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“Authentic and intimate faith must often arise out of some personal wasteland.” – Carlen Maddux

a-path-revealed2016 was the first year in my ministry that I performed more funerals than weddings. I knew such a change would come when we left Pittsburgh to return to Colorado and serve where I now serve. Regarding the inevitable memorial services that come with serving an older congregation, another pastor told me, “That’s fertile ground.”

Fertile ground. That’s because death, illness, and other hardships can become catalysts for deeper relationships with God. Not all people accept them as such. But for those who do, the “desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus” (Isaiah 35:1b).  As Carlen Maddux put it in his book A Path Revealed (Paraclete Press 2016), “Authentic and intimate faith must often arise out of some personal wasteland.”

A Path Revealed recounts the diagnosis of Maddux’s wife with Alzheimer’s disease, and the unlikely but very necessary spiritual journey which followed for Carlen. I read A Path Revealed this fall while also reading two other books that related to the spirituality of aging. In Pittsburgh I co-pastored a church plant made up of mostly Millennials. At the present time in Berthoud, I’m pastoring a traditional church with people who could be the parents or grandparents of my former congregants. Maddux’s journey, I learned, is not unlike the journeys of a few of the saints in our congregation here.

richinyearsenTaking another step to familiarize myself with the concerns congregational demographic, I invited them to study another book with me: Johann Christoph Arnold’s Rich in YearsLike other books by Arnold, Rich in Years  addresses difficult topics with remarkable simplicity.
Whether or not congregants agreed with Arnold, the book was a springboard for lively conversations about aging, death, nursing homes, assisted suicide, forgiveness, and other issues. The one portion of Rich in Years which garnered the most criticism, however, was the chapter on “Living with Dementia.” Arnold sought to focus on the a “positive aspect of the disease: the return to childlikeness” (p. 76). Influenced heavily by his namesake, Johann Christoph Blumhardt, Arnold encourages readers to consider sickness and suffering as opportunities for sanctification. Elsewhere he quotes Blumhardt:

When you suffer tribulation, keep in mind that you must do so in such a way that it is not just a victory for yourself but a victory over suffering in general. I have experienced this among epileptics, among the blind, the lame, and the deaf, and in general among the so-called incurably sick. I tell them: Be glad you are like this. Now bring something of Jesus’ death and his resurrection into your situation . . . Then you will help to gain a victory for the whole world.

Our book group found “Be glad that you are like this” to be insensitive and harsh advice. We didn’t argue with the idea that suffering can bring about our sanctification. But we were reluctant to rejoice in it, or to romanticize it in the way that some felt Arnold did.

solace-of-fierce-landscapesThe sanctifying power of suffering is treated with deeper empathy in both Maddux’s A Path Revealed and in Belden Lane’s The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality. One part memoir of his mother’s final years with Alzheimer’s, one part academic history of desert spirituality, and one part travelogue, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes is a rare book. Because Lane blends rather raw narrative of his own experiences of both suffering and contemplative prayer with a studied assessment of the writings of the saints on these topics, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes was the most compelling book of these three. While Maddux and Arnold present simpler visions of the journey through personal wastelands into deeper faith, Lane’s presentation is complex, nuanced, and still mysterious. While Arnold invites readers to encounter God in their suffering, and Maddux shared his personal experience of that encounter, Lane goes beyond those levels to thoroughly introduce the reader to the practice of contemplative prayer as the place of such encounter.

Different as these three books are, their commonalities have been instructive for me as I’ve started pastoring a congregation more well “acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:7). Illness, death, grief, and other sufferings can be used for deepening our spiritual maturity and sanctity. Such growth requires a willingness to yield to God’s sovereignty and God’s purposes, to genuinely encounter God rather than trying to comprehend or control him. And the place to cultivate such submission is in the desert, whether figurative or literal. Silence, solitude, and desolate landscapes remind us of the grace that God is God and we are not.

Years ago I read Jürgen Moltmann’s memoir A Broad Place. The book was so titled because Moltmann likened his experience of new life after military service in WWII to the words of Psalm 18:19: “He brought me out into a broad place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”

Our experience of moving home to Colorado has likewise felt like being brought out into a broad place, and not only because the streets are wider and straighter than any in Pittsburgh. We loved (and very much miss) Pittsburgh, but our pace of life there left me feeling both wearied and claustrophobic. The pace of life here in Berthoud is more gradual and gentle. That’s partly because I am now serving an older congregation. But there’s more that makes this feel like a broad place.

