Going Behind the Veils

A few days ago I was at the post office, and as I was waiting in line a woman entered the line behind me wearing a burka. I didn’t think much of it at first, but then I heard the woman speak. She sounded like a young American teenager. Though I hadn’t intentionally thought about it, my subconscious had told me entire story about this woman triggered only by my seeing her burka –  the story of a Muslim woman who’s come from the Middle East, and probably speaks English as a second language. I was shocked when I heard no hint of an accent in her voice, let alone any sign that she wasn’t 100% fluent in English.

I decided to pray for the woman as I left the post office. I began by confessing to God my prejudice. But I was quickly challenged by God. I could feel God saying (not audibly, but in a spiritual way), “Is prejudice what you really need to confess? You made assumptions about who she was that were false. That much is correct. But you didn’t make any judgments or conclusions about her value out of those assumptions. You don’t need to confess prejudice. Confess the veils.”

I hadn’t made any value judgments about this woman based on her burka. But I did allow her burka to keep me from knowing who she really is. Granted, that is in a sense the purpose of a burka. They’re veils that prevent people from fulling “knowing” who’s behind them. When chosen freely by a woman, a burka or other form of a veil is a form of modesty. But veils can also be a form of hiding, maybe even distorting who we really are. (For the record, I’m not suggesting the woman in the post office was attempting to “hide” or “distort” herself, only that a person could if they wanted to.)

Of course, this is something we’ve all done at some point or another. We “dress for success” in a way that makes us look like we have it all together to veil the deeper feeling that our life is in shambles. We put on airs of confidence, sarcasm or carelessness to veil feelings of pain or fear. We may add some helpful rhetorical devices to our speaking, veiling the selfishness or hate that’s behind our words. In these instances, we miss out on being more fully known by those around us. We miss out on deeper friendships, and being more fully loved.

My church and community are in a season when veils are very tempting to put on. The start of the new academic year means that many new people are moving to the neighborhood. The Upper Room is constantly welcoming new people; Graduate Christian Fellowship is too. When our social circles change significantly, whether as the newcomer or as the welcomer, becoming someone we’re not is all too easy. We can cover up our weaknesses, heartbreak, struggles, fears and brokenness, and try being the person we’d rather be without going through the hard work of transformation. These veils prevent genuine friendship and community from happening.

Pursuing genuine friendship and community means going “behind the veils.” It means dropping our own veils, and creating a safe place for others to drop theirs. When we do so, we’ll give one another the gift of being fully known, and fully loved.

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Embracing Sonship: On Being Young in Ministry

Last month, I spent a week in Chicago with my fellow InterVarsity Grad and Faculty Ministry staff for our national conference. The theme was ministering across generations, and some of the conversations from that week still have me thinking.

I was particularly struck by the insight of one of my more experienced colleagues, who said that his ministry with students has evolved over time from ministry as an “older brother,” to ministry as “the young uncle” to ministry as a “father.” In other words, as he’s gotten older, the way in which he’s related to those around him  has changed.

This has left me thinking for some time now about my own stage of life as a young, single, minister. In fact, I learned at this conference that I’m currently the youngest grad and faculty ministry staff worker in all of InterVarsity. Being young in ministry is difficult in any context. I’ve found it particularly difficult in doing ministry with faculty who are much older than me. My colleague’s reflections now have me asking: What does it mean to do ministry as a “son”? What is an appropriate way to do ministry with people older than I am?

The first thing that came to mind in response to this question is the commandment: “Honor your father and mother…” Honor can be a form of ministry.

Realizing this has revealed to me some of my own baggage that keeps me from doing ministry well with faculty, or anyone older than I am. My preference is to do ministry with people who are sociologically lower than I am. Most often, this has meant working with people younger than me. When I was in college, I led a middle and high schooler youth group. When I moved onto seminary, I began ministering to college students. Now that I”m out of seminary and am a working professional, I do ministry with grad students. In the times when I’ve been ministering to/with people older than me, I find another way to see them as lower than me – as less well off financially, less educated, less spiritual. In the occasions when I can’t find anything like this, as is often the case with older, well off, well educated and deeply spiritual Christian faculty, I immediately assume that I have nothing to offer in ministry.

But I do have something to offer. If nothing else, I can honor them. I can admire their work and insights. I can come to them for counsel and advice, and even submit to them as Jesus submitted to his parents.

