Archive

Bible

The House of St. Michael the Archangel just published an essay that I wrote called So That Your Hearts Will Not Be Weighted Down. It’s an extended meditation on  watchfulness, revolving around Jesus’ words in Luke 21:34: “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life.”  It’s also an invitation to repentance, to turn away from all the figurative and literal drunkenness of the world, and to instead receive the blessed inebriation of communion with Christ.

I wrote most of the essay months ago, but the timing of its release is perfect: Advent is an appropriate time to grow in watchfulness, as we “wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Hard copies are available for suggested donations of $6. A free pdf is also available. Both can be ordered here.

 

While you’re at the House of St. Michael’s website, also check out Shea Cole’s album of original worship music. It can also be downloaded for free, or hard copies are available for a suggested donation. (The cds make great Christmas presents, if you’re still shopping.)

“So, how’s your book going?”, asked a member of my church today. “It’s not,” I said with a smile. She was referring to this project which I happily announced here over a year ago. Last fall I wrote an introduction and two chapters. I outlined other portions and compiled a list of books I wanted to study to inform my writing. A group from my church met with me multiple times to read what I’d written, offering quite helpful encouragement and feedback.

Then our daughter was born.

Having a baby turned my life upside down in many ways, including obliterating the time I had to write. There are these things we call priorities. Learning to care for our daughter without question had to take priority over side-project of writing for which I had grand plans. For months I felt torn, wanting to complete this project I’d started, while at the same time recognizing that I no longer had the free space in life to write that much on top of co-pastoring a church, working a part-time job, and loving my family.

Peace has come, though, as I’ve accepted this as an opportunity to grow in patience and humility. Like marriage, parenthood is full of opportunities to cultivate such virtues, if we are willing to receive such opportunities as gifts for our sanctification. The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts (James 3:5). My tongue boasted of wanting to write a book. I still do. I’ve just realized that it will take years – not months – for me to write this particular book.

That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. I just completed an extended personal essay for the House of St. Michael. (If you leave your contact information in the form below, I can try to get you a copy.)* I’ve also had another totally different writing project under consideration with a publisher. I may still seek publication for Practicing the Truth, but I’m in no rush. To my surprise, God has given me a blessed amount of patience and indifference about these projects. If they work out, may God be glorified. If they don’t, may God still be glorified.

I think that in this I’m tasting the spirit of Psalm 131:1-2: “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; / I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.” The Lord has been humbling me recently, making me realizing that I can’t always give all I want to give, accomplish all I want to accomplish, or please everyone I want to please. Simply knowing that makes me a bit less frantic. A bit. I’m a long way from being able to continue with the Psalmist in saying, “I have calmed and quieted myself / I am like a weaned child with its mother, / like a weaned child, I am content.” The words calm and quiet do not always describe my inner being. But I want them to. And I believe the Psalmist who says such peace only comes with a heart that’s not proud.

And with that humility comes an ever-expanding freedom to trust that God is the one who completes what God began in us. As Paul says in Philippians 1:6, it is “God who began a good work” in us and “will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  It’s the hope of Psalm 57:2, which says, “I cry to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me.” Amen. May God fulfill his purposes for me, whenever and however He chooses.

 

 

 

*If you’d like to receive a print copy of “So That Your Hearts Will Not Be Weighed Down”, please leave your name, email address, and mailing address below.

It’s a long story. It’s been over five years since I naïvely posted here that I was thinking and praying about church-planting. I had some clue then that this venture would stretch me, that I was stepping into a situation which God would use to refine and teach and discipline me. But I had no idea what would be the hardest disciplines to receive, or how the Sovereign Teacher would structure such lessons. Least of all did I expect patience to be something I would learn need to learn from the supposedly fast-paced work of starting a new worshiping community.

For example, in November of 2009, Upper Room moved into a storefront space in Squirrel Hill. By the middle of 2010, we were talking with our property manager about expanding into part of the vacant Squirrel Hill Theater, adjacent to our current space. This week, after nearly three years of debating, bargaining, consulting with lawyers and architects, applying for zoning variances, and no small amount of prayer, we will sign the paperwork giving us the right to expand. Three years. At times, I wondered if it would take 40 years, as though God were leading us through a wilderness before allowing us to enter some sort of Promised Land. But now it’s happening. We’re moving on to the next step.

If you want to read more about why and how we’re expanding, you can do so here, and if the Lord nudges your heart to support our expansion, an easy way to do so is by giving online here.  But, lest talk of the building distract us from the spiritual lesson here, my point is that God has used this experience to force me to grow in patience. He’s used the seeming futility of some of our past work on this to remind me to “number my days” (Psalm 90:12). I only have a short time to live, and I should use it wisely, but I should also remember that little I accomplish will outlive me on this earth. What bears fruit that lasts for eternity is the sanctification which God works in us through the ordinary trials of our days and years.

This leads me to think that patience is a matter of eternal perspective. The Apostle Peter told first-century Christians to be patient in waiting for the new heavens and the new earth Christ promised. “Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation,” Peter wrote (2 Peter 3:15 NASB). It’s as though Peter meant, “Relax, Jesus is giving us more time!”  We’re not ready for Him yet. We need more time to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (3:18). More time for us to grow in love and holiness, more time for us to submit wholly to His will, more time for us to repent. We can’t be prepared for eternity overnight.

As far as building projects go, the three years we’ve waited to move ahead with this expansion seem slow in today’s fast-paced culture of instant gratification. But the decades or centuries that it took to build some of Europe’s great cathedrals reflect the patience which grows from viewing life in light of eternity. Yesterday, while telling me of his recent trip to Spain, my co-pastor Mike suggested that the reason such cathedrals aren’t built in our age isn’t for lack of resources. It’s because we lack the patience to wait decades to see the fruit of our labor, or even worse, to spend our lives toiling for an end we may not live to see.  To labor long for an end one cannot see requires faith in something bigger than oneself, and hope that such faith will be rewarded. I’m thrilled that we’re moving forward with this expansion into the theater, but I’m much more impressed by the virtues behind the cathedrals.

Though I’m short on patience, this perspective does give me hope. Not necessarily hope that I’ll accomplish great things in my remaining years, but rather the hope that comes from knowing God’s not finished with me yet. A lot has happened in five years, but how much will happen in fifty? Thomas á Kempis  wrote in the Imitation of Christ that “If every year we would root out one vice, we should soon become perfect men” (Bk I, Ch. XI). It’s taking me much longer than a year to root out impatience, but if the Lord has used this short season to accomplish what He has, how much more more will God do in a lifetime? The Apostle Paul wrote that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). God will complete the work the Holy Spirit’s doing both in and through me, and my family, and my church. And while He does, I pray for the grace to “wait patiently for the Lord” until I can say with finality that “he brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay” (Psalm 40:1-2).

2013-01-06 12.53.19

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!

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).

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.