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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.)

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“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.

The past month has been incredibly busy for me: a week-long denominational event at the end of September, two other retreats, an upcoming trip out of town. This has meant little time for blogging here. But I’ve still been doing lots of writing, including four posts which have been (or will be) published elsewhere this month. Here they are:

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.

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.