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Sabbath

“Come, the Alone to the alone, because I am alone, as you see!” – from St. Symeon the New Theologian’s “Mystical Prayer” invoking the Holy Spirit –

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Solitude used to come easy to me. I’m enough of an introvert that even as a child I preferred spending hours staring at a world atlas to playing outside ot looking for new friends. When I went to seminary and started out in ministry, I was encouraged by mentors and professors to seek out solitude. By drawing close to God when alone, I was told, we experience healing from the wounds of ministry, freedom from the temptation to perpetually please people, and clarification of our vocation. Most importantly, solitude lets us attend to the still small voice of the One who loves us perfectly.

Years ago I found it easier to make space to be alone with the Alone. I had a group of friends who believed the same things and supported one another in taking regular retreats, sharing what we were learning about prayer, solitude, silence, and Sabbath. My stage in life back then gave me more freedom to practice Sabbath and take retreats. And then life happened.

Nearly one year into my second pastorate, I’m noticing that I have a new, less easy relationship with solitude. Several things have changed. I’ve been married for twelve years and have been a parent for four and a half of those years. I’ve become accustomed to having little to no solitude at home. Chatter, interruptions, crying, and laughter perforate any sense of continuity or concentration I could have at home. As any parent knows, this cacophony can be hilarious and joyful at one moment and agonizing at the next. This has been the new normal for a while, so long in fact that when I am given an afternoon at home alone my first impulse is to clean or do laundry or fix one of the dozen things on our list of projects. Hence the paucity of posts on this blog recently, and why I’ll finish this post after I install a new shower-head in our children’s bathroom. . . .

Several days later, I’m back. Another difference: While there’s less solitude at home now, I have more solitude at work than in recent years. I’m new enough in Berthoud that I’m not overwhelmed by relationships wherever I turn. This is great for being an introvert, but it’s not the same as solitude. In pastoral work it can actually produce a loneliness to which I’m unaccustomed. In Pittsburgh it seemed impossible for me to be lonely: I had a co-pastor, co-workers in my other jobs, a network of friends and colleagues, and of course my family. In Colorado, I’m a solo pastor, and while I’m slowly becoming friends with other local pastors, it’s quite different than when we all went to seminary together and ended up staying within a 15 mile radius. Perhaps this is why last week I went to a local pastor’s gathering and found myself uncharacteristically (and counter-productively) anxious for people to like me.  This happened only minutes after I told a friend on the phone that I don’t feel lonely here. Perhaps I’m wrong.

All of this – the clamor of home life, the incomplete solitude of work, and the anxious worry about what others think – all this means it’s time for a retreat to authentic solitude. So next week I’m going camping by myself. And I’m going camping in mountain and desert terrains because I need to let go for a few days. In the language of both the desert fathers and Ignatius of Loyola, I need to practice detachment.

Belden Lane argues that the characteristic detachment of desert spirituality owes in large degree to the terrain itself. But it’s not because the landscape is calm or soothing, or so beautiful that we forget about our other cares. It’s because the land itself doesn’t care about us. In Lane’s words, “We suppose arid and empty terrain to be naturally solicitous of our human need for contemplation. But the stark, unsettling truth is that the desert doesn’t give a damn. Its capacity for indifference seems almost infinite.” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes  p. 187)Deserts and mountains and oceans remind us how small we are, how immense God is, and how little our petty distractions truly matter.

Every day in Berthoud, I look up at Long’s Peak and Mount Meeker (in the middle of the large picture above) and I marvel at their changing appearances. One day they’re covered in snow, the next day I see cracks opening up and gray rock exposed as the snow melts. One minute it’s clear and the peaks are completely visible. Soon clouds have blown in and appear to be dancing around and between the mountains. Sometimes they’re glowing from the sunrise, or backlit by a fiery sunset. All the worries and cares of daily life are like these changing conditions. The have subtle effects on the mountains, but little change actually happens. Erosion, rock-slides, avalanches, and other factors change mountains, but they take millennia to completely change a landscape.