I think there’s still more to learn from what the Bible teaches about sonship to inform how ministry can be done as young people. So, I’ve recently begun a journey through the Bible, looking at all of the places where the word “son” appears (it’s going to take a while!). I’ll (hopefully) continue to post thoughts that I think are significant or helpful for me as they come up.

A Blessed Interruption

It had been a long day today. It was dinner time, and I still had a sermon for Sunday to begin work on, prep work for a Bible study tomorrow evening, and some details to iron out for the screening of At the End of Slavery. So, I walked down to Pizza Amier, ordered dinner, and headed over to the Upper Room office. As I ate my dinner, I started to ‘set up shop’ to begin working with the Hebrew text of Jonah 3 (my text for this Sunday). Then came an interruption.

Two Upper Room folks came through the door. It was time for the prayer meeting. I had forgotten about that. My plans for a quiet, productive evening in my office were thwarted… by prayer. Soon, there were five of us sitting in a circle sharing life together. Since this group was the initiative of others in Upper Room, I intentionally tried to remain quiet. As the five of us prayed together though, I began to realize that this was one of the most spiritually intimate experiences I’ve had since starting work on the Upper Room.

I felt blessed by this interruption. Not only because it slowed me down in the midst of a busy day. But also because it made me realize that the Upper Room is growing beyond me and beyond Chris. This group is meeting to pray on their own initiative, whether Chris or I are there or not. It’s a blessing to know that even if I stop, the community at the Upper Room will continue to develop. A great end to a long day.

The Fear and Love of Life With God

About a week ago, I started working my way through the first in the Renovare Spiritual Formation Guides, called “Connecting With God.” The first section began with these quotes from Frank Laubach’s Letters of a Modern Mystic:

  This morning I started out fresh, by finding  a rich experience of God in the sunrise. Then I tried to let Him control my hands while I was shaving and dressing and eating breakfast. Now I am trying to let God control my hands as I pound the typewriter keys… There is nothing that we can do excepting to throw ourselves open to God. There is, there must be, so much more in Him than He can give us… It ought to be tremendously helpful to be able to acquire the habit of reaching out strongly after God’s thoughts, and to ask, “God, what have you to put into my mind now if only I can be large enough?” That waiting, eager attitude ought to give God the chance he needs.

 

Then, about a month later, he writes:

Oh, this thing of keeping in constant touch with God, of making him the object of my thought and the companion of my conversations, is the most amazing thing I ever ran across. It is working. I cannot do it even half a day – not yet, but I believe I shall be doing it some day for the entire day. It is a matter of acquiring a new habit of thought. Now I like God’s presence so much that when for a half hour or so he slips out of mind – as he does many times a day – I feel as though I had deserted him, and as though I had lost something very precious in my life.

 

The thought of this practice inspired me. I wanted this life of living in constant touch with God. I wanted to be constantly aware of God’s presence, to yield constantly to God’s will. I went to bed asking God to remind me first thing in the morning that He was present with me. He did.

For the first time in months, I awoke the next morning before my alarm went off. Usually, I wake up to my alarm, and often times so groggy that it takes me a second to remember where I am. Not on this morning, though. God did as I had asked, and I was reminded immediately of God’s presence with me. Wanting (or at least thinking I wanted) to surrender to His will, I asked/prayed, “God what should I do?”

I ‘heard’ a voice respond, “Get up and pray.”

I politely asked for a new assignment, perhaps going back to sleep. But the voice was persistent, “Get up and pray.”

 Finally, I got up and looked at my cell phone. It was still turned off; it’s set to turn off automatically at midnight and turn back on at 6am. I didn’t know what time it was, but I knew it was before 6. “Why would God want me to be up so early?” I asked myself.

Almost immediately I heard the voice again, “I want you to pray.”

The call to pray was so vivid that I fully expected to come out of my bedroom, turn the corner into my living room and see Jesus sitting on the love-seat… and this thought terrified me. Fully awake and out of bed, I still actually hesitated to leave my bedroom for fear of what Who might be out there. I finally mustered the courage to go into my living room, and was both relieved and disappointed to find that there wasn’t a first century Jew waiting for me. (At least not that I could see.)

