Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A picture of Advent.

“It is said that the door to the stable where the Christ-child has been born is very low – and only those who kneel find access.”
-Celtic Daily Prayer

My home is in the most convenient of places, within walking distance of a grocery store, theatre, an astonishing amount of cafes, restaurants, ice cream joints, banks, bakeries, and pizza parlors. I don’t collect records, but if I did, there is a place a couple blocks from my house that would constantly be tugging me to spend hours there (Thank you Amish roots for my imbedded reluctance towards technology!). Two blocks from my house is a library. And nearby is a post office. Oh, and there are like five dry cleaning businesses. And apart from the 2 Starbucks’, the majority of these are locally owned businesses. Along with the many businesses, there are tons of religious institutions. From a Jewish Community center right across the street from my house, to dozens of churches and synagogues within a nice stroll from my temporary home.

As my host and new friend, Jill, has recently explained, the intersection of Forbes and Murray Avenue is the “center of the universe”, at least for her. And I, too, find myself becoming more and more comfortable with this little nook in Pittsburgh. It’s how I explain where I live. Sometimes I’ll use it as a place to meet up. I’m even tempted to theorize about how I’ve become oriented to life here in Pittsburgh through and in relation to this hub of society. That theory will take some time, so for now I’ll just explain something I’ve been noticing.

My walk to work, church, and any of the above mentioned places brings me past a couple bus stops. But there is one in particular that is usually heavily populated. And now that winter has arrived with its unpleasant winds and lazy grey colors, these bus stops are full of people bundled up, often with eyes squinting and arms crossed furiously.

Unlike these folks, I don’t stop and wait with the others. Instead, I try to mingle through the pack and awkwardly sneak with little grace through the people and past the bus stop. Sometimes, I bump shoulders with a stranger. I mumble a “my bad” and make eye contact for just long enough to say, “I’m sorry”, with my eyes. Sometimes passing through the bus stop is an awkward experience where I try to offer a friendly smile and am met with grunts and apathetic responses. And understandably, these people are waiting in the cold.

Other times, however, as I emerge from the crowded bus stop at four in the afternoon, I am fighting back a huge smile because the freezing people are laughing together. I don’t know them, but the two older women sitting on the bench seem awesome. These people are warmer somehow than the others. And understandably, these people are laughing.

I like reminders. Maybe that explains my iCal that’s terribly detailed, even if it’s full of things that don’t deserve a spot on there. Like “nap” or “pick nose”. Just kidding. But it’s almost that bad. But one of the reasons I put everything on my calendar is because I like being reminded.

It’s good to be reminded. And maybe it’s because my mother is a “scrapbooker” (picture my whole family posing for Kodak moments during any and every possible situation), but I think pictures can help us remember. And the bus stop offers a couple pictures of waiting… those who are suffering in the cold and those who are laughing in spite of it. Maybe it matters how we wait. Maybe we can learn from these pictures of the waiting people.

Another picture of waiting is Advent – the time before Christmas when the Church is encouraged to prepare for the birth of Jesus. And our Celtic Daily Prayer book contains a beautiful evening blessing that speaks from within this season:
God of the watching ones,
give us your benediction.

God of the waiting ones,
give us your good word for our souls.

If Advent is a time for waiting and if it matters how we wait then what should the church look like during this season? How should Christians get ready for Christmas? What words, pictures, images, ideas, and actions should be a part of this season?

What is a picture of Advent?

To steal another nugget of goodness from the prayer book – this Advent season “our thoughts are focused not just on letters, cards and presents, but on repentance, humbling and interior ‘housecleaning’.” Housecleaning? Wait! That is another picture that can help us remember… Every morning, WCD participants pray this:
One thing I have asked of the Lord,
this is what I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life;
to behold the beauty of the Lord
and to seek Him in His temple.

A temple. A house. These buildings are places where God is. Where the creator of the universe comes and rests. A place where the Divine makes his home. A place where the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob comes, lives, and works. God has a home.

And we are called to do housecleaning. Where is that house? Does that mean we have to go clean the church pews or help clean the flannel graphs in the Sunday school rooms? I’m learning that we are the house of God. We are the space where God dwells. I think our bodies are the buildings for God. What a concept. What a picture!

