Deeper Gratitude = Wider Mission

I recently started working my way through the book, The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. It’s a spiritual formation book (one of Renovare’s), and after each chapter, Smyth suggests a “Soul Training Exercise.” At the end of the chapter I read today, the exercise was titled “Counting Your Blessings.” It’s a cliche phrase. All I could think about was the cheesy hymn with the chorus: Count your blessings, name them one by one, Count your blessings, see what God hath done! Count your blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done. I almost turned the page to skip right over the exercise and move on to the next chapter. I’m glad I didn’t.

The exercise was simple. Make a list of good things God has blessed you with for which you ought to be thankful. Try to make a list of 100 blessings. So, I pulled out my macbook, opened the word processor, and started my numbered list. The first few things on  my list were easy to think of because they were either obvious, very simple, or in my immediately memory: the beautiful, clear blue sky I got to look at while running yesterday afternoon; an encouraging message I received from a friend; a funny joke that made me laugh; my icon of Jesus that helps me focus when I pray; etc.  But then the exercise got a little challenging. Not because God isn’t good, but because making a list of 100 anything becomes daunting after the first 10 items or so.

I tried to keep growing my list by looking at what I had already included and identifying other blessings connected to them. My friend who sent the encouraging message is also a loving, compassionate person in general. The person who told the funny joke has a gift for adding humor to situations that would other wise be less pleasant. My icon was painted by an iconographer whose work has helped thousands of others worship Christ more intimately.

Then it occurred to me: Making this list of blessings was forcing me to go deeper with my gratitude, and the deeper I went the more outwardly focused I became. The first things on my list of blessings had to do almost exclusively with myself. I was thankful for the blue sky because I got to see it. My friend’s message encouraged me. The joke made me laugh. The icon helps me pray. But my deeper expressions of gratitude reflected things and people who are blessings to others. The beauty of creation is a gift God is always giving to everyone. My friend has a gift for encouraging a lot of people, and it’s a gift that God uses in her to build up our church. My joke-telling friend makes a lot of people laugh and diffuses a lot of tense situations for a lot of people. My icon is actually a reprint of an older, larger icon that’s been seen and used by many in the Church.

The deeper we go in our gratitude, the broader our outlook becomes. If we want our churches, or our own lives to be missional, outward-focused expressions of God’s love for the world, then we need to practice the discipline of gratitude. Count your blessings. You’ll be surprised what the Lord will do.

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I Am Not the Holy Spirit: Reflections On The Go-Between God by John V. Taylor

I am not the Holy Spirit. An obvious statement, yes, and one that I would never deny verbally. In action, though, I often live as if I am the Holy Spirit, and I suspect I’m not alone in this behavioral blasphemy. As Christians, we believe that God’s Holy Spirit is within us, guiding us and forming us into the image of Jesus Christ. Often times, though, the Holy Spirit I claim to follow bears striking resemblance to myself. He seems to have the same personality as myself, the same desires, and the same thoughts. From my perspective, it’s not just the Holy Spirit who seems to resemble me. Even as I interact with others, I project myself onto them. I enter dialogue with another assuming he has the same values, the same basic assumptions about life, and the same worldview. I suspect I’m not the only one with this problem, but maybe that, too, is a projection of myself on the rest of the world.

It’s this interaction with the Holy Spirit and with the “other” that John V Taylor addresses in The Go-Between God: The Holy Spirit and the Christian Mission. Taylor was an Anglican bishop and theologian, doing most of his work in the mid-twentieth century. He worked for sometime as a missionary in Uganda, and brings a missionary perspective to his work. The Go-Between God was first published back in 1972, and is now considered a classic theological work. (In fact, the edition of the book I read is from the SCM Classics series.)

Drawing heavily on Martin Buber’s I and Thou, Taylor’s main point of the book is that the Holy Spirit primarily works as a “go-between.” In other words, when individuals meet and converse, the Spirit is not merely “in” each of the individuals, but is His own personality working between them. If life were a drama, the Holy Spirit would be a separate character with his own personality. To use another analogy, used by Taylor, if a conversation between two people were represented by the equation 1+1, the Holy Spirit would be the “+”.

Not only do we need to see the Holy Spirit as his own character, Taylor goes on to explain that the Spirit’s function in the mission of God is to draw people together, to be the “+” in the 1+1 equation. The Spirit does this, Taylor argues, by helping people to see other individuals and entirely “other” than them. To help people to realize that the other person in the dialogue sees the world through entirely different lenses shaped by their own experiences.