There is something humbling about expanses of nature beyond our control – plains or oceans or mountains – reminding us how small we are. It’s easier to “Be still and know” that God is God and I am not when, instead of city traffic, I see this every morning:

Our last weeks in Pittsburgh are a blur befitting the frenetic pace of our life there: saying goodbyes to jobs and friends, preaching my final sermons at The Upper Room, shooting a video to promote a new seminary certificate program, moving out of our house, volunteering at the New Wilmington Mission Conference. On our last day in Pittsburgh, I left the New Wilmington Mission Conference, served communion at my best friend’s mother’s memorial service, drove my wife and daughters to the airport, picked up my father and began a three day cross-country drive through the broad place of middle America.

That drive through rolling Ohio hills to flat fields of corn and soybeans that lasted all the way to Kansas was healing for my soul. The Great Plains are full of space – space to breathe, to pray, to be still. I needed that drive to slow down, to catch my breath, and to prepare for a new life here in Colorado. 

In Fairview, Kansas, we stopped to see the church my great-grandfather pastored a hundred and ten years ago. 

James A. Hunsicker was born in Pennsylvania, but his pastorates moved further West with every new call. After several years in Kansas, Grandpa Hunsicker moved to Colorado to be a fruit rancher, teacher, and pastor. A few days after arriving in Berthoud, I took my oldest daughter to a family gathering at the church he founded in Eckert, Colorado. Seeing her in the portion of the church’s garden which commemorates their centennial anniversary, I couldn’t help but think that the Lord led our family out into a broad place generations ago, and now he’s led us along a similar path.

So what does life look like in this broad place? It’s not all empty space. Today I prepared to interview our church’s next secretary, visited two homebound members, and met with the mayor to ask how our church can seek the well-being of the whole town. Today was a full day, but it didn’t feel like I was striving or forcing anything. Another translation of Psalm 46:10 says, “Cease striving, and know that I am God.” Such steadiness, peace, and trust is ideally possible in any context, but I’m finding it easier here, and I’m grateful to be entering a season of life where the Lord is letting us live in such a broad place. 

Starting Something NewBack in September, I listed seven books which contemplative church planters ought to read. Now I’m adding one more to the list.

I requested a review copy of Starting Something New: Spiritual Direction for Your God-Given Dream because the title resonates so well with our approach to developing new Christian communities. Planting a church is about listening to the Holy Spirit as God sends us out into mission. We can’t do such ministry faithful unless we’re attentive to God’s voice. Spiritual direction helps us learn to live with such attentiveness.

Starting Something New offers a taste of such direction for those who would read it as they participate in the formation of a new ministry. As Booram writes, “This book is intended to be a companion guide offering spiritual direction for those who are wondering if they have a God-given dream forming inside them but don’t know what to do with it” (p. 14).

Booram succeeds in providing such direction in many places, consistently relating the principles she describes to points in her own journey or to the stories of over a dozen other Christian leaders whom she interviewed for the book. Each chapter addresses a different stage in the birth and growth of an emerging ministry and is followed by questions for inward reflection. All of this is laced with generous amounts of cheerleading for those who may not have the courage to follow their dreams.

But how do we know our dreams are God-given? How can we be sure we’re listening to the Spirit and not just following our own desires? Booram offers some of her best advice in response to this question: “Pay attention to what you are praying. . . . Prayers related to God-inspired dreams seem to be irrepressible” (p. 36). Also, discern whether you are feeling “drawn” into this new life, or “driven.” A feeling of being driven is often more indicative of human ambition or temptation, while God often invites us into something new through visions to which we’re genuinely attracted or drawn (p. 115).

As a church planter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I recognized many of the dynamics Booram names: the time someone told me to plant a church and I responded with skepticism (p. 97), the ambivalence one might feel after a dream-deferred again becomes possible (p. 133), the challenge of adjusting to the “new normal” of life in this dream and developing rhythms to keep it sustainable (p. 163). I can see retrospectively how relevant this book is for church planters. What a gift it would have been to have it as a handbook seven years ago.

Read this slowly and reflectively. The stages of discernment and growth Booram describes can spread out over many years. Let this be one of many companions in discernment throughout the long and joyful journey of starting something new.

Thank you to InterVarsity Press for providing me with a copy of Starting Something New so that I could write this review.

In early 2013, Dave Harrity came to Pittsburgh to lead a writing workshop at The Upper Room. I wrote after the workshop that those who attended “came expecting to write, but left seeing our whole neighborhood through a different lens.” Poetry can help us develop a vision for transfigured reality. Dave’s guidance that day did just that: by writing together we pulled back the veil and glimpsed in a new way what the Holy Spirit was doing among us.

