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“Come, the Alone to the alone, because I am alone, as you see!” – from St. Symeon the New Theologian’s “Mystical Prayer” invoking the Holy Spirit –

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Solitude used to come easy to me. I’m enough of an introvert that even as a child I preferred spending hours staring at a world atlas to playing outside ot looking for new friends. When I went to seminary and started out in ministry, I was encouraged by mentors and professors to seek out solitude. By drawing close to God when alone, I was told, we experience healing from the wounds of ministry, freedom from the temptation to perpetually please people, and clarification of our vocation. Most importantly, solitude lets us attend to the still small voice of the One who loves us perfectly.

Years ago I found it easier to make space to be alone with the Alone. I had a group of friends who believed the same things and supported one another in taking regular retreats, sharing what we were learning about prayer, solitude, silence, and Sabbath. My stage in life back then gave me more freedom to practice Sabbath and take retreats. And then life happened.

Nearly one year into my second pastorate, I’m noticing that I have a new, less easy relationship with solitude. Several things have changed. I’ve been married for twelve years and have been a parent for four and a half of those years. I’ve become accustomed to having little to no solitude at home. Chatter, interruptions, crying, and laughter perforate any sense of continuity or concentration I could have at home. As any parent knows, this cacophony can be hilarious and joyful at one moment and agonizing at the next. This has been the new normal for a while, so long in fact that when I am given an afternoon at home alone my first impulse is to clean or do laundry or fix one of the dozen things on our list of projects. Hence the paucity of posts on this blog recently, and why I’ll finish this post after I install a new shower-head in our children’s bathroom. . . .

Several days later, I’m back. Another difference: While there’s less solitude at home now, I have more solitude at work than in recent years. I’m new enough in Berthoud that I’m not overwhelmed by relationships wherever I turn. This is great for being an introvert, but it’s not the same as solitude. In pastoral work it can actually produce a loneliness to which I’m unaccustomed. In Pittsburgh it seemed impossible for me to be lonely: I had a co-pastor, co-workers in my other jobs, a network of friends and colleagues, and of course my family. In Colorado, I’m a solo pastor, and while I’m slowly becoming friends with other local pastors, it’s quite different than when we all went to seminary together and ended up staying within a 15 mile radius. Perhaps this is why last week I went to a local pastor’s gathering and found myself uncharacteristically (and counter-productively) anxious for people to like me.  This happened only minutes after I told a friend on the phone that I don’t feel lonely here. Perhaps I’m wrong.

All of this – the clamor of home life, the incomplete solitude of work, and the anxious worry about what others think – all this means it’s time for a retreat to authentic solitude. So next week I’m going camping by myself. And I’m going camping in mountain and desert terrains because I need to let go for a few days. In the language of both the desert fathers and Ignatius of Loyola, I need to practice detachment.

Belden Lane argues that the characteristic detachment of desert spirituality owes in large degree to the terrain itself. But it’s not because the landscape is calm or soothing, or so beautiful that we forget about our other cares. It’s because the land itself doesn’t care about us. In Lane’s words, “We suppose arid and empty terrain to be naturally solicitous of our human need for contemplation. But the stark, unsettling truth is that the desert doesn’t give a damn. Its capacity for indifference seems almost infinite.” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes  p. 187)Deserts and mountains and oceans remind us how small we are, how immense God is, and how little our petty distractions truly matter.

Every day in Berthoud, I look up at Long’s Peak and Mount Meeker (in the middle of the large picture above) and I marvel at their changing appearances. One day they’re covered in snow, the next day I see cracks opening up and gray rock exposed as the snow melts. One minute it’s clear and the peaks are completely visible. Soon clouds have blown in and appear to be dancing around and between the mountains. Sometimes they’re glowing from the sunrise, or backlit by a fiery sunset. All the worries and cares of daily life are like these changing conditions. The have subtle effects on the mountains, but little change actually happens. Erosion, rock-slides, avalanches, and other factors change mountains, but they take millennia to completely change a landscape.

That’s why Martin Laird, in his book Into the Silent Land, invites us identify with the mountains. God, through the Incarnation of the Son of God and the gift of the Holy Spirit, dwells within us. When we detach from the world through contemplative prayer or other ascetic disciplines, we dive deeper into the center of our being where the unmovable God dwells. So Laird writes “The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God. . . . . When the mind is brought to stillness we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain” (p. 16). To put it in Biblical terms, “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever” (Psalm 125:1).

