Monthly Archives: December 2012

18,000 people are spending the next few days gathering in St. Louis for Urbana 12, one of the largest and most significant missions conferences in the world.  Several friends and members of my church are there, but Eileen and I are at home in Pittsburgh, waiting for Baby’s imminent arrival. So I’m following Urbana from afar, via Urbana Live and the #U12 hashtag on Twitter. The enthusiasm for world mission is contagious, even over the internet.

Among other things, following Urbana online is making me thankful for Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. When I was looking for a seminary at the end of college, I chose PTS partially because of its World Mission Initiative program. WMI sends students on short-term overseas trips to learn from and minister with the Church across the globe. Having already had a summer-long overseas mission experience through my college ministry, I knew that God uses cross-cultural experiences to transform and sanctify us. Going on a WMI trip to Southeast Asia left an indelible impact on my ministry, to the point that friends who visited the same region of Asia say that our community in the Upper Room reminds them of the house churches they saw there.

The world mission focus at PTS was just one part of how God used my time there to prepare me for ministry as a church-planter. (If you’re interested, I talk about more ways here.) That’s one reason why I happily support PTS by giving back and by working with their Alumni Council.  If you’re looking to do some year-end giving, you can give to PTS online by clicking here or directly to WMI by clicking here. Such gifts really are investments in the future of the global Church.

I’ve been slow to speak any thoughts about the tragic Sandy Hook elementary school shooting last week. The nation has heard a lot of reactions, from the President to the news media to ordinary people through the eruption of commentary on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve paid attention to some of this, agreeing with some comments and ignoring others. But internally, my thoughts keep circling back to one question: What if more people had intentionally befriended the shooter before this happened? Could simple friendship have changed anything?

I’m thinking this way because friendship keeps coming up as a theme in my ministry. I’ve written elsewhere about how God gave my co-pastor and me a unique friendship through this call to plant a church together. In many ways, our church has quietly become a community where the lonely discover friendship. John V. Taylor wrote in The Go-Between God, that “every Christian group or cell should look for some way in which it can meet a genuine human need in the situation in which it is placed” (p. 150). When I read that two years ago, I scribbled in the margin a note saying “emotional needs are a genuine as physical.” The fellowship which authentic friends share is one example. Friendship doesn’t appear to be an immediate physical need for survival, but without friendship our souls slowly starve, wasting away until death comes to us – or others – as the result.  Surely one manifestation of Christ’s life-giving victory over death is the community of genuine friendship which bears His name.

Significantly, the most authentic friendships look outward. C. S. Lewis observes in The Four Loves that “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest” (p. 61). Those in the friendship of the Church stand side-by-side absorbed in their common interest in Jesus. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than at The Lord’s Supper, when the community gathers like a family to partake of one loaf and one cup, side by side, but with eyes focused upon their Savior. Accordingly, Taylor wrote that if the Church gathers in order to . . .

 . . . enable members to live in that current of mutual awareness and communion which is the gift of the Holy Spirit and the element in which he moves in our midst, then a simple sharing of the loaf and the cup should be the natural summing up of the group experience.  In many of the ‘little congregations’ today this has become a regular and essential element. Someone brings bread and wine to a coffee table, all stand round while one or another reads the scriptures and offers the prayers, and then the authorized celebrant, wearing his ordinary clothes, leads them in the great thanksgiving and the consecration prayer; plate and cup are passed from hand to hand and the denominational question seems irrelevant in such a context.  This is what must come – not twenty years hence, but now – as the normal way in which the majority of Christians make the Holy Communion central to their lives. (150)

Next to that paragraph, in the margin of my book, I wrote “Upper Room!” Taylor’s description of intimate fellowship during Eucharist reminds me so much of how Upper Room started, celebrating communion around a coffee table in a living room, and how we continue to worship as a larger and still-expanding family. I think this is one reason why visitors to Upper Room sometimes say they can tell that we have authentic relationships with each other.  We have friendship and community, not because we strive for the ideals of friendship and community, but because we focus our attention on Christ together. 

Like Christ, this fellowship exists not for its own sake, but for the life of the world. Christ calls us His friends (John 15:14-15), and if friends stand side by side looking at a common interest, then we’re called to stand next to Jesus and focus on the lost and broken of the world.  We were enemies of God when Christ chose to befriend us, so its only fitting that in His Name we befriend even our worst enemies. Even the mentally ill. Even the potential murders. Jesus called Judas “friend”, even when Judas came to betray Him (Matthew 26:50). Throughout The Go-Between God, Taylor argues that the Holy Spirit is constantly calling us to a new awareness of God and others. That new awareness could show up in such simple ways as us humbly taking the time to listen to the person we’d never noticed before. We can’t force these friendships to develop, but if we open up to such possibilities, God may surprise us with new companions.

