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Holy Week is my favorite time of year to be a pastor. That’s not to say it isn’t stressful. It is intense and tiring. But the extra effort seems worthwhile because of what it allows: For one week, we focus solely on Jesus. For one week, all the petty distractions and concerns that disproportionately consume our ministries during the rest of the year fade away. For one week, we pay attention to the one thing needful.

For a few years, our young church has hosted a full set of Holy Week services. At The Upper Room, we observe Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil, Easter Sunrise, and our regular 11:00 a.m. worship on Easter Sunday. This seems uncommon among Presbyterians – a bit too “high church” for some of our sister churches. It’s also a lot for a small congregation to take on. With only 40 regular attendees on a Sunday morning, you may expect our church to have a sparse turnout at so many midweek services, but people come. One year we were filled to overflowing on Good Friday. People seem to come to church with an increasingly genuine hunger for Jesus in this season. And all the extra services are worthwhile if the Holy Spirit uses them to draw one person more deeply into love with Jesus.

By walking through every part of the narrative of Holy Week, we also “wrap our lives around Jesus’ life.”[1]  It’s the core story of our faith, that narrative which formed and forms us. By hearing the story anew, we’re reminded both of who we are and who we’re becoming in Christ. We start to see ourselves in the people surrounding Jesus: On Thursday we may identify with the Beloved Disciple, resting our heads against Jesus’ chest in intimate fellowship. Then as the story continues, we recognize the Judas within ourselves, we identify with Peter’s betrayal, and we watch with Mary as her son dies.

But then a beautiful thing happens: At the Easter Vigil, we join with the angels in proclaiming the victory of Light over darkness. When the sun rises on Sunday morning, we feel the magnitude of the resurrection more strongly. Having dwelt with Jesus through those hours of betrayal and agony yields for us a deeper joy, such that when we contemplate the glory of the resurrection, we too experience transformation into the ever-increasing glory of Jesus’ likeness (2 Cor 3:18). The Apostle Paul said that we “share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory” (Rom 8:17), and dwelling deeply in the narrative of Holy Week gives us a taste of such transformation from suffering to glory.

Of course, this all will happen in a messy, incarnate manner. A child may spill her food at Thursday’s agapé meal. It will be freezing cold on Sunday morning and my fingers will go numb while playing guitar in the park at sunrise. All of this is taking place in the context of a church plant in Pittsburgh where we’re still struggling to follow Jesus together. But that’s exactly what this week is about: following Jesus together, wrapping our lives around his death and his life, so that his glory can shine in our lives.

As we experience Holy Week, may the Lord give us the grace to soak in the story of his passion and resurrection. May we delight in the extra work, the extra worship, the extra time spent adoring Christ upon the cross. And may our current sufferings prove unworthy of comparison to the glory that is being revealed to us.

This post first appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary blog.

[1] Our church picked up this phrase from the bridge of the popular worship song “Center” by Charlie Hall: “We lift our eyes to heaven; we wrap our lives around Your life.”

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It was a hectic morning. I’d overslept, our sixteen-month-old daughter had awakened early, and our small family was grasping for order amid the chaos of what promised to be another busy day. Trying to occupy her attention, I said,  “Why don’t we read a book?” She pointed at the bookcase, said “Book!” and proceeded to grab a copy of the Jesus Storybook BibleI opened the pages and started reading aloud. Most of the language was still far above her head, but it went straight to my heart. With a sigh of relief I thought, It’s refreshing to simply be told a story about Jesus.

Then I had a flashback. Ten years ago, I was working in a cafe in Boulder, CO. One weeknight during my closing shift, I was sweeping the floor and preparing to clean the sparsely filled cafe when I overheard a conversation between three customers. They were college-age women having a Bible study. One, who appeared to be the leader, was talking to the others who both listened attentively. As I tried to hear more, I noticed that all she was doing was telling them stories about Jesus. And the women she was speaking to kept asking questions curiously. They wanted to hear more about Him. It was beautiful. I could have continued sweeping for hours while eavesdropping on that conversation.

These two experiences stand in contrast with most of the conversations I overhear in the Church at large. We talk about a lot about things related to our life together, but it’s been a long time since I heard (or sadly, preached) a sermon that was only about how magnificent Jesus is. We have lots of good theological conversations at the seminary, but we constantly run the risk of reducing Jesus to a distant historical figure or a moral principle, instead of the compassionate divine lover of humankind that He is. This distancing of our conversation from Jesus seems to happen even more in the higher levels of the bureaucracy of denominations.

