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Spiritual Disciplines

“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.

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.

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

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.

Sundays_Off[1]This picture is from the schedule book at the 61C Café. Keith, our manager (who is a greater saint than many churchgoers I know), wrote the note in the center a few years ago in response to other notes requesting time off. It says, “God is the only reason to take off Sunday, and even then it’s only in the morning.”

It’s been three months since I left the café and began my work at the seminary. In that transition I’ve been surprised by both how much I miss the café and how much I love my job at PTS. I’ve also been surprised at just how difficult it is to balance my work at the seminary with my work at The Upper Room and with my life as a husband and father. All these factors are making me think it’s time to begin writing that series of posts on the theology of work that I promised, beginning today with Keith’s note: “God is the only reason . . .”

In Keith’s note, God is the only valid reason to rest. In Scripture, God is actually the only valid reason to work. Let me elaborate:

The epistle reading from the daily lectionary today includes these words about work from Colossians 3: “Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for masters.” Ephesians 6 contains a similar command to, “Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women.” These verses fall in passages discussing how servants and masters relate to each other. Notice what Paul’s commands imply about our earthly working relationships: No matter who our bosses are, Christians are really “slaves of Christ” (Eph. 6:6).

To be a slave of Christ is not drudgery. It is to receive a gift of freedom and joy and meaning in one’s work. If Christ is our only master, we can be freed from the other gods that drive us in our work: money, people-pleasing, pride, etc. And if we offer our work, however “ordinary,” to Christ as a way of seeking to please and obey him, we can discover the deep joy of communion with Christ throughout our daily labors.

What does this look like in practice? Fr. Walter Ciszek’s book He Leadeth Me provides a stunning example. As a missionary in Poland during World War II, Ciszek was captured by the Russian military. After a season of solitary confinement and interrogation in Moscow, Ciszek was sent to work in the slave-labor camps of Siberia. There, he continued to embrace his missionary lifestyle by serving as a priest to his fellow slaves. And one of the most beautiful ways he fulfilled his priestly responsibility was through the attitude he adopted toward his work.

While other prisoners would show their rebellion against their captors by intentionally doing shoddy work, Ciszek chose to put into practice the verses quoted above from Colossians and Ephesians. He did his work well because he was offering it to God, rather than to earthly masters. By counter-culturally embracing the value of his work, Ciszek participated in God’s transfiguration of that work into a holy act.

Ciszek was able to do this because he believed that through the Incarnation, Jesus gives even deeper validity to our day-to-day labors. As Ciszek puts it,

There is a tremendous truth contained in the realization that when God became man he became a workingman. . . . For the rest of the time of his life on earth, God was a village carpenter and the son of a carpenter. He did not fashion benches or tables or bed or roof beams or plowbeams by means of miracles, but by hammer and saw, by ax and adz. (pp. 102-103)

By becoming human and working this way, the Son of God “restored to man’s work its original dignity, its essential function as a share in God’s creative act.” The fact that Jesus did this as an ordinary carpenter – work that is not obviously spiritual – means that any job which is not obviously spiritual can still be offered to God as work done for God and not for man. Any job. As Ciszek says, “God has not asked of us anything more tedious, more tiring, more routine and humdrum, more unspectacular, than God himself has done” (p. 103)

To approach our work in the holy way that Ciszek did, we need to be converted to see work as inherently good. In Genesis, God gave Adam and Even the job of tending the Garden before the Fall. Sabbath rest was also given before the Fall, and the ideal human life is meant to consist of work and rest, in the proper proportions, done in harmonious fellowship with both God and all of creation. This should mean that  any human job, even laying bricks in a Siberian labor camp, can be done in a way that glorifies God. I say this requires conversion because we’re much more used to looking at work through the lens of the Fall and the curse God spoke to Adam:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. (Genesis 3:17-19)

Because we live in a broken world and are broken people, our work is tainted by sin. Work is not always pleasant, not always successful, not always satisfying. We sinfully overindulge in our work working constantly without boundaries or rest because of pride or greed or escapism – or we become lazy – denying the goodness of work and over-indulging in leisure. Whether we overwork or underwork, the begrudging or resentful attitude many of us take to our work is itself a manifestation of the curse. This seems to be the state where a lot of us are tempted to dwell.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. When we offer to Christ our work – whether we’re consturction workers, IT people, nurses, teachers, baristas, garbage collectors, parents, or pastors – we can labor with greater joy and freedom. Working in such a way then also translates into better rest, as well, because we’re free both to experience satisfaction in our work and to reject the voices that falsely seek to enslave us. And any job done with the intention of glorifying God can lead naturally to a Sabbath of basking in God’s presence. As Wendell Berry puts it in one of his Sabbath poems, “When we work well, a Sabbath mood/ Rests on our day, and finds it good.”

What joy might we discover, what freedom might we find, if we believed that God truly is the only reason for working?

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.