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Spiritual Disciplines

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.)

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It’s a long story. It’s been over five years since I naïvely posted here that I was thinking and praying about church-planting. I had some clue then that this venture would stretch me, that I was stepping into a situation which God would use to refine and teach and discipline me. But I had no idea what would be the hardest disciplines to receive, or how the Sovereign Teacher would structure such lessons. Least of all did I expect patience to be something I would learn need to learn from the supposedly fast-paced work of starting a new worshiping community.

For example, in November of 2009, Upper Room moved into a storefront space in Squirrel Hill. By the middle of 2010, we were talking with our property manager about expanding into part of the vacant Squirrel Hill Theater, adjacent to our current space. This week, after nearly three years of debating, bargaining, consulting with lawyers and architects, applying for zoning variances, and no small amount of prayer, we will sign the paperwork giving us the right to expand. Three years. At times, I wondered if it would take 40 years, as though God were leading us through a wilderness before allowing us to enter some sort of Promised Land. But now it’s happening. We’re moving on to the next step.

If you want to read more about why and how we’re expanding, you can do so here, and if the Lord nudges your heart to support our expansion, an easy way to do so is by giving online here.  But, lest talk of the building distract us from the spiritual lesson here, my point is that God has used this experience to force me to grow in patience. He’s used the seeming futility of some of our past work on this to remind me to “number my days” (Psalm 90:12). I only have a short time to live, and I should use it wisely, but I should also remember that little I accomplish will outlive me on this earth. What bears fruit that lasts for eternity is the sanctification which God works in us through the ordinary trials of our days and years.

This leads me to think that patience is a matter of eternal perspective. The Apostle Peter told first-century Christians to be patient in waiting for the new heavens and the new earth Christ promised. “Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation,” Peter wrote (2 Peter 3:15 NASB). It’s as though Peter meant, “Relax, Jesus is giving us more time!”  We’re not ready for Him yet. We need more time to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (3:18). More time for us to grow in love and holiness, more time for us to submit wholly to His will, more time for us to repent. We can’t be prepared for eternity overnight.

As far as building projects go, the three years we’ve waited to move ahead with this expansion seem slow in today’s fast-paced culture of instant gratification. But the decades or centuries that it took to build some of Europe’s great cathedrals reflect the patience which grows from viewing life in light of eternity. Yesterday, while telling me of his recent trip to Spain, my co-pastor Mike suggested that the reason such cathedrals aren’t built in our age isn’t for lack of resources. It’s because we lack the patience to wait decades to see the fruit of our labor, or even worse, to spend our lives toiling for an end we may not live to see.  To labor long for an end one cannot see requires faith in something bigger than oneself, and hope that such faith will be rewarded. I’m thrilled that we’re moving forward with this expansion into the theater, but I’m much more impressed by the virtues behind the cathedrals.

Though I’m short on patience, this perspective does give me hope. Not necessarily hope that I’ll accomplish great things in my remaining years, but rather the hope that comes from knowing God’s not finished with me yet. A lot has happened in five years, but how much will happen in fifty? Thomas á Kempis  wrote in the Imitation of Christ that “If every year we would root out one vice, we should soon become perfect men” (Bk I, Ch. XI). It’s taking me much longer than a year to root out impatience, but if the Lord has used this short season to accomplish what He has, how much more more will God do in a lifetime? The Apostle Paul wrote that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). God will complete the work the Holy Spirit’s doing both in and through me, and my family, and my church. And while He does, I pray for the grace to “wait patiently for the Lord” until I can say with finality that “he brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay” (Psalm 40:1-2).

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.

Tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday. At my congregation’s service in the morning, I will smear ashes on the foreheads of a number of friends and congregation members.  For some, this practice will be new, something that the churches in which they were raised rejected, calling it “too Catholic.” I find such objections puzzling, particularly because in my observations, whenever Protestants get serious about learning to pray, we end up looking to Catholics and Orthodox to teach us how. For a few examples: I join a group of other Presbyterian pastors every month at a Catholic monastery where we receive spiritual instruction from an older priest. My Presbyterian seminary offers a certificate program in spiritual direction based on the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola. Most non-denominational writers I’ve read eventually end up quoting at least one of the great saints of the Roman Church.