00_CASCADE_TemplateNow Harrity has a new book of poetry out called These Intricacies.  In it, he gives us glimpses of latent glory in the hills of Kentucky, the mysteries and challenges of fatherhood, the passing of seasons, and the endeavors of prayer. Though he has playful moments, the collection is sobering. Harrity’s pictures of family relationships are mysterious and full of longing. Firearms appear dangerous and unpredictable. Prayer yields frustration and bewilderment.

Fitting of our present turn of seasons, Harrity returns often to the humbling effect of winter calling it “Proof positive / that all you make can’t be that important after all”. A spring snowstorm smothering newly blooming flowers is God’s “way to remind us / that death is just / another word for patience.” One hears in these words a reminder that “everything is vapor,” that we are quite small in comparison to the grandeur of creation and the mysteries of God’s schemes.

From this place of smallness, Harrity searches for signs or sounds of hope. Musing on the rock fences of Kentucky – first built by Irish immigrants and then by black slaves – “How does a wall get made into an altar?” Can something which seems to be a monument to violence or injustice be transfigured into something beautiful and holy? Like the imagined altar made of stones once handled by slaves, the glory here is potential, latent. Seeds of the new creation have been planted, but are not yet emerging, and hope still lies beneath the surface of ground. In theological terms, there’s no over-realized eschatology here.

By offering a sobering vision of reality, Harrity invites us to search for what is true, what endures, what truly matters. This is wisdom literature, an invitation to patience and slowness, an invitation to near-contentment. After many poems of prayerfully questioning God’s silence and seeming absence, Harrity offers an image of himself fishing with his father, “all right with saying nothing.” God’s silence may not yet have been broken, but a lakeside moment with a father reveals a relationship beyond words. This is wisdom: to search for communion in patient silence. The pieces collected in These Intricacies are poems to inspire that search.

Thank you to Cascade Books and Wipf and Stock Publishers for providing me with a review copy of These Intricacies so that I could write this review.

When I heard the news that Phyllis Tickle passed away Sept. 22, 2015, I wondered what office of prayer she had just completed. I imagine that a woman who led so many into deeper practices of prayer would surely pass into the fullness of the Kingdom by way of prayer. In her own prayer-book, the Vespers office for the night before she died included a hymn with these words: “So when the world is at its end / And Christ to judgment shall descend, / May we be called those joys to see / Prepared for all eternity.” The refrain for that Vespers service: “Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; let them be joyful on their beds.”[1] By grace we trust that Phyllis now sees those joys with the Church Triumphant.

Tickle was the founding religion editor at Publisher’s Weekly and a prolific author, but her influence on the Church extended far beyond books. She supported and sponsored many voices in the emerging church movement, lending credibility to a phenomenon that others regarded with suspicion. She used her publishing savvy to bolster budding authors and bring fresh voices to the Christian publishing market. But her greatest contribution to the Church was how she taught a new generation of Christian leaders to pray in a very old way.

The one conversation I had with Phyllis took place with a group of other Pittsburgh pastors at a local bar after she spoke at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Summer Leadership Conference in 2012. [2] After the table had talked about the paradigm shifts affecting our culture and the Church for quite a while, I offered a quick interjection: “Phyllis, thank you for The Divine Hours.” She lit up. Then with joy she recounted the story behind her greatest works.

The Divine Hours was Phyllis’ biggest writing project – a series of prayer books revolving around the practice of fixed-hour prayer. Long maintained by the monastic wing of the Church, fixed-hour prayer involves pausing to pray at specific, predetermined times throughout the day. The early Church inherited this practice through its Jewish roots. Psalm 119:164 says “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws” and this verse was taken quite literally in Jesus’ day. By the time of the Apostles, praying liturgical prayers up to seven times a day was a common practice in Jewish religion, and the Apostles maintained such practices even after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Acts 3:1 shows Peter and John going to the temple “at the time of prayer – at three in the afternoon.” Peter and Cornelius are practicing fixed-hour prayer in Acts 10 when they receive the revelations that lead to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church.

