Don’t forget the Ascension

Christian discipleship has a lot to do with locating yourself in the story of God. One of the ways that the Church has done this is through the Church calendar–taking time to place ourselves in the narrative of God’s redemptive work in Christ. There are other stories of which we are a part, but none is deeper or more important than the story of God’s reconciling the world to himself.

For low church evangelical protestants the temptation is to reduce this redemptive story to two movements, or even one as we’re pressured by the culture in which we live to mark time according to a different calendar–one where some of the holidays have the same name, but have very different meanings poured into them.

The Christian calendar (outside of strictly liturgical churches) often gets reduced to Christmas and Easter. If we’re honest, Christmas edges Easter out. Easter itself is often reduced to Maundy Thursday (if you’re lucky) and Easter Sunday, rather than the Triduum that the Church has historically celebrated (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday). True reflection on the work of Christ on the cross seems quite difficult absent three days to consider in community.

We rarely pause moreover to consider the significance of the Ascension to the story of God. In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples that unless He leaves them the “comforter” (“counselor,” “advocate”) cannot come to them. He is speaking, of course, of the Holy Spirit.

Were it not for the Ascension, we would be without help and without a deep and living connection to the Godhead through the Holy Spirit.

Christine Sine offers a reflection on the Ascension by guiding us through the words of several liturgies used to celebrate this important day in the life of the faith.

Consider preparing for Ascension Day by reading and reflecting on the word of God.

From the Acts of the Apostles (9.11f., Phillips):

When he had said these words he was lifted up before their eyes till a cloud hid him from their sight. While they were still gazing up into the sky as he went, suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them and said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here looking up into the sky? This very Jesus who has been taken up from you into Heaven will come back in just the same way as you have seen him go.

And Jesus’ own words in the Gospel of John (16.7):

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you.

Consider this liturgy from the Reformed tradition:

Our God goes up with shouts of joy!

Our Lord ascends to the sound of trumpets!
All: Sing praises to our God, sing praises!
Sing praises, sing praises to our King!
The Almighty rides in triumph.
The Almighty leads captivity captive.
Who shouts for joy? Who blows the trumpet?
The hosts of heaven sing the honor of his name;
they praise him with an endless alleluia.

-David Diephouse, Calvin College

Thanks be to God! Amen.

[Repost] The words of men

I wrote this post in 2010 and offer it again

As I enter the final stretch toward my ordination as a Minister of the Word and Sacraments in May, deo volente, I continue to ponder the meaning of pastoral work. Over the last three years I have become wary of the traditional evangelical way of worship. If you’re part of the evangelical tribe, you know what I’m talking about. For those who aren’t, let me elaborate. Traditional evangelical worship over the last hundred years has emphasized spontaneity within an established structure of worship. This structure consists of the traditional elements of worship: singing, praying, collecting money, preaching, etc. Evangelicals have long been profoundly wary of liturgy since liturgy is a praying of someone else’s words and is somehow seen to be less authentic.

One of my concerns with the current evangelical way of worship is that it has become that which it decried, only a cheap and superficial copy of it. A glance at the bulletins of most evangelical churches will reveal a striking consistency in hymns and songs sung, especially focusing on a handful of popular songs that also crowd the airwaves on your local, “family friendly” Christian radio station. This is disturbing because it evinces a cultural narcissism that asserts that only that which is current and contemporary can speak to my situation.

What is more disturbing, however, is the extent to which the persona of the minister becomes entangled with the act of worship. Those moments of transition between singing and praying become little acts in which the minister’s personality, his winsomeness and humor, shine. Isn’t he funny? Isn’t he handsome? Isn’t he so relevant?

And so the words of men come to take pride of place. We protested against praying words written by men of deeper faith and keener intellect than the best of us. Prayers tried by the centuries rather than expressing the concerns of the moment. We substituted the trifle, the banal, and the superficial for the deep and resonant intonation of words that are prayed across the time and across the continents. How can this be wisdom?

I’d like to go on record as believing that I’d rather have a man of deep prayer and keen intellect as my pastor than the funniest, handsomest, most relevant modern. And until the broader evangelical church can become more aware of the wisdom of this, it will continue its slow descent into superficiality and the very irrelevance it so desperately wishes to avoid.

It is for good reason that the reformed tradition has emphasized the centrality of Scripture in forming the words we use in our liturgy. Scripture is God’s Word to the Church and it is therefore preferable to the words of men.

Note the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith (ch XXI):

The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might.[1] But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.[2]

1. Rom. 1:20; Psa. 19:1-4a; 50:6; 86:8-10; 89:5-7; 95:1-6; 97:6; 104:1-35; 145:9-12; Acts 14:17; Deut. 6:4-5
2. Deut. 4:15-20; 12:32; Matt. 4:9-10; 15:9; Acts 17:23-25; Exod. 20:4-6, John 4:23-24; Col. 2:18-23

It’s important to emphasize the centrality of Scripture in worship and the wisdom of using written prayers, especially those tried and true among the Church Universal. The uniting of a heart full of love and passion for God with Scriptural worship and wise prayers can, God willing, be a significant part of creating worship that is both pleasing to God and beneficial for His people.

