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Practicing the Truth

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.

Fifteen weeks have passed since my world was turned upside-down by the birth of our daughter. She has brought much joy and laughter to our life, but  I can also see why my friend Jen described having children as a ruining of life. Our routines were upended. Patterns of life I had taken for granted dissolved into disorder. Every day brought temptations of frustration, anger, tiredness. At times I event got angry at God for taking away my rest, my solitude, and my time for reading or running or writing. But we’ve survived, and this post is about how I’ve learned to accept such change as a gift from the hand of God.

On Maundy Thursday, I wrote my first meaningful blogpost from this season of life (“Learn of Jesus Christ to Pray“). It was a meditation on praying for the will of God to be done, rather than our own, because, simply put, God knows better. So we pray as Jesus taught, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven . . .” But it’s easier prayed than lived, especially when earth does not feel the least bit like heaven.

One day during my paternity leave, Eileen and I stopped at a used bookstore in Bloomfield. While perusing the selection, I came across a copy of Fr. Walter Ciszek’s book He Leadeth Me. Immediately, I intuitively knew I should read it. This is one way the Holy Spirit speaks to me: I simply know sometimes when I’m supposed to do something. And this time the message was clear: Read this book. So, for more than two months the Lord has led me through this beautiful testimony, using it to both rebuke and encourage me.

He Leadeth Me recounts Ciszek’s experience in the prisons and slave labor camps of Communist Russia. He had been serving as a priest in Poland when World War II began and Ciszek was captured by the Russians and accused of being a spy for the Vatican. After years of solitary confinement and regular interrogations, Ciszek was sent to perform hard labor in Siberia for two decades. Ciszek’s point, repeated on nearly every page of the book, is that he survived by receiving everything that happened to him as part of God’s providence. Instead of questioning why he was sent to Siberia, he rejoices that he could bear witness to Christ in the midst of a seemingly godless setting. Instead of bemoaning the difficulties of his back-breaking and exhausting slavery, he commits to doing all his work for the glory of God. Ciszek constantly kept in mind the humble life and agonizing death of Jesus Christ, trusting that “God has not asked of us anything more tedious, more tiring, more routine and humdrum, more unspectacular, than God himself has done” (p. 103). 

What enabled Ciszek to do this, he says, is receiving everything that came to him as the will of God. Though he once had believed God’s will was “out there” and his role was “to discover what it was and then conform my will to that,” Ciszek’s experience taught him otherwise. He began to realize:

“the situations in which I found myself . . . were his will for me. What he wanted was for me to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go of the reins and place myself entirely at his disposal. He was asking of me an act of total trust, allowing for no interference or restless striving on my part, no reservations, no exceptions, no areas where I could set conditions or seem to hesitate. He was asking a complete gift of self, nothing held back” (p. 76).

To accept these situations as from God’s hands. To accept a baby screaming continually in the middle of the night as from God’s hands. To accept weariness and weakness and the relinquishment of certain pleasures as from God’s hands. To accept the lack of time to read or write or exercise as from God’s hands. To accept even the total upheaval of my devotional life as from God’s hands.

It sounds absurd to compare the limitations and challenges of parenthood to Siberian labor camps, but this is exactly the comparison that Ciszek invites. He writes in the introduction that he wanted to share his story of confidence in God’s providence so that he would encourage others in the forms of suffering and difficulties they experience. The principle he wishes to teach remains the same in any context: accepting our present situation as a manifestation of God’s will can have a sanctifying influence on us: “For each of us, salvation means no more and no less than taking up daily the same cross of Christ, accepting each day what it brings as the will of God, offering back to God each morning all the joys, works, and sufferings of that day” (p. 96).

It does not matter what the particular joys, works, or sufferings are. In many cases, they will be ordinary, humble moments in our days, “the routine, not the spectacular.” That invitation to receive the ordinary and routine as God’s will for me has changed the way I think about most of what I do. Diaper changes, laundry, and entertaining an infant are now significant parts of my life because they are God’s will for me in this season. It’s not spectacular, and I’m guessing God wants to use that to teach me humility.  My pride wants me to accomplish so many different things, but God’s will for this season was exactly what I have before me. So, may God’s will, however ordinary and mundane it may feel, however humble it requires me to become, be done.

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.

I’m writing a book. It’s about the spiritual discipline of pursuing integrity and dedication to truth. In other words, it’s about becoming more and more like Jesus, who is Truth. For more on the idea behind the book and the story of how I got to this point, read this post. As promised in that post, I’ve continued writing and am ready to share what I have with our communities here in Pittsburgh.

So, starting later this month, I’m going to share one chapter per month with a group of folks (perhaps including you?) who are interested in reading each chapter and then gathering to discuss the ideas in it. Hopefully you’ll get the benefit of some interesting reading material, and I’ll get to create a better book thanks to your feedback. We’ll meet on three Sunday evenings this fall: September 30th, November 4th, and December 9th.

A week ahead of time, I’ll email out a draft of the chapter to discuss that month. Then on the appointed date, we’ll meet at my house from 6-8pm, eat a simple dinner and talk about the ideas in each chapter. While I picture this group being mostly people from Upper Room, other Pittsburgh friends are also welcome. Email me at chris@pghupperroom.com if you’re interested.

