Monthly Archives: November 2012

I had a disturbing conversation last week. It was with a man who told me, rather shamelessly, that he travels to southeast Asia to visit brothels. Let that sink in. He’s an American man, a fairly typical middle-aged guy, who travels across the country to buy sex from children enslaved in brothels.  He could be someone you passed on the street today.

What sort of person would do that? More than you might think. I told this man that the girls he visited in these brothels were most likely slaves, kept there against their will.  I explained that I’ve actually visited villages in northern Thailand where these slaves come from: their families are told the children will work a good job in the city and send money home, then the children are never heard from again.  They become the forced prostitutes that this man uses. To all this news he responded with a defensive self-pity, “I’m lonely.”  What sort of person would do that? A desperately lonely person.

But that loneliness doesn’t instantly translate into the heinous acts this man was engaged in. There’s a pattern that goes on for a while before that behavior goes to such extremes. As this article by Benjamin Nolot says, “What kind of culture is producing so many men who are eager to buy women and children for sex, contributing to a $32 billion per year human trafficking industry? I believe the answer is the kind of culture that produces and perpetuates a $100 billion per year pornography industry.” According to Philip Zimbardo’s Ted Talk,  the porn industry is the fastest growing industry in America:  For every 400 movies made in Hollywood, there are 11,000 pornographic films. The more that men consume this material, the more they develop an “arousal addiction” which actually re-wires their brains.  And this has social implications: This arousal addiction actually damages the work and social skills men would otherwise be developing.

In other words, pornography use reinforces poor social skills. Loneliness begets loneliness.  Who’s consuming this material? Mostly lonely men. Who’s traveling across the globe for sex tourism? Mostly lonely men who’ve learned to feed their loneliness with the false-intimacy of explicit images.

I believe that dedication to truth is a spiritual discipline which can transform our lives. Here’s a case where it can transform the world. If men who struggle with the temptation to use porn reminded themselves of these facts, they’d find the temptation easier to resist. If all such men recognized the total falsehood of any “intimacy” they receive from either porn or prostitutes, the sex industry might just  collapse. That’s a lot to ask, but it’s not too much to pray for.

I want to tell that lonely man more of the truth about pornography and human trafficking. I want to tell him that his loneliness points to a real need for intimacy that can’t be met in any of the places he’s looked for it. I want to tell him that the real way out of his loneliness is to give up his perversions and seek real relationships. I want to tell that man he needs to repent. I was too angry to say it when the conversation took place last week, but today I would tell him that if he repents he can be forgiven for those sins. And I want to tell that lonely man that there is a community of other forgiven sinners out there who would welcome him, show him the love he truly needs, and help him free the slaves he used to abuse. Lord have mercy.


Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. This means, among other things, that I’ve already seen and sent a few emails regarding Christmas lists. Family and friends are already asking us what we’re asking for this Christmas, and we’re asking them the same question in return. This means that on the day when we give thanks for what we do have, we’re all already thinking about what we don’t have, what we’d rather have, what we want.

Compiling a Christmas list has a strange effect on me, forcing me to answer the question what do I actually want? Each year I find the question harder to answer.  What I really want in life aren’t things that can be put on a simple holiday shopping list. I have my frequently updated wish-list of books, but to go beyond books, compiling a Christmas list requires a whole new level of deliberate work: What do I want? Why do I want that? Will I actually use that? What do I really need?

A few years ago, a friend told me she had received a word from God for me. The message was simple: “Just ask.” I have a note about that encounter in my journal to the effect of “Ok. Thank you God for this word. What am I supposed to ask You for?” I never heard a specific answer, but the memory has promoted me several times to be more intentional about asking for things from God. Today I’m wondering, What would my prayer life look like if I put as much thought into my requests of God as I’m putting into my Christmas list?

That’s a convicting question because it first clarifies my intentions. Today’s daily lectionary reading gives both an encouragement to ask freely, but also a caveat regarding our motives: “You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:2-3 NIV). Even with something as tempting as Christmas gifts, I have enough sense to ask myself about my motives: Why do I want that? What will be the result if I get it? Why not also ask ourselves these things about our petitions of God? Doing this forces me to pray much more deliberately and consistently. My desires are so fickle that I’m sure I’ve prayed for something one day and directly contradicted myself the next. Clarifying intentions means paying attention to what I’ve asked for, watching for answers. Keeping a “book of intentions,” a notebook in which I keep track of what I’m praying for other people, has also brought greater clarity and consistency to my intercessory prayers.