So, after a coaching visit to a new worshiping community in northeastern Wyoming this weekend, I’m going into solitude. I plan to spend a couple days in the Badlands of South Dakota and maybe in the Medicine Bow Wilderness of Wyoming. Then the plan (so I think) is to reenter the world gently, first by attending another retreat hosted by the Presbytery of Wyoming’s Sabbath Center with a few friends and colleagues. And then I’ll be home to family and church and life in the newest normal. Your prayers would be appreciated. I look forward to sharing both the fruit and the failures of this foray into solitude.

When I heard the news that Phyllis Tickle passed away Sept. 22, 2015, I wondered what office of prayer she had just completed. I imagine that a woman who led so many into deeper practices of prayer would surely pass into the fullness of the Kingdom by way of prayer. In her own prayer-book, the Vespers office for the night before she died included a hymn with these words: “So when the world is at its end / And Christ to judgment shall descend, / May we be called those joys to see / Prepared for all eternity.” The refrain for that Vespers service: “Let the faithful rejoice in triumph; let them be joyful on their beds.”[1] By grace we trust that Phyllis now sees those joys with the Church Triumphant.

Tickle was the founding religion editor at Publisher’s Weekly and a prolific author, but her influence on the Church extended far beyond books. She supported and sponsored many voices in the emerging church movement, lending credibility to a phenomenon that others regarded with suspicion. She used her publishing savvy to bolster budding authors and bring fresh voices to the Christian publishing market. But her greatest contribution to the Church was how she taught a new generation of Christian leaders to pray in a very old way.

The one conversation I had with Phyllis took place with a group of other Pittsburgh pastors at a local bar after she spoke at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary’s Summer Leadership Conference in 2012. [2] After the table had talked about the paradigm shifts affecting our culture and the Church for quite a while, I offered a quick interjection: “Phyllis, thank you for The Divine Hours.” She lit up. Then with joy she recounted the story behind her greatest works.

The Divine Hours was Phyllis’ biggest writing project – a series of prayer books revolving around the practice of fixed-hour prayer. Long maintained by the monastic wing of the Church, fixed-hour prayer involves pausing to pray at specific, predetermined times throughout the day. The early Church inherited this practice through its Jewish roots. Psalm 119:164 says “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws” and this verse was taken quite literally in Jesus’ day. By the time of the Apostles, praying liturgical prayers up to seven times a day was a common practice in Jewish religion, and the Apostles maintained such practices even after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Acts 3:1 shows Peter and John going to the temple “at the time of prayer – at three in the afternoon.” Peter and Cornelius are practicing fixed-hour prayer in Acts 10 when they receive the revelations that lead to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Church.

In the history of the Church, these have been systematized in various ways by different traditions. A simple list of some of the key hours includes (1) Vespers – 6:00 p.m., (2) Compline – Before Sleep, (3) Midnight or the Night Watch, (4) First Hour or “Prime” – 6:00 a.m., ( 5) Third Hour or “Terce” – 9:00 a.m., (6) Sixth Hour or “Sext” – Noon, and (7) Ninth Hour or “None” – 3:00 p.m. An attentive person will notice that the prescribed prayers for certain times often refer to biblical events which occurred at those hours. For example, many Third Hour prayers ask the Holy Spirit to fall upon us as a Pentecost. Ninth hour prayers may ask that our sin would be crucified with Christ. When practiced regularly, fixed-hour prayer becomes a way of weaving the story of Jesus and the Church into our daily lives, increasing our attentiveness to God and our sense of identification with Christ and the Apostles.

In that conversation three years ago, Phyllis told us the story of how her publisher invited her to write the series of prayer books. She prayed the hours regularly for years before compiling The Divine Hours, and the series thus flowed out of the deep well of her own prayer life and experience. She maintained the rhythm even when at work during the day, often leaving her office to go to the bathroom for privacy when it was time to pray. When her editor approached her with the idea for a book on fixed-hour prayer, she asked why she’d been chosen for such a task. The editor responded with a statement like, “We figured you either had the most regular bladder of any human being, or you were praying.”

By writing The Divine Hours, Phyllis opened up the practice to a whole new audience. Many were transformed by adopting this new rhythm of prayer. When other prayer books could quickly become stale, The Divine Hours offered fresh sets of seven offices for each day of each season of the year, with each prayer painstakingly selected by Phyllis. When other prayer books felt clumsy to operate, The Divine Hours arranged all the prayers and readings one needed for a given office on one page.

Ken Wilson, a Vineyard pastor in Ann Arbor, Mich., wrote about the Divine Hours: “I was able to relax with this kind of prayer. It didn’t depend as much on my state of mind or my feelings of spirituality at the time of prayer. It felt like dipping my canoe into a river of prayer that has been flowing since the time of Abraham.”[3] Wilson was so enlivened by the practice that he convinced Phyllis to let his church post a regularly updated version of the Divine Hours on their website.