Advent is a season of waiting and preparation. And in light of the monastic readings that the WCD community has been going through, the waiting for Jesus ought to involve attentiveness and watchfulness. We ought to humbly examine ourselves, for we are the places in which God dwells.

I’d like to imagine that the church is a bus stop that many are forced to walk through and awkwardly mingle past. And so the question comes, what will these people see? What picture will they see?

“It is said that the door to the stable where the Christ-child has been born is very low – and only those who kneel find access.”

May we kneel low through an “interior housecleaning” and be a picture of Advent.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Today I believe.

One thing that unites the participants of the WCD program is prayer, a particular kind of prayer called the daily office. Now, after doing a little research (aka. Pressing command-spacebar on my computer and immediately being shown the definition) I can tell you that an “Office”, in religious terms, is a series of psalms of prayers said by people of the Christian faith. And so by adding “Daily” on the front we get a habitual saying of prayers and psalms, you guessed it, daily. Although we don’t have a fixed time or hour that we say these prayers (like 8 a.m. or exactly noon), we do have 3 general timeframes - morning, midday, and evening. Within each of these “Offices”, or planned times of prayer, there are a mixture of written prayers, scripture readings, devotional type lessons, and time for any prayers we may want to address that relate to our situation that day. The evening prayer has a section that is labeled “Expressions of faith” that I have found increasingly beautiful:

Lord, You have always given
bread for the coming day;
and though I am poor,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always given
strength for the coming day;
and though I am weak,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always given
peace for the coming day;
and though of anxious heart,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always kept me
safe in trials;
and now, tried as I am,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always marked
the road for the coming day;
and though it may be hidden,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always lightened
this darkness of mine;
and though the night is here,
today I believe.

Lord, You have always spoken
when time was ripe;
and though you be silent now,
today I believe.

I love this part of the office because it covers a variety of experiences. Some I can relate to and others, it seems, I struggle to fit into what I’ve come across that day. I mean, honestly, when I say this prayer most every night there are plenty of times that I get caught up at the very beginning with the “and though I am poor” part. I can’t help but think, “I’m not poor”. Yeah, I have a gross amount of student debt starting to demand repayment and I don’t own (or rent) my own place… but I am filthy rich. I eat whenever I want. I have too many clothes to count – I have shoes that go unused for months at a time. I drive a nice car with which my biggest complaint regards the heated seats not working…. life is rough, right? All that to say, there are times when the “Expressions of faith” section in our evening prayers seem a little odd.

But there are also sections in that prayer that seem just right. The bit about “and though the night is here” makes sense every time I read it. Normally, I’m sitting in my bedroom around five-thirty praying through these expressions, and when I get to this part, “Lord, You have always lightened this darkness of mine; and though the night is here, today I believe” I can’t help but look out my window and notice the sun fading away. This prayer makes so much sense in that moment because I can literally see darkness and light being mixed up in the sky. The prayer is very powerful because the transition between day and night is taking place and I can see it, I can see it.

What I’m learning through this prayer is that there is great power in habitually acknowledging that God will, “lighten this darkness of mine”, that the night will end and a new day will come tomorrow. I think these statements are so powerful because they express trust in the face of adversity, uncertainty, discomfort, weariness, disorientation, and loneliness. They are most definitely bold expressions of faith in God, when times are not ideal.

I’ve just recently had an “Aha!” moment with one of these lines. “Lord, You have always given strength for the coming day; and though I am weak, today I believe.” Usually when I pray through this I am thinking about various ways that my will or intellect or decision making capacity can be strengthened, not primarily my physical body. And so I kind of ignore one meaning and focus on the way that it really relates to me. But for the last three or four days I’ve had a nasty cold/flu “thing” that has reduced my life to nose blowing, hand washing, napping, soup sipping, tea drinking, Harry Potter reading (yeah…. I’m 23 years old and just now reading the books!), and reconsidering my choice to have a mustache (Let’s just say, saving food for later is gross. But saving boogers for later will keep you from having meaningful friendships). And so I've been really praying for strength.

