The PC(USA) General Assembly is about to start in Pittsburgh. This is our biennial national governing meeting, when hundreds of elders and ministers from around the country come together to make significant decisions about the future of the denomination. And those who commissioners and delegates need your prayers over the next week. Though our process of decision-making is intended to be a way for the Church to discern God’s will together, the way the assembly functions actually makes it very difficult to listen to God. Information comes at commissioners faster than they can process it. Decisions are made without people being fully informed. And though we purport to be open to prayer, the noise and busyness of the assembly tend to drown out the still, small voice of God.  As Jack Haberer from the  said in his latest editorial, “Listening to the voice of God won’t come easily amid the convention-style cacophony.” 

Since I’ve been using the Prayer Book of Early Christians, I’ve come to appreciate the openness and humble submission to God’s will which characterize many of these prayers from the Eastern Church. Something about these prayers says, “Thy will be done,” with more confidence and trust than many prayers I’ve heard in our denominational meetings.  So this prayer, used in several of the Orthodox liturgies for praying the hours, is going to become my regular prayer for the General Assembly:

Christ our God, who at all times and through every hour are worshiped and glorified both in heaven and on earth; you who are so patient, full of mercy and compassion; who love the just and show mercy to sinners; who summon all to salvation through the promise of good things to come: Lord now receive our prayers at this present hour and direct our lives in accordance with your commandments. Sanctify our souls, purify our bodies, clarify our intentions and deliver us from every calamity, evil, and distress. Stand your holy angels around us, that guided and protected by their ranks, we may come into the unity of faith and the knowledge of your unapproachable glory: for blessed are you to the ages of ages. Amen.

Two lines deserve special comment here: Sanctify our souls, purify our bodies, clarify our intentions and deliver us from every calamity, evil, and distress. Stand your holy angels around us, that guided and protected by their ranks, we may come into the unity of faith and the knowledge of your unapproachable glory. The prayer presumes, in line with the thinking of the Church Fathers, that unity of faith and knowledge of God’s glory come through God’s sanctifying work within us. In other words, only the Holy Spirit conforming us more and more to the likeness of Christ can overcome the divisiveness which plagues the Church. And that means such unity and knowledge require God’s sanctifying action in our individual lives. So we pray for God to sanctify our souls and clarify our intentions, to make us holy people with selfless intentions.  Purifying our bodies matters, too.  We’re holistic creatures, which means that what goes on in our bodies affects our minds and souls.  If you’re a delegate or commissioner at the assembly, try thinking carefully about what you eat this week: fasting or eating lighter, simpler meals may make it easier to be attentive to God’s voice. Seriously.  Lastly, we pray for the protection of God’s angels against our unseen enemies. Spiritual warfare is real, and meetings like this provide plenty of opportunities for the powers of darkness to attack. Again, seriously.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on your servants at this General Assembly.  Amen.

This Advent, some friends and I have been reading Jacob of Serug‘s Hymns On the Mother of God.  Jacob was a fifth century monk, priest, and poet in the Syriac Church, and these hymns display the rich poetic interpretations of scripture that others in his tradition (like St. Ephrem the Syrian) were known for.  And in Jacob’s interpretations of Mary’s life and the Nativity, he has used beautiful poetry to talk about Mary’s virtues and the beautiful mystery of the Incarnation.  She is humble, pure, discerning, and wise and so she is chosen to bear the Son of God.  As Jacob imagines the priest Zechariah telling Mary, “that One whose glory fills heaven is in your womb. / The One who forms babes in all wombs dwells in you, Mary, because of this the babes exult and are glad in Him” (p. 55).