Taylor draws out numerous implications for Christian mission. Among them, he writes of the importance of listening when doing evangelism or interfaith dialogue; that before the gospel can be proclaimed by one person to another, the evangelist must understand the worldview of the other. Taylor devotes an entire chapter to the pentecostal movement, and explains that the rest of the Church needs to learn from them in order to become more aware of the Holy Spirit’s personality and action. What I found most striking, though, was Taylor’s chapter on prayer in the Spirit. Taylor first explains, “To live in prayer, therefore, is to live in the Spirit; and to live in the Spirit is to live in Christ… to live in Christ is to live in prayer. Prayer is not something you do; it is a style of living.” And he later continues, “…we are saying that the essential missionary activity is to live in prayer.”

This, of course, is nothing new, but the type of prayer Taylor went on to recommend I found intriguing. He called it the “prayer of stillness.” The first step is to still the mind. (For what it’s worth, Taylor suggests Yoga or Tai Chi as methods to do this.) Next, he says to focus your awareness on another object – a lit candle, a glass of water, etc. When entirely focused on the object, the next step is to begin to think of it as a symbol of Christ – the Light of the World, Living Water, etc. – and then to slowly replace the image of the object in our mind with the person of Christ himself. The value of this type of prayer, I think, is that it brings us into deeper awareness of the Hearer of our prayers. We realize that when we pray, we actually are speaking to someone else. This awareness can then move toward those for whom we’re interceding, prompting us to pray for them without projecting ourselves onto them.

The Go-Between God has been published for nearly 40 years, now. But I think it’s a much needed book for ministers and missionaries today. In my pastoral work, and my campus ministry work, I’m often struck by how eager people are to take advantage of a listening ear. On more than one occasion, strangers I’ve met for the first time have shared with me deeply painful experiences of brokenness from their past, and longings for their future. Our busy and individualized society is increasingly isolating us from one another, and it’s leaving people with the desire to be heard and to be known by others. And I suspect that in the midst of our busy-ness, the Holy Spirit too is calling out for us to listen and to know Him. The Go-Between God paints a picture of the Spirit that just begins to scratch the surface of the Spirit’s personality, and the personality of humanity, and invites us to dive deeply into further exploring the deep mysteries of the Spirit and our neighbors.

Giggles, Groans, or Mission?

Recently, I preached the same sermon in two different locations. Part of the sermon talked about our changing context due to the constant development of technology and shifts in population growth. To explain this, I read off a bunch of statistics that I found in this video:

What fascinated me was the differences in how each of the two congregation responded. The first church was the Upper Room, the church I’m planting. This group is comprised mostly of young adults living in an urban context. They responded to the statistics in the video mostly by giggling. The second church I preached this sermon in was a suburban church with an average age that’s a bit older. As they heard these statistics, they groaned is disbelief. Some even told me how sad the statistics are.

This got me to asking myself two questions. First, why these differences in reaction? I can think of a few reasons. The Upper Room’s members live in the city, and thus in a significantly more diverse environment than the suburbs of Pittsburgh. The shift in population demographics is right in front of the every day. They’ve also grown up and been educated as this shift has developed, so their educations reflects, at least in part, a preparation for these shifts. The older, suburban congregation has lived without these shifts for some time, maybe they feel as if they’re actually losing something.

The second question I have may be more difficult to answer. What are the consequences to reacting in each of these ways? The title of the sermon I preached was “You Are Stewards of the Gospel,” based on the first half of Ephesians 3. The sermon explained that Paul understood the gospel as something entrusted to him, that God has revealed the mystery of Christ to him not merely for his own benefit, but also so that Paul might proclaim it to others. The sermon challenged the congregation to think of themselves as stewards of the gospel, as people entrusted with the message of Christ so that it may be proclaimed, and then reflected on how we do this in our changing global context. In light of globalization and developed technology, we all ought to adopt a missionary mentality.

The folks in the suburban church may not be prepared for this shift. Their groaning may reflect a refusal to acknowledge these shifts and to respond accordingly. However, I also wonder if those of us who giggle when we hear about these changes are also unprepared. Imagine the missionary work someone like Paul could accomplish in our age of Iphones and Blackberries, when we literally carry the entire world in our pocket. Perhaps our giggling is a sign that we take these changes for granted? Perhaps our education and context has so eased us into this much more connected world that we actually fail to see fully the opportunity that lies before us.

Our present context presents us with opportunities for mission that didn’t exist even 1o years ago. If only the whole church would seize the fullness of these opportunities…

Maintenance or Innovation?

