Silence in a Noisy Time

Two weeks ago I started a new quarter at Fuller, one that by all indications will be one of the busiest in matters of work load: hundreds of pages of reading per week plus 1 paper every other week, on top of everything else in life. The only reason I am even attempting to do this is that I know this period will last only 10 weeks.

A few classes ago, we were encouraged to develop a rule of life. This is a general plan of what spiritual practices you plan to do on a regular basis. It is a bit more involved than “I will try to read my Bible for 30 minutes everyday” to include also things like attitudes and postures you will pursue in that period of time. The thought of even having a “rule of life” in this quarter sounded a little insane. Yet, after a year in seminary, I come to understand the downsides of theological academic training – namely, it is rather easy to grow jaded with Scripture and prayer and a become annoyed with church in general (after all you’ve been wrestling with these issues all week long only to be revisited by it on Sunday). Even in a seminary that takes spiritual formation seriously like Fuller, some of that is inevitable. It was clear to me that having some rule of life in this period was not a luxury I could dispense with but a necessity. My family would thank me for it.

Obviously, the idea of doing a traditional Bible reading devotional was out of the question. A number of my assignments involve reading large portions of Scripture. The Daily Office, which has been my anchor for 2 years now, also seemed too reading-intensive for this season. Even the average spontaneous prayer seemed like a lot of mental work. Please don’t get me wrong, none of these practices are bad. I just realized that this was an unique season that called for something different.

That is when I decided to simplify my rule of life to 10-20 minutes of centering prayer on my week days. For the weekends, my only spiritual practice is to sleep in at least once. So far, this is week three, it has worked well. I found in centering prayer a true source of spiritual connection in a time of extreme busyness. If you are not familiar with it, the concept is really simple: sit quietly in a comfortable position and repeat a word (something like “Jesus” or “love”) whenever a thought comes to your mind. That’s it. The idea is that in that silence you will meet with God in ways that escape cognitive comprehension. In time of intense thinking, this is exactly what I needed.

Now, it has not been easy. The first times, I found myself waiting for my timer to go off. The very act of sitting quietly made me feel out of sorts. Eventually, as I kept on doing it, I came to actually dread the timer going off signaling it was time to end. Another challenge is this whole thing keeping thoughts at bay. Since you are not focusing on anything, thoughts come naturally. As this happened often, I used to get frustrated thinking I wasn’t doing right or wondering what good was it to even try. Eventually, I came to a point of accepting: I will give God the best I can in being quiet and that was sufficient. It turned out to be liberating, one of the few moments of my day when I am not under the pressure to get a good grade or do a good job at work. I plan to continue on this journey in this quarter. So far, I get the sense that centering prayer has been a way to stay grounded in this period. Yet, even if that was not the case, it doesn’t matter. The main point is to spend time with my Creator in silence. He deserves much more but somehow seems content to receive my offering.

For more information on centering prayer you can go here (They have an app as well that you can download which is what I use)

I leave you with the prayer that I read at the end of my centering prayer time.

O God, unto whom all hearts lie open

Unto whom desire is eloquent

And from Whom no secret thing is hidden;

Purify the thoughts of my heart

By the outpouring of your Spirit

That I may love you with a perfect love

And praise you as you deserve.

Amen

Prayer from the prologue of The Cloud of the Unknowing

Talking to a Younger Version of Myself

What if you could speak to yourself 10 years ago with the knowledge you have now? What would you say? What would you reveal in order to encourage or warn yourself 10 years ago?

Journaling allows us to capture in words a version of our younger selves. They can help you understand your past which can color how you pursue your future. We usually walk around with a set of memories about the past. These memories define our identity and disposition toward the present. Yet, if we are able to access accurate and detailed records of our past (not just events but our thoughts and impressions of them) we can in one sense alter our identity in the present by adding, subtracting and or emphasizing different aspects of our past. This is getting horribly theoretical and putting most of you to sleep so let me allow you in a recent personal experience that brought this to light.