I don’t know if Derek Webb reads the early Church Fathers, but his brilliant new album Ctrl sounds like he took their advice. If you spend time in the monastic writings of the early centuries of the Church, sooner or later you’ll come across a sentence like this: “Whenever possible, we should always remember death, for this displaces all cares and vanities, allowing us to guard our intellect and giving us unceasing prayer, detachment from our body and hatred of sin” (St. Hesychios the Priest, no. 155 “On Watchfulness and Holiness” in The Philokalia vol 1. p. 190). It may sound shocking to us, but for the monks of the early church, remembrance of death was an exercise in remembering what’s really real

I wonder what the monks would think of Ctrl. The music is a hauntingly beautiful mixture of classical guitar, electronic beats, and sacred harp choral singing.  But I’m less concerned here with music than with meaning. Mortality seems to be one of the themes of Ctrl. The Charles Wesley hymn quoted in the first track, “And See the Flaming Skies,” echoes the monastic meditation on impending judgment: “Soon as from earth I go, / What will become of me? / Eternal happiness or woe / Must then my portion be.”  The rest of the album narrates a life in virtual world as a way of asking, “What is real?” I’m drawing this interpretation from Ryan Smyth‘s tweets from August 30th, in which he outlines the album in terms of a narrative portraying a character’s journey through virtual and real worlds. In songs like “Blocks” and “Pressing on the Bruise”,  the character expresses insatiable longings for his fictional reality. When the longings are met (songs: “Attonitos Gloria” and “I Feel Everything”) the character is left numb and dying. (At this point I can’t help but wonder, could this be a commentary on pornography?) In the end (songs: “Reanimate,” “Real Ghost” and “Every Corner”), the character is resurrected into reality and commits to live in true reality rather than false versions of reality.

I’ve only read a few reviews of the album (see NoiseTrade and Relevant), and it’s intentionally mysterious, so I’m not pretending to have an authoritative interpretation of Ctrl. But I’ll hazard a simple guess: I think the point of “Ctrl” is that when we seek control – as we all do with whatever virtual worlds we create for ourselves – we unintentionally separate ourselves from reality. Separation from reality ultimately leads to death. Life comes from dedication to reality. And living in the truth means yielding our control, recognizing that we are not sovereign, and repenting of our attempts to manipulate that which we cannot control.

Two weekends ago, I was on vacation in Colorado. More specifically, I was at the Planet Bluegrass Folks Festival. It was a beautiful end to a restful week in my home state. Good food, good beer, good music, good friends and family. And, during the lazy afternoons at the music festival, time to read a good book.

One of the two books I brought along on vacation was Peace Be With You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World. David Carlson, the author, shares throughout the book stories of visits he made to Christian monasteries in America, interviewing monks and nuns and see how they responded to September 11th. Carlson was searching for, and found, examples of more Christlike responses to 9/11 than were ever heard in the American media in the wake of the attack. I’ll save the message on loving our enemies for later. For now I’m concerned about one particular quote from one of the visits (which, incidentally, was with an artist, and not a monk).

Sitting in the afternoon sun at the Folks Festival, I read about Carlson’s encounter with Richard Bresnahan, a potter who was then working in a studio at the Benedictine affiliated St. John’s College in Minnesota.  Recalling Bresnahan’s comments on the American lifestyle, Carlson wrote:

As evidence of our falsity, he cited the modern preoccupation of being “true to one’s self,” a goal far different from the traditional understanding of integrity.  “If you’re going to be ‘true to yourself.’ that’s that hollow voice yelling in a soundless cave. If you’re going to be true to others, your self is understood.” For Bresnahan, integrity is not being loyal to one’s own narcissistic whims, but being loyal to that which brings balance to human community life. (pp. 192-193)

I was struck by Bresnahan’s insight that integrity is about being faithful to others, not being “true to one’s self.” Though the book doesn’t portrays his religious views as explicitly Christian, Bresnahan was articulating a fundamental Christian truth. Our selves are frankly deceitful. As the Biblical prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 NASB). Because we’re naturally given to self-interest and self-preservation, being “true to ourselves” may just be a euphemism for “being selfish.” If this deceitful heart is the “self” to which we should be true, how will we ever survive the fickleness of our emotions?

How should our “self” is defined: in an individualistic way, or in terms of social relationships?  Should I, as Chris, seek to be “true to Chris”? That sounds vague because it is vague.  It gives no way to determine what integrity looks like apart from a general appeal to my own feelings. A better way of defining who I am is through my commitments to others: I should be true to who I am as a husband, a (soon-to-be) father, a pastor, a writer, a friend, a son, etc. That gives concrete meaning to what integrity should look like in my life. And it means that a faithful search for integrity should include a healthy measure of self-doubt, humility, and willingness to submit to those to whom I’m committed. When our vision of integrity is about being true to our own subjective definitions of our selves, we’re little more than slaves to our own desires. But if our “self” is defined by virtue of our real relationships to others, and the gifts we’ve been given for the sake of loving and serving others, then being true to our selves is the same as being true to others.

But too often in our culture, being true to one’s self is reduced to obedience to one’s own emotions or desires. Back at the Folks Festival, later that night, I heard a different message through the loudspeakers at the festival.  Lyle Lovett was singing “Isn’t That So”, a song whose chorus goes, “Isn’t that so / Tell me, isn’t that so / You got to go when your heart says go / Isn’t that so.”  I enjoy listening to Lyle, but I get sad when the song says “Let that line of least resistance lead me on.”  The line of least resistance is usually the line which tells us to follow our own fleshly desires. And those desires are exactly what the song calls us to indulge: “Well, he [God] knew what he was doin’ / When he put eyes into my head / If he didn’t want me to lookin’ at them pretty little women / He’d’a left my ol’ eyeballs dead.”

Yes, God gave us the gifts of beauty and the sight to apprehend beauty. But to turn recognition of such gifts into a theological justification of lust is the sort of demonic distortion of the good which lies behind all sin. Jesus, who knew what He was doing in giving sight to the blind, had different words to say about the promiscuity of our eyes: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:28-29). I do not hear Jesus calling us to “go when our hearts say go.” But I do hear Jesus calling us to a radical commitment to integrity, defined not by our own whims, but by submission to His Lordship and fidelity to the relationships in which He’s placed us.  “The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).