Last week, I was in Estes Park, CO for a national gathering of the Company of New Pastors. I spent the week with recent graduates from all of the PC(USA)’s seminaries who were selected for this program because of the particular promise that they showed for ministry. There were some good things about this week, but there were also some things that I’ve observed that leave me worried about the future of our denomination. Here are a few:

1.) We gathered for prayer three times a day. The first session was Tuesday evening. Chris and I were running late, and as we were walking down the hall to the meeting room, we heard the sound of voices singing “In the Secret.” We were both pleasantly surprised to hear passionate singing, no less singing of a song written this century. We then neared the meeting room, opened the door, and discovered a room full of young pastors sitting around and waiting for things to begin. The singing was coming from another room. Instead, our worship, (admittedly with some noble exceptions) slavishly followed the Book of Common Worship’s daily prayer rubrics. This made for worship that was theologically sound, but missiologically ineffective if ever attempted for use with laity (and even some clergy) under the age of 40 (and even some over 40).

2.) The retreat also included a panel discussion in which we could learn from several experienced mentor pastors, all of whom were very qualified for the task, and had good things to share. Since we’re all entering a ministry context in which the denomination we’re serving in is declining in numbers, young people are seemingly uninterested in the gospel (or at least they way in which it’s traditionally been presented), and we had a panel of entirely white pastors and the Company of New Pastors class was probably about 90% white (maybe even higher) despite the fact that ethnic minorities are all growing, you’d think there would be some significant discussion about missiological, evangelistic, and cross-cultural aspects of ministry. Nope. Most of the discussion centered on administrative issues of ministry; interacting with sessions and personnel committees, handling vacation and continuing education time, and so forth.

3.) There was also a time for people to meet in small groups based on ministry situations. (Solo pastor; associate pastor; still seeking a call; women in ministry). Given the context I described above in 2., and the fact that this was a gathering of the seminary graduates showing great promise, there would be a significant number of people going into new church development or the mission field. Once again, this wasn’t the case. Apart from Chris and I and those still seeking or not-yet-seeking a call, everyone else was in a traditional pastorate.

What bothers me about all of this is that our denomination is declining, even failing, and we desperately need new ministries and new structures if the ministry of the PC(USA) is going to continue. Instead, much of this retreat encouraged the maintenance of the present institution. The Company of New Pastors is an opportunity to challenge some of the PC(USA)’s best new leadership to taken on challenging and innovative ministries that can renew and revitalize our denomination. If only that challenge would be given…

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.

Myths and Facts About Support Raising

For the past 6 weeks or so, I’ve been working on raising my ministry budget so that I can begin work with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Graduate and Faculty Ministry at CMU and Pitt. Raising support is about as difficult as it sounds, but I will say that InterVarsity is great about providing resources to help along the way. One of those resources I encountered early on was something called “Myths and Facts about Fund Development.” This document was written for people who are raising support and helps to clear up some misconceptions and fears new IV staff might have about fundraising. This was a really helpful resource for me, but I’m realizing that for as many fears, misunderstandings and doubts I have had about asking people to support me, the people who I’m asking tend to have just as many, and they need to have some things clarified just as much. So, if someone entering the mission field ever comes asking you for support, keep these myths and facts in mind:

Myth: The fundraiser is only interested in your money.

Fact: If the fundraiser was only interested in money, they would have chosen a different, more profitable profession. In fact, the fundraiser is excited about the work s/he’s preparing for and wants to share it with you! You do no favors to the support raiser by just writing a check without ever talking with them about their upcoming work.

Myth: When the fundraiser asks for prayers and other forms of support, that’s really just a guise to dillute the fact that they’re asking for money.

Fact: The fundraiser is preparing to invest his/her life in the service of God, which is incredibly intimidating. They need to know that their brothers and sisters in Christ are behind them. Prayer support and even emotional support and friendship are much more needed and desired. The money is obviously needed and appreciated, but just getting a check from a person who doesn’t express any interest in the actual work of the missionary makes the missionary feel like s/he is just asking for handout instead of partners in ministry.

Myth: The fundraiser is disappointed if you’re not able to give.

Fact: The fundraiser’s primary hope is that you’ll be interested and enthusiastic about the ministry they’re beginning. In my support raising experience, finding people who have both a high capacity/capability for financial giving and an interest in hearing about my ministry is a very rare thing. Usually, I find that I’m either talking with people who have a high capacity for financial giving but no understanding of why mission work is important, or with people with little (or even a complete lack of) capacity for financial giving but with great interest in the work of the ministry. I’d much rather talk with the latter.