As one such Protestant who likes to learn from Catholics, I was delighted to receive a review copy of a new book from Paraclete press: Catholic Spiritual Practices: A Treasury of Old & NewEdited by Colleen Griffith and Thomas Groome, of Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center, this short book is a collection of essays on various spiritual practices which some might think of as distinctively Roman Catholic. I say some because many of the practices included are common to all Christians. The essay on The Lord’s Prayer, for example, was written by N. T. Wright and highlights the small “c” catholicity of the practices described here. Joseph Wong’s chapter on the Jesus Prayer describes a practices that’s more commonly associated with Eastern Orthodoxy than with the Roman Church.

Coming to the book from a Presbyterian background, I was especially curious to read the chapters on practices which I used consider distinctively Roman. Most such chapters did not disappoint. Groome’s chapter on the Rosary explained the practice and its historical development very concisely and accessibly.  Brian Daley’s personal description of the practice of Eucharistic Adoration was also illuminating. My favorite chapter of the entire book, though, was Esther de Waal’s essay called “Living the Sacramental Principle.”  In a narrative description of Celtic spirituality, de Waal shows how devotion to Christ can permeate even the most mundane elements of life.  These five pages are worth the price of the whole book. In fact, it could be the point of the whole book. This tiny collection of essays describes itself as a treasury of practices, meaning “consciously chosen, intentional actions” which express and shape our lives of faith (p. 5). When one faithfully practices such practices, one is changed, having acted one’s way into a new way of thinking and being. A life spent practicing some of the disciplines described in this book is exactly how one can cultivate a sacramental worldview, “letting heaven break through,” as de Waal writes, to “let the mundane become the edge of glory, and find the extraordinary in the ordinary” (p. 67).

Psalm 139 says our bodies are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” The birth of our daughter a month ago bore witness to that truth with worship-inspiring beauty. Now the experience of being a new parent is making me realize the responsibility I have to steward my body well: I have to be healthy to keep her healthy, alert to watch over her, rested enough to be patient with her. I need to steward my body, not only to care for her, but to set an example for her of how to pursue health wisely.

Valerie Hess and Lane Arnold have written a new book about such stewardship of our bodies. It’s called The Life of the Body: Physical Well-Being and Spiritual Formation. The reasons to care for our bodies in the book range from responsibility to others to the spiritual, physical, and emotional benefits of pursuing whole-body health. But the most important reason is God-centered: As Hess and Arnold write, “With our physical bodies, we bear a message of what we believe about God, the world and ourselves” (p. 16).   

The book’s consideration of our human relationship with food provides a good example of how our treatment of our bodies bears witness to God. Food is not morally neutral. Every choice we make regarding food makes an impact not just upon our bodies, but upon the earth and the bodies of others. Accordingly, every bite we eat proclaims whether we believe the environmental beauty of God’s creation is worth caring for, whether the workers who harvested our food deserve a just wage, and whether or not our own lives are worth sustaining. The book’s insights here range from practical tips to pursuing health to convicting observations about the emotional impulses behind our eating. I was personally convicted about my relationship with peanut butter after reading this: “In reality, excessive comfort foods point to the fact that I am letting something (food) comfort me, rather than allowing Christ to be my source of true comfort” (p. 36).

Where the book brings conviction, it also brings gentle guidance and hope. Hess and Arnold wisely point out that we can start making better food choices simply by distinguishing between what is actually food and what is merely edible, or by asking ourselves if an item “would have been considered a food item one hundred years ago” ( p. 124). Similarly gentle guidance is given concerning exercise, care for the environment, and critiquing the messages which our media sends us about body-image. For those who want to go into more scientific or practical depth in any of these topics, a very good selection of books is listed in an appendix of references.

I’m thankful that this book has been written because so many of us need to hear the message that our bodies are worth caring for in appropriate ways. As the authors say, “Some Christ-followers have been raised to think that caring for themselves is bad or selfish” but “Self-love is not the same as self-indulgence. . . . Self-love comes from wanting to care for the body that God has given you. This is not sinful but rather a sign of wise stewardship” (p. 60). This gives me encouragement as I think back over my own story of struggling to pursue holy physical health, and as I think about my roles as husband, father, and pastor. There are people I know who I want to read this book because they need to understand that they have a responsibility before Christ to care for the body He redeemed.