This weekend I’ll go to Detroit for the 221st General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). I’m not a delegate; I’ll be there to represent and promote Pittsburgh Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative. There will be a lot of talk at General Assembly, good and bad, about a lot of different issues. I’ll even engage in some of those conversations. But I think we’ll all be better off – our hearts will be more joyful, the Church will be edified, our decisions will be more faithful – if we take moments this week to set aside those debates and instead focus upon Jesus. So here’s my suggestion:

If you’re attending General Assembly, try speaking about Jesus more than yourself and more than your agenda. I want to hear you tell me about Jesus. If you’re using Twitter or Facebook throughout the Assembly, hashtag your posts with #TellMeAboutJesus. For one example of a possible tweet, a member of my congregation whom I recently asked to simply tell me about Jesus responded with, “He’s the sort of person who, when he speaks, you want to hear more.” I’m thinking that if we at GA share such holy thoughts with one another, we’ll find ourselves caught up in surprisingly beautiful conversations. Perhaps we’ll even recognize Jesus’ presence with us more clearly. I pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire our words, and guard us against any blasphemy.

So here we go . . . Tell me about Jesus.  

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.

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.)

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 week’s guest post is from my friend and co-pastor, Mike Gehrling. God called us to start working together to plant The Upper Room together nearly five years ago. Those five years have been filled with a great gift of  friendship, which I’ve written about here. Throughout those five years God has also used Mike to teach me a lot about worship, so it’s fitting that his guest post here is about worship.

About the author: Mike loves Jesus. He also enjoys being a pastor and a campus minister. In his spare time he can be found going for a run, reading a good book, and appearing anonymously in Chris’s blogposts. One of his goals for 2013 is to write more blogposts than he did in 2012, which should be easy since he only wrote 9 last year. Keep him accountable at www.mikegehrling.wordpress.com.

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Have you ever worshipped in a church significantly different from your own? Maybe, on a mission trip, you’ve worshipped in a language other than English, and struggled to know what you were singing, praying and hearing. Maybe you’re a Protestant whose worshipped in a Catholic or Orthodox church, and have been taken aback when attention is given to Mary or to a saint. Maybe you come from a liturgical tradition and visited a contemporary or charismatic church, not knowing what to do what to do with your hands when you don’t have a bulletin and hymnal to hold, and when everyone around you is lifting their hands in the air. Experiences like these can be jarring and difficult, but they also provide opportunities to grow.

I’ve had the privilege of worshipping in a lot of different contexts, and have come to love worship that is outside of my own comfort zone. From worshiping in an African-American Baptist church for a semester in college, to learning worship songs while in a van on a mission trip in Southeast Asia, to visiting an Orthodox Church when I’m taking vacation time from Upper Room, I’ve learned a lot from the breadth of worship expressions that the body of Christ has to offer.

I started writing this blogpost with the intention of reflecting on what these experiences taught me about worship. However, I quickly realized that these experiences also taught me much about myself. Here are a few things that I’ve learned about myself from worshipping cross-culturally:

I Benefit From Being Spiritually Flexible

If you exercise regularly, you know that the more you stretch, the more flexible your body is. More flexibility means less discomfort, and less likelihood of injury. In a similar way, I’ve found that taking time to worship in other traditions, and learn from them, has stretched my spirit to the point that I’m now able to experience Christ’s presence in church contexts that are very different from what I had been used to. Five years ago, hearing someone speaking in tongues would have stretched me to the point of a spiritual muscle tear. Truly experiencing Christ while worshipping in another language would have been more than my spiritually flexibility could handle. Now, though, I’ve reached the point that I can experience God in familiar and unfamiliar contexts, and be content in either.

I Sometimes Use Humor as a Form of Judgment

I’ve rarely had negative experiences in worship. But there have been plenty of times that I’ve found myself laughing about elements of a worship service that were new for me. I remember as a teenager chuckling at the funny hat that the bishop was wearing in a Catholic service. I took great delight imitating the charismatic preacher at the first charismatic African-American church I visited. On the surface at least, I didn’t feel anything negative, but my tendency toward laughter blocked me from appreciating the deeper significance and beauty of what was happening. These experiences showed me that humor is my way of responding to culture-shock, and it was keeping me from learning.