What struck me today in Jacob, however, was his depiction of Mary telling Joseph about her pregnancy.  Jacob has combined Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts and has placed Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and Zechariah (Luke 1:39-56) before Joseph’s awareness of Mary’s pregnancy (Matthew 1:18).  He envisions Mary telling Joseph about the Baby in her womb, interpreting to him the words of the angel Gabriel and the words of the Hebrew prophets as Zechariah and Elizabeth had taught her:

The Virgin also, with loud voice and uncovered face, spoke with him, without a bride’s veil. / And with the revelations and interpretations of the prophecy, she was urging him not to doubt on account of her conception. / He marvelled at her while listening to her, what must he do! The Word is great and who can believe in it without revelation. / She was telling him the words which she heard from the angel, and she was narrating to him how the priests in Judea had received it. / She was also reminding him what the prophets spoke;  he trembled while remaining steadfast, and he firmly believed everything, while hesitating.

Mary is presented elsewhere in Jacob in comparison to the liturgical items of the temple: she’s the ark containing God’s Word, an altar, a mercy-seat. But here Mary is a preacher.  And she presents a beautiful model for proclamation.  First, she’s speaking from a position of vulnerability.  Pregnant before her marriage, she could easily have been ostracized and shamed.  To speak out in such a situation required boldness, a freedom from fear of how Joseph would react.  Mary is humble and modest, but she speaks with confidence, a confidence that comes not from her own strength but because “The Word is great” within her.   She speaks what she’s received from the angel and what she’s been taught by Zechariah and Elizabeth, so she claims no authority for herself.  Yet she speaks confidently in order to inspire faith in Joseph. Altogether, she’s speaking, as the commitments of the House of St. Michael the Archangel say, both “with confidence and humility“.  The two go hand-in-hand.

Modesty and boldness, humility and confidence, are not polar opposites.  Each requires the other.  Confidence without humility is arrogance.  A lack of confidence also does not equal humility.  Mary displayed great courage speaking “with a loud voice and uncovered face” and “urging [Joseph] not to doubt”, and yet she is the epitome of humility for Jacob of Serug.  May God grant us such bold modesty.

This week, like many in the past several months, has been filled with people. All good people, people whose company I enjoy and benefit from. But apart from a brief period of solitude at a monastery yesterday and time working alone this morning, my schedule has been filled with people.

Three years ago, the charge given to me at my ordination was to seek solitude. For a leader in the Church, the spiritual discipline of solitude provides space to hear God’s voice apart from all the others which clamor for our attention. And weary as I’ve felt recently, I’ve been craving solitude.

But as I prepared today for this week’s Sunday school class for Upper Room, I came across a convicting passage in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together:

“It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden under foot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.”

It is grace, nothing but grace, that I’ve been given Eileen for a wife, who is infinitely patient and loving with me. It is grace that I will spend two hours this afternoon in deep fellowship and prayer with my co-pastor Mike and that we share the unique community of The Upper Room as a church family. It is grace, nothing but grace, that when I was a socially awkward freshman at CU lacking self-confidence, the community of The Annex and First Pres Boulder became a family for me, equipped me to lead Bible studies and sent me on mission trips through which I heard God’s call to ministry. It is grace that at Pittsburgh Seminary, I was given a community with whom to learn and worship. It is by grace that God has given me the fellowship and inspiration to holiness which we have in The House of St. Michael. And it is by grace that I’ve been given a job, a community, and a ministry at the 61C Cafe. Thanks be to God.

I still need my solitude, but I am deeply grateful today for the grace of community.

I remember the day quite clearly: I was a junior in high school – a time when I was active in our local Young Life group, regularly attending church, and eager to grow in my faith – and I was opening my mail at my mom’s house after school.  The envelope that most excited me was from “Sound & Spirit” – a mail-order Christian music distributor.  It was one of those “Buy 1 CD get 13 FREE” deals that were popular before mp3s were invented.  I opened it up, flipped through the catalog inside and smiled to myself, thinking “Wow – there’s so much I can buy that will make it easier to be a Christian!”

The word consumption used to apply to disease.  It described a wasting away of the body, or was used to describe tuberculosis.  Marmeladov, the drunk man whom Raskolnikov encounters early on in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, speaks of his wife dying from consumption.  Two books I’m reading right now think the Church is dying from consumption.

