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Monthly Archives: January 2013

This week’s guest post is from my friend and co-pastor, Mike Gehrling. God called us to start working together to plant The Upper Room together nearly five years ago. Those five years have been filled with a great gift of  friendship, which I’ve written about here. Throughout those five years God has also used Mike to teach me a lot about worship, so it’s fitting that his guest post here is about worship.

About the author: Mike loves Jesus. He also enjoys being a pastor and a campus minister. In his spare time he can be found going for a run, reading a good book, and appearing anonymously in Chris’s blogposts. One of his goals for 2013 is to write more blogposts than he did in 2012, which should be easy since he only wrote 9 last year. Keep him accountable at www.mikegehrling.wordpress.com.

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Have you ever worshipped in a church significantly different from your own? Maybe, on a mission trip, you’ve worshipped in a language other than English, and struggled to know what you were singing, praying and hearing. Maybe you’re a Protestant whose worshipped in a Catholic or Orthodox church, and have been taken aback when attention is given to Mary or to a saint. Maybe you come from a liturgical tradition and visited a contemporary or charismatic church, not knowing what to do what to do with your hands when you don’t have a bulletin and hymnal to hold, and when everyone around you is lifting their hands in the air. Experiences like these can be jarring and difficult, but they also provide opportunities to grow.

I’ve had the privilege of worshipping in a lot of different contexts, and have come to love worship that is outside of my own comfort zone. From worshiping in an African-American Baptist church for a semester in college, to learning worship songs while in a van on a mission trip in Southeast Asia, to visiting an Orthodox Church when I’m taking vacation time from Upper Room, I’ve learned a lot from the breadth of worship expressions that the body of Christ has to offer.

I started writing this blogpost with the intention of reflecting on what these experiences taught me about worship. However, I quickly realized that these experiences also taught me much about myself. Here are a few things that I’ve learned about myself from worshipping cross-culturally:

I Benefit From Being Spiritually Flexible

If you exercise regularly, you know that the more you stretch, the more flexible your body is. More flexibility means less discomfort, and less likelihood of injury. In a similar way, I’ve found that taking time to worship in other traditions, and learn from them, has stretched my spirit to the point that I’m now able to experience Christ’s presence in church contexts that are very different from what I had been used to. Five years ago, hearing someone speaking in tongues would have stretched me to the point of a spiritual muscle tear. Truly experiencing Christ while worshipping in another language would have been more than my spiritually flexibility could handle. Now, though, I’ve reached the point that I can experience God in familiar and unfamiliar contexts, and be content in either.

I Sometimes Use Humor as a Form of Judgment

I’ve rarely had negative experiences in worship. But there have been plenty of times that I’ve found myself laughing about elements of a worship service that were new for me. I remember as a teenager chuckling at the funny hat that the bishop was wearing in a Catholic service. I took great delight imitating the charismatic preacher at the first charismatic African-American church I visited. On the surface at least, I didn’t feel anything negative, but my tendency toward laughter blocked me from appreciating the deeper significance and beauty of what was happening. These experiences showed me that humor is my way of responding to culture-shock, and it was keeping me from learning.

Instead of Worshipping God, I Often Worship Idols of Mastery and Control

I’ve learned to sing praises to God in many languages. Swahili, Congolese, Vietnamese, Korean, French, Arabic and Hindi all come to mind immediately. But there’s one language that I always struggle with: Spanish. Many Latino worship songs move at such a tempo that the syllables go by faster than I can handle. That my tongue seems to be completely opposed to making that “rolling r” sound doesn’t help much, either. It used to be that my soul would check out during times of worship in which the leader had us singing in Spanish. It was too hard. I couldn’t do it well, or at all, and therefore I couldn’t really worship. My perspective changed, though, when I realized that it wasn’t the Spanish that was keeping me from worshipping; it was my attitude. In order to enter into a spirit of worship, I was demanding an ability to master the worship. While anyone can master particular forms of worship, or particular songs or prayer styles, no one can fully master what it means to worship the Triune God. The fact that I was demanding the capacity to master the worship style in order to worship meant that I had made an idol out of my own abilities, and that I was more often worshipping myself than God. The muscles in my tongue are still not good at speaking or singing in Spanish, but I’m thankful that my spiritual muscles can receive Latino worship as a reminder that entering into worship sometimes is hard work, and that I still have much to learn.

Praise the Lord that the Body of Christ has many members! May God grant all of us a heart that is open to experiencing him even in uncomfortable places.

This week’s guest post is from Rachel Luckenbill, another close friend and a member of The Upper Room. While Jen wrote last week about the challenge of becoming a mother, Rachel’s post is about the challenge of losing her mother. The annual House of St. Michael Devotional Conference, which she mentions, will happen again this Friday and Saturday (details available here).

About the author: Rachel Luckenbill lives in Pittsburgh and is beginning her dissertation on contemporary American literature and Christianity at Duquesne University. She blogs about her Pittsburgh experiences at rachelluckenbill.blogspot.com. She likes being around people, taking minutes at church meetings, eating the desserts her boyfriend bakes, and playing piano.  She tries to spend as much time as she can hanging out with Chris’s and Eileen’s dog Bruiser.  He’s such a good dog.