That’s a starting point, but it’s not the whole story. Helpful as The Life of the Body is, I do have to say that it would be enriched by a deeper knowledge of and interaction with the monastic literature of the early Church. There is a common presumption that the desert fathers and mothers held a Platonic view of the body which denigrated the body’s importance (a view which Hess and Arnold agree with on pages 15 and 94). On the contrary, the desert fathers and mothers had a much deeper knowledge of the intricate relationship between our bodies and our spiritual lives than modern writers appreciate. For just one example, they were keenly aware that over-eating made one vulnerable to both sexual temptation and anger. They fasted not out of failure to appreciate the value of their bodies, but because they took serious the original context of Paul’s claim in 1 Corinthians 6 that the body is a “temple of the Holy Spirit,” namely that this is why one should flee sexual immorality. Medieval saints and ascetics weren’t the only ones to believe that the body should be “subdued and beaten into submission to the ‘higher’ realities of spirit and soul” (p. 94). The Apostle Paul believed the same thing: “I beat my body and make it my slave” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NIV). If you asked Paul how his body bore witness to Christ, he would have pointed to the suffering he endured: “I bear on my body the brand-marks of Jesus” (Galatians 6:17). 

Taking that into consideration, Christian care for the body is ultimately not just about the pursuit of health, it’s about the pursuit of holiness.  Hess and Arnold observe in the book that “Discipline in one area of life can carry over into other areas of life in significant ways, easily crossing between that which impacts the body and that which impacts the soul” (p. 15).  Amen. That point is absolutely true. But the depth of its meaning isn’t fully expressed here. The insights in this book are the first steps for putting that truth into practice. I believe that those who are ready to take the next steps in their spiritual formation would seriously profit from reading the ascetics of the early Church and asking what messages their bodies proclaimed about the crucified and risen Christ.

This is a guest post from my friend Jen Pelling. Eileen and I lived  in intentional community with Jen and her husband (and a few varying single folks) for two years while I was in seminary. It was during that time that she gave birth to her first daughter and began to experience the transition she describes here.

About the author: Jen, who blogs at www.longdaysandshortyears.wordpress.com, is currently breaking up a fight over who gets to use the green crayon and for how long.  She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania with a very cute husband, two preschool girls, four housemates, two cats, five chickens and a dog named Maggie.  When the children have finally learned to share without intervention, she will write more and possibly clean the bathroom.

It was one of those ‘open-mouth-insert-foot’ kind of moments.

I was sitting at a table with fifteen other women.  A diverse group in just about every sense of the word, we were gathered to study the Bible and share our perspectives on the ancient beloved words.  Something about having children came up, and we were careful, aware of the emotional minefields surrounding this topic for some of our members.  We were careful, that is, until I blurted out,

“I would say that having children has ruined my life.”

There was a surprised silence and then women began to murmur.  I heard someone explain to her neighbor, “Oh, she doesn’t mean ruined, she just means that having children changed her life.”

I disagreed and tried to explain.  “No, I mean ruined.”  “Ruined,” I emphasized, “but if you gave me the choice to go back to life before children, I wouldn’t do it.  Really, I wouldn’t.”  I meant the second part, but my original declaration still hung in the air.  A dear friend gave me a sharp look.  “I hope that you don’t say that to your kids.”

And I thought, ‘I have got to come up with a better way to explain this.’

****

Okay, ‘ruined’ may be a bit extreme.  And no, I’ve never said that to my kids.  It’s just that ‘changed’  isn’t nearly strong enough to describe the massive shift that comes with the birth or adoption of young human beings.  There is, there really is, a ‘ruining’ of your previous life, but there is also the gift of new life–for you as well as for the child.  It’s a strange thing, possibly as strange as these words,

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Yes biblical scholars, I know that Jesus wasn’t specifically talking about having children in this passage, but as I have tried to follow Him through the bends and curves of my own life, I know that nothing–absolutely nothing–has illustrated this paradox of losing-life-in-order-to-find-life better than the daily joys and struggles of caring for children.  They are the hardest and best thing to ever happen to me… living paradoxes that demand more than I have to give, and then give more than I possibly demand.

