14). Learning to notice God, for Peace, is a spiritual discipline, a practice we can adopt in order to be more receptive to the Holy Spirit’s transforming power. Each chapter of Noticing God addresses a different venue in which we can cultivate the skill of noticing God: in ordinary life, in Scripture, in community, in creation, in culture. Some of these chapters read too much like an overview to go deeply into their subject matter. For example, the chapter on noticing God in the Church only gives a page and a half to the subject of Eucharist.  Entire books could (and should) be written on how to “notice God” in the sacraments.  But the point of this book is not to provide detailed theological discussions of how God is present to us. Peace’s objective is to encourage us to slow down, open our eyes, and look for God, and each chapter contains plenty of suggestions for how to do this.

My personal favorite parts of the book came from Peace’s engagement with Ignatian tradition. Peace writes that “At the heart of Ignatian spirituality is the principle of finding God in all things” (p. 38), and this desire to see God in all things is what drives the book forward. One part of Igantian spirituality which Peace opened up to me in a new way is the prayer of examen, a disciplined reflection upon the prior events of one’s day.  The method of examen which he describes in pages 41-43 begins with reflecting on the previous 24 hours and noticing all the gifts and blessings God provided during that time. Thankful for these blessings, one then reflects on the same period of time, asking where God seemed most present. Then one moves to confession, acknowledging sins and failures to the loving God who nonetheless provided the blessings noticed earlier. Learning to begin examen by recalling blessings was particularly helpful for me, revealing to me multiple occasions for gratitude which I would otherwise have missed.

Peace’s goal, however, was not just to open our eyes to God’s presence through traditional spiritual disciplines.  He wants us to look at the world around us with eyes that attend to God’s presence and activity.  While seeing evidence for God in the beauty of creation is nothing new, Peace’s chapter on “Creation, Culture and Creativity” demonstrates the ways in which human cultures both reveal God’s glory and our human hunger for transcendence. This chapter is especially worthwhile because of its missional significance.  When we cultivate an ability to see both God and humanity’s hunger for God revealed in cultural artifacts such as music or film, our ability to connect the Gospel to people’s lives increases. We become like the Apostle Paul, citing Greek poets when evangelizing in Athens (Acts 17:22-34). We can practice the “spiritual discipline of noticing God” not just for our own sanctification, but for the sake of inviting others into the Kingdom of God.

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Today was our last day in Florida, where we’ve been for a few days for our denomination’s national new church development conference. This came right after nine days at the New Wilmington Mission Conference. Both conferences were inspiring, but not exactly restful. Until today. We stayed an extra day to enjoy the beach and, simply, to rest. And I’m grateful that today’s rest produced some unexpected fruit. As at the Festival of Faith & Writing this spring, the slower pace of our final day here gave birth to some creative writing. Here is a haiku based on a remarkable sight I saw while running on the beach this morning:

Pancake with a tail,
A blue heron’s breakfast: young
Sting ray, swallowed whole.