My Christmas list also reminds me that there’s sometimes a drastic difference between what we want and what we need. God knows what I need before I even ask him (Matt 6:8), and that includes all the food and clothes and stuff necessary for daily life (Luke 12:29-30).  So, What do I really need to ask for in prayer?  More than any material gift right now, I need holiness. So for a year I’ve been asking God deliberately to give me a hatred for particular sins and a love for the virtues which replace them.  God is certainly answering these prayers.  This has changed the way I pray for others as well. Every prayer request has a subtext. The art of praying for others is like the art of gift-giving. The best gifts are the ones that a person never realized they wanted, but were delighted to receive. If you know a person intimately, you can give these gifts. Pay attention to the subtext of a prayer request and the Spirit will lead you to pray for what’s truly needed and desired, even if it wasn’t part of the original prayer request.

With the items on my Christmas list, I’ve questioned my motives and considered whether I really need or want them, but I still haven’t sent the list off to family yet. It’s waiting to be edited. My Christmas list is presently in a draft email to my wife, which I plan to have her look at before sending it on to anyone else. I want someone else to verify that I’m asking for the right things in the right way. For another example, I’ve spent weeks crafting support letters to mail to other churches asking for money to finance Upper Room’s expansion of our worship space into the theater behind us. Others have reviewed and edited it. The stakes are high (obviously much higher than a Christmas list), so I want this letter to be perfect.  But why would I think the stakes are any lower when I’m praying? Perhaps having others proofread our prayers isn’t a bad idea. Tell someone, This is what I’ve been praying for and how I’m asking for it. Does that sound right?

But after all this deliberation and intention, there’s still a marvelous gift of grace and freedom: the privilege of asking. In Philippians, Paul tells his readers to “in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (4:6). In other words, “Just ask.”   We aren’t children estranged from their Father. We can ask for what we need. We can trust that the Lord provides. We do well to think wisely and carefully about what we ask for, but we can also approach God with childlike simplicity. And we can rejoice far more in the gifts we receive from the Lord than we rejoice when celebrating and opening Christmas gifts with friends and family. Thanks be to God.

Pregnant women are sometimes called “expectant mothers”. With Eileen about seven weeks away from her due date, I’m learning what it means to be an expectant father. And that’s teaching me some lessons about the life of seeking Christ.

Expectancy manifests in two ways: preparedness and watchfulness. Preparedness consists of doing all one can to set the stage, to be ready for the arrival of what one expects. Expecting guests, we clean the house, sweep the floors, straighten up whatever is in disarray. But then there comes a point when the preparations seem complete. All that’s left is to wait for the guest to arrive. Watchfulness is the attitude one adopts in that time of waiting. We listen to every sound to hear if it’s a car pulling up. Quietness, stillness, and the fact that chaos has just been put in order, come together to create an opportunity for peaceful waiting. Preparedness is a necessary precursor to watchfulness.

With a baby on the way, I see us taking steps toward both preparedness and watchfulness. Baby Brown’s room is almost ready. There’s new paint on the walls, the crib is set up, stuffed animals are already lined up on one shelf. We’re scoping our routes to the birth center, looking for the best routes for each time of day and traffic condition. Soon we’ll have all the requisite equipment that babies require in this world. Of course, a new parent is never fully ready, buy we’re doing the little we can do and know how to do. And we’re becoming more watchful, too. Eileen spends lots of time watching the movements Baby makes, perceptible as they are through her belly. When Eileen points at Baby’s movements to get me to watch, I half-expect her to tell me she just had a contraction. This keeps me on the alert. After a long day, I think twice about relaxing with a beer, lest I be drowsy when her labor begins. Baby’s arrival should still be weeks away, but I’m contemplating packing a bag now.

Jesus calls us to this sort of expectancy in our relationship with Him. Soon we’ll enter the liturgical season of Advent, where we renew our expectancy of the Lord’s return. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus likens his followers to servants awaiting the return of their master (13:33-37). Saying that the master could come at any time, He warns that we should “keep on the alert” or “watch.” Lest this be misinterpreted, I should say here that I don’t think we’re living in the “end times”. I don’t subscribe to interpretations of scripture that try to decode when Jesus is coming back. But I do think we need to heed these commands to be watchful. What He said is pretty clear: We don’t know what Christ’s return looks like or when it will happen, but we should live with expectant hearts.

