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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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Two weekends ago, I was on vacation in Colorado. More specifically, I was at the Planet Bluegrass Folks Festival. It was a beautiful end to a restful week in my home state. Good food, good beer, good music, good friends and family. And, during the lazy afternoons at the music festival, time to read a good book.

One of the two books I brought along on vacation was Peace Be With You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World. David Carlson, the author, shares throughout the book stories of visits he made to Christian monasteries in America, interviewing monks and nuns and see how they responded to September 11th. Carlson was searching for, and found, examples of more Christlike responses to 9/11 than were ever heard in the American media in the wake of the attack. I’ll save the message on loving our enemies for later. For now I’m concerned about one particular quote from one of the visits (which, incidentally, was with an artist, and not a monk).

Sitting in the afternoon sun at the Folks Festival, I read about Carlson’s encounter with Richard Bresnahan, a potter who was then working in a studio at the Benedictine affiliated St. John’s College in Minnesota.  Recalling Bresnahan’s comments on the American lifestyle, Carlson wrote:

As evidence of our falsity, he cited the modern preoccupation of being “true to one’s self,” a goal far different from the traditional understanding of integrity.  “If you’re going to be ‘true to yourself.’ that’s that hollow voice yelling in a soundless cave. If you’re going to be true to others, your self is understood.” For Bresnahan, integrity is not being loyal to one’s own narcissistic whims, but being loyal to that which brings balance to human community life. (pp. 192-193)

I was struck by Bresnahan’s insight that integrity is about being faithful to others, not being “true to one’s self.” Though the book doesn’t portrays his religious views as explicitly Christian, Bresnahan was articulating a fundamental Christian truth. Our selves are frankly deceitful. As the Biblical prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 NASB). Because we’re naturally given to self-interest and self-preservation, being “true to ourselves” may just be a euphemism for “being selfish.” If this deceitful heart is the “self” to which we should be true, how will we ever survive the fickleness of our emotions?

How should our “self” is defined: in an individualistic way, or in terms of social relationships?  Should I, as Chris, seek to be “true to Chris”? That sounds vague because it is vague.  It gives no way to determine what integrity looks like apart from a general appeal to my own feelings. A better way of defining who I am is through my commitments to others: I should be true to who I am as a husband, a (soon-to-be) father, a pastor, a writer, a friend, a son, etc. That gives concrete meaning to what integrity should look like in my life. And it means that a faithful search for integrity should include a healthy measure of self-doubt, humility, and willingness to submit to those to whom I’m committed. When our vision of integrity is about being true to our own subjective definitions of our selves, we’re little more than slaves to our own desires. But if our “self” is defined by virtue of our real relationships to others, and the gifts we’ve been given for the sake of loving and serving others, then being true to our selves is the same as being true to others.

But too often in our culture, being true to one’s self is reduced to obedience to one’s own emotions or desires. Back at the Folks Festival, later that night, I heard a different message through the loudspeakers at the festival.  Lyle Lovett was singing “Isn’t That So”, a song whose chorus goes, “Isn’t that so / Tell me, isn’t that so / You got to go when your heart says go / Isn’t that so.”  I enjoy listening to Lyle, but I get sad when the song says “Let that line of least resistance lead me on.”  The line of least resistance is usually the line which tells us to follow our own fleshly desires. And those desires are exactly what the song calls us to indulge: “Well, he [God] knew what he was doin’ / When he put eyes into my head / If he didn’t want me to lookin’ at them pretty little women / He’d’a left my ol’ eyeballs dead.”

Yes, God gave us the gifts of beauty and the sight to apprehend beauty. But to turn recognition of such gifts into a theological justification of lust is the sort of demonic distortion of the good which lies behind all sin. Jesus, who knew what He was doing in giving sight to the blind, had different words to say about the promiscuity of our eyes: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:28-29). I do not hear Jesus calling us to “go when our hearts say go.” But I do hear Jesus calling us to a radical commitment to integrity, defined not by our own whims, but by submission to His Lordship and fidelity to the relationships in which He’s placed us.  “The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).

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.