Instead of Worshipping God, I Often Worship Idols of Mastery and Control

I’ve learned to sing praises to God in many languages. Swahili, Congolese, Vietnamese, Korean, French, Arabic and Hindi all come to mind immediately. But there’s one language that I always struggle with: Spanish. Many Latino worship songs move at such a tempo that the syllables go by faster than I can handle. That my tongue seems to be completely opposed to making that “rolling r” sound doesn’t help much, either. It used to be that my soul would check out during times of worship in which the leader had us singing in Spanish. It was too hard. I couldn’t do it well, or at all, and therefore I couldn’t really worship. My perspective changed, though, when I realized that it wasn’t the Spanish that was keeping me from worshipping; it was my attitude. In order to enter into a spirit of worship, I was demanding an ability to master the worship. While anyone can master particular forms of worship, or particular songs or prayer styles, no one can fully master what it means to worship the Triune God. The fact that I was demanding the capacity to master the worship style in order to worship meant that I had made an idol out of my own abilities, and that I was more often worshipping myself than God. The muscles in my tongue are still not good at speaking or singing in Spanish, but I’m thankful that my spiritual muscles can receive Latino worship as a reminder that entering into worship sometimes is hard work, and that I still have much to learn.

Praise the Lord that the Body of Christ has many members! May God grant all of us a heart that is open to experiencing him even in uncomfortable places.

Worship should take us on a journey into the Light of the Kingdom of God. This movement towards heaven is the driving force behind Father Vassilios Papavassiliou’s new book Journey to the Kingdom: An Insider’s Look at the Liturgy and Beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox Church. At the surface level, the book is a clear and readable explanation of Orthodox beliefs and worship. But at the heart of the book lies an invitation to be transfigured in the Light of Christ through worship.

As the subtitle suggests, this book is an insider’s look at Orthodox liturgy. As an outsider, I found Papavassiliou’s descriptions of the liturgy clarified both my understanding of and questions about Orthodox worship. While I’ve read a good amount about Orthodoxy, I still feel dizzy when I have the cross-cultural experience of an Orthodox worship service.  When I’ve worshiped at Orthodox churches or at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary here in Pittsburgh, I’ve known that I should simply ask more questions, but I haven’t known where to begin. This book asks and answers many of those questions. Papavassiliou also has a gift for succinctly communicating Orthodox theology in ways that any Christian can understand, often using sidebars in the book for deeper explanations of certain topics. For example, the sidebar on page 22 is the most concise and clear explanation of the veneration of icons I’ve read.

Papavassilou also explains the nuances of what happens behind the iconostasis in ways that would enrich even an insider’s understanding of Orthodoxy.  For example, chapter 7 is dedicated to explaining the use of Psalm 50 (Psalm 51 in Hebrew and Protestant numbering) in the Divine Liturgy.  This psalm of repentance is recited before the consecration of Eucharist because, “It is repentance that opens the gates of heaven to us” (p. 65). But there’s more than meets the eye going on here: Anyone familiar with the psalm may have noticed that there seems to be a change in tone between verse 17 and verse 18.  Before this change we read “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise” (NASB). Then verse 19 speaks of God delighting in “righteous sacrifices, in burnt offering and whole burnt offering” and “young bulls” being offered on God’s altar. The first portion of this psalm is recited during the Divine Liturgy when the not-yet-consecrated communion elements are processed throughout the church. Then there is actually a pause between verses 17 and 18 during which the priest places the bread and wine upon the altar. Then he completes the psalm demonstrating symbolically that Christ is the one righteous sacrifice Who replaces all earthly sacrifices with the offering of Himself. As the book demonstrates, this sort of poetic beauty permeates Orthodox worship, with deeper nuances always awaiting discovery.

Such beauty is a reflection of the Light of the Kingdom, the Light into which worshipers enter through the liturgy. With the liturgy’s “very goal and purpose being participation in the divine Mysteries” (pp. 82-83), all of the elements of the service are explained as preparation for entry into the presence of Christ. The hymn which follows reception of communion says, “We have seen the true light! We have received the heavenly Spirit. We have found the true faith, as we worship the undivided Trinity. For the Trinity has saved us!” (p. 169). The reception of Christ in the Eucharist transfigures Christians that we may bear His Light to the world. And this means that there is a missional component to even the other-worldly worship of Orthodoxy. As Papavassiliou writes, “We leave the world that we may return to it renewed and illumined, fit to bring light to those in darkness” (p. 18). Amen. In the Lord’s light may we see light, and may others see Christ’s light in us.

(Thank you to Paraclete Press for sharing this book with me.)