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I’m writing a book. It’s about the spiritual discipline of pursuing integrity and dedication to truth. In other words, it’s about becoming more and more like Jesus, who is Truth. For more on the idea behind the book and the story of how I got to this point, read this post. As promised in that post, I’ve continued writing and am ready to share what I have with our communities here in Pittsburgh.

So, starting later this month, I’m going to share one chapter per month with a group of folks (perhaps including you?) who are interested in reading each chapter and then gathering to discuss the ideas in it. Hopefully you’ll get the benefit of some interesting reading material, and I’ll get to create a better book thanks to your feedback. We’ll meet on three Sunday evenings this fall: September 30th, November 4th, and December 9th.

A week ahead of time, I’ll email out a draft of the chapter to discuss that month. Then on the appointed date, we’ll meet at my house from 6-8pm, eat a simple dinner and talk about the ideas in each chapter. While I picture this group being mostly people from Upper Room, other Pittsburgh friends are also welcome. Email me at chris@pghupperroom.com if you’re interested.

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While cleaning out my home office a few weeks ago, I found a memento from one of my last visits to my home state of Colorado.  It was a napkin from my airplane ride home. On one side was an advertisement for the airline I had flown. On the reverse side, which had been blank, I had made two lists. The left-hand column contained a happy list of the Colorado beers I’d tried on that trip. The right-hand column was more sobering: a list of resolutions I wanted to make about how to live my life after returning to Pittsburgh.

Sometimes vacation puts life in perspective, giving us a clearer sense of what our priorities in life should be. On that flight home two years ago, some of those priorities were simple choices I wanted to make in order to add more joy to my life: make time for music, move through life more slowly, read something other than theology textbooks. But the biggest and most important resolution of all that September was live with integrity. Not that there was a severe lack of integrity in my life, but there was enough to make me aware that something had to change. I said yes to things when I should have said no, lied about my feelings, and didn’t always live according to my convictions. So I made resolutions: live with integrity, stand for my convictions, be honest. All written in blue ink on that scratchy white napkin. And then never seen again until surfacing in my office earlier this month.  

Ironically, though the napkin could have easily been thrown away, I saved it. But saving it in a pile of other papers meant I might as well have thrown it away. Resolutions, commitments, and vows of any kind are meant to be revisited regularly. When we hastily make such commitments and then forget about them, we cheapen both ourselves and the language we use. Our yes becomes a no (cf. Matt. 5:37) and we become snared in our own words (Proverbs 6:2-5). No one else knew about those napkin resolutions two years ago, so the hypocrisy of my failure to reflect on them could have remained hidden forever. I made those resolutions to myself, but it turns out that I couldn’t even be trusted to remember them.

That was two years ago. Last night, as my plane descended into Pittsburgh, returning from this year’s vacation to Colorado, I looked at another airline napkin in my hand.  Blank.  Recalling the memento I’d found earlier this month, this seemed like an invitation and an opportunity. I jotted down some notes regarding new resolutions I want to make: Make time for family (especially with Baby Brown due in a few months). Pursue single-mindedness. Reduce multi-tasking. Focus attention on true priorities. Make time for writing; it’s a spiritual discipline.  And again: live with integrity. There’s been quite a bit of progress on that resolution in two years, enough that I’m writing a book about it. But this year I’m emphasizing what I forgot two years ago: remembering the commitments I’ve made. And that’s going to require intentional action. For example: What would it look like to reflect regularly on my ordination vows? I remember making them every time I come across a verse Psalms which refers to the vows we make to God (“From You comes my praise in the great assembly; I shall pay my vows before those who fear Him” [22:25 NASB] or “Make vows to the Lord your God and fulfill them” [76:11]). But can I really fulfill them if I forget their original meaning or intention? Probably not. Some sort of intentional reflection is needed. And the same is true of all the other commitments we make: marriage vows, commitments to friends or communities, even job descriptions. Wouldn’t we all benefit from reflecting on such commitments and asking whether we’re fulfilling them with integrity? If we don’t, they can become mere napkin resolutions, forgotten or thrown away.

