Archive

Tag Archives: Spiritual Disciplines

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.

_

[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.

Every day millions of sights and sounds compete for our attention. Surrounded by stimulation from smartphones, computers, televisions, and billboards – not to mention any ordinary human interactions – most of us passively receive this onslaught of information. As we do, we miss the voice of the One who calls out and reveals himself to us in the midst of the world. Somewhere in the midst of the noise, the “still small voice” speaks. What do we hear?

Thankfully, Richard Peace has written a book to help us learn how to be attentive to God’s presence and voice in the midst of this cacophony.  The book is called Noticing Godand IVP sent me a copy to review several weeks ago.  And I am thankful, not just for the free copy of the book, but much more for the lessons it taught me about disciplining my mind to cultivate gratitude for God’s work in my life.

Peace’s book is a challenge to take active control over our attention, to deliberately try to notice God’s presence and activity in and around us. He writes, “God’s presence pervades our world. God is not hiding. The problem is with us. We don’t know where to look or what to expect. We do not seem to notice.  We need to learn to notice”  (p.14). Learning to notice God, for Peace, is a spiritual discipline, a practice we can adopt in order to be more receptive to the Holy Spirit’s transforming power. Each chapter of Noticing God addresses a different venue in which we can cultivate the skill of noticing God: in ordinary life, in Scripture, in community, in creation, in culture. Some of these chapters read too much like an overview to go deeply into their subject matter. For example, the chapter on noticing God in the Church only gives a page and a half to the subject of Eucharist.  Entire books could (and should) be written on how to “notice God” in the sacraments.  But the point of this book is not to provide detailed theological discussions of how God is present to us. Peace’s objective is to encourage us to slow down, open our eyes, and look for God, and each chapter contains plenty of suggestions for how to do this.

My personal favorite parts of the book came from Peace’s engagement with Ignatian tradition. Peace writes that “At the heart of Ignatian spirituality is the principle of finding God in all things” (p. 38), and this desire to see God in all things is what drives the book forward. One part of Igantian spirituality which Peace opened up to me in a new way is the prayer of examen, a disciplined reflection upon the prior events of one’s day.  The method of examen which he describes in pages 41-43 begins with reflecting on the previous 24 hours and noticing all the gifts and blessings God provided during that time. Thankful for these blessings, one then reflects on the same period of time, asking where God seemed most present. Then one moves to confession, acknowledging sins and failures to the loving God who nonetheless provided the blessings noticed earlier. Learning to begin examen by recalling blessings was particularly helpful for me, revealing to me multiple occasions for gratitude which I would otherwise have missed.

Peace’s goal, however, was not just to open our eyes to God’s presence through traditional spiritual disciplines.  He wants us to look at the world around us with eyes that attend to God’s presence and activity.  While seeing evidence for God in the beauty of creation is nothing new, Peace’s chapter on “Creation, Culture and Creativity” demonstrates the ways in which human cultures both reveal God’s glory and our human hunger for transcendence. This chapter is especially worthwhile because of its missional significance.  When we cultivate an ability to see both God and humanity’s hunger for God revealed in cultural artifacts such as music or film, our ability to connect the Gospel to people’s lives increases. We become like the Apostle Paul, citing Greek poets when evangelizing in Athens (Acts 17:22-34). We can practice the “spiritual discipline of noticing God” not just for our own sanctification, but for the sake of inviting others into the Kingdom of God.