The Beauty of Silence

“I really loved how we didn’t have cell phone coverage this weekend.”

“I wish there were more places back home where cell phones didn’t work.”

These were just two comments I heard from students as we headed home from our annual fall retreat this past weekend.  The retreat takes place at Sylvan Hills Christian Camp in Howard, PA, about 30 minutes north of State College.  It is the middle of nowhere and there is no cell phone reception.

In a world where we are glued to our gadgets at all times, this disconnection can be both scary and liberating.  I heard one student telling another that her parents are probably worried because they haven’t heard from her in nearly two days.  When I was at Penn State I went on a retreat to the same place and my parents probably had no idea I had left State College.  How the world has changed in just over 10 years!

It was appropriate to hear students make such statements, to reflect on the beauty of the silence and the joy of leaving some noise behind and getting into nature, because I had just talked about the spiritual discipline of meditation a few days prior.  Meditation, as Richard Foster describes it in Celebration of Discipline, is listening to God.  This is challenging because:

“In contemporary society our Adversary majors in three things: noise, hurry and crowds…if we hope to move beyond the superficialties of our culture, including our religious culture, we must be willing to go down into the recreating silences, into the inner world of contemplation” (15)

Why do we not hear God speak?  Perhaps part of the reason is that we can’t hear anything above the constant background noise of our lives.

My hope for the students, and myself, is that they would take time to find a quiet place where they can commune with God.  I hope they come to know that the same God they met this past weekend in the woods is still there on campus.

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Spiritual Disciplines – Introduction

I love reading history and more specifically, church history.  Currently I am working my way through Diarmaid MacCullough’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years.  Its a great book.  As I read it, I enjoyed rediscovering one of the more intriguing persons from the history of the church – Simon Stylites.  He lived in the 400s in Syria.  After becoming somewhat famous as a hermit, people kept coming to him for spiritual advice.  In an effort to get away from people so he could focus on praying, he lived up on top of a pole…for 37 years.  His followers would send food up in a bucket and he’d send it back down.  This style of life only increased his fame and people still came to him for advice.

In some ways, this exhibits the best and the worst of monasticism.  Monasticism arose in the early church after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity.  Prior to this you could prove your commitment by literally dying for your faith.  Now instead of persecution, being a Christian might mean promotion in your job.  Not all thought this was a good thing, and many retreated to the desert to pursue intense experiences of God.  At its best, such people experienced God and this experience caused them to return to society in Christ-like service.  At its worst, such a system made it appear as if some people who could live such a life were on a fast-track for heaven, holier then everyone else, and doing nothing good in the world.

When you start talking about spiritual disciplines among evangelicals, the fear by some is that it is “too Catholic.”  Spiritual disciplines are what monks and nuns do, right?  Those of us who are children of the Protestant Reformation tend to be a bit schizophrenic about the work of growing in faith.  The teaching of salvation by grace through faith – that you can do nothing to earn your salvation, instead you are saved by a loving God who loves you just as you are – is a beautiful thing.  Where so many other religions say to do something to get right, grace says it has been done.  But this is just the beginning.

The Christian culture I grew up in tends to be obsessed with getting into the faith.  We had altar calls and constant pressure to confess your sins and come to Jesus.  The stories of kids who did this year after year at summer camp or a Christian music festival are myriad.  Unfortunately, the “what comes next” has often been limited to a few rules (don’t get drunk, don’t have premarital sex) and a few practices (read the Bible and pray).

Further, when I talk to people I often get the impression they expect God to just zap them with new desires and choices.  Many seem surprised when I teach that growing in faith is similar to growing in any other discipline – it takes work and effort.  You can’t sit down at a piano and play Beethoven.  You can’t sit down at a car and change the oil and brakes.  You can’t sit down at a computer and write a good book.  All these skills – music, mechanics, writing and the rest – require hard work and effort.  It is not earning your salvation, it is making an effort to grow closer to the God who saved you.  As Dallas Willard says, grace is opposed to earning, not effort.

Speaking of Dallas Willard, his book The Spirit of the Disciplines is amazingly helpful on this subject.  He writes:

One must train as well as try. An athlete may have all the enthusiasm in the world; he may “talk a good game.” But talk will not win the race. Zeal without knowledge or without appropriate practice is never enough. Plus, one must train wisely as well as intensely for spiritual attainment.