The first is Paul Louis Metzger’s Consuming Jesus and the second is Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism.  Both trace the American evangelical church’s division along race and class lines to the consumerization of American society.  And there’s much to support that idea: the Church certainly has played mistress and not prophet to the economic structures of the West.  As Rah notes, to be a good Christian in America is to be a good consumer.  Even immigrant congregations face pressure to assimilate to the unholy (Next Evangelicalism pp. 60-61).  He cites two examples that are particularly disturbing.  The first is President Bush’s charge to Americans after 9-11: “I encourage you all to go shopping more” (p. 48).  I remember hearing these words on television eight years ago. I remember wondering then why it didn’t strike anyone around me as odd (much as I wondered silently why so many of my Christian friends in college eagerly supported the war in Iraq).  The best advice this “evangelical” President could give was to shop more?  Really?  . . .  The second example Rah cites is that of a professor at Colorado Christian University who was fired because “his lessons were too radical and undermined the school’s commitment to the free enterprise system.”  That quote isn’t from Rah’s own words; it’s the statement given by the university president for why this professor was fired.  That president also said “I don’t think there is another system that is more consistent with the teachings of Jesus” than free market capitalism (p. 50).  I’m ashamed that this happened at a school that’s inside my home state.

Rah continues, “The Western, white captivity of the church means that capitalism can be revered as the system closest to God and the consequent rampant materialism and consumerism of the capitalist system become acceptable vices” (p. 50).  The Church doesn’t just fail to confront consumerism, it buys into it hook, line, and sinker: Buy 1 CHRISTIAN CD Get 13 Free CHRISTIAN CDS and God Will Love You More!

And yet the system is somewhat inescapable.  To cite the books mentioned above, I linked to their Amazon pages. (Though, no, neither was free to me nor was I paid anything to write this.)  Still I have to confess I’ve traded the Sound & Spirit subscription for a book fetish, thinking at times like so many other “Ministers of the Word” that the answers to all of my questions can be found in possessing more books. 

But there are changes we must make to bear authentic witness to Christ’s Kingdom.  In Advent, Upper Room will be participating in Advent Conspiracy, encouraging people to spend less and give more meaningful or alternative gifts this Christmas.  I look forward to the conversation we’ll have at Upper Room’s Fall Retreat in two weeks about Consuming Jesus.  And  I pray that the Spirit will guide us in finding concrete ways to fight of the disease of consumption.

Today my hometown church, Delta Presbyterian in Delta, CO, will celebrate its 125th anniversary.  This is the church where I was baptized, and where I attended with my parents most Sunday mornings of my childhood.  It’s the church that my entire dad’s side of the family attended, and where my grandmother was one of the more influential longtime members.  It’s a small church, which makes it feel like a family.  So, this week I reflected on some of those family memories. These are some of the best:

  • Church potlucks in Westminster Hall and coffee fellowship in the Annex.
  • I remember being given my first Bible by Delta Presbyterian in third grade: I still have it.
  • I remember “preaching” during a Sunday morning led by the youth when I was in elementary school. I think I spoke on something from the Ten Commandments.
  • Painting the CU logo on the wall in the basement of the Annex with the youth group.
  • Decorating the sanctuary for Christmas with David, the church organist.
  • Making Chrismons for the sanctuary’s Christmas tree with the Bruce and Janet Sexton, the pastor who served the church during my childhood and his wife.
  • Music recitals with Janet Sexton as my piano teacher.
  • Playing the threefold Amen on the piano at the end of worship one Sunday – the first time I contributed music to a worship service!
  • Going to Denver for a Rockies game with the youth group.
  • The hiking trip Bill Forbes took the youth group on in the San Juans when I was in 7th grade.
  • Brian Renfrow leading the youth group through the book In the Grip of Grace.  Also while in 7th grade.
  • Bell choir – Especially the song Daniel Renfrow, the Sunderlands, and I knew best: “Simple Gifts”.
  • The support I know Delta Presbyterian gave to Young Life , which had a life changing impact on me in high school, and in turn shaped much of my ministry today.
  • Bill Forbes’ (the current pastor) sermon contrasting the conversions of Peter and Paul – still one of the most memorable sermons I’ve heard.
  • Mowing the church lawn during high school.
  • My attempts to lead “contemporary” music.  As the teenager who wanted to make room for guitar in church, I led 15 minutes of “praise music” before worship some Sundays.  Those who wanted to take part came early, while the traditionalists waited until it was over and the organ began playing.   
  • Speaking about my trip to Thailand in 2003. (Thanks again to all who supported me that summer!)
  • Speaking about my experience at General Assembly in 2004.
  • Bill Forbes loaning me the book Crisis in the Church by John Leith, which influenced my choice of a seminary.
  • The Christmas Eve service in David’s barn/garage two Christmases ago.
  • My ordination last November (see here and here).

