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Mission

It was a hectic morning. I’d overslept, our sixteen-month-old daughter had awakened early, and our small family was grasping for order amid the chaos of what promised to be another busy day. Trying to occupy her attention, I said,  “Why don’t we read a book?” She pointed at the bookcase, said “Book!” and proceeded to grab a copy of the Jesus Storybook BibleI opened the pages and started reading aloud. Most of the language was still far above her head, but it went straight to my heart. With a sigh of relief I thought, It’s refreshing to simply be told a story about Jesus.

Then I had a flashback. Ten years ago, I was working in a cafe in Boulder, CO. One weeknight during my closing shift, I was sweeping the floor and preparing to clean the sparsely filled cafe when I overheard a conversation between three customers. They were college-age women having a Bible study. One, who appeared to be the leader, was talking to the others who both listened attentively. As I tried to hear more, I noticed that all she was doing was telling them stories about Jesus. And the women she was speaking to kept asking questions curiously. They wanted to hear more about Him. It was beautiful. I could have continued sweeping for hours while eavesdropping on that conversation.

These two experiences stand in contrast with most of the conversations I overhear in the Church at large. We talk about a lot about things related to our life together, but it’s been a long time since I heard (or sadly, preached) a sermon that was only about how magnificent Jesus is. We have lots of good theological conversations at the seminary, but we constantly run the risk of reducing Jesus to a distant historical figure or a moral principle, instead of the compassionate divine lover of humankind that He is. This distancing of our conversation from Jesus seems to happen even more in the higher levels of the bureaucracy of denominations.

This weekend I’ll go to Detroit for the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I’m not a delegate; I’ll be there to represent and promote Pittsburgh Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative. There will be a lot of talk at General Assembly, good and bad, about a lot of different issues. I’ll even engage in some of those conversations. But I think we’ll all be better off – our hearts will be more joyful, the Church will be edified, our decisions will be more faithful – if we take moments this week to set aside those debates and instead focus upon Jesus. So here’s my suggestion:

If you’re attending General Assembly, try speaking about Jesus more than yourself and more than your agenda. I want to hear you tell me about Jesus. If you’re using Twitter or Facebook throughout the Assembly, hashtag your posts with #TellMeAboutJesus. For one example of a possible tweet, a member of my congregation whom I recently asked to simply tell me about Jesus responded with, “He’s the sort of person who, when he speaks, you want to hear more.” I’m thinking that if we at GA share such holy thoughts with one another, we’ll find ourselves caught up in surprisingly beautiful conversations. Perhaps we’ll even recognize Jesus’ presence with us more clearly. I pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire our words, and guard us against any blasphemy.

So here we go . . . Tell me about Jesus.  

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Sunrise over Sorocaba, São Paolo state

I spent the last two weeks in Brazil with a group of Pittsburgh Seminary students, studying how Presbyterian churches there plant new congregations. We encountered a variety of creative ministries, but all their leaders shared one characteristic. It’s the simple desire to share Jesus with people who don’t yet know Him. As one pastor, Renato, of Campolim Comunidade Presbyteriana, said simply, “The Gospel is the important message.” These leaders have the heart that the Apostle Paul expresses in Romans 1:16: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

This is why Christians in Manaus do street evangelism in the midst of the idolatry that manifests itself in the city’s celebration of Carnival. This is why Christians have a fleet of boats traveling up the Rio Negro and down the Amazon providing care for villagers and planting churches among them. This is why a jiu jitsu master incorporates Bible study and prayer into his classes. This is why a multicultural congregation operates and supports shelters for orphans, neglected children, and babies born with HIV. All the pastors and leaders we met in Brazil seemed to have the desire to share Christ as their primary motivation for ministry. They really are like the shepherd of Luke 15, leaving the ninety- nine sheep to seek the one that is lost.

I’m willing to bet that this is the primary reason the Church is growing in Brazil. A heart for the Gospel matters more than any technique or method of church planting. Our team learned a lot about specific topics such as how church planters are trained in Brazil and how churches (rather than Presbyteries) plant other churches there. But any lessons we can bring back to apply in our communities in America derive from that confidence in the proclamation of Christ.

For example, churches there invest heavily in leadership development. Pastor Ricardo, of Chácara Primavera, told us that his church planted 28 other churches because they focused on raising up new church planters. This is in contrast to methods of planting that identify target communities and demographics before a pastor or leader is even called in. Having a leader who has the right heart for church planting comes first. Applied to our work in America, this confirms that church planting doesn’t begin in seminary classrooms or Presbytery offices. It begins when God calls particular men and women to give their lives in submission to Jesus’ desire that all people would hear the Gospel. If we want to see more churches planted in our context, we should likewise pray for and invest in future leaders who are motivated primarily by a desire to see others enter life-giving relationships with Jesus. The task of those who want to support church planting in America is to help these new leaders grow in their ability to hear and obey the direction of the Holy Spirit.