I went on with my prayer time, which was better than usual, though frankly not as profound as what I was anticipating. I remember little of the Scripture I read that morning or the prayers that I prayed. What I do remember is the fear. I had a profound sense of God being presence, and I was seized more with fear than anything else. Why? This bothered me for much of the rest of the week.

I continued the week trying to practice this consciousness of  and submissiveness to God’s presence and will. Thursday night finally brought resolution to my sense of fear. I had just returned from the Upper Room’s Bible study and sat down in my living room for some personal devotion and close-of-day prayer. I began with the evening psalm appointed for the day by the lectionary I follow. It was the second half of Psalm 18 (the first half was appointed for that morning). As I was praying this Psalm, I slipped out of awareness of God’s presence and was simply reading the words of the Psalm rather unconsciously, to the point of having no comprehension of what I was actually reading. I caught myself towards the end, and entered back into an awareness of God’s presence. I heard the same voice I heard at the beginning of the week. Only this time, the voice said, “Read it again.”

I responded, “But God, I’m tired.”

Again, the voice said, “Read it again. And this time start at verse 1.”

Somewhat begrudgingly, I turned to Psalm 18:1 and read, “I love you, O Lord, my strength.”

I was floored. The words, “I love you.” convicted me in a way that they never had before. I knew immediately that I hadn’t prayed them with any sincerity, that behind my declaration of love to God was no sense of heartfelt devotion. I immediately asked God to teach me how to declare my love to him with sincerity. The voice responded, “Keep reading.”

I read on in Psalm 18, and after each verse I added the “chorus” of “I love you.” I began to read of God’s saving work done for the psalmist, knowing that he did them also for me. My “I love you”s became more heartfelt with each verse. I then began to notice not only the things God’s done for me, but also the attributes of God mentioned in the psalm. I remember reading the beginning of verse 8: “Smoke rose from his nostrils,” and I immediately responded, “You breath fire?!?!?! I LOVE YOU!” My chorus of “I love you” then moved from thanksgiving for what God had done for me to words of adoration to someone I deeply admire.

And then it got better. God had something else to tell me. I finished the Psalm and went on to the final Scripture reading in that days lectionary. I saw the reading listed in my calendar: “John 3:16-21.” I immediately knew what God wanted to say to me. As I read the familiar words, “Go so loved the world…” I felt in my heart God speaking back to me “I love you,” with the same passion and devotion as I had offered to God by the end of my reading Psalm 18.

And then finally, I turned to the Prayer at Close of Day Liturgy, which included these words from 1 John: “There is no fear in love…” My experience of walking with and submitting to God had gone full circle. I was immediately reminded of my early-morning experience at the beginning of the week. I had wondered and sought an explanation as to why I was so afraid that morning. God offered no answer to that question. He simply told me that fear is not the proper attitude to take in walking with God. Reverence, yes. But not fear. Walking with God and submitting to God is to be a practice and experience of love. Perfect love that casts out fear.

Easy Evangelism

Last Saturday, I had an unexpected witness opportunity. I had planned on walking that morning to the Tango Cafe to get some work done, and then on to Chris and Eileen’s to interview some intern applicants. Those plans were altered, though, when I saw the fire at the Burton Hirsch Funeral home. The fire kept me from going into the Cafe, and instead I spent some time with other bystanders watching the largest fire I’ve ever seen.

Then came the witnessing opportunity. I stood on the corner of the street, and shouted at the crowd, “Listen up people! You see those flames?! Well, that’s what in store for you lest you repent….”  Just kidding. Besides the fact that I’m way too bashful ever to attempt something like that, it also probably (I hope) goes without saying that methods like that are inappropriate in any context. What did happen though was an unexpected conversation with a young woman.

She and I along with a couple others were talking about the fire, when I said, “Well, I’m walking to my friend’s place, and he lives up there, so I need to find an alternate route.”

She replied, “Oh, me too. How can we get there.”

So we walked together and made small talk for a while, talking about jobs and living in Squirrel Hill. Eventually it came out that I’m a pastor starting a new church in Squirrel Hill. She responded, “Oh, so you’re a pastor? Can I ask you some questions?”

From there, she shared her hesitations about faith and religion and why she considers herself an agnostic. Her concerns were honest and well thought out. In fact, she’s probably thought more about faith than most people who claim to be Christians have. I shared with her some of my own, similar struggles, and how I’ve worked through them. She said she found the conversation helpful, and even expressed interest in visiting “my church.”