A few weeks ago, I posted that I’m writing a book. Since then, I’ve learned that making a deliberate effort to write is a lot like church-planting.  When we started Upper Room four years ago, I had no idea what the future would hold. I knew God had called me to plant a church with my friend Mike, but I had no idea how to start a church. Stepping out into that unknown world of church-planting meant practicing self-discipline and taking a risk. I know more about writing than I did then about church-planting, but my early forays into writing more than sermons and blog-posts have shown me that this combination of discipline and willingness to take risks is necessary to succeed in both.

1) It takes self-discipline.  Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a satellite viewing of the Willow Creek Association’s Global Leadership Summit with some friends and colleagues from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.  Of the many great presentations, Jim Collins’ summary of his new book Great By Choice had the most insights which I want to put into practice.  One of these ideas was the 20 Mile March. Collins used the illustration of Ronald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer of Antarctica who reached the south pole thanks to the remarkable self-discipline of proceeding twenty miles per day, no matter what the conditions.  While other explorers would race ahead in good weather and sit still in bad weather, Amundsen had the discipline to push ahead consistently when it was difficult. He also had the discipline not to overextend himself when he could have done more.

In the first two years of Upper Room’s history, there weren’t any established patterns of congregational life to determine my schedule or priorities. I had to have discipline to make time and space for the various work that needed to be done.  No one was looking over my shoulder to make sure I did it.  This is so much more true in the practice of writing. I have more ideas to write about than I have time to write. Solution: The 20 Mile March. I need to create a regular rhythm of writing that requires effort and discipline but doesn’t overextend myself. My intention is to get into a routine of rising early and working on my writing for two hours in the morning, three days per week.  I say intention because I disagreed with my alarm clock this morning. But I know that once I get into the rhythm, it will pay off.  20 Mile March.

2) Willingness to take a risk. Notice that the example Collins chose to illustrate self-discipline was that of an Antarctic explorer.  There are millions of people who could serve as great examples of self-discipline. What made Amundsen noteworthy is that he applied his self-discipline to a creative and adventurous undertaking. He combined his self-discipline with a willingness to take a risk.  Taking risks without self-discipline can lead to tragedy, as it did for the explorer Robert Scott, a contemporary of Amundsen who died during his expedition to the South Pole.  But taking risks with self-discipline can lead to great accomplishments.

When we answered God’s call to start Upper Room, the only secure thing about the work was the fact that God had called us to it.  We applied for grants, of course, and knew that we had the support of local Presbytery members.  But grants weren’t guaranteed.  There were always chances that people wouldn’t come, that things wouldn’t work out, that we would end up like one of the many new church starts that simply fail. That was a big risk to take for our first ordained positions in ministry. But I think the self-discipline God gave to Mike and me as co-pastors has enabled us to get through the unstable times in our church’s short history.

Similarly, starting to write more has felt risky. It is emotionally risky – writers put ideas forward, knowing they’ll be valued by some and criticized by others. Writing can be financially risky; most writers don’t earn much by writing. (Don’t worry; I’m not quitting my day-jobs. Pastoring Upper Room is still my primary calling and I don’t expect that to change. As I’ve indicated before on this blog, I see writing as an extension of  that ministry.)  But I’m willing to take risks to pursue the gifts God has given me in writing, and I trust that, when pursued with discipline, those risks will be worth taking.

St. Ephrem the Syrian wrote in his “Hymns on Virginity and The Symbols of the Lord” about the “three harps of God.” The first is the Old Testament, the second is the New Testament, and the third is the natural world of creation. For Ephrem, nature held within it images and types which point to Christ, similar to how the images and types in the Old Testament reveal Christ. The Church, he wrote, plays these the harps together to the praise of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I have a post up over at the Conversations Journal Blog which shares about an experience I had in North Carolina recently that made me think of Ephrem and his vision of paradise.  Go here to read it. I pray the Lord will use it to inspire you both to see his beauty in creation and to pursue the high calling we’ve received in Christ.

The Story: Last fall, I spoke at a retreat for Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Evangelical Student Fellowship.  The topic I chose to speak about was Truth. Evangelicals like truth, and they like to defend it when they feel that truth is under attack.  I took a slightly different approach: The Gospel of John says that Jesus is Truth. And if Truth is a person, then Truth is more than an abstract idea to be defended. Taking it a step further, in John 3:21, Jesus says that one who “practices the Truth comes to the Light”.  If Jesus is Truth, and if in Christ we’re called to become more and more Christlike, then we’re called to act truthfully, do the truth, practice the truth. With this in mind, my talks for the retreat became a call to seek truthfulness and integrity in our personal lives and our ministries. The talks seemed to be well received.  I started thinking that maybe this idea of practicing the truth deserved more attention.