The way this plays out in practice is of course different in every context. A church in my neighborhood can’t use the same outreach strategies we saw in Brazil. Post-Christendom North America is very resistant to some of the styles of evangelism we encountered there. But if we cultivate the same desire that our Brazilian brothers and sisters have to see lives transformed by Christ, I believe we will indeed see the development of many new churches that bear good fruit.

Lord of the harvest, send out laborers into Your harvest. May we have such confidence in Your Gospel, and such love for Your world. Amen.

It’s early on a Tuesday morning. A month ago at this time, I was pulling muffins out of the oven and steaming milk for lattes at the cafe where I worked for five a half years. Today, I’m reading over the recently approved statement of goals for the M.Div. program at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in preparation for two meetings I’ll have this morning. It’s all a part of my new job.

I am excited to be taking on the challenge of coordinating the Church Planting Emphasis at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The seminary feels like home to me. Conversations with students and faculty bring joy to my heart. I see great potential in this program, and am both humbled and delighted to participate in something that has such power to shape the future of the Church.

But I am truly going to miss the cafe. When my co-pastor and I answered God’s call to plant The Upper Room five and a half years ago, we chose to become bivocational pastors. Like the Apostle Paul, who had a trade of making tents which at times supported his ministry, we chose to take second jobs that would both ease the financial burden of starting a new church and give us additional ways to build relationships for our ministries.

I wanted a job in the neighborhood which would allow me to meet people I wouldn’t meet inside the walls of a typical church. The 61C and 61B Cafes gave me more opportunities to develop meaningful relationships than I could have ever imagined. Over five and a half years, these relationships became so strong that stepping back from them now brings about a genuine feeling of grief. On my last morning of work, I cried as I handed my keys back to my manager and friend Keith. Then I sobbed as I sat in my car, preparing to go directly from the cafe to the seminary.

This is week three of my work at the seminary, and it’s going quite well, but I don’t want to forget the things God showed me over my years at the cafe. So I hope to do some writing here in the coming months which will intentionally reflect on the things the Lord taught me through my work at the cafe. After my trip to Brazil next week – where PTS students and I will study how the Brazilian Presbyterian Church plants new congregations – I’ll put together a series of posts here about what my ministry at the cafe taught me about prayer, relationships, mission, and work. Especially work. It seems that many of us have under-developed theologies of work, and God used my years in the cafe to teach me much about the purpose and value of our daily labors.

Time to get ready for work. If I hurry, I might be able to grab a cup of coffee on the way.

Today is the first day of Advent. It’s also December 1st, which is the anniversary of the martyrdom of Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916). Br. Charles chose to live among the Muslims of the Sahara desert at Tamanrasset, Algeria. There, Charles sought to be a living example of the Gospel through his poverty, prayer, and imitation of the life of Jesus. Charles’ imitation of Christ was completed when those whom he had loved and lived among for many years turned on him and shot him on December 1, 1916. Eighty years later, Br. Charles’ story was repeated when seven other Trappist monks were killed in Algeria. Their 1996 martyrdoms were recently made famous by the award-winning film Of Gods and Men. Now a new book from Paraclete Press, called The Last Monk of Tibhirinenow provides even more of the details of their story and, in so doing, sheds light on the enduring legacy of Br. Charles.

German journalist Freddy Derwahl wrote The Last Monk of Tibhirine after he traveled to Morocco to visit Br. Jean-Pierre Schumacher, the one monk from the Tibhirine monastery who survived the 1996 attack. In the book, Derwahl tells the story of Jean-Pierre’s whole life, from his childhood, to his entry into monastic life, to his years with the men from Tibhirine who were killed. In one of the book’s many references to Foucauld, Derwahl notes that Jean-Pierre was fascinated by Foucauld’s calling to “proclaim the Gospel from the rooftops, not through words but through the life you live” (p. 47). This humble retelling of Jean-Pierre’s life and the events leading up to the Tibhirine martyrdoms is evidence that Jean Pierre took Br. Charles’ words to heart.

The book also sheds more light on Christian de Chergé, the prior of the monastery, who remained persistent in his efforts to build bridges with the Muslims around him, even when his life was endangered. Ever the intellectual, Christian took part in both inter-religious dialogue and times prayer where Christians and Muslims came together to show one another different aspects of their spirituality. Here Br. Charles’ influence is even more clear. Christian once took a two-month retreat to Foucauld’s hermitage at Assekrem during a crisis in his own ministry. He returned with an intensely renewed love for and commitment to his Muslim neighbors. Christian’s later writings display a yearning for total surrender to God, similar to that in Br. Charles own writings: “I have only this short day to give to the One Who calls me every day; however, how could I say yes to Him forever, if I did not give this day to Him” (p. 68).