Prompted by my wonderful wife, I looked over some of my journals over the last years. My journaling has not been consistent. Some years I wrote every two weeks and others I had no more than 5 entries. Yet, as I read some of them, I was surprised by things I have forgotten. I eventually decided to hone in my 2004 journal, basically re-visiting the 25 year-old version of myself.  Reading through those pages brought forth a mixture of emotions from joy and comfort to sadness and grieving. As I re-visited some of my struggles, I was relieved to see how distant they now seemed. Some of them have been resolved while others still haunt me till this day. All of this led me to the thought exercise of writing down what I would tell my younger self knowing what I know now. Here are some things I would say:

  • God is faithful and will take care of you. You will not be shielded from disappointment, sadness or loss. Yet, you will NOT be abandoned. He will surprise you and bless you in unimaginable ways.
  • The beautiful wife you married just two years ago is still by your side even ten years later. She is a great companion for this life. Keep up the good work but above all, do NOT take her for granted. She will still surprise you in ways you cannot anticipate.
  • In 10 years you will have two beautiful little girls in your life. They will teach you what love and worry is in ways you didn’t even know they could be felt. They will capture your heart; enrich your life and give you joy beyond measure. They will also make you watch way more Disney movies you would ever care for. Do me a favor, go to a Blockbuster (which, by the way, will not exist in 10 years) and rent some Non-kid movies. Believe me; they will become rare in your future life….
  • About that company you are working for…well, just keep doing the best you can. You will be there for a while. Try as much as you can to enjoy the ride. I cannot tell you it will be easier. In fact, things will get harder but it will pay off at the end.
  • Do not get too caught up in your church struggles. God will move you around. His body is much bigger than the local church you are in.
  • Try not to obsess so much about your dreams of leadership and changing the world. They will not happen as you imagine it. Most of them will not happen at all. Just try to figure out what makes you happy. Trust me, that will save you from a lot of disappointment and wasted energy.
  • Oh…that car you just bought last year, you will be driving it in the streets of LA one day. Yes, you know exactly what will take you to Pasadena. Just know it will take a while.

Going through this memory exercise brought me a lot of joy today. It gave me a new perspective on what I am facing and also helped me see the past in a different light.

Looking at the past is not always a happy experience. Yet, only when we are able to soberly face who we were yesterday will we have the courage to accept who we are today.

The Charismatic Experience

These are the days I am grateful to be studying in a seminary like Fuller. In a class of systematic theology focused on  Christology, Soteriology and Pneumatology (for those of you wondering what they mean, the first is pretty obvious, the second is salvation and the third is about the Holy Spirit), we have spent a week talking about healing and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Our professor, a respected Pentecostal Theologian, really did great justice to these controversial topics. When they come up, it is easy to fall on two extremes. One of them is to simply ignore them and pretend that they should not be part of serious theological discussion but something that happens “over there” with those “crazy Pentecostals.” I would venture to guess that the majority of evangelical seminaries in the U.S. would take this position. The other extreme, is the Pentecostal-Charismatic position that focus primarily on the experience. In other words, they have a point to prove and hope that you will also experience these topics first-hand. What this position lacks is a serious theological reflection on how the Baptism of the Spirit and healing fit into a larger theological framework.

The class online forum led me to reflect on the importance of these two in my Christian formation. The experience of the gifts of the Spirit were with me from an early age. Being brought up in a Brazilian Charismatic church, they loomed large in my experience and imagination. I never experienced the baptism of the Spirit in the classical Pentecostal way, that is through imposition of hands. If was not this dramatic experience in which I fell into a transe of speaking in Tongues. I did witness that happen but that was not the path for me. That is why, I was glad to learn about a more balanced view put forward by both Charismatic Catholics and Protestants. That is, they do not see the baptism as an event in which the Spirit “falls” but more like an activation of what is within. That is, the Spirit, that was already there after salvation, endows the believer with charismatic gifts. This can include the gift of tongues or others.