If I had one more opportunity to speak to Phyllis, I would offer a similar gesture of gratitude. But it would be phrased a bit differently, in recognition of the growing effect which her work has had on me: “Thank you, Phyllis, for teaching me to pray.”

This post originally appeared on the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary Blog.

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[1] Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours (Volume One): Prayers for Summertime: A Manual for Prayer (New York: Image 2000) p. 571

[2] Videos of Phyllis’s presentations at the Summer Leadership Conference are available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNuifQCVOd4.

[3] Ken Wilson, Jesus Brand Spirituality: He Wants His Religion Back (Nashville: Thomas Nelson 2008) p. 119

It’s a long story. It’s been over five years since I naïvely posted here that I was thinking and praying about church-planting. I had some clue then that this venture would stretch me, that I was stepping into a situation which God would use to refine and teach and discipline me. But I had no idea what would be the hardest disciplines to receive, or how the Sovereign Teacher would structure such lessons. Least of all did I expect patience to be something I would learn need to learn from the supposedly fast-paced work of starting a new worshiping community.

For example, in November of 2009, Upper Room moved into a storefront space in Squirrel Hill. By the middle of 2010, we were talking with our property manager about expanding into part of the vacant Squirrel Hill Theater, adjacent to our current space. This week, after nearly three years of debating, bargaining, consulting with lawyers and architects, applying for zoning variances, and no small amount of prayer, we will sign the paperwork giving us the right to expand. Three years. At times, I wondered if it would take 40 years, as though God were leading us through a wilderness before allowing us to enter some sort of Promised Land. But now it’s happening. We’re moving on to the next step.

If you want to read more about why and how we’re expanding, you can do so here, and if the Lord nudges your heart to support our expansion, an easy way to do so is by giving online here.  But, lest talk of the building distract us from the spiritual lesson here, my point is that God has used this experience to force me to grow in patience. He’s used the seeming futility of some of our past work on this to remind me to “number my days” (Psalm 90:12). I only have a short time to live, and I should use it wisely, but I should also remember that little I accomplish will outlive me on this earth. What bears fruit that lasts for eternity is the sanctification which God works in us through the ordinary trials of our days and years.

This leads me to think that patience is a matter of eternal perspective. The Apostle Peter told first-century Christians to be patient in waiting for the new heavens and the new earth Christ promised. “Regard the patience of our Lord as salvation,” Peter wrote (2 Peter 3:15 NASB). It’s as though Peter meant, “Relax, Jesus is giving us more time!”  We’re not ready for Him yet. We need more time to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (3:18). More time for us to grow in love and holiness, more time for us to submit wholly to His will, more time for us to repent. We can’t be prepared for eternity overnight.

As far as building projects go, the three years we’ve waited to move ahead with this expansion seem slow in today’s fast-paced culture of instant gratification. But the decades or centuries that it took to build some of Europe’s great cathedrals reflect the patience which grows from viewing life in light of eternity. Yesterday, while telling me of his recent trip to Spain, my co-pastor Mike suggested that the reason such cathedrals aren’t built in our age isn’t for lack of resources. It’s because we lack the patience to wait decades to see the fruit of our labor, or even worse, to spend our lives toiling for an end we may not live to see.  To labor long for an end one cannot see requires faith in something bigger than oneself, and hope that such faith will be rewarded. I’m thrilled that we’re moving forward with this expansion into the theater, but I’m much more impressed by the virtues behind the cathedrals.

Though I’m short on patience, this perspective does give me hope. Not necessarily hope that I’ll accomplish great things in my remaining years, but rather the hope that comes from knowing God’s not finished with me yet. A lot has happened in five years, but how much will happen in fifty? Thomas á Kempis  wrote in the Imitation of Christ that “If every year we would root out one vice, we should soon become perfect men” (Bk I, Ch. XI). It’s taking me much longer than a year to root out impatience, but if the Lord has used this short season to accomplish what He has, how much more more will God do in a lifetime? The Apostle Paul wrote that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). God will complete the work the Holy Spirit’s doing both in and through me, and my family, and my church. And while He does, I pray for the grace to “wait patiently for the Lord” until I can say with finality that “he brought me up out of the pit of destruction, out of the miry clay” (Psalm 40:1-2).

Fifteen weeks have passed since my world was turned upside-down by the birth of our daughter. She has brought much joy and laughter to our life, but  I can also see why my friend Jen described having children as a ruining of life. Our routines were upended. Patterns of life I had taken for granted dissolved into disorder. Every day brought temptations of frustration, anger, tiredness. At times I event got angry at God for taking away my rest, my solitude, and my time for reading or running or writing. But we’ve survived, and this post is about how I’ve learned to accept such change as a gift from the hand of God.