Amid this retelling of Jean-Pierre’s story, and thus the story of Tibhirine, Derwahl tells his own story through a daily journal of his time at Monastere Notre-Dame de L’Atlas, the Moroccan monastery where Jean-Pierre now lives. The addition of this journal has the effect of inviting the reader deeper into the story by illustrating both how Derwahl learns from Jean-Pierre and how he processes the holiness he seems to encounter. Thus the reader begins to feel like a fellow pilgrim, bearing the desert heat alongside Jean-Pierre and his brothers. One finishes the book with the sense that Derwahl’s fascination with these desert monks will bear more fruit in him in the years to come. The attentive reader will find his or her own way into the story, as well, perhaps wondering what such bold devotion to Christ might look like in their own context today. As this happens, successive generations will be inspired to join this spiritual family bold witnesses and follow Br. Charles’ example of imitation of Christ.

 

Thank you to Paraclete Press for sharing a review copy of The Last Monk of Tibhirine with me.

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.

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.

Not long after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the newborn Church became the persecuted Church. In Acts 4, Peter and John are arrested. In chapter 5, the Apostles are arrested again. In Acts 6-7, Stephen is arrested and martyred. The suffering of the Church continued in waves throughout its early centuries.  Though Christians experienced peace in some places when their religion was tolerated or endorsed by the government, persecution continued elsewhere. There were tens of thousands of Christian martyrs in Persia in the mid-fourth century. Christians in Africa suffered various forms of persecution under Muslim rulers. The trend continued throughout history. Untold numbers of Christians were martyred in Russia and China in the twentieth century.  And persecution continues today.

Erin Dunigan wrote a blogpost called “The Beautiful Shop” a few days ago, in which she shares about her recent trip to Southeast Asia with several other PC(USA) representatives. In the post she shares a quote from a pastor who, like other Christian leaders in his country , has spent time in prison for his faith: “We must keep one leg in the prison and one leg in the Church.”  As his denomination thankfully experiences greater tolerance from the government, he is recognizing a need for the Church to hold on to what it gained through decades of persecution.  I visited some of these same pastors four years ago with a group from my seminary. The picture here was taken by my wife during that trip. Children from one of the villages we entered looking through a window at us while we met with one of the only Christian women in that village.  Having heard stories of persecution during that trip, I tried to remember regularly our brothers and sisters who faced persecution there. But four years of distance had let what was out of sight fall out of mind, until I saw Erin’s pictures and read her post this week.

And this raises a troubling question for me: What happens to the Church when we forget about the suffering which our faith entails? Tertullian’s oft-quoted proverb says “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Do we lose some of our vitality when there ceases to be a cost for living our faith? Is that why the Church is growing rapidly in less hospitable parts of the world? For those of us in places where it’s relatively comfortable to be Christian, how do we keep “one leg in prison”? Here are two answers I would suggest. I hope to hear others.

(1) Suffering. When freedom from persecution provided new temptations, the fourth-century Church developed patterns of monasticism and asceticism that helped them keep one leg in prison.  Voluntary suffering was seen as a way of becoming “white martyrs,” the term applied to ascetics who pursued purity and holiness through denying themselves.  Following the same principles of self-denial gives us an opportunity to both pursue holiness and share in the sufferings of others.  How could disciplines such as fasting unite our hearts and minds with our brothers and sisters who suffer persecution? When we experience other forms of involuntary suffering (sickness, loneliness, grief), can we offer that suffering up to God as a prayer of solidarity with Christ and those who have suffered for Him?

(2) Stories. Today many Americans celebrate Memorial Day, honoring those who gave their lives for our freedom. Our nation recognizes that fallen soldiers are worthy of remembrance. Why would the Church think any less of its saints and martyrs throughout history?  Surely the Church would do well to frequently remember and honor the saints past and present who suffered for their faith in the reign of Jesus Christ. This is one place where we Protestants are at a disadvantage: our heroes are Reformers, not saints.  We know the stories of people who changed the Church better than the stories of people who died for the Lord of the Church.  But this can easily be changed. One doesn’t need to dig far in our history books to discover the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us. Thankfully people like Erin are sharing the stories of our brothers and sisters from around the world in such a way that we can hear not just the voices of history, but of the present day. How would our life as the Church in our context change if we knew the true stories of the Church in less comfortable places?