It is the habit of reading through these expressions of faith that has allowed me to understand this prayer more fully, especially through this mild sickness where praying for strength in the midst of my tiredness is suddenly a very real prayer. And in realizing that the prayer is “real” I also come to understand that it has been “real” all along. That is to say, by praying these expressions of faith, we are in a mysterious sort of way “preparing” for those contexts, struggles, dilemmas, and situations. By expressing trust in God when things are going quite well, we are involved in a preparation for times of challenge, when our faith is most bold and difficult to articulate.

I’m very thankful right now for prayer, preparation, and Potter, Harry Potter.

A good day.

I live on Forbes Avenue, which is a pretty busy street. Even in my newness to the Burgh, I’ve noticed that it runs along some important places like the Point where the 3 rivers meet, Downtown, CMU, Pitt, and through Squirrel Hill and on into eternity-ish. Another thing I’ve noticed about Forbes, and a lot of other main roads in the city, is that street cleaning happens on a regular basis. But unlike the small towns that I’ve lived in… you can’t park your car on the road when street cleaning is scheduled, which means relocating your car during that time. Otherwise, you get a nice little surprise in the form of a parking ticket. So, I’ve made a mental note of the times in which I can’t park my car on the street. But it hasn’t really stuck yet. So as I was leaving the house the other day around 8:30 for my morning jog (which counted as the “2nd and 4th Monday of each month from 8am – noon”), I panicked. I panicked because I had forgotten the importance of the day. I was reminded of the importance, however, when I saw that many cars had a little flimsy red and white ticket wedged underneath the windshield wiper, probably from the woman in uniform who seemed to be leaving these in her path. At this point I was experiencing an embarrassing amount of panic and despair. “But wait!” As I realized that she probably had not gotten to my car yet. So I ran down to her, naively asked, “is this the 4th Monday of the month?” She nodded. So I said, “Can I still go move my car?” And her response was perfect for me because I was already in my running gear, “If you can get there before I do!” I think I cut her off midsentence and sprinted back to my house and successfully moved my car before it was ticketed. You would have thought I just found out a tumor was benign by the kind of relief I was feeling. I think I told at least a couple people the other day, “Today is a good day.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

I'm a 6th Grade Mentor!

A quick word about how WCD works:
All of the WCD participants are connected to churches in the East End of Pittsburgh, mine being the Upper Room in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Our involvement is not supposed to be primarily about the people in the local congregation, rather, my role there has been described as being a "missionary" to the neighborhood, which make the Upper Room a host for such activity, rather than possessing an intern. This structure has allowed me the time to volunteer with a couple great existing organizations and non-profit groups... 6th grade mentoring being one of those opportunities!

As my somewhat cynical neighbor Dave (which is how I address him - "Neighbor Dave") has said - you expect humanitarian and social justice groups to name their programs using acronyms and uberoptimistic phrases like, "Operation Hope" or "RESCUE". Well the mentoring program that I'm volunteering with didn't go with that plan. This citywide initiative is simply titled, the "Be a 6th Grade Mentor" program. If you don't believe me, you can inquire at bea6thgradementor.org (there's a link at the bottom of the blog). Despite the name being rather ordinary, I am lovin’ this experience so far.

For the last couple weeks I've been going to Sterrett School, a public middle school in Point Breeze, to spend an hour or so with my mentee, Marcel Young. We've discussed dreams, goals, organizational skills, favorite foods, and really just gotten to know one another. And we get snacks! Everyone likes snacks, period. I don't usually do this, but can I get an "amen"? The experience is a blast for me not only because I get to know and spend time with Marcel, but also because I get to look around at the billions of Milk mustaches posters, be startled by the end-of-the-day bell (which causes ALL of the mentors to cringe...they hate it!), listen in on the principal giving announcements over the intercom, and reminisce with other mentors about middle school things like Giga pets, wearing your backpack really low and over only one shoulder, and bowl-cuts. The mentoring program is not just fun for the students!