On Maundy Thursday, I wrote my first meaningful blogpost from this season of life (“Learn of Jesus Christ to Pray“). It was a meditation on praying for the will of God to be done, rather than our own, because, simply put, God knows better. So we pray as Jesus taught, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven . . .” But it’s easier prayed than lived, especially when earth does not feel the least bit like heaven.

One day during my paternity leave, Eileen and I stopped at a used bookstore in Bloomfield. While perusing the selection, I came across a copy of Fr. Walter Ciszek’s book He Leadeth Me. Immediately, I intuitively knew I should read it. This is one way the Holy Spirit speaks to me: I simply know sometimes when I’m supposed to do something. And this time the message was clear: Read this book. So, for more than two months the Lord has led me through this beautiful testimony, using it to both rebuke and encourage me.

He Leadeth Me recounts Ciszek’s experience in the prisons and slave labor camps of Communist Russia. He had been serving as a priest in Poland when World War II began and Ciszek was captured by the Russians and accused of being a spy for the Vatican. After years of solitary confinement and regular interrogations, Ciszek was sent to perform hard labor in Siberia for two decades. Ciszek’s point, repeated on nearly every page of the book, is that he survived by receiving everything that happened to him as part of God’s providence. Instead of questioning why he was sent to Siberia, he rejoices that he could bear witness to Christ in the midst of a seemingly godless setting. Instead of bemoaning the difficulties of his back-breaking and exhausting slavery, he commits to doing all his work for the glory of God. Ciszek constantly kept in mind the humble life and agonizing death of Jesus Christ, trusting that “God has not asked of us anything more tedious, more tiring, more routine and humdrum, more unspectacular, than God himself has done” (p. 103). 

What enabled Ciszek to do this, he says, is receiving everything that came to him as the will of God. Though he once had believed God’s will was “out there” and his role was “to discover what it was and then conform my will to that,” Ciszek’s experience taught him otherwise. He began to realize:

“the situations in which I found myself . . . were his will for me. What he wanted was for me to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go of the reins and place myself entirely at his disposal. He was asking of me an act of total trust, allowing for no interference or restless striving on my part, no reservations, no exceptions, no areas where I could set conditions or seem to hesitate. He was asking a complete gift of self, nothing held back” (p. 76).

To accept these situations as from God’s hands. To accept a baby screaming continually in the middle of the night as from God’s hands. To accept weariness and weakness and the relinquishment of certain pleasures as from God’s hands. To accept the lack of time to read or write or exercise as from God’s hands. To accept even the total upheaval of my devotional life as from God’s hands.

It sounds absurd to compare the limitations and challenges of parenthood to Siberian labor camps, but this is exactly the comparison that Ciszek invites. He writes in the introduction that he wanted to share his story of confidence in God’s providence so that he would encourage others in the forms of suffering and difficulties they experience. The principle he wishes to teach remains the same in any context: accepting our present situation as a manifestation of God’s will can have a sanctifying influence on us: “For each of us, salvation means no more and no less than taking up daily the same cross of Christ, accepting each day what it brings as the will of God, offering back to God each morning all the joys, works, and sufferings of that day” (p. 96).

It does not matter what the particular joys, works, or sufferings are. In many cases, they will be ordinary, humble moments in our days, “the routine, not the spectacular.” That invitation to receive the ordinary and routine as God’s will for me has changed the way I think about most of what I do. Diaper changes, laundry, and entertaining an infant are now significant parts of my life because they are God’s will for me in this season. It’s not spectacular, and I’m guessing God wants to use that to teach me humility.  My pride wants me to accomplish so many different things, but God’s will for this season was exactly what I have before me. So, may God’s will, however ordinary and mundane it may feel, however humble it requires me to become, be done.

Tomorrow’s Ash Wednesday. At my congregation’s service in the morning, I will smear ashes on the foreheads of a number of friends and congregation members.  For some, this practice will be new, something that the churches in which they were raised rejected, calling it “too Catholic.” I find such objections puzzling, particularly because in my observations, whenever Protestants get serious about learning to pray, we end up looking to Catholics and Orthodox to teach us how. For a few examples: I join a group of other Presbyterian pastors every month at a Catholic monastery where we receive spiritual instruction from an older priest. My Presbyterian seminary offers a certificate program in spiritual direction based on the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola. Most non-denominational writers I’ve read eventually end up quoting at least one of the great saints of the Roman Church.