To undertake the disciplines was to take our activities— our lives— seriously and to suppose that the following of Christ was at least as big a challenge as playing the violin or jogging.

We are going to spend the rest of the semester studying, and hopefully putting into practice, the Spiritual Disciplines.  In addition to the Bible, I will be heavily relying on Richard Foster’s classic, Celebration of Discipline.  To give a taste of his book, he speaks of the relation of God’s work and our work:

“Inner righteousness is a gift from God to be graciously received. The needed change within us is God’s work, not ours.  The demand is for an inside job, and only God can work from the inside.  We cannot attain or earn this righteousness of the kingdom of God; it is a grace that is given…if  all human strivings end in moral bankruptcy (and having tried it, we know it is so), and if righteousness is a gracious gift from God (as the Bible clearly states), then is it not logical to conclude that we must wait for God to come and transform us?  Strangely enough, the answer is no..  God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace.  The disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us” (6-7)

There are many disciplines to discuss – prayer, fasting, worship, service and more.  The one to start with is meditation – learning to hear God’s voice and obey God’s word.  Foster writes that this discipline cannot be learned in a book, it is learned by practice.  I read like 50 books a year, so this is very difficult for me!  I have never had problems reading the Bible, but sitting in silence and listening for God has always been a struggle.  I suspect I am influenced by my culture and feel I am not doing anything so it is a waste of time.

Foster says that God speaks to those who are willing to listen.  That is those who open the door to God’s knocking (Revelation 3:20).  People who hear from God in scripture are not spiritual superstars, they are normal people who listen.  We need to take the time to get away from the noise of our society, perhaps in the early morning quiet (it worked for Jesus, see Mark 1:35) and listen.

Meditation is not necessarily just sitting there and listening for a literal voice.  It is closely connected to both prayer and Bible reading.  But rather then reading a large chunk of scripture, meditation works best when a few lines are focused on.  This is something I have been trying to do more lately, because I tend to read a lot!  I try to pick out a line or two that sticks out and I repeat it to myself.  I ask God why it sticks out and ponder what God may be teaching me through this.

I encourage you to take some time this weekend – get somewhere quiet, read a bit of scripture, maybe get out into nature and listen for what God may speak to you in the stillness.

What We Did With all the Apples

Two weeks ago Junia and I picked 20 pounds of apples.  When we got home I looked at all the apples, looked at Junia and said, “what are we going to do with all these apples!”  She said, “eat ’em”.

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Yes, she’s a smart two-year-old.  But since it would take a while to eat that many apples, and since most were Granny Smith and thus not the best for eating raw, we set out to prepare them in other ways.

First, we made a delicious apple coffee cake from our cookbook.

Second, we ate one apple.  Junia wanted skin off, I wanted skin on.

Third, we made apple pie filling and put it in the freezer.  Now we have four apple pies ready to be made and enjoyed.

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Fourth, we made applesauce.  For this I used half of the yellow delicious and half granny smith.  Granny Smith are not the best for applesauce, but I hadn’t planned ahead!  The guy at the orchard asked if I wanted baking apples or eating apples and I said baking.  So Granny Smith it was.  I found a recipe for applesauce with the skin on (since the skin is filled with good nutrients).  We added some sugar but it is still not that sweet.  But sugar is over-rated, and can always be added when eating it.  Now that I’m writing this, I can’t find the recipe we used.  We used the slow cooker, which was fun.

Fourth, we ate two more apples.

Fifth, we made a beet salad with apples: Beet, Orange and Apple Salad.  The only change we made was we didn’t have any oranges and we added some cheese.

Sixth, we made squash apple bake.  This will go great with ice cream.

Overall, our apple picking, preparing and eating was a success.

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Spiritual and Religious Discussion Night (Q and A!)

Last night at CSF we had a discussion night.  Or a question and answer night.  Honestly, we call it a lot of things.  It is something we do 1-2 times each semester.  We go off of our usual format and simply talk about whatever questions and topics students want to talk about.  Students each get a slip of paper to write down their question.  I am the one who gets to give an answer but on most questions  I give people a chance to offer their input.

There have been times in the past when we get a lot of new people, including many who are not Christians.  Last night we had a few visitors, but it appeared that most in the room would consider themselves Christians.  So the list of questions below can provide a small window into the sorts of questions students on secular campus who are Christians are asking.  I am sure on another night or in another place the questions might be different.  That said, I find it somewhat surprising that certain topics are absent (creation/evolution).