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I am a person who expresses herself best and most often with written words.  But for the past year since the death of my mother on January 7, 2012, I have had no words to write. My heart and mind have been full of experiences, full of images and moments which I will never forget.   I have longed to release them onto paper or the computer screen so that I can give them new life – speaking them into community, so that I can make room for new growth inside of me, so that I never forget the work that God has done as He led me through facing my deepest fear.

Finally, a few days over one year since her passing, words are beginning to trickle in.  With these brief paragraphs, I hope to begin a practice of using words (some public/some private) to record, to listen to, to grieve, and to treasure the memories and transformative moments of Mom’s last year of life and of my first year without her.  I begin with two moments both of which occurred in the first week after her passing and for both of which I heartily praise God.

The first occurred the morning of January 8, the day after she died, as I stood, emotionally and physically exhausted, in a Sunday morning worship service with some of my dearest friends in Lebanon, PA. I felt utterly full of power. I’ve never experienced the Holy Spirit that tangibly before that moment. The Spirit was literally not just sustaining but was coursing through me, overflowing my heart with a truly inexplicable joy – the kind that can only be felt in the midst of the deepest sadness.  And I knew this power while surrounded by people who had journeyed with me through the darkest of years and who knew the depths to which Jesus had been transforming my heart.  I would never want to re-create the circumstances that prompted the Spirit’s striking internal takeover – Mom’s passing marked the culmination of, for her, six years of struggle with cancer and dementia, and, for me, six years of care-taking and slowly losing the person whom I loved most dearly.   But if I ever again experience that evident, close, exhilarating, and sure knowledge of the Spirit’s presence, I will rejoice.

Just less than one week after Mom’s passing and the shock and the preparations and the services and the relatives and the friends, I returned to Pittsburgh where I live.  I had planned to attend the House of St. Michael Devotional Conference on January 14 and 15. The grief was strong, the emotions were still at the surface, and the physical exhaustion was ever present. But that sustaining power, while it changed in degree of intensity, remained.  I remember choosing to go to the conference in spite of the freshness of the grief because I knew that I would be surrounded by dear friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, and space to feel, to hear, to rest, to simply be.  I spent much of my time at the conference nestled on the floor in the midst of a room full of old and new friends, wrapped in a blanket, made still by grief but lifted up by music and meditation, my mother’s Bible open in front of me – her handwriting in the margins and my own tears marking the pages.  As the conference closed, a woman named Lisa whom I did not know well at the time but am now grateful that I can call her friend, crossed the room and took me in her arms allowing her own warmth and presence to offer the comfort for which words were inadequate.  Power, comfort, sustenance: I have known these things through the welling up of the Spirit inside and through the external embrace of the Spirit in the arms of a spiritual sister.

This is a guest post from my friend Jen Pelling. Eileen and I lived  in intentional community with Jen and her husband (and a few varying single folks) for two years while I was in seminary. It was during that time that she gave birth to her first daughter and began to experience the transition she describes here.

About the author: Jen, who blogs at www.longdaysandshortyears.wordpress.com, is currently breaking up a fight over who gets to use the green crayon and for how long.  She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a very cute husband, two preschool girls, four housemates, two cats, five chickens and a dog named Maggie.  When the children have finally learned to share without intervention, she will write more and possibly clean the bathroom.

It was one of those ‘open-mouth-insert-foot’ kind of moments.

I was sitting at a table with fifteen other women.  A diverse group in just about every sense of the word, we were gathered to study the Bible and share our perspectives on the ancient beloved words.  Something about having children came up, and we were careful, aware of the emotional minefields surrounding this topic for some of our members.  We were careful, that is, until I blurted out,

“I would say that having children has ruined my life.”

There was a surprised silence and then women began to murmur.  I heard someone explain to her neighbor, “Oh, she doesn’t mean ruined, she just means that having children changed her life.”

I disagreed and tried to explain.  “No, I mean ruined.”  “Ruined,” I emphasized, “but if you gave me the choice to go back to life before children, I wouldn’t do it.  Really, I wouldn’t.”  I meant the second part, but my original declaration still hung in the air.  A dear friend gave me a sharp look.  “I hope that you don’t say that to your kids.”

And I thought, ‘I have got to come up with a better way to explain this.’

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Okay, ‘ruined’ may be a bit extreme.  And no, I’ve never said that to my kids.  It’s just that ‘changed’  isn’t nearly strong enough to describe the massive shift that comes with the birth or adoption of young human beings.  There is, there really is, a ‘ruining’ of your previous life, but there is also the gift of new life–for you as well as for the child.  It’s a strange thing, possibly as strange as these words,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Yes biblical scholars, I know that Jesus wasn’t specifically talking about having children in this passage, but as I have tried to follow Him through the bends and curves of my own life, I know that nothing–absolutely nothing–has illustrated this paradox of losing-life-in-order-to-find-life better than the daily joys and struggles of caring for children.  They are the hardest and best thing to ever happen to me… living paradoxes that demand more than I have to give, and then give more than I possibly demand.