That’s why Martin Laird, in his book Into the Silent Land, invites us identify with the mountains. God, through the Incarnation of the Son of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit, dwells within us. When we detach from the world through contemplative prayer or other ascetic disciplines, we dive deeper into the center of our being where the unmovable God dwells. So Laird writes “The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. . . . . When the mind is brought to stillness we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain” (p. 16). To put it in Biblical terms, “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever” (Psalm 125:1).

So, after a coaching visit to a new worshiping community in northeastern Wyoming this weekend, I’m going into solitude. I plan to spend a couple days in the Badlands of South Dakota and maybe in the Medicine Bow Wilderness of Wyoming. Then the plan (so I think) is to reenter the world gently, first by attending another retreat hosted by the Presbytery of Wyoming’s Sabbath Center with a few friends and colleagues. And then I’ll be home to family and church and life in the newest normal. Your prayers would be appreciated. I look forward to sharing both the fruit and the failures of this foray into solitude.

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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. 

Every time I return to Colorado, I find myself moving more slowly. I become content with a more gradual pace of life, sleeping more deeply at night and noticing more when awake. The wide sky and high mountains remind me how small I am, how fleeting any achievements really are in a world where all turns back to dust.  

I’m returning to Pittsburgh today from one such trip to Colorado, a Thanksgiving vacation to visit family. The time to rest from work, to be with loved ones, and to read some exquisite poetry has been both restorative and humbling.

I wrote this poem yesterday in an attempt to capture the contrast between the humbling grandeur of creation and the hectic and forgetful pace of life at which I usually live. We spent a lot of time on the road during this trip, and the imagery comes from the less pleasant hours on Interstate 25. The title comes from an essay by the recently deceased Colorado novelist Kent Haruf on how he was formed as a writer.

 

not to live too small

. . . I want to believe I have tried not to live too small, either. – Kent Haruf –

midday sunlight, golden fields, and halcyon blue sky
expand on all sides around us, reaching
eastward to the plains, westward to the foothills

a contrast to the crowded highway where we speed,
the distracted competition of jittery motorists
encased in bell and whistle contraptions.

a disconnect: we have been brought out into the broad place
but choose to stampede ourselves into the narrow
confines of frenzy, hurry, rush.

my great aunt died this morning at the age of one hundred and one,
“now the winner,” her daughter says, “of a long battle.”

at first the thought of such longevity tires me

a sign, perhaps, of living too small –
that decades longer on this expressway
would be the depth of dissipation,
spinning wheels in a race toward what is soon gone

while above geese migrate in formation,
the ordered yet unhurried rhythm of nature
majestic in simplicity, glacial in patience.

a height: narrow is way that leads to flight;
consider the birds of the air,
aloft and free in this shimmering expanse.

I’m on vacation right now. But for my spring vacation, I chose to attend the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College. Yes, it’s a conference, and perhaps not the first place others might choose to spend their vacation.  But it’s truly feeling like a vacation for me, not least because the theme of rest keeps coming up.

Yesterday, I attended a workshop by novelist Carey Wallace about the connection between rest and creativity. Then this morning, I went to hear Ann Voskamp, who spoke also about the importance of slowing down in order to be creative. Both Wallace and Voskamp identified fear as an obstacle to rest and to creativity. As I contemplated these things this afternoon, a poem emerged. It’s the first poem I’ve written in months, partially because I haven’t slowed down enough until now. Here it is:

Slow to See

For those who slow to see, all this globe is glass to God. – Ann Voskamp

we are slow to see,
slow to perceive, so
seeing we do not see
and hearing we do not hear.
slow.
and dumb.
muted by the speedy rush
hustle, chatter, and noise,
we are wordless
when called upon
to speak words or Word.
all too quick to look
to ten thousand distractions
and not to one truth
immediately present.

we must rest.
rest to hear the unforced thought
to receive grace which grasping cannot grab
we must slow to see
slow down, pause, linger.
fear not the quiet
fear not the stillness
fear not the Stranger
who approaches, who speaks, who shines
to those who slow to see.

While Thomas Merton was in college at Cambridge, he grew interested in psychoanalysis.  In particular, this led him to the realization that he was an introvert: “I came to the conclusion that one of my biggest crimes in this world was introversion, and, in my efforts to become an extrovert, I entered upon a course of reflections and constant self-examinations, studying all my responses and analyzing the quality of all my emotions and reactions in such a way that I could not help becoming just what I did not want to be: an introvert” (Seven Storey Mountain, p. 137[Harcourt 1998]).