As I reflected on this conversation, one of the first things I thought was, “That was easy!” The opportunity for witness came naturally and seemed to be leading to results. I think there were a few reasons for this:

1.) The conversation was on her terms. I never had to ask loaded questions or force the conversation into matters of faith. She brought it up and was never uncomfortable in the conversation.

2.) I was myself. As she was sharing her struggles, it was tempting to search my “apologetic memory bank” for a clever answer that would try to simply God and faith into logical reasoning. Thankfully, I resisted this temptation. She wasn’t speaking from her mind as much as she was speaking from her heart, and so I responded my sharing mine. We don’t speak to people’s hearts by logical reasoning, we do it by sharing our heart.

3.) The “evangelism” was more about listening than sharing. I never thought to myself, “Okay, Mike, squeeze in a good word for Jesus.” I eventually shared some of my own story, but most of the time I just listened to her. I think effective evangelism is just as much about being silent and listening as it is about proclaiming Jesus.

Pray that these conversations can continue!

How Mission Has Affected My Ministry

This past Monday, I spoke at the World Mission Initiative dinner at Pittsburgh Seminary. I was asked to give a short talk on how my experience with mission through WMI while in seminary has affected my approach to ministry now that I’ve graduated. It was good to reflect on this; I don’t think I realized just how much mission has changed my sense of call and understanding of ministry. At any rate, this is what I said:

I am working half time as the organizing co-pastor of the Upper Room New Church Development in Squirrel Hill, and also as a campus minister for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Graduate and Faculty Ministry at Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh.

 

I have to confess, before coming to seminary, I wanted to be a pastor who was comfortable. I wanted to be the pastor of a nice church in the suburbs that was just like the church I grew up in. Now, as a seminary graduate, I find myself not in such a comfortable position. I don’t live in the suburbs; I’m in the city. I’m pastoring a new church development that meets in a living room and looks nothing like the church I grew up in. And that call is only a half-time call, so it’s supplemented by doing ministry through InterVarsity, where I have to raise my own support.

 

Something changed in me from the time I started at PTS to the time I graduated from this place. The change is that I was exposed to the mission of God, largely made possible by WMI.

 

First, I learned that the mission of God was not about me, but about seeing all nations know and worship Jesus Christ. Through WMI, I was able to go on a short term mission trip to Southeast Asia where we worked with an unreached minority ethnic group. This has instilled in me a passion to see all ethnicities worship Christ, and so I’m now working on a new church development that we hope to be multiethnic. On the same trip, we worked with pastors from a housechurch movement, and so being a pastor there usually means giving up your living room or the top floor of your house so that it can be used as a sanctuary. We see no reason why a model like this couldn’t be used in the U.S. and so the church we’re planting is currently meeting in Chris’s living room.

 

Second, exposure to the mission of God has made prayer a more integral piece of my ministry. Once I returned from Southeast Asia, the sole extent of my involvement with mission there has been prayer, and it’s been a blessing to see how God has answered those prayers. So, I now see how prayer is deeply important for my ministry as a church planter. Our sense of call to plant a church in Squirrel Hill came out of prayer walking that neighborhood. Once we were committed to that neighborhood, the first thing we did was assemble a prayer team of people who have committed to interceding for us and for Squirrel Hill. I’ve also made it my personal goal as a pastor in Squirrel Hill to prayer walk the entire neighborhood, so that I pray over every house and business there. Exposure to the mission of God made me a more passionate pray-er.

 

Lastly, exposure to mission made me more aware of who God is, and made me to fall in love more deeply with my God. WMI allowed me to attend the Association of Presbyterian Mission Pastors conference. What I remember most about this conference is the worship. It was the most vibrant and heartfelt worship that I had ever been a part of. I realized that I was worshipping with people who were on the front lines of the Kingdom of God. Their involvement in mission meant that they had seen God at work. They weren’t just worshipping an abstract concept, but they were worshipping the real, living God who is at work in the world today. If I had gone through PTS  without having been exposed to the mission of God, I would have been very prepared to be a pastor who could talk a lot about a God whom I knew about but whom I had never seen myself. Through WMI, I saw with my own eyes the God I read about in Scriptures and learned about in the classroom. Because I’ve now seen for myself the hand of this God at work, I’m now prepared to be his witness.