This balanced view both emphasizes the importance of the charismatic experience without boxing into specific visible signs (which is what the classical Pentecostal view argues). Instead,, it connects the Charismatic experience with a larger experience of regeneration that starts in salvation. Instead of being a separate “second-blessing” type experience, it is an important step in the journey towards union with God (an orthodox view of spiritual formation). That is, the charismatic experience is not there just to unleash power so the believer can reach the world but also to deepen intimacy with the Trinity through the work of the Spirit. I am grateful for the Pentecostal idea of empowerement. Yet, I believe that does not paint the whole picture. God does not just want us to be super-Christians to heal the sick, reveal prophecies or speak of the unknown. He wants to commune with us in the charismatic experience.

This possibility excites me more than any miraculous demonstration. To know God intimately is the desire and the design of our whole being.

David Luiz’ Public Christianity

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I have not had much time to blog in the last weeks. I am back to taking two classes in the summer quarter and also have been a bit distracted by a small event called the World Cup. This is a time when men become boys and re-connect with their secret dream of being a footballer. This is especially true for this boy who grew up in the soocer-crazed nation of Brazil. So, most certainly I could not let this opportunity past without a blog (or a few blogs).

I write this as we (the Brazilian nation) have just reached the semi-finals after a grueling and agonizing game against Colombia. The biggest news was the unfortunate injury of Neymar after receiving a UFC-like knee kick to the back. Yet, this should not take away from the biggest name of the game: David Luiz. The guy was a giant on the field. A defender that not only did his job but also scored, helping Brazil advance. If you know anything about soccer you know that defenders are not expected to score – their primary job is to keep others from scoring. His footballing performance would be enough to gain acclaim. Yet most important than his performance is how this formidable athlete has behaved inside and outside the pitch.

It is not uncommon to see athletes thanking God for their triumphs. This is not just only common in the US but more and more in places like Brazil. His words, however, are only limited to the audience that bothers to listen to after-match interviews. His actions on the field have spoken louder than words. In the beginning of the game, at the end and after each goal celebration you can see David kneeling with his eyes closed pointing to the sky. His body language is un-mistakable – he is praying.
So a great athlete that performs well, gives glory to God and publicly prays. Again, that would be more than enough to catch our attention. David went a step further. After the game with Colombia, he took upon himself to console James Rodriguez, the Colombian forward. He asked his Brazilian crowd to applaud his effort. Then, he just held him in his arms as the young player sobbed the pain of his defeat.

In a few weeks, the Cup will be over and life will be back to normal. But inspired in David’s example, I wonder how I have live the gospel within the soccer field of my life. Do I always give glory to God when I perform well? Do people know that the source of anything good in my life is the time I spent with God in prayer? Above all, do I show compassion to adversaries and lend them a shoulder for them to cry? Let life imitate sports and let visible athletes teach us again what it means to follow Christ in a public way. David has showed us that at time the gospel of Christ can be best displayed not by what we say but how we live. This is not borne out of a conscious effort to “spread the gospel.” Instead, is the fruit of a life surrendered to God and attentive to the neighboor.

Discipleship is NOT what it used to be

I confess that discipleship is one of these words of “Christianese” that have to come mean so many different things that it is almost useless. For this purpose, I will define it as the process through which Christians learn and grow spiritually. I much rather the “spiritual formation” term, yet this one is also facing a similar fate as discipleship and becoming a commodity word. I am focusing on discipleship because it entails a mentorship relationship between a mentor and mentee. In the New Testament, it is best model in Jesus relationship with his disciples and the apostles teaching to the young churches. My argument is simple: discipleship is moving away from mentor-mentee relationships to more friendship relationships. Spiritual guidance is done now less in a top-to-bottom fashion and more in a lateral fashion. Even spiritual leaders are accommodating to this reality.

Echoing from my previous post, spiritual leadership is changing from being directive to being influential. Being directive means you tell people how things are and what they should do. You do so not expecting your authority to be in question. Being influential means expressing advice as to what they can face challenges. You shy away from telling people what to do but instead suggest what they should do. The more skilled leaders go a step further and teach people how to think which empowers them to figure out the right decision on their own.