In the history of the Church, these have been systematized in various ways by different traditions. A simple list of some of the key hours includes (1) Vespers – 6:00 p.m., (2) Compline – Before Sleep, (3) Midnight or the Night Watch, (4) First Hour or “Prime” – 6:00 a.m., ( 5) Third Hour or “Terce” – 9:00 a.m., (6) Sixth Hour or “Sext” – Noon, and (7) Ninth Hour or “None” – 3:00 p.m. An attentive person will notice that the prescribed prayers for certain times often refer to biblical events which occurred at those hours. For example, many Third Hour prayers ask the Holy Spirit to fall upon us as a Pentecost. Ninth hour prayers may ask that our sin would be crucified with Christ. When practiced regularly, fixed-hour prayer becomes a way of weaving the story of Jesus and the Church into our daily lives, increasing our attentiveness to God and our sense of identification with Christ and the Apostles.

In that conversation three years ago, Phyllis told us the story of how her publisher invited her to write the series of prayer books. She prayed the hours regularly for years before compiling The Divine Hours, and the series thus flowed out of the deep well of her own prayer life and experience. She maintained the rhythm even when at work during the day, often leaving her office to go to the bathroom for privacy when it was time to pray. When her editor approached her with the idea for a book on fixed-hour prayer, she asked why she’d been chosen for such a task. The editor responded with a statement like, “We figured you either had the most regular bladder of any human being, or you were praying.”

By writing The Divine Hours, Phyllis opened up the practice to a whole new audience. Many were transformed by adopting this new rhythm of prayer. When other prayer books could quickly become stale, The Divine Hours offered fresh sets of seven offices for each day of each season of the year, with each prayer painstakingly selected by Phyllis. When other prayer books felt clumsy to operate, The Divine Hours arranged all the prayers and readings one needed for a given office on one page.

Ken Wilson, a Vineyard pastor in Ann Arbor, Mich., wrote about the Divine Hours: “I was able to relax with this kind of prayer. It didn’t depend as much on my state of mind or my feelings of spirituality at the time of prayer. It felt like dipping my canoe into a river of prayer that has been flowing since the time of Abraham.”[3] Wilson was so enlivened by the practice that he convinced Phyllis to let his church post a regularly updated version of the Divine Hours on their website.

If I had one more opportunity to speak to Phyllis, I would offer a similar gesture of gratitude. But it would be phrased a bit differently, in recognition of the growing effect which her work has had on me: “Thank you, Phyllis, for teaching me to pray.”

This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog.

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[1] Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours (Volume One): Prayers for Summertime: A Manual for Prayer (New York: Image 2000) p. 571

[2] Videos of Phyllis’s presentations at the Summer Leadership Conference are available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNuifQCVOd4.

[3] Ken Wilson, Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back (Nashville: Thomas Nelson 2008) p. 119

st-patrick-228x300On March 17, Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Cities like Pittsburgh celebrate with parades. Revelers will indulge in Irish-themed food and drinks, even beer that’s been artificially dyed green. Amusing and entertaining as these festivities may be, they reveal little to us of the glorious ways God moved through humble Patrick’s life and ministry.

Like St. Nicholas – the fourth-century bishop who rescued impoverished girls from prostitution, but whom the world has transformed into Santa Claus – St. Patrick was a saint whose original story of holiness we need to hear afresh today. The real St. Patrick was a man of prayer and discipline as well as an evangelist who baptized – by his own account – “many thousands of people.”[1] And that means that St. Patrick sets a valuable example for those of us who seek to start and lead new churches today.

Based upon St. Patrick’s autobiography, his Confession, here are five lessons which Patrick can teach us:

  1. Patrick was humble. He begins his Confession with the words, “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.”  Patrick confesses that he’s uneducated and a poor writer. He talks about his failures more than his successes, sharing how his trials were used by God to sanctify him: “. . . thus I was purged by the Lord and He made me fit so that I might be now what was once far from me – that I should care and labor for the salvation of others, whereas then I did not even care about myself.”[2] When he does mention his successes, he’s quick to attribute them to God’s power working through him, never his own strength.
  2. Patrick knew Scripture inside and out. The edition of the Confession which I’m citing here italicizes every allusion to the Bible. The effect is startling: Patrick couldn’t go more than a few sentences without quoting Scripture. He interpreted every major event of his life in terms of Scripture. His knowledge of Scripture went beyond academic knowledge to form and shape every aspect of his life.
  3. Patrick was a man of prayer. Patrick recounts that as a teenage shepherd, long before his public ministry, he prayed hundreds of prayers each day. Fasting and nighttime prayer vigils were regular parts of Patrick’s life. This life of prayer both prepared Patrick for the powerful ministry which God performed through him and enabled Patrick to discern God’s call upon his life. In a scene reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s vision of the Macedonian man in Acts 16:9-10, Patrick had a vision in which a man from Ireland begged him to come back and minister there. Prayer determined Patrick’s participation in God’s mission.
  4. Patrick loved his flock. Patrick was originally from Britain, and first went to Ireland as a captive slave. He eventually escaped and returned in freedom to Britain, but God called him to return to the people who had once enslaved him. Despite longings to go home to Britain or to visit Gaul, Patrick resolved not to abandon his call to stay in Ireland because he loved the people entrusted to his care. In his own words, “as regards the heathen among whom I live, I have been faithful to them, and so shall I be.” [3]
  5. Patrick did not seek his own gain. Near the end of the Confession, Patrick insists that he never charged fees for the ministry he performed. He writes, “I know perfectly well, though not by my own judgment, that poverty and misfortune becomes me better than riches and pleasures. For Christ the Lord, too, was poor for our sakes; and I, unhappy wretch that I am, have no wealth even if I wished for it.” Patrick knew that he was not called to profit from the gospel, but to give his life freely in service of One who had given him new life.