So, let us be vigilant, especially in this season when so many feel lonely or isolated, to not let people fall through the cracks of relationships. Pray for God to show us the people we’re called to befriend. Ask the Holy Spirit to humble us and make us more aware of the significance of every person outside ourselves. If we listen, in a few weeks or months we might discover new companions next to us when we receive Communion. May God grant us the grace to do what Christ our Lord has done for us: befriend the friendless.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what I’m learning from expecting the birth of our first child. Given that the timing of this birth coincides so neatly with the season of Advent, waiting for Baby Brown is teaching me a lot about the watchfulness that Jesus expects his followers to have in hope of His return.

That was a month ago. Now the due date is less than two weeks away. And we’re still expectant. Still waiting. And waiting. It’s getting harder to concentrate on other things. Optional work (like blogging) has taken a backseat to preparations for Baby. I’m finding hard to be motivated to do or think about anything other than Baby’s arrival. It’s tempting to shrug off other responsibilities because of the much larger responsibility that’s about to burst into our life: There’s a baby on the way.

This means that when I read the epistle appointed for today in the daily lectionary, I thought “I get it.” The passage is 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18. The Thessalonians, to whom the Apostle is writing, had a problem with idleness. Though Paul doesn’t say why there are so many “living in idleness,” one interpretation suggests that their idleness was an expression of belief in the Second Coming.  Expecting the imminent return of the Lord, some of the Thessalonians had gone so far as to quit their jobs. The perceived nearness of the end meant for them that the normal rules of life no longer applied. Rather than preparing with due diligence for the return of the Lord, these Thessalonians were sleeping and letting their resources run out (cf. Matt. 25:1-13).

The Greek word which is translated “idleness” here is ataktos, which also means “undisciplined.” In military settings, ataktos described soldiers who weren’t prepared for duty.  While others from the Thessalonian church were eagerly going about the work Christ had called them to, this group was AWOL. But the Apostle Paul is clear that this idleness is the direct opposite of watchfulness. Instead of living in idleness, he commands them to get a job (v. 12). Paul points to his own example of laboring with his own hands while ministering to the Thessalonians. Paul expressed his hope in Christ’s return through eagerly working to proclaim the Gospel, not by retiring early.

True watchfulness manifests itself in eagerness to do the work one is called to. As the bumper sticker says, “Jesus is Coming Back – Look Busy.” More seriously, living in hope of Christ’s return should lead us to take both our work and our spiritual disciplines more seriously. One doesn’t prepare for the Lord’s return by sleeping-in.  One prepares through prayer, vigil-keeping, fasting. If one expects a new world to come, one begins to practice detachment from the things of this world. And if one really believes that the Advent of the Lord has universal significance, then one would work to share that hope with others.

So I’m trying to prepare for our personal advent with watchfulness, with the discipline of a soldier still on duty. I’m preaching on the 23rd, and yes I’m already writing that sermon.  I’m coordinating a Service of Wholeness and Healing at Upper Room that night, and today I hope to send out the final draft of the liturgy for it. Later this morning, I’ll be helping my co-pastor write liturgies for services which I may not even attend. This is a spiritual discipline, teaching me to be expectant with watchfulness and faithfulness, training me to “not grow weary of doing good.” (2 Thess. 3:13 NASB).

This is the first week of Advent. In the Revised Common Lectionary, we’re now in Year C, which means that many of the prescribed scripture readings for Sundays in this season revolve around the life and ministry of John the Baptist. John was the “voice crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord!”  He was the “prophet of the Most High” giving God’s people “knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” And, as a new book by David Rohrer suggests, John provides a model for faithful ministry which pastors today should emulate.

David gave me a copy of The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry when I attended a pastors retreat at which he spoke in September. He is an experienced pastor, and the book is filled with anecdotes from his years in ministry in Presbyterian churches up and down the West Coast.  From that time in ministry, he knows a bit about what faithful ministry does and does not look like. It’s not “biblical ‘how-to-ism,'” as though people merely need advice on how to live (p. 30). It’s not business management, as though pastors are executives, nor is it marketing, as though we work for advertising agencies (pp. 60-61). For Rohrer, faithful ministry looks less like the culture around us, and more like prophecy in the wilderness.