Are we too comfortable?

Michael Hyatt recently wrote about Dean Karnazes, an ultra marathoner who once ran fifty marathons in fifty states in fifty days–for the record, I have no desire to do that. He’s also author of Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner.

Karnazes challenges an central assumption of our culture: comfort is good. In a published interview Karnazes remarked:

Western culture has things a little backwards right now. We think that if we had every comfort available to us, we’d be happy. We equate comfort with happiness. And now we’re so comfortable we’re miserable. There’s no struggle in our lives. No sense of adventure. We get in a car, we get in an elevator, it all comes easy. What I’ve found is that I’m never more alive than when I’m pushing and I’m in pain, and I’m struggling for high achievement, and in that struggle I think there’s a magic.

As we move from advent into Christmastide, let’s consider the ways in which God might be calling us to move from comfort into discomfort and how that transition may well enrich our life more than ever thought possible.

Are you running beyond capacity?

On Saturday afternoon, my computer had a nervous breakdown. One minute it was fine, the next the spinning beach ball of death sat suspended on my monitor. It had had enough. And since computers are more tactful than homo sapiens we all know that the beach ball is the computer’s way of giving us the middle finger. This is especially the case if you happen to be halfway through an episode of MI-5 on Netflix during nap time.

Like a desperate man threatening to throw himself off of a bridge, one by one parts of the system started to fail. The dock disappeared. The background went grey. I rebooted. Same thing. No icons. No signs of life just a vacant stare.

The problem and the solution were thankfully kind of simple. My Macbook has 120 GB of space and over the last three years I have owned it, I have slammed pictures, podcasts, videos, and audio into that little (yes, 120 GB seems small now–current MacBook Pros start with 250 GB) space. It was so full that there wasn’t sufficient space to run the normal functions like displaying icons and wallpaper. Thankfully I don’t have to buy a new computer, I just need to get rid of some of the 9,000 photos or hundreds of old podcasts cluttering up my hard drive.

Sometimes I feel like my computer–there is so much coming into my life that sometimes I think my eyes may be replaced with beach balls. Sorry, your input doesn’t commute.

In a digital world we still need space and time to be still and to be silent. In fact, we need it more than ever since silence and solitude were often part of life for ancient people–working the field, riding to town, all could be opportunities to practice the presence of God in the absence of our contemporary stimuli.

Do you ever feel like you’re over capacity? How do you make space of quiet?

The discipleship gap

The North American church has a deep problem — the discipleship gap. This discipleship gap manifests itself in two ways:

  1. Most people who identify themselves as Christian and who attend church regularly, even those who are in leadership in the church (whether ordained or lay), are not moving from casual observer of Jesus to apprentice or disciple.
  2. Where they are making this leap, discipleship is often so limited in scope as to make it really less than biblical.

As part of her degree program at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, Anna is participating in a series of integrative seminars. In preparation for an upcoming seminar, she was asked to conduct a simple survey of ten people regarding their Bible reading patterns. The results showed that few Christians are spending any significant (more than 5-10 minutes) amount of time in Scripture during the week. 

Why is this a problem? 

I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of the Holy Scriptures to forming our imaginations. The word imagination is often associated with creative writing — the skill of finding words and images to describe the unreal or the not physically present. That certainly is one way in which we use our imagination. Imagination, more broadly understood, also has to do with creating ideas.
Deep reading of the Scripture helps us to bring into focus the ways in which we can follow Christ in our world and what that following will look like, both individually and in our life together. The Bible is a unified witness to God’s redemptive action in our world and His mission of forming a community of people who will bring honor and glory to His name in the midst of a creation that has been alienated from Him.
How can contemporary Christians carve out time to read Scripture? 
Here are some ideas:
  1. Wake up 15-20 minutes earlier in the morning and spend that time in the Scripture.
  2. Wake up at the same time but covenant to spend time in the Scripture before engaging in your normal daily diet of media (email, Facebook, tv news).
  3. Observe prayer and Scripture reading at natural waypoints during the day (at lunch, before leaving your desk to come home, at the dinner table, immediately prior to retiring to bed).
  4. As you exercise listen to the Bible on CD or mp3.
  5. Fast from social media during Lent and use those days as a period in which to create a new habit of daily Scripture intake. A new habit is said to require sixty days to acquire.
  6. Kill your television and turn off your laptop at the end of the work day – these are two time killers for me (the laptop way more than the tv since we don’t have cable).

Other ideas:

  1. Learn to practice new ways of reading Scripture such as Lectio Divina or inductive Bible study
  2. Form a small group (a covenant group) designed to meet regularly and briefly to discuss what your reading and how it’s affecting your life.
  3. Blog about it – if you’re a natural writer like me, capturing your thoughts in print helps you process the experience of reading Scripture.
  4. Use a lectionary to jump around the Scripture or commit to reading a book in its entirety (start small and work to bigger books).
  5. Read the Psalms – A Psalm a day is a good prescription for spiritual vitality.