In light of these aspects of Patrick’s life, leaders of church plants and new worshiping communities today would do well to ask ourselves a few questions:

  1. Do we acknowledge our failures and embrace our hardships, letting God use them to grow compassion and humility within us?
  2. How deeply has Scripture shaped the pattern of our lives? Do our visions for ministry come from God through prayer, or from our own ambitions and egos?
  3. Do we love the people to whom God has sent us so deeply that we would stay with them no matter the cost?

Patrick’s world was not that different from our own, and Patrick’s ministry was fruitful not because he became like the world around him, but because he pursued God with zeal and unflinching devotion. May God give us the humility, prayerfulness, and faithfulness of the real St. Patrick.

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[1] St. Patrick’s Confession, as printed in Readings in World Christian History: Vol. I: Earliest Christianity to 1453, eds. John W. Coakley and Andrea Sterk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 2004) p. 223

[2] Confession p. 225

[3] Confession  p. 227

This post was first published on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary blog.

I‘m starting to measure the value of a book by whether or not it makes me want to pray. This book succeeded, even to the point of bringing tears to my eyes as God used it to speak to me about life in the congregation which I help lead.

Marks of the Missional Church is unique in that it is a book that you can’t merely read. It’s a book that’s meant to be practiced, prayed, and pondered in the company of others. As its subtitle suggests, Marks of the Missional Church emphasizes both the importance of the gathered community of faith and the practices in which they engage. The authors write with a love of the Church and awareness that life in community with others is not optional for one who believes in and follows Jesus Christ. That gathered community, in turn, engages in distinctive practices through which God forms them and allows them to participate in the ongoing story of Jesus Christ’s redemption of the world. These are missional practices, rhythms of life and action that invite others into the Kingdom of God. Practices like the study of Scripture and corporate prayer form a community that embodies the mission of God in Jesus Christ, leading that community naturally to practices like hospitality, attentive listening to the needs of the world, and selfless service.

The brilliant aspect of the book is the way it makes reading it become a practice in and of itself. Every chapter is structured around a Collect and Benediction. That format puts the reader a place of prayerful reflection and formation, not just study.  Because the reflection questions at the end of each chapter are framed with the Collect and Benediction, there’s potential for small group discussions of the book to feel like a dynamic participation in worship. Well chosen narratives illustrate the points of each chapter, further inviting readers to experience God’s power forming them into missional disciples.   

For having three separate authors who took turns writing the chapters, Marks of the Missional Church also has a remarkably consistent tone and style. The Collect/Benediction format aids in maintaining this consistency, as does the repeated thesis statement upon which every chapter elaborates:

“The church participates in God’s mission by proclaiming to the whole world – all classes and cultures, all ages and genders, all nationalities and races – that God is holy love and, through Jesus, God is transforming a people who embody that holy love as empowered and knit together by the Holy Spirit, a sign that the Kingdom of God is here.”

I like the emphasis on holy. Structured around the four marks of the Church in the Nicene Creed (One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic), this book seems unique in its emphasis upon holiness. To be sent into the world does not necessarily mean being like the world. Rather, God calls out a holy people to proclaim the praises of the One who calls us out of darkness and into marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). My favorite paragraph of the entire book sums this up well:

The universal sent-ness of God’s people on a mission finds expression in the holiness of God’s church. The credibility of the church’s witness depends on it. Holiness is apostolic in nature. Holiness equips the church to practice its vocation as ambassadors of love and grace. (p. 112)

Amen. May the Holy Spirit indeed use this book to form many holy and missional new Christian communities who bear witness to the loving reign of God revealed in Jesus.