The BA6GM program is run by 4 different partnering agencies (similar to the United Way) and the public school systems and seeks to make a difference in the lives of kids who are at a vulnerable age. Think about it… how awkward was the 6th grade?!? For me, the 6th grade conjures up memories of getting the nickname “Bighead” for having the same size noggin as a normal 40 year old man would have, but on a 6th grade pre-puberty body, mourning the recent loss of my bowl-cut hair style (which wasn’t the best choice for someone like me with Amish relatives), and transitioning from hearing about sex in health class to hearing about older classmates trying it out for real. Oh, and I was at my fattest. Good times, eh?

Working in 8 different public schools across Pittsburgh, the Be a 6th Grade Mentor program is in its second year of operation and is spreading rapidly as it provides opportunities for kids to develop positive relationships over the course of the school year. It is this philosophy that has attracted me to volunteer here. Not only is caring for children something that Christians support, but also it’s convenient in that the commitment is the same length as my WCD commitment, and it provides a chance for me to get to know other mentors. On one hand, the program is quite the gift because Marcel and I will be able to learn from one another and I can hopefully offer a positive influence in his life, but it will also allow me to develop relationships with other people seeking to do good and offer what they can to children. Why do we give? What motivates our compassion and care? What values are held dear by those who volunteer? (Now that is a name for a group!) And what is the role of the Church in such humanitarian efforts? Questions like these are running through my head while participating in this program.

Later today, I’ll be hanging out with Marcel along with about 30 other mentor/mentee groups, and I would ask for your prayers on Wednesday’s around 4-5 pm… that I would be able to develop a helpful relationship with Marcel and the others involved in the program, and that God’s Kingdom would be furthered by these seemingly small acts.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Monastic Wisdom

As the WCD group has been reading through The Philokalia, a collection of Christian monastic writings from the 4th-10th centuries, we’ve had lively discussions about what it must have been like to be a monk back then and the relevance of their writings for today.

Is the disconnected nature of monastic life irrelevant for living in today’s world? Is their extreme asceticism too radical for us to learn from? Can we relate to that type of isolation? If so, how? I mean… some of them lived in caves. CAVES!

And the whole time we’ve been reading I have been regretting something… I wish I were more familiar with the popular television show “Monk”. Think about it! How convenient would it have been to plop in a quote by that guy who severely struggles with OCD? It’s a shame, really. This entry could have been great. Let’s try to move on.

Back to the cavemen, but not those kinds of cavemen who ride dinosaurs and carry Fred Flintstone-esque weapons. I’m talking about one of the writers in The Philokalia, Saint Mark the Ascetic, also called the Hermit, or Mark the Monk (Now that is a name!).

Saint Mark is brilliant. At least I think so. For a part of his life he lived in the desert as a hermit, which is a religious discipline that seeks solitude with God, far away from other people. There have been days where this sounds appealing, right? But let’s not idealize it… This dude gave up many good things in order to seek after God in a very particular kind of way.

Now before I share some of Saint Mark’s most profound ideas, I want to say that monks like him are interested in living a life, a certain type of life - a radically committed and converted life. I grew up in the Church. I’ve always known that Jesus loves me, and that is beautiful and a gift. But I remember going on youth retreats and singing this song with tears in my eyes. The song went like this:

I'm giving you my heart, and all that is within
I lay it all down for the sake of you my King
I'm giving you my dreams, I'm laying down my rights
I'm giving up my pride for the promise of new life

And I surrender all to you, all to you
And I surrender all to you, all to you

I'm singing You this song, I'm waiting at the cross
And all the world holds dear, I count it all as loss
For the sake of knowing You for the glory of Your name
To know the lasting joy, even sharing in Your pain

Growing up, I sang this song a lot. And my little middle-class, small town self cried and cried to this song. I felt bad for all the sins in my life. And I was genuinely touched by God’s love for me in spite of all that. But, as I sang along to the words on the projector, “I surrender all to you” (which I read through the machine made fog) in an air-conditioned room with other white kids from the Midwest, I was agreeing to surrender a couple things – lusting after pretty girls, belittling other classmates, and my Wednesday nights for weekly youth group attendance. This surrender is certainly part of my story and shouldn’t be forgotten or mocked too severely. I mean Saint Mark’s struggles included lust and anger – and need I remind you that he lived in a cave? So obviously my youth group tears meant an awful lot, but encountering the writings of Saint Mark and the other monks has encouraged me to think about surrender differently, more deeply. Saint Mark is interested in a certain kind of life, a life pursuing holiness. And he offers some insights into how we can “surrender all”.