How do you make room for Scripture reading? What practices do you employ?

I pray the rosary…sort of

The evangelical way of praying has a lot to commend it. Find a quiet place, preferably first thing in the morning. Sit. Close your eyes.

Start talking to God…

It’s simple, straightforward, and has served a lot of people quite well over the years. Over the last four years, however, I have come to recognize that it is only one way of praying. What’s more, many Christians reach a place in their spiritual journey where ‘evangelical prayer’ is no longer a helpful way of entering the presence of God.

I hear objections in the background. Other types of prayer aren’t as intimate. Won’t using written prayers mean that our prayers aren’t really ours? Isn’t repetitious prayer, well, repetitious? Didn’t Jesus warn against babbling like the pagans?

It’s not that we need to get rid of evangelical prayer altogether. What’s necessary is that, from time to time, we supplement it with some other form of prayer that more readily connects with where we are spiritually and physically. After all, we weren’t created for prayer so much as prayer was created for us.

I have found prayer quite difficult over the last several years, especially the last year with a young child in our home. In my case, it has been ever so easy for what I felt should have been earnest, intimate conversations with the father, to turn either into intellectual discourses on the nature of existence or the repetitious saying of half-digested statements about how bad and I am and how badly I need God’s forgiveness. In short, I have been stuck in prayer. What’s more, I have found it incredibly difficult to persist in prayer because sitting still and focusing for such a long period of time (10+ minutes) seems almost impossible, conditioned as I am by twitter and facebook to almost instantaneous inputs of information.

What to do? I began the Orthodox practice of praying “The Jesus Prayer” some time ago. It goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”It has it’s roots in the words of the tax collector in Luke: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” (18:10-14).

It’s a great way to center oneself in order to be able to engage in liturgical or spontaneous prayer and the reading of Scripture.

It can also be supplemented with the use of prayer beads/rope. This is a tool designed to aid us in prayer by helping us to focus on the task at hand by giving us something to fiddle with. It was invented, initially, to give illiterate monks a way to say a consistent number of prayers. The typical rope has 100 knots or beads. The one I use has 33. My practice is to center myself by saying the Jesus prayer (one per bead, 30 on mine) and then a gloria patri for every knot (there are three on my rope). Do this 3 times and find that by the end of the practice I’m more focused, calm, and ready to continue in God’s presence through other forms of prayer and engagement with Scripture.

For the last couple of months I have been using a Lutheran prayer book and have been reading the Psalms from Luther’s book of Psalms (with his commentary). This week I have switched to the using the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship. At other times I have used Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours or The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.

Prayer is a lifting of the hear up to God. And, as such, it is central to the Christian life. That’s why it’s so important to realize that one form of prayer will very often not be sufficient to take us through every stage of life. During times of trial and fatigue, it is important to have access to other ways to connect with God. The Jesus Prayer has been such to me.

The Valley of Vision

Lord, High and Holy, Meek and Lowly,
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
Where I live in the depths but see thee in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold thy glory.

Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.

Lord, in the daytime stars can bee seen from deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells the brighter thy stars shine;
Let me find thy light in my darkness,
thy life in my death,
thy joy in my sorrow,
thy grace in my sin,
thy riches in my poverty,
thy glory in my valley.


A Prayer of St. Thomas Aquinas – Before Study

Ineffable Creator,
Who, from the treasures of Your wisdom,
has established three hierarchies of angels,
has arrayed them in marvelous order
above the fiery heavens,
and has marshaled the regions
of the universe with such artful skill,

You are proclaimed
the true font of light and wisdom,
and the primal origin
raised high beyond all things.

Pour forth a ray of Your brightness
into the darkened places of my mind;
disperse from my soul
the twofold darkness
into which I was born:
sin and ignorance.

You make eloquent the tongues of infants.
Refine my speech
and pour forth upon my lips
the goodness of Your blessing.

Grant to me
keenness of mind,
capacity to remember,
skill in learning,
subtlety to interpret,
and eloquence in speech.

May You
guide the beginning of my work,
direct its progress,
and bring it to completion.

You Who are true God and true Man,
Who live and reign, world without end.


Published in the Raccolta #764, Pius XI Studiorum Ducem, 1923.

A Prayer for Virginia Tech

The campus has been abuzz about the massacre of over thirty students some 2 1/2 hours from us at Virginia Tech. In light of the grave reports join me in offering this prayer:

God of Compassion,
you watch our ways,
and weave out of terrible happenings
wonders of goodness and grace.

Surround those who have been shaken by tragedy
with a sense of your present love,
and hold them in faith.

Though they are lost in grief,
may they find you and be comforted;
through Jesus Christ who was dead, but lives
and rules this world with you. Amen.

(Source: Book of Common Worship, 1993).