Certainly this new environment of ministry has its share of problems. I am sure a lot of pastors would love to tell lay people to get a grip and grow up. This type of tough love is at times necessary but unfortunately is becoming less and less the norm. The reality is that the relationship between mentor and mentee is so transient that it cannot withstand these confrontational moment. Most mentees will just leave and find a mentor that tells them what they want to hear.

Yet, teachability is not the only issue here. The reality is that mentors are many times ill-prepared to help mentees to navigate their world. It is not that they are poorly trained but they just have not lived through it. The speed of change can at times make one’s experience seem irrelevant to the present generation. A more adequate approach is for the mentor to walk together with the mentee and collaborate in navigating the challenges he or she may be facing. It is not that the mentor and mentee are equals in knowledge but they are not as distant as they used to be. It is the job of the mentor to evaluate his or her experience in light of the mentee’s new situation. It is the job of the mentee to listen but also participate in this evaluation process.

Discipleship in this environment looks more like a partnership than an apprenticeship. It is less about spiritual directing and more about spiritual companionship. It forces us all to be humble and it also takes away the pressure of the mentor to have all the answers.

These types of spiritual companionships are difficult to foster but are absolutely essential if we are to face the ever-changing challenges in this century. Spiritual mentors need to learn to be facilitators rather than manufacturers of spiritual growth. Spiritual mentees need to take ownership of their spiritual health rather than relying on a leader to have all the answers. We must all humbly seek the Holy Spirit to lead and guide us through this messy process.

 

 

Pastoring is NOT what it used to be

There was a time when pastors were true shepherds of souls. They were sought after as the spiritual guides who had access to privileged spiritual information and therefore could speak authoritatively into people’s lives. They were the moral upholders of community, able to act as the voice of society’s conscience. Their primary job was to connect a community with God through preaching, counseling and teaching. Their position was undisputed and trusted. They were role models of morality, family values and model citizens. They were in charge of small communities, knew most of his parishioners by name and were there in the most important events of their lives: birth, baptism, marriage and death.

How the world has changed! If pastors can still be seen as spiritual guides so are Oprah and Deepak Chopra. If before they had access to privileged information, now anybody can access the Internet for Greek dictionaries, books and most other resources that in the past was only available to a few. If in the past they were the sole spiritual gatekeeper for a small community of believers, now they compete with many voices that are constantly speaking into the parishioner’s life. Not only that but their sermons are being scrutinized by society (case in point, a former pastor in Pasadena just got fired from this public service job because of a YouTube video of a past sermon in which he denounced homosexuality). Congregants now will listen to the pastor on Sunday and their favorite preacher’s podcast in the week. If they are curious about theology, they will buy books, read articles or enroll in seminary themselves. Many may already have some theological training through Christian college.

The role model piece is also being re-defined. While most pastors live upstanding lives, the high-profile scandals taint their reputation in society. Yet somehow, the expectation of perfection continues. The reality is that given  the current set up, the only image people get of pastors is who they are in the pulpit. Then, it is no surprise that when they get to know them better the reality falls short of the pulpit image.  This would be the case with any politician, artist or any other celebrity.

Pastors don’t counsel anymore. They leave this to therapists who many times have little training to address spiritual issues that come enmeshed in psychological issues. The current dominant church model defines the pastor’s job on a 45-60 minute sermon on Sunday and the administration of the church. He or she is judged by her weekly performance. On the administration side, most pastors struggle.  They tend to be poor administrators. Pastoring and managing require very different and at time diametrically opposed skills. The good administrator is rarely the compassionate type.

Then there is the constant comparison to the successful mega-church pastor. North American evangelical society projects the image of the successful CEO in every pastor. Well attended conferences teach the “how-toss” of building a mega ministry. Books tell tales of success affirming that if so pastor made it so can any pastor who follows these steps. They are to strive for the success portrayed by large and wealthy ministries even at the expense of family and spiritual health. Even those who are immune to this comparison trap face the harsh reality that their small or mid-size church is competing with mega-churches for the same parishioners in the area.