They are, in the words of one of my favorite albums, a beautiful mess.  And this is also what they have made of the life formerly known as ‘mine’.

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I’m pretty sure that I will never find the right word to describe this process, and so I will turn to metaphor.  Here’s one that I’ve been turning over in my head for some time:  Having a baby is like moving to another country.

Having a baby is like moving to another country.

First, the preparations.  You study the guidebooks.  Ask friends who have been there about their experiences.  Make lists and then gather all the stuff you’ll need.  Prepare and wait, prepare and wait… you try to imagine what it will be like.  Of course, if you’re having or adopting a baby, your departure time is an estimate, but you’d better be ready when it comes!

And then you’re in the air, on your way.  It may be a long or short flight, it’s hard to anticipate the turbulence, but at some point you touch down.  Welcome to a foreign place–the land of your baby.  Not generalized ‘babyland’ mind you, but the land of your very specific baby, with his or her very specific mix of traits, proclivities and desires.

And good luck learning the language.

There is a kind of culture shock that takes place for new parents, and it’s no wonder.  Everything that you took for granted before–going to the grocery store, sleeping through the night, getting a quick shower–is now complicated by new rules that you have to figure out as you go.  Everything changes.  It is exciting, exotic, and exhausting.  Culture shock is no joke, especially when it’s coupled with some significant jet lag.

And then, day by day, somehow, you adapt.  You grow.  You learn the language.  You become more and more proficient at navigating your new land.  People visit you and you are proud to show them around.  There are ups and downs, but your adjustment is real.  The new place and your new identity within it becomes part of who you are.

Everything is different, and so are you.

And now I have a question for you… did your beautiful and painful adjustment to your new culture ‘ruin’ your old life?  Of course it did.  You can never go back to where and who you were before.  But would you ever want to?  Perhaps at some moments.  Perhaps when the child wakes up again in the middle of the night, perhaps when the new defiant phase seems to be lasting forever, perhaps when you wish that getting an hour to yourself wasn’t so darn difficult.  But overall?  Would you ever want to go back?

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We are in California as I write, visiting family, and our oldest daughter has been sick for days.  She is hypoglycemic (we think) and the combination of messed-up schedule (i.e. we don’t know when to feed her) and the demands of her immune system have been brutal on her poor little body… and the coughing and whining is virtually nonstop.  My husband and I are at the end of ourselves, which leads us to pray more.

Last night she was up at 2 a.m. again, and I got her spoonfuls of sticky tylenol syrup again, and sang her to sleep again, and prayed that the coughing would stop… you got it, again.  I was almost delirious as I am a person Who Needs Sleep, but my husband is also sick so I was the night parent on call.  Miracle of miracles, she fell back asleep.

When she awoke (another miracle… at 8:30) she called for me, and I crawled into bed with her.  She snuggled into my chest, right into the place where her almost-5 year old body fits perfectly, and we just laid there together.  We laid there for a few minutes, and then we began the day.

And you know what?  I’m tired.  And she isn’t out of the woods yet.  Today there will be whining and tonight there will be a wake-up.  I will be grumpy and mean, and then I will pray… over and over again.  But then she will snuggle into my chest.  She will say Mama.  At some point, tomorrow or maybe the next day, she will act silly again.  We will laugh together.

And in the ruining of my life I will find joy.

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On Friday, January 4th, my wife Eileen gave birth to the long-awaited “Baby Brown” – a girl whom we named Rebekah Catherine Brown. We chose Rebekah because we loved the name and story of the biblical woman in Genesis 24. The story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 foreshadows the death of Christ, so the fact that Rebekah became his bride means she is also a type for the Bride of Christ. Catherine was the name of my grandmother, whom I wrote about in the Quiet Advent series at Introvert Church last year.

We’re overwhelmed with gratitude for all the love and support of our friends and families. We’re thankful also for an uncomplicated pregnancy and labor, aided by the excellent care we received at the Midwife Center for Birth and Women’s Health.

Again, there will be a few guest posts here this month as we continue adapting to life as parents. The first will post later this week and is from Jen Pelling .

Praise be to God for the birth of our Rebekah!

We are still waiting for the longexpected Baby Brown. And Baby really should arrive soon. Really. So, I’m taking this opportunity to say what might be obvious: given Baby’s birth, my writing routines are going to look very different this month. Here’s what to look for:

  • A post which I wrote a few weeks ago for Antler is now available: Writing in the Wake.  It’s about integrating my writing with my faith and ministry, and describes the way our community is helping me write Practicing the Truth.
  • I’m working on a review of the new book The Life of the Body by Valerie Hess and Lane Arnold, which I hope to share within a week or two.
  • This month I’ll also have a few guest posts here, starting with a post from my friend Jen Pelling about the ways having a child turns life upside-down, just like the way Jesus does.
  • And someday there will be a post announcing our child’s birth, followed later by reflections on how my life is being turned upside-down this month, as well. Stay tuned.