Instead of these distortions of ministry, Rohrer paints a picture of the pastor as a prophet like John the Baptist, one whose ministry directs the attention of the people to Jesus. As Rohrer writes, “The prophetic tradition points us in a direction where we see our call not in terms of running the institutions we lead, but in terms of inviting people to wake up to God” (p. 41).  This sounds simple, but as Rohrer unpacks the implications of this counter-cultural portrait of ministry, the reader becomes starts to realize just how challenging this task is.  All of ministry becomes a relational art requiring patience and attention to the Holy Spirit.  Conversations with congregation members start to look different. The pastor’s work becomes a matter of asking the question, “Are you aware of God’s presence or not? And if you are aware, what difference is this awareness making in the way you are living your life?” (p. 29).

As a relatively young pastor, I found The Sacred Wilderness of Pastoral Ministry greatly encouraging.  In contrast to the voices which question the legitimacy of ordained leadership for churches, Rohrer encourages pastors to embrace the office and not to doubt the significance of their ordination.  Jesus told John to baptize Him even though John was unqualified to do so (Matthew 3:13-15). Rohrer writes, “In Jesus’ response to John’s hesitancy, we have what we need as pastors to accept our office in those situations where we are painfully aware of our personal inadequacy” (p. 76). The final chapter, “Confidence,” reminds pastors that faithful ministry is not about our ability to please congregants, but about our role as prophets pointing to Christ. The crowds came to John in the wilderness because they were hungry for God. The same is more true today than we realize. Rohrer writes, “It’s amazing to think about the level of confidence we could have in ministry if we allowed our work to be fueled by the belief that people are actually searching for the Bread of Life and the Living Water” (p. 157). Pastoral ministry in the sacred wilderness means directing our attention, and the attention of our hungry congregations, to the One who is the Bread of Life and the Living Water. is the feast day of Charles de Foucauld, the anniversary of his martyrdom in the Sahara Desert in 1916. Br. Charles carried with him for much of his life a notebook which had this written on the first page:

“Live today as though you were going to die a martyr. The more we lack in this world, the more surely we discover the best thing the world has to offer us: the cross. The more firmly we embrace the cross, the more closely we are bound to Jesus, who is made fast to it.” (Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings ed. Robert Ellsberg [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1999] p. 127)

Brother Charles lived every day after his conversion seeking greater intimacy with Jesus, and his martyrdom was the culmination of that pursuit. Specifically, he tried to imitate the “hidden life of Christ,” the first thirty years of Jesus’ life before His public ministry, even to the point of moving to Nazareth and working a humble job so that he could pray and learn humility in obscurity there.

One of the things Brother Charles meditated on during these years was the family life of the child Jesus.  He was fascinated by the humility of Jesus, who while being God would submit himself and be obedient even to his earthly parents: “You were subject to them – subject as a son is to his father and mother.  Your life was one of submission, familial submission. You were obedient in every way that a good son is obedient.” (p. 49) In these meditations, there is a sense that a deep loved filled the household of the Holy Family. Jesus was humble and obedient, but in truly joyful ways. Foucauld, in his imitation of the hidden life of Jesus, seems also to have longed to be a part of the Holy Family himself, deliberately taking the name Brother Charles of Jesus. The orders which follow his example today are called the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus.

Two months ago, I went to a week-long gathering for pastors at the Serra Retreat Center. One afternoon, while looking for some solitude, I went into the chapel. There I was drawn to this icon of the Holy Family which was on the eastern wall of the room.  There is a sense of intimacy here between Joseph, Mary, and Jesus which I had never considered before. Not only are they physically close, but they are gazing at each other. Joseph’s eyes are toward Mary. Mary’s eyes are toward Jesus.  The child Jesus has his hand raised in blessing. Near to each other, with Christ at the center of their embrace, they are filled with joy. They even have the same smiles on their faces that Charles has in the picture above.  Brother Charles believed that followers of Jesus today could live with this same joyful sense of the nearness and intimacy with Jesus.  He sensed that nearness through practicing humility and taking up his cross, but he also sensed it very powerfully in Eucharist. In one moving meditation written during adoration he wrote:

You were not nearer to the Blessed Virgin during the nine months she carried you in her womb than you are to me when you rest on my tongue at Holy Communion.  You were not closer to the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph in the caves at Bethlehem or the house at Nazareth or during the flight into Egypt, or at any moment of that divine family life than you are to me at this moment and so many others – in the tabernacle. (p. 52)

This life spent meditating upon nearness of Christ sustained Charles during his years in the northern Sahara, where he lived as missionary-by-example among the Tuareg, and gave him the courage to accept martyrdom when his day came. The nearness of his Beloved in communion gave him an irrepressible smile, even when he was suffering greatly. Even in solitude, Charles knew he was never alone, but part of a Holy Family devoted to the life-giving cross of his brother Jesus.