In one of his writings, which is written to Nicolas, a fellow solitary monk, he says that we pursue holiness by being attentive to three things, three dangerous things: forgetfulness, ignorance, and laziness. Of course, I’m quite learned in the discipline of being attentive to other people’s forgetfulness. For example, some people don’t believe that time really exists, or at least that’s my diagnosis for their lateness. At this point Mark would slap me with a big wooden spoon, and remind me that this attentiveness is to be directed toward our own vices. Mark’s wisdom calls us to be attentive to the ways that forgetfulness, ignorance, and laziness leads us to be disoriented and unfaithful.

…Control of the Intellect…

Once recognized, Mark tells us to use the weapons of mindfulness (which combats forgetfulness), spiritual knowledge (that expels ignorance), and true ardour (that drives out laziness) to battle them. The language of battle might rub you the wrong way or get you supremely pumped; either way, it’s describing this process as a difficult one. He says we are to pursue holiness by “making every effort to conform to God’s will”. Every effort involves an incredible amount of control over our mind and intellect. And here is where I find Mark to be most brilliant. How do we do this? By being thankful. His wise words ask us to “continually and unceasingly” call to mind the blessings in our lives. Stop for a second. What are you thankful for? Sometimes this is an absurdly annoying question and other times we’ve been whistling happy tunes all afternoon and it seems quite natural. Saint Mark’s words cause me to imagine what life would be like if I pushed myself, through controlling my intellect, to be thankful. I mean, eventually, you’d actually get good at being thankful, and not naively and annoyingly pleasant, but truly grateful for the gift of life.

Mark says that this thankfulness, through attentiveness and controlling the intellect, instills in us a fear and love of God that moves us to repay him “as far you can, by your strict life, virtuous conduct, devout conscience, wise speech, true faith and humility – in short, by dedicating your whole self to God”.

And I surrender all to you, all to you.

How do we pursue holiness? How do we surrender? Mark’s wise words, straight from the cave, call us to live attentive and self-controlled lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and for the glory of God.

Monday, November 1, 2010

“Living your way into a new way of thinking”

This phrase is borrowed from the Recovery Movement of the 20th century, which focused on helping people whose lives were riddled with addiction and unhealthy habits. Central to the success of the Recovery Movement, involving 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous was the idea that we are creatures of habit. We do things in patterns, rhythms, and cycles. And this phrase, “living your way into a new way of thinking,” highlights the strength of that movement – action can change the way we think. Doing things (or not doing things) has a way of altering our perception, thoughts, and beliefs. How we act and what we do is deeply connected to what we believe, think, and know.

The World Christian Discipleship (WCD) program, which I am currently participating in, borrows from the Recovery Movement. I ought to be up front about the fact that WCD is not primarily a recovery-modeled program, but it does borrow from the wisdom in that movement. How so?

As a participant in WCD, I am living according to a Rule of Life. If you are like me, the phrase “Rule of Life” is a strange phrase that doesn’t mean a whole lot. However, a brief explanation goes a long way toward understanding it.

First, this is a relatively old idea. In fact, one of the readings WCD has done so far is The Holy Rule of St. Benedict, which is a collection of rules, precepts, and guidelines that monks would live according to starting around the 6th century. Many Christian monastic communities have been living according to a Benedictine rule ever since. I’ve found St. Benedict’s rule to emphasis reasonableness, humility, communal sharing, and obedience. However, Benedictine rule is pretty intense. Actually, the WCD group noticed immediately that we don’t really want to live according to some of his guidelines. Example: “Not to love much or boisterous laughter.” This caused many of us to laugh… and even a little mockery happened. Although many of Benedict’s rules could be easily translated into today’s church life, there was the occasional rule that really just rubbed us the wrong way. The reality is, we in the WCD program are not called to a Benedictine Rule. We are not monks, some of us are married, we all have jobs, and we all love to laugh. So, no worries. Our Rule of life is much different than St. Benedict’s.

