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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.

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.)

“So, how’s your book going?”, asked a member of my church today. “It’s not,” I said with a smile. She was referring to this project which I happily announced here over a year ago. Last fall I wrote an introduction and two chapters. I outlined other portions and compiled a list of books I wanted to study to inform my writing. A group from my church met with me multiple times to read what I’d written, offering quite helpful encouragement and feedback.

Then our daughter was born.

Having a baby turned my life upside down in many ways, including obliterating the time I had to write. There are these things we call priorities. Learning to care for our daughter without question had to take priority over side-project of writing for which I had grand plans. For months I felt torn, wanting to complete this project I’d started, while at the same time recognizing that I no longer had the free space in life to write that much on top of co-pastoring a church, working a part-time job, and loving my family.

Peace has come, though, as I’ve accepted this as an opportunity to grow in patience and humility. Like marriage, parenthood is full of opportunities to cultivate such virtues, if we are willing to receive such opportunities as gifts for our sanctification. The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts (James 3:5). My tongue boasted of wanting to write a book. I still do. I’ve just realized that it will take years – not months – for me to write this particular book.

That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. I just completed an extended personal essay for the House of St. Michael. (If you leave your contact information in the form below, I can try to get you a copy.)* I’ve also had another totally different writing project under consideration with a publisher. I may still seek publication for Practicing the Truth, but I’m in no rush. To my surprise, God has given me a blessed amount of patience and indifference about these projects. If they work out, may God be glorified. If they don’t, may God still be glorified.

I think that in this I’m tasting the spirit of Psalm 131:1-2: “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; / I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.” The Lord has been humbling me recently, making me realizing that I can’t always give all I want to give, accomplish all I want to accomplish, or please everyone I want to please. Simply knowing that makes me a bit less frantic. A bit. I’m a long way from being able to continue with the Psalmist in saying, “I have calmed and quieted myself / I am like a weaned child with its mother, / like a weaned child, I am content.” The words calm and quiet do not always describe my inner being. But I want them to. And I believe the Psalmist who says such peace only comes with a heart that’s not proud.

And with that humility comes an ever-expanding freedom to trust that God is the one who completes what God began in us. As Paul says in Philippians 1:6, it is “God who began a good work” in us and “will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  It’s the hope of Psalm 57:2, which says, “I cry to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me.” Amen. May God fulfill his purposes for me, whenever and however He chooses.

 

 

 

*If you’d like to receive a print copy of “So That Your Hearts Will Not Be Weighed Down”, please leave your name, email address, and mailing address below.

This week’s guest post is from Rachel Luckenbill, another close friend and a member of The Upper Room. While Jen wrote last week about the challenge of becoming a mother, Rachel’s post is about the challenge of losing her mother. The annual House of St. Michael Devotional Conference, which she mentions, will happen again this Friday and Saturday (details available here).

About the author: Rachel Luckenbill lives in Pittsburgh and is beginning her dissertation on contemporary American literature and Christianity at Duquesne University. She blogs about her Pittsburgh experiences at rachelluckenbill.blogspot.com. She likes being around people, taking minutes at church meetings, eating the desserts her boyfriend bakes, and playing piano.  She tries to spend as much time as she can hanging out with Chris’s and Eileen’s dog Bruiser.  He’s such a good dog.

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I am a person who expresses herself best and most often with written words.  But for the past year since the death of my mother on January 7, 2012, I have had no words to write. My heart and mind have been full of experiences, full of images and moments which I will never forget.   I have longed to release them onto paper or the computer screen so that I can give them new life – speaking them into community, so that I can make room for new growth inside of me, so that I never forget the work that God has done as He led me through facing my deepest fear.

Finally, a few days over one year since her passing, words are beginning to trickle in.  With these brief paragraphs, I hope to begin a practice of using words (some public/some private) to record, to listen to, to grieve, and to treasure the memories and transformative moments of Mom’s last year of life and of my first year without her.  I begin with two moments both of which occurred in the first week after her passing and for both of which I heartily praise God.

The first occurred the morning of January 8, the day after she died, as I stood, emotionally and physically exhausted, in a Sunday morning worship service with some of my dearest friends in Lebanon, PA. I felt utterly full of power. I’ve never experienced the Holy Spirit that tangibly before that moment. The Spirit was literally not just sustaining but was coursing through me, overflowing my heart with a truly inexplicable joy – the kind that can only be felt in the midst of the deepest sadness.  And I knew this power while surrounded by people who had journeyed with me through the darkest of years and who knew the depths to which Jesus had been transforming my heart.  I would never want to re-create the circumstances that prompted the Spirit’s striking internal takeover – Mom’s passing marked the culmination of, for her, six years of struggle with cancer and dementia, and, for me, six years of care-taking and slowly losing the person whom I loved most dearly.   But if I ever again experience that evident, close, exhilarating, and sure knowledge of the Spirit’s presence, I will rejoice.