Though I’m in Pittsburgh now, Delta Presbyterian will always have a special place in my heart.  Compiling this list of favorite memories from there made me even more grateful for Delta’s support than ever before. As Paul wrote, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all” (Philippians 1:3-4).

Last night Mike and I returned from the 2009 Emergent Theological Conversation with Jurgen Moltmann.  To describe it in a few words, it seemed like a conference of sound bites. People asking Moltmann questions often quoted short passages from his books and then asked him to comment on them.  Topics changed somewhat rapidly.  Catchy one-liners from Moltmann were then tweeted and retweeted throughout the Twub.  A screen behind professor Moltmann displayed tweets from people attending the event. Everyone had a laptop open to either Facebook or Twitter where they conversed online with other people attending the event and with those following from far away.  I found it difficult to keep my attention focused on anything. I wondered at times if it was an event designed for people with attention deficit disorder.

Nevertheless, I managed to take six pages of notes, which I will now share here in soundbite form.  Here are the quotes from Moltmann which I found most interesting during the event:

“Talking about theological method is like listening to someone clear their throat.”

“Professional theologians must again and again go down to the people and the people’s questions and their answers.”

On his life story: “It is easy to tell, but it was difficult to live.”

On the Trinity:  “The doctrine of the Trinity is not a mystery; it’s really quite simple. If you come into fellowship with Jesus, you also come into fellowship with the God whom he called Abba, dear Father.  And in the fellowship of Jesus in the prayer to our dear Father, you feel the life-giving energies of the divine Spirit. . . . Before we develop the doctrine of the Trinity, we live already in God. . . We don’t believe in the Trinity only; we live in the Trinity.”

“The Trinitarian persons in their indwelling relationships are not only three persons, they are three rooms.  They give room to each other. . . . When we accept other people . . .  we give them a ‘life-space’ in which they can rest freely.  . . . This room-giving to each other is the best way to live the love of the Triune God.”

“The Reform tradition is my origin and the ecumenical church is my future.”

“God is not in control of everything; God is carrying and bearing everything.” 

“I read the Bible with the presupposition to meet the divine word in human words.  And whenever I meet the divine word which became incarnate in Jesus Christ, his suffering death and resurrection, then I meet the truth.”

In response to the question, “How do we practice hope?”: “Follow the Sermon on the Mount.”

“We have two crosses in Christian history: one is a real cross at Golgotha. The other is a dream cross of Emperor Constantine. “

“If you, on the side of the guilty, want to enter into the truth of your life, listen to the victims because they can tell you who you really are.”

“I am afraid I am not a universalist because, you know, there are perhaps a few people I don’t want to see again.  But God may be, because he created them and he’ll want to see them again.”

“I go on praying for the dead because the dead are not dead, they have died, but are not dead.  They are sleeping.

On the relationship between science and religion: “The fundamental question of natural science is, ‘do you understand what you know?’  Knowledge increases rapidly, but do we understand it?  We need a hermeneutics of nature together with science.”

“A congregation without disabled persons is a disabled church.”  

“The growing world community will be based on human rights or there will be no world community at all.”

“We do not celebrate at the Lord’s Table our theories about his presence, but his presence.  Let’s celebrate his presence first and then afterward talk about it.”

In response to the question, “What should we be reading?: “The Bible.”

Moltmann’s parting words: “Peace be with you and good theology too.”