Marjorie J. Thompson in Soul Feast defines a rule of life as “a pattern of spiritual disciplines that provides structure and direction for growth in holiness.” Benedictine rule was one pattern and our WCD group also has a pattern, similar yet different. Thompson also says, “We need structure and support, otherwise our spirituality grows only in a confused and disorderly way. The fruit of the spirit in us gets tangled and is susceptible to corruption, and the beauty of our lives is diminished. We need structure in order to have enough space, air, and light to flourish. Structure gives us the freedom to grow as we are meant to.” Wait… did she say that structure is freedom? Yes, partly. This idea directly challenges the assumption that many Christians live under: we grow in our faith by doing things spontaneously according to the Spirit’s leading. Although, this assumption is partly true because the Spirit is constantly guiding and whispering to us, Thompson rightly reminds us that being Christian is not merely a romantic faith. Disciplines are very important. We are Christ’s disciples. This idea is peculiar, but I’m learning that it is very true.

In response to this idea, WCD participants all live according to a rule of life that is both personal and united to the group. I’ve chosen to commit to a scripture memory practice and weekly fasting. All of us are praying through the Celtic Daily Prayer book, as well as meeting weekly to share a meal, and observing a Sabbath. These rhythms and ones like them are the structure that allows for us to grow. Like a plant that flourishes when given a trellis to grow upon, our lives are enabled through discipline.

In the 2 months that I’ve been living through my Rule of Life, the practice of creating space for God to speak and work has been good to me. A rule of life is not meant to be a legalistic formula that yields a perfect faith; rather, I’m learning that the Recovery movement folks were onto something when they suggested the practice of “living your way into a new way of thinking.” From St. Benedict, to Alcoholics Anonymous, and even for the participants of WCD, there is great wisdom and transformational power in discipline and structure when it is approached with God’s grace.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"So what do you do?"

It’s become painfully aware to me that my life is difficult to explain this year. I have moved to a new city and naturally met lots of new people. Of course, one of the main discussion starters for those (sometimes awkward) meet-and-greet discussions is, “so what do you do?” which is referring to vocation, job, income, etc. Common answers here in Pittsburgh seem to be nurse, student, or a spouse of either of those occupations. I, however, throw a giant wrench in the process when I begin my little spiel.

“Well, I’m a part of a program that, uh, well, I work with a church, I mean I have an internship with a non-profit. Actually, it’s kinda like a ‘religious AmeriCorps’. Nah, that’s not quite right. I’m working part-time at a cafĂ©…” And so on. Unfortunately, I’ve mumbled my way through more than enough conversation like that where I don’t seem to be able to clearly and concisely articulate my profession.

I’m realizing that in small-talk situations like that, it is exactly that which is preferred… “small-talk”. Few words with maximum description. In my experience, WCD is not conducive to that kind of short-and-sweet preference. But I’m also realizing that that is okay. I’m learning to embrace the tension that I perceive when I am attempting to completely explain my “job”. I’m learning that simple answers to questions like that are not always best. And I’m learning, often through uneasiness, that my identity ought not be completely wrapped up in my profession.

Earlier this month, I was at PNC setting up a checking account when the banker popped the question, “so are you a student?” I think I started my spiel and then even apologized a little for troubling him with a difficult answer. His answer was perfect. “No worries sir. If you can afford time like this, do it! Once you jump into the rat race, it’s never the same.”

At this point, I think it’s terribly appropriate to say, thank you. Thank you to all of you who are allowing me the opportunity to be a WCD participant…To not be so busy that life is just a race for rats. Thank you for giving to me, so generously, as you have been given. Thank you that I can have the space to devote a lot of thought and time to this program, and ultimately to grow and learn in new ways.

I'm going to share an article by Henri Nouwen that is important to understanding my time in the WCD program. The 3 disciplines of solitude, community, and ministry are very important for what WCD is all about. Henri Nouwen's article contains much of the vision for WCD, and can be found at the bottom of this site. I highly recommend reading it!

So, if this short reflection has left you thinking, still, "what DO you do?" then I guess my answer is stay tuned! This blog will be updated with lots of prayer requests, praises (ex. thank you JESUS!), and reflections on how things are going here in the Burgh.