Just less than one week after Mom’s passing and the shock and the preparations and the services and the relatives and the friends, I returned to Pittsburgh where I live.  I had planned to attend the House of St. Michael Devotional Conference on January 14 and 15. The grief was strong, the emotions were still at the surface, and the physical exhaustion was ever present. But that sustaining power, while it changed in degree of intensity, remained.  I remember choosing to go to the conference in spite of the freshness of the grief because I knew that I would be surrounded by dear friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, and space to feel, to hear, to rest, to simply be.  I spent much of my time at the conference nestled on the floor in the midst of a room full of old and new friends, wrapped in a blanket, made still by grief but lifted up by music and meditation, my mother’s Bible open in front of me – her handwriting in the margins and my own tears marking the pages.  As the conference closed, a woman named Lisa whom I did not know well at the time but am now grateful that I can call her friend, crossed the room and took me in her arms allowing her own warmth and presence to offer the comfort for which words were inadequate.  Power, comfort, sustenance: I have known these things through the welling up of the Spirit inside and through the external embrace of the Spirit in the arms of a spiritual sister.

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.
Today is All Saints Day, the day when the Western Church remembers and celebrates all of the holy people through whom God has graced the Church throughout its centuries. I’ve observed this holiday casually in the past, but this year it’s taking on a new depth of meaning for me. Yesterday, I shared a post at the Conversations Journal Blog called “All Who Walk in the Way of Perfection.” In it, I wrote about how I’ve developed a relationship with St. Mark the Ascetic, or “Mark the Monk.” And I think relationship really is the proper word.  As Valerie Hess says in her All Saints Day post on the Conversations blog, the dead saints are alive in Christ, and the communion of saints which we confess in the Creed means that these heroes of the faith means that we can relate to them now just as we relate to our living brothers and sisters in Christ.
Recently I read another work by Mark the Monk which opened up the communion of the saints in an even deeper way for me. In a piece called “A Monastic Superior’s Disputation With an Attorney,” Mark presents an account of an elder monk debating the virtues of withdrawal from the world with a fairly worldly lawyer. Near the end, as the elder is debriefing the conversation with the monks who serve under him, the elder says this:
“Do you wish to know more fully and clearly how all the apostles have entered into communion with us by means of thought, word, and deed and how, through this communion, they have taken responsibility for our trials and temptations?  Using thought, they open up and explain the Scriptures for us, commending prophetic utterances, persuading us to believe in Christ as the Redeemer, giving us the assurance to worship him as Son of God by nature, praying for us, weeping, dying, and whatever other faithful actions come from thought.  By means of words they exhort, admonish, reproach, rebuke our lack of faith, cast in our teeth our ignorance, interpret the Scriptures, clarify the times, confess Christ, preaching that he is the crucified one, the incarnate Word . . . . By means of deed, they are persecuted, sneered at, made indigent, afflicted, mistreated, imprisoned, killed, and whatever other things they suffered on our behalf. In this way, then, for the sake of community, they accepted responsibility for our trials and temptations: ‘Whether we are being afflicted or whether we are being consoled,’ he says, ‘it is for your salvation and consolation’ [1 Cor 1.6]. They received the law from the Lord when he said, ‘No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ [Jn 15.13]. They themselves have handed on this law to us, saying, ‘If the Lord laid down his life for us, we too ought to lay down our lives for our brothers [1 Jn 3.16], and again, ‘Bear one another’s burdens and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ [Gal 6.2].” (Mark the Monk Counsels on the Spiritual Life [SVS Press 2009] pp. 248-289)
Mark says the apostles and saints take responsibility for us and our sanctification. This is in no way to suggest that they replace Christ as Savior, of have any power of their own to save us. But they are teachers with whom we can have personal relationships. Just as a teacher bears responsibility for his or her students, the saints bear responsibility for handing on the faith to us, and we bear the same responsibility for the sanctification of those whom we influence. At its best, this responsibility takes the form of conformity to the likeness of Christ, with these wise teachers laying down their lives for future generations of the Church, imitating and participating in what Christ did for all of us. The saints teach not in an impersonal way, merely passing along objective knowledge, but in a profoundly embodied way, suffering to bring us the Word.
This means that celebrating the communion with the saints is about more than recalling their examples. It’s about entering deeper into relationship with brothers and sisters in Christ who have shared Christ with us through their own sufferings. When we read the New Testament epistles, we’re direct beneficiaries of the sufferings Paul endured which shaped him into the likeness of Christ. Reading this quote from Mark together, we are all personal and direct recipients of the wisdom gained through Mark’s ascetic struggles. Twenty centuries later, those who read about the life of Mother Teresa become beneficiaries of her sufferings, gaining inspiration or encouragement from her. And each of these saints had earlier saints from whom they directly benefited. Mother Teresa was inspired by St. Therese of Lisieux. Mark the Monk may have been a disciple of St. John Chrysostom.  When we look the holy examples of the great cloud of witnesses around us, we in turn are shaped to become such witnesses for others. And as we’re shaped to become such witnesses, we start to bear the same responsibility to allow others to profit from our pursuit of Christ and sharing in His sufferings. Such grace and such responsibility fills me with thankfulness to God, and to all the saints. Let us keep the feast.