They are, in the words of one of my favorite albums, a beautiful mess.  And this is also what they have made of the life formerly known as ‘mine’.

****

I’m pretty sure that I will never find the right word to describe this process, and so I will turn to metaphor.  Here’s one that I’ve been turning over in my head for some time:  Having a baby is like moving to another country.

Having a baby is like moving to another country.

First, the preparations.  You study the guidebooks.  Ask friends who have been there about their experiences.  Make lists and then gather all the stuff you’ll need.  Prepare and wait, prepare and wait… you try to imagine what it will be like.  Of course, if you’re having or adopting a baby, your departure time is an estimate, but you’d better be ready when it comes!

And then you’re in the air, on your way.  It may be a long or short flight, it’s hard to anticipate the turbulence, but at some point you touch down.  Welcome to a foreign place–the land of your baby.  Not generalized ‘babyland’ mind you, but the land of your very specific baby, with his or her very specific mix of traits, proclivities and desires.

And good luck learning the language.

There is a kind of culture shock that takes place for new parents, and it’s no wonder.  Everything that you took for granted before–going to the grocery store, sleeping through the night, getting a quick shower–is now complicated by new rules that you have to figure out as you go.  Everything changes.  It is exciting, exotic, and exhausting.  Culture shock is no joke, especially when it’s coupled with some significant jet lag.

And then, day by day, somehow, you adapt.  You grow.  You learn the language.  You become more and more proficient at navigating your new land.  People visit you and you are proud to show them around.  There are ups and downs, but your adjustment is real.  The new place and your new identity within it becomes part of who you are.

Everything is different, and so are you.

And now I have a question for you… did your beautiful and painful adjustment to your new culture ‘ruin’ your old life?  Of course it did.  You can never go back to where and who you were before.  But would you ever want to?  Perhaps at some moments.  Perhaps when the child wakes up again in the middle of the night, perhaps when the new defiant phase seems to be lasting forever, perhaps when you wish that getting an hour to yourself wasn’t so darn difficult.  But overall?  Would you ever want to go back?

****

We are in California as I write, visiting family, and our oldest daughter has been sick for days.  She is hypoglycemic (we think) and the combination of messed-up schedule (i.e. we don’t know when to feed her) and the demands of her immune system have been brutal on her poor little body… and the coughing and whining is virtually nonstop.  My husband and I are at the end of ourselves, which leads us to pray more.

Last night she was up at 2 a.m. again, and I got her spoonfuls of sticky tylenol syrup again, and sang her to sleep again, and prayed that the coughing would stop… you got it, again.  I was almost delirious as I am a person Who Needs Sleep, but my husband is also sick so I was the night parent on call.  Miracle of miracles, she fell back asleep.

When she awoke (another miracle… at 8:30) she called for me, and I crawled into bed with her.  She snuggled into my chest, right into the place where her almost-5 year old body fits perfectly, and we just laid there together.  We laid there for a few minutes, and then we began the day.

And you know what?  I’m tired.  And she isn’t out of the woods yet.  Today there will be whining and tonight there will be a wake-up.  I will be grumpy and mean, and then I will pray… over and over again.  But then she will snuggle into my chest.  She will say Mama.  At some point, tomorrow or maybe the next day, she will act silly again.  We will laugh together.

And in the ruining of my life I will find joy.

We are still waiting for the longexpected Baby Brown. And Baby really should arrive soon. Really. So, I’m taking this opportunity to say what might be obvious: given Baby’s birth, my writing routines are going to look very different this month. Here’s what to look for:

  • A post which I wrote a few weeks ago for Antler is now available: Writing in the Wake.  It’s about integrating my writing with my faith and ministry, and describes the way our community is helping me write Practicing the Truth.
  • I’m working on a review of the new book The Life of the Body by Valerie Hess and Lane Arnold, which I hope to share within a week or two.
  • This month I’ll also have a few guest posts here, starting with a post from my friend Jen Pelling about the ways having a child turns life upside-down, just like the way Jesus does.
  • And someday there will be a post announcing our child’s birth, followed later by reflections on how my life is being turned upside-down this month, as well. Stay tuned.