So how are we to live with holy expectancy? Even if millennia pass before Christ returns, I believe we can expect to see God move in our lives on a smaller scale every day. But we have to pay attention. Preparedness comes before watchfulness. What in our hearts needs to be swept and put in order, just in case the Visitor comes? Are we investing time, energy, and resources in the Kingdom we await, or in the pursuits of a worldly life? If we think things are in order, are we listening? Who in our lives is poking us, taking us to watch, to stay awake to the reality that life is about to change? Are we listening to the voices that call us to be alert, or surrounding ourselves with distractions? Whatever we’re doing, are we open to the interruptions God may throw our way? Jesus said to His disciples, “What I say to you, I say to all, ‘Watch!'” May He grant us the grace of watching with expectant hearts.

Today is All Saints Day, the day when the Western Church remembers and celebrates all of the holy people through whom God has graced the Church throughout its centuries. I’ve observed this holiday casually in the past, but this year it’s taking on a new depth of meaning for me. Yesterday, I shared a post at the Conversations Journal Blog called “All Who Walk in the Way of Perfection.” In it, I wrote about how I’ve developed a relationship with St. Mark the Ascetic, or “Mark the Monk.” And I think relationship really is the proper word.  As Valerie Hess says in her All Saints Day post on the Conversations blog, the dead saints are alive in Christ, and the communion of saints which we confess in the Creed means that these heroes of the faith means that we can relate to them now just as we relate to our living brothers and sisters in Christ.
Recently I read another work by Mark the Monk which opened up the communion of the saints in an even deeper way for me. In a piece called “A Monastic Superior’s Disputation With an Attorney,” Mark presents an account of an elder monk debating the virtues of withdrawal from the world with a fairly worldly lawyer. Near the end, as the elder is debriefing the conversation with the monks who serve under him, the elder says this:
“Do you wish to know more fully and clearly how all the apostles have entered into communion with us by means of thought, word, and deed and how, through this communion, they have taken responsibility for our trials and temptations?  Using thought, they open up and explain the Scriptures for us, commending prophetic utterances, persuading us to believe in Christ as the Redeemer, giving us the assurance to worship him as Son of God by nature, praying for us, weeping, dying, and whatever other faithful actions come from thought.  By means of words they exhort, admonish, reproach, rebuke our lack of faith, cast in our teeth our ignorance, interpret the Scriptures, clarify the times, confess Christ, preaching that he is the crucified one, the incarnate Word . . . . By means of deed, they are persecuted, sneered at, made indigent, afflicted, mistreated, imprisoned, killed, and whatever other things they suffered on our behalf. In this way, then, for the sake of community, they accepted responsibility for our trials and temptations: ‘Whether we are being afflicted or whether we are being consoled,’ he says, ‘it is for your salvation and consolation’ [1 Cor 1.6]. They received the law from the Lord when he said, ‘No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ [Jn 15.13]. They themselves have handed on this law to us, saying, ‘If the Lord laid down his life for us, we too ought to lay down our lives for our brothers [1 Jn 3.16], and again, ‘Bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ [Gal 6.2].” (Mark the Monk Counsels on the Spiritual Life [SVS Press 2009] pp. 248-289)
Mark says the apostles and saints take responsibility for us and our sanctification. This is in no way to suggest that they replace Christ as Savior, of have any power of their own to save us. But they are teachers with whom we can have personal relationships. Just as a teacher bears responsibility for his or her students, the saints bear responsibility for handing on the faith to us, and we bear the same responsibility for the sanctification of those whom we influence. At its best, this responsibility takes the form of conformity to the likeness of Christ, with these wise teachers laying down their lives for future generations of the Church, imitating and participating in what Christ did for all of us. The saints teach not in an impersonal way, merely passing along objective knowledge, but in a profoundly embodied way, suffering to bring us the Word.
This means that celebrating the communion with the saints is about more than recalling their examples. It’s about entering deeper into relationship with brothers and sisters in Christ who have shared Christ with us through their own sufferings. When we read the New Testament epistles, we’re direct beneficiaries of the sufferings Paul endured which shaped him into the likeness of Christ. Reading this quote from Mark together, we are all personal and direct recipients of the wisdom gained through Mark’s ascetic struggles. Twenty centuries later, those who read about the life of Mother Teresa become beneficiaries of her sufferings, gaining inspiration or encouragement from her. And each of these saints had earlier saints from whom they directly benefited. Mother Teresa was inspired by St. Therese of Lisieux. Mark the Monk may have been a disciple of St. John Chrysostom.  When we look the holy examples of the great cloud of witnesses around us, we in turn are shaped to become such witnesses for others. And as we’re shaped to become such witnesses, we start to bear the same responsibility to allow others to profit from our pursuit of Christ and sharing in His sufferings. Such grace and such responsibility fills me with thankfulness to God, and to all the saints. Let us keep the feast.