Is introversion really a crime? Sadly, many Christians (at least in Protestant and evangelical circles) have felt the same way Merton did then, but within the Church.  In churches where committment is measured by relational connections, being drained by interaction rather than energized is treated as a disorder, even a failure to live into Christian “community”.   

Adam McHugh has written an excellent book about this called Introverts in the Church.  I’ve been following and recommending his blog Introverted Church for a long time, and I’m grateful to have read it.  Not only is the book a healing-experience for introverts who’ve felt misunderstood or excluded by the churches they’ve attended, it’s also a call to introverts to stand up and assert their unique gifts and calling within the church.  The first chapter ends with McHugh writing: 

“I am convinced that introverts are an important ingredient in the antidote to what ails evangelicalism. Our slower pace of life, our thoughtfulness, our spiritual and intellectual depth, and our listening abilities are prophetic qualities for the evangelical community, calling us to a renewed understanding of God and a fresh reading on the abundant life Jesus came to give us.” (page 31)

Rather than fighting our introverted natures to fit into the extroverted mold which evangelical culture privileges, McHugh encourages and empowers introverts to use the gifts God has given them to serve the Church. 

One place he does very well is in the chapter on evangelism.  As an introverted pastor in the highly extroverted world of church-planting, I was especially interested in this portion of the book.  Is an introverted evangelist an oxymoron?  No.  In fact, if sharing one’s faith is an essential part of discipleship, then introverts are called to evangelism as much as any other Christian.  The problem lies not in personality, but in the stereotyped styles of evangelism.   He writes, “I do not think that introverts are ill-suited for evangelism; I think that our prevailing evangelistic methods are ill-suited for introverts” (p. 172).  Rather than the obnoxious and confrontational methods of evangelism pushed in many churches, he proposes an appropriate method of evangelism for introverts is to come alongside others in spiritual friendships and “explore mystery together.”  An authentic friendship where listening, prayer, and lifestyle proclaim the gospel is both much more natural for introverts and powerful in relating to a post-modern world.  As I read this chapter, I felt like he was describing the method of relationship-building, prayer, and contextual witness that comes most naturally to me and which I seek to practice at the cafe where I work.  (McHugh also draws in this chapter on Rick Richardson’s book Reimagining Evangelism – the best evangelism book I’ve ever read.) 

The chapter on spirituality  was also a joy for me to read.  It explained why the so-called retreats my college ministry took years ago often felt more like endless dance parties than genuine retreats.  Introverts are wired for deep, contemplative forms of spirituality – forms which, while present in other manifestations of the Church, have until recently been ignored in American evangelical circles.  While introverts are naturally attracted to the monastic life (where Merton eventually thrived), we don’t all need to become monks to practice contemplative spirituality.  The discussions of disciplines like examen, sabbath, and solitude can be practiced by anyone, and give introverts the permission to pursue God in ways that suit our personalities and provide genuine rest and renewal.  Best of all, the chapter contains practical advice and helpful questions to guide the reader think through the structure of his or her day, and perhaps even create a “rule of life” that will provide appropriate balance. 

I can’t say how grateful I am for this book: parts of it resonated deeply with my own story and life in the Church.  It’s my prayer that this book will be not only helpful for other introverts wading through the extroverted waters of church-life, but will also make churches evaluate themselves and provide more balanced approaches to ministry.  Thanks Adam for this gift to the Church!

I had to fill up my car’s gas tank today.  With all of the errands we’ve run for Upper Room’s new space over the past few weeks, plus several trips to the airport, it seems I’ve been stopping to get gas a lot recently. 

My dad told me once that one should never let the gas gauge stay below half-a-talk.  We were filling up his Toyota at Bruton’s Conoco station in Delta – a frequent occurence since he lived miles outside of town.  I had asked why he always filled up when he didn’t really need to: the tank wasn’t on empty yet.  I don’t remember the exact answer he gave, but I remember the advice.  Now, I see how the wisdom of that advice applies to other areas of life.