Then this spring, I attended the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College.  I knew ahead of time that publishers there would be open to receiving book proposals, so I started putting together  a book proposal for Practicing the Truth. I wasn’t able to complete the proposal in time for the Festival, but after encouraging conversations with several people there, I returned home, finished the proposal and sent it in to an editor I had met.  A few weeks went by.  Then I got an email.  They wanted a second sample chapter.  This was getting exciting.  I wrote the second sample chapter and sent it in.  A couple more weeks went by, and then I got an email from an editor saying that my ideas didn’t fit within the genre of that particular line of books (understandable) and that my platform wasn’t yet developed enough (i.e. my name isn’t famous enough to sell books, also understandable). That was a bit discouraging. But I am encouraged that my proposal was seriously considered. And the amount of positive feedback I’ve received in talking to others about this project over the past couple months far outweighs one rejection.  So, I’m going to keep writing . . .

The Idea: I’m working with this title in mind: Practicing the Truth: The Spiritual Discipline of Living Truthfully.  For more on the ideas and structure of the book, read the Practicing the Truth page on this blog. The general goal of the book will be to present dedication to truth and integrity as a spiritual discipline which conforms us to the likeness of Christ, who is Truth.  I think that when Christians practice such dedication to truth, we’ll see powerful transformation in our relationships, our spiritual lives, our mental health, and our ministries.

Moving Forward: (1) At the advice of a close friend, I’m going to keep on writing, but do so with the congregation I pastor in mind. If these ideas are of value, they’ll be of value to the community I find myself in right now. And if this is a book which calls us to greater openness, honesty, and authenticity, then the process of writing it should be marked by those characteristics. So starting in August or September, I’ll roll out one chapter per month.  Those from Upper Room who’ve expressed interest are invited to read the chapter, and then gather as a group with me for an evening of conversation about the ideas presented in that month’s chapter. I pray that God will use this to make us even more into a community of honesty, authenticity, and integrity. I also think this will make it a better book. Friends from Upper Room, if you want to be involved in reading the chapters as they come out and discussing them, just let me know. (2) I’ll also keep blogging about topics or illustrations which are relevant to the content of the book. Posts which are related in one way or another to the theme of the book will show up under the category “Practicing the Truth.” Keep checking back to see where this project is going. (3) I may submit my proposal to other publishers. We’ll see what happens. For right now, though, the priority will be on writing for my congregation. If the Lord wills that this will be used to bless a broader audience, then let the Lord’s will be done.  If the Lord wants only the people of Upper Room to grow in truthfulness as a result of this writing, the let the Lord’s will be done.

Thank you, friends, for joining me on this journey towards the One who is Truth!

This Sunday is Pentecost, the day when the Church celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles in Acts 2:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.  And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4 NASB)

The Holy Spirit rested upon the Apostles and they spoke in tongues.  Thus was introduced to the Church a spiritual gift which would create controversy from the First Century to the Twenty-First.  The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians bears witness to the confusion the early Church had about the gift of tongues. In our world today, I’ve known people who have thought that speaking in tongues was the only proof that one was filled with the Holy Spirit. I’ve also known people who’ve insisted that such a gift was no longer given to the Church.  In my experience, both of these extremes have been untrue.  God does still choose to give this gift to individuals within the Church, but it is one of many signs or fruits of the Spirit, and to each member of the Church, different gifts are given. We’re not all called to speak in tongues. The desire to speak in tongues is admirable because it is a desire to yield control of our speech to God. But we would do well to ask: What does it really mean to have our speech controlled by the Holy Spirit? Is speaking in tongues the only form Spirit-controlled speech, or are there others which are more accessible to everyone? 