As one such Protestant who likes to learn from Catholics, I was delighted to receive a review copy of a new book from Paraclete press: Catholic Spiritual Practices: A Treasury of Old & NewEdited by Colleen Griffith and Thomas Groome, of Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center, this short book is a collection of essays on various spiritual practices which some might think of as distinctively Roman Catholic. I say some because many of the practices included are common to all Christians. The essay on The Lord’s Prayer, for example, was written by N. T. Wright and highlights the small “c” catholicity of the practices described here. Joseph Wong’s chapter on the Jesus Prayer describes a practices that’s more commonly associated with Eastern Orthodoxy than with the Roman Church.

Coming to the book from a Presbyterian background, I was especially curious to read the chapters on practices which I used consider distinctively Roman. Most such chapters did not disappoint. Groome’s chapter on the Rosary explained the practice and its historical development very concisely and accessibly.  Brian Daley’s personal description of the practice of Eucharistic Adoration was also illuminating. My favorite chapter of the entire book, though, was Esther de Waal’s essay called “Living the Sacramental Principle.”  In a narrative description of Celtic spirituality, de Waal shows how devotion to Christ can permeate even the most mundane elements of life.  These five pages are worth the price of the whole book. In fact, it could be the point of the whole book. This tiny collection of essays describes itself as a treasury of practices, meaning “consciously chosen, intentional actions” which express and shape our lives of faith (p. 5). When one faithfully practices such practices, one is changed, having acted one’s way into a new way of thinking and being. A life spent practicing some of the disciplines described in this book is exactly how one can cultivate a sacramental worldview, “letting heaven break through,” as de Waal writes, to “let the mundane become the edge of glory, and find the extraordinary in the ordinary” (p. 67).

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what I’m learning from expecting the birth of our first child. Given that the timing of this birth coincides so neatly with the season of Advent, waiting for Baby Brown is teaching me a lot about the watchfulness that Jesus expects his followers to have in hope of His return.

That was a month ago. Now the due date is less than two weeks away. And we’re still expectant. Still waiting. And waiting. It’s getting harder to concentrate on other things. Optional work (like blogging) has taken a backseat to preparations for Baby. I’m finding hard to be motivated to do or think about anything other than Baby’s arrival. It’s tempting to shrug off other responsibilities because of the much larger responsibility that’s about to burst into our life: There’s a baby on the way.

This means that when I read the epistle appointed for today in the daily lectionary, I thought “I get it.” The passage is 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18. The Thessalonians, to whom the Apostle is writing, had a problem with idleness. Though Paul doesn’t say why there are so many “living in idleness,” one interpretation suggests that their idleness was an expression of belief in the Second Coming.  Expecting the imminent return of the Lord, some of the Thessalonians had gone so far as to quit their jobs. The perceived nearness of the end meant for them that the normal rules of life no longer applied. Rather than preparing with due diligence for the return of the Lord, these Thessalonians were sleeping and letting their resources run out (cf. Matt. 25:1-13).

The Greek word which is translated “idleness” here is ataktos, which also means “undisciplined.” In military settings, ataktos described soldiers who weren’t prepared for duty.  While others from the Thessalonian church were eagerly going about the work Christ had called them to, this group was AWOL. But the Apostle Paul is clear that this idleness is the direct opposite of watchfulness. Instead of living in idleness, he commands them to get a job (v. 12). Paul points to his own example of laboring with his own hands while ministering to the Thessalonians. Paul expressed his hope in Christ’s return through eagerly working to proclaim the Gospel, not by retiring early.

True watchfulness manifests itself in eagerness to do the work one is called to. As the bumper sticker says, “Jesus is Coming Back – Look Busy.” More seriously, living in hope of Christ’s return should lead us to take both our work and our spiritual disciplines more seriously. One doesn’t prepare for the Lord’s return by sleeping-in.  One prepares through prayer, vigil-keeping, fasting. If one expects a new world to come, one begins to practice detachment from the things of this world. And if one really believes that the Advent of the Lord has universal significance, then one would work to share that hope with others.

So I’m trying to prepare for our personal advent with watchfulness, with the discipline of a soldier still on duty. I’m preaching on the 23rd, and yes I’m already writing that sermon.  I’m coordinating a Service of Wholeness and Healing at Upper Room that night, and today I hope to send out the final draft of the liturgy for it. Later this morning, I’ll be helping my co-pastor write liturgies for services which I may not even attend. This is a spiritual discipline, teaching me to be expectant with watchfulness and faithfulness, training me to “not grow weary of doing good.” (2 Thess. 3:13 NASB).

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.