It is no surprise that many pastors are quitting their jobs. This is not only true for the small church pastor struggling to make ends meet. It is becoming a reality for even high-profile preachers.  The recent resignation of high-profile preachers like Francis Chan and Rob Bell is an intriguing turn of events. No, these guys did not step down because of moral failures. They simply walked away from highly successful ministries to pursue different opportunities. Another bizarre twist was a Swedish mega-church Pentecostal pastor stepping down and “converting” to Catholicism. While these pastors may be unique, you have to wonder what would drive successful pastors to step down. Are those anomalies or symptoms of larger problems in the church system?

 

My journey with church

Let me return to the series on the changing landscape of spirituality. After the first part where I described some current trends in church attendance, I now turn to my own experience with the church. My dad probably preached a sermon in the week I was born. Heck, I might have been born inside a church building considering how central this institution has been in my life. One of my first social memories was in church. That was the first place, outside my family, where I found my place in the world. In many ways, it was a second home. There I felt loved, accepted and understood – until everything changed.

In my early adolescent years, this world collapsed. My parents informed me that the church which we have been part was dissolving. Being not just a member but in the pastor’s family meant our lives were about to change drastically. In a year’s time, we moved to the United States to a whole new culture that also included a whole new church environment. No longer I was the preacher’s kid in the church of my childhood. I was now a Brazilian charismatic Christian teenager trying to find a place in the Southern Baptist Caucasian American church. What a shock! My experience in the mega-church youth ministry was bizarre. It really felt like a whole different gospel. While I met sincere believers along the way, my impression overall was of a shallow Christianity. We were not being nourished, we were being entertained.

Then came the college years. This is a time where your mind is stretched, your world is re-interpreted and your faith is deeply challenged. In the midst of that, I struggled again to find a place in the student ministries available on campus. I sensed the similar shallow youth group approach and just could not connect with Christians at the school. Thankfully, I did find a home church with a pastor willing to take me in and help me find Christian community again. For a while it felt familiar –here I was in a charismatic church that operated in similar ways to what I had grown accustomed to.

Yet, this sense of familiarity would soon grow into restlessness. After college and now married, I found myself feeling out of place again. The evangelical theology that raised me seemed now utterly inadequate to address the challenges of married life and vocation. Church services were endless searches for the supernatural with little connection to daily life. There was also very little incentive to think through these issues and a lot of emphasis on unquestioning belief. I felt depressed. For months, I would dread the weekend knowing we would have to go to church. This went on for years. At this point I came to settle in this strange position of loving the universal church but believing I would never find a true home church again.

Finally, a glimmer of hope appeared. In my late twenties, I found a church that made me believe in church again. The worship, the message and the environment exuded freshness. For the first time in over a decade, I had found a home. I found fellow believers struggling to work their faith through a changing environment with the courage to ask the unspoken questions. Yet, God is never satisfied to leave us at awe of anything but Him. Soon came crushing disappointments, unfulfilled promises and a growing sense that it was time to leave. This was a slow but painful process that would eventually send us across the country to California for a new beginning.

My story is somewhat unique, yet the themes are very common.  The evangelical bubble burst, and we had to learn to find God in new ways. By God’s grace, I never left the faith. Yet many of my on-fire fellow teeange believers have become jaded adults, skeptical of church, faith and at times even God. I would not have survived have it not been for a disciplined devotional life that carried me to God’s arms when the church could not do so. More recently, I have also learned the power of Christian community when I myself could not do it on my own.

To me this is not just a topic of study. It is deeply personal. I do it not in a desire to expose the failings of institutional church but hopefully to help those who have grown disillusioned with it. It is only through study and prayer that I have come to see the universal and timeless bride of Christ. Thorough this perspective I am learning to love her with all her faults. Yet, I also believe we are in a time of transition. A time in which the Church may not be contained only in the human organizations we built to contain her. What does that look like and how will it take form?

Like the people of Israel, we too are experiencing exile. The familiar is no longer certain, but only a vague memory of a country we left behind. What will it take to be faithful to Christ in the Babylon of fast change? These are the questions I am concerned with.