Perhaps Spirit-controlled speech looks less like “speaking in tongues” and a lot more like “taming the tongue.” When Paul says “I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others than ten thousand words with a tongue” (1 Cor 14:19 ESV), he’s indicating that our language should be used to benefit others.  “Prophesy” is superior to tongues for Paul because “one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Cor 14:3 ESV). That sort of speech requires wisdom and deliberation.  Control is still yielded to God, but that giving up of control may mean choosing to speak less. I think Paul’s exhortation to pursue prophesy agrees with James’ calling to tame our tongues:

If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.  Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of pilot directs. (James 3:2-4 ESV)

The taming of our tongues is a sign that we are growing in sanctification. “Self-control” is one of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:23, and exercising self-control with our speech is surely a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our hearts.  In the long run, a lifetime of careful, discerning, wise speech may be just as profitable and equally indicative of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit as speaking in tongues.

The great spiritual writers of the early Church understood this. For them, discerning and careful speech was more indicative of the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  The famous prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian asks the Lord not to give us a spirit of “idle talk”, but instead to give us “a spirit of soberness, humility, patience, and love.” St. Diadochos of Photiki saw talkativeness as dissipation of the Holy Spirit. He uses the imagery of a sauna to explain:

When the door of the steam baths is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good.  Thereafter the intellect, though lacking appropriate ideas, pours out a welter of confused thoughts to anyone it meets, as it no longer has the Holy Spirit to keep its understanding free from fantasy.  Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts. (“On Spiritual Knowledge” no. 70 in The Philokalia vol. 1 p. 276)

Similarly, John Climacus wrote this in The Ladder of Divine Ascent:

Talkativeness is the throne of vainglory on which it loves to preen itself and show off.  Talkativeness is a sign of ignorance, a doorway to slander, a leader of jesting, a servant of lies, the ruin of compunction, a summoner of despondency, a messenger of sleep, a dissipation of recollection, the end of vigilance, the cooling of zeal, the darkening of prayer. (p. 158)

The sort of careless speech that Climacus is criticizing here isn’t speaking in tongues, but it’s something that’s much more relevant to everyday life. The mindless speech which we engage in every day can detract from our spiritual lives.  Pursuit of holiness, on the other hand, will both be aided by and will produce greater discretion in what we say.

So how do we pursue tame tongues? I’ve found it helpful to make Psalm 141:3 a regular prayer: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.” Whether before writing, preaching, speaking in a group, or counseling people, this simple verse has helped me yield more of my speech to the Spirit’s control, though I certainly have a long way to go.  I’ve also found that it’s helpful to question my motives for saying (or writing, or tweeting) something. Why do I want to say this?  Will it benefit others? Am I simply trying to attract attention to myself? Am I trying to control or manipulate others by what I say?  The answers to such questions usually quickly reveal whether it’s right to speak up or keep my mouth shut. The challenge is learning to slow down and examine one’s thoughts closely enough to ask such questions before saying something regrettable.

This Pentecost, let us pray that God would grant us the grace of increasingly tamed tongues:

Set a guard, O Lord, over our mouths, and keep watch over the doors of our lips.  Purge us of idle talk and fill us with your Holy Spirit that we may speak with soberness, humility, patience, and love. Tame our tongues as we yield them to your control, in order that you would be glorified, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

I’m on vacation right now. But for my spring vacation, I chose to attend the Festival of Faith & Writing at Calvin College. Yes, it’s a conference, and perhaps not the first place others might choose to spend their vacation.  But it’s truly feeling like a vacation for me, not least because the theme of rest keeps coming up.

Yesterday, I attended a workshop by novelist Carey Wallace about the connection between rest and creativity. Then this morning, I went to hear Ann Voskamp, who spoke also about the importance of slowing down in order to be creative. Both Wallace and Voskamp identified fear as an obstacle to rest and to creativity. As I contemplated these things this afternoon, a poem emerged. It’s the first poem I’ve written in months, partially because I haven’t slowed down enough until now. Here it is:

Slow to See

For those who slow to see, all this globe is glass to God. – Ann Voskamp

we are slow to see,
slow to perceive, so
seeing we do not see
and hearing we do not hear.
slow.
and dumb.
muted by the speedy rush
hustle, chatter, and noise,
we are wordless
when called upon
to speak words or Word.
all too quick to look
to ten thousand distractions
and not to one truth
immediately present.

we must rest.
rest to hear the unforced thought
to receive grace which grasping cannot grab
we must slow to see
slow down, pause, linger.
fear not the quiet
fear not the stillness
fear not the Stranger
who approaches, who speaks, who shines
to those who slow to see.