Having a new church move to a new space ran our tanks down to near empty last week.  By the time this past Monday rolled around, I was exhausted, and a couple folks on our steering team had nearly burned themselves out getting the space ready.  A lot of us worked more hours than we should have, didn’t take time to rest or nourish ourselves spiritually, and did not pace ourselves wisely. 

The rhythms of sabbath and daily office have been two ways I’ve learned to fill up my tank before it gets empty.  Taking one day per week to avoid all church work and do things that are restorative and life-giving has kept me alive over the past year.  The daily office (short times of liturgical prayer at a few fixed times of the day) is a practice I’ve slid in and out of, sometimes keeping it regularly, other times not. (It’s becoming easier, though, since I discovered the online version of Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours.) Not surprisingly, the times when my tank stays full are the times when I maintain these practices.  Also not surprisingly, I’ve found both more difficult to keep with all of the busy-ness of Upper Room’s move.

There are many ways sabbath and daily times of prayer are beneficial, but what I realized today is that much of the benefit simply comes from the rhythm.  Drivers are less likely to look at the gas gauge and see it on empty if they fill up regularly (like my dad tried to teach me). Likewise, we’re less likely to find ourselves spiritually drained when we embrace rhythms of work and rest, action and prayer, community and solitude.  The trick is convincing ourselves that it’s necessary to fill up even if we don’t see the warning light.  Rhythms help us fill up even if we don’t think we need it.

A few posts ago, I wrote that “spiritual disciplines are also a means of caring for creation” and asked, “What if Sabbath, simplicity, and fasting were the starting points of a Christian ethic of caring for the earth?”  I really think that spiritual disciplines are where we should begin in talking about how Christians should practice environmental stewardship.  There are two reasons why: (1) Spiritual disciplines are means of changing our hearts.  This is how we cultivate an attitude of reverence for the Creator that leads to protection of creation.  (2) Practicing spiritual disciplines in themselves yield simple benefits for the environment. 

First, much of the environmental destruction present in the world today is due to the effects of human greed, violence, or other sin.  Through spiritual disciplines such as simplicity, we learn to  live within limits, not taking more than we need.  The fourth century monk St. Evagrios the Solitary taught that one should “Keep to a sparse and plain diet . . .” and “with regard to clothes, be content with what is sufficient for the needs of the body” (Philokalia p. 32).   On a spiritual level, a disciplined diet helps one overcome the other desires of the body.  Fasting from food was prescribed by early monks as a way of training the body to avoid other sensual desires (i.e. lust).  Similarly, St. Evagrios goes on to say that being content with what we need for clothing in the same way helps us spiritually tame our pride and our worry.  Now think about this: if through spiritual disciplines we train ourselves to limit our desires and to humble ourselves, are we not also recognizing our creatureliness that helps us to honor the Creator?

But the importance of spiritual disciplines for creation-care extends beyond the spiritual into the concrete realities of daily life.  Returning to the practice of fasting, we rarely think about the way our diet affects the environment.  A simple diet is not only better for our health and for training ourselves spiritually – it also protects the earth by reducing the polluting side-effects of our consumption.  (No, I’m not saying we all have to go vegetarian, but what if we practiced fasting in a way that took the food industry’s effect on the environment into account?  The Orthodox tradition of a vegan fast during parts of Advent and Lent is an example.  Fair Trade and Organic/Local foods are other examples.) 

The same could be said of the practice of Sabbath.  On this topic, I strongly recommend the chapter on Sabbath Environmentalism in Norman Wirzba’s book Living the Sabbath (Brazos 2006).  On a spiritual level, Sabbath reminds us of our creatureliness by forcing us to stop and trust in the Creator’s providence for our sustenance.  This reinforces the lessons of fasting and simplicity that teach us to limit our desires, or at least not to trust in human ability to fulfill our desires.  On a practical level, imagine the decrease in greenhouse gas emissions or other pollutants that would come from a disciplined practice of Sabbath?  What if Sabbath meant walking instead of driving, or eating simple meals at home rather than going out, or not turning on high energy appliances or electronics one day per week? A practice like this not only would shape us spiritually to be less harmful to creation, but would have an immediate tangible impact.