Here are the questions we go last night:

How do we know if the voice we hear is God’s and not our own?

Since I am a Christian, how can I not conform to the ways of my non-Christian friends?

Why do some people not like to keep their child so that someone else has to adopt them?

Why do parents give up their kids? Why can’t God perfect us to be good parents and kids?

Why is there evil in the world?

I have a Christian friend who is bisexual.  How do I tell them that what they are doing is against God?

Is it okay to be gay?

Are you allowed to date at a young age?  Is there anything in the Bible against it?

How does Islam differ from Christianity? What are the key beliefs of Islam?

When you get a cold, do you really need to pray for healing?  After all, non-Christians recover just as quickly without prayer.

Can women be pastors? Explain.

What are your opinions on modesty? (Male and Female)

Why do Christians think they are better then others?

The Bible tells us that “thou shalt not kill”. How do things like war factor into this? Is war a good thing or is it bad?

Do people such as police officers who may shoot/kill someone suffer the punishment of murder, as said in the 10 commandments?

Do you think native american indians will be saved even though they used to believe in many gods and didn’t know Christ? How come?

Alcohol and Assault

Yesterday I came across this article by Emily Yoffe on Slate – “College Women: Stop Getting Drunk.”  Yoffe writes on how drunk women on college campuses are much more susceptible to male, often sober, sexual predators.  She is clear that she is not blaming women, assault is the man’s fault.  But choosing not to get drunk is one way a woman can protect herself.

Let’s be totally clear: Perpetrators are the ones responsible for committing their crimes, and they should be brought to justice. But we are failing to let women know that when they render themselves defenseless, terrible things can be done to them. Young women are getting a distorted message that their right to match men drink for drink is a feminist issue. The real feminist message should be that when you lose the ability to be responsible for yourself, you drastically increase the chances that you will attract the kinds of people who, shall we say, don’t have your best interest at heart. That’s not blaming the victim; that’s trying to prevent more victims.

In her article she mentions many cases of sexual assault where alcohol played a role, including most recently the horrifying story out of Maryville, Missouri.  She ends her article by reminding her target readers, female college students, that safety begins with them.

Articles like this take guts to write because it will be said she is blaming the victims.  Yoffe takes pains to say she is not, and I do not think she is.  It would have been great though to have a companion article with a similar title: “College Men: Stop Getting Drunk.”  If it is a woman’s responsibility to do as much as she possibly can to keep herself safe, it is a man’s responsibility to understand consent and not rape and assault women.

A little while ago (literally like 20 minutes) a friend of mine posted what could have been such a companion article by Tyler Kingkade from Huffington Post: “Why Don’t We Start Telling Men Not to Drink as Rape Prevention?”  This article brings up some good points in response to Yoffe’s.  But it seemed to be a little idealistic, specifically this phrase:

A woman should not have to fear that if she reaches a certain Blood Alcohol Level, one of her friends, acquaintances or even boyfriend might sexually assault her.

I fully agree, and I imagine Yoffe would too.  Yet we live in a world that is a broken mess and there are lots of things that we wish we did not have to fear that we do.  In a perfect world women could trust all men around them to treat them with respect.  On that note, in a perfect world there would be no rape or assault.  Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world

Kingkade ends his article by writing, “But in terms of stopping sexual violence, let’s start with teaching people not to rape and go from there.”  Yes. Amen.  And as we go from there we need to remember that not everyone will learn this lesson.  Because not everyone will learn this lesson, Yoffe’s argument still is helpful.

I try to be a realist.  I work with college students and I know (or at least think I know) how prevalent alcohol is on a college campus.  The majority of students get drunk and are not shy about it.  I’ve had students tell me about it…and I’m a pastor for goodness sake!  Again, we don’t live in a perfect world.  In a perfect world people wouldn’t need to drink themselves silly to have fun.  In a perfect world there’d be no more drunk driving or alcohol poisoning.

If we want to limit sex assaults in the real world we need to have a comprehensive view that includes points made by both Yoffe and Kingkade.  Like so many things, it is not an either/or, it is a both/and.  Such an approach would include lots of teaching.  Let’s teach our sons not to rape and assault women.  No means no.  For that matter, no response because she is too drunk to say “yes” also means no.  Let’s teach our sons and daughters that you can have fun without getting drunk and to remind them that bad things happen when you are drunk.  Stopping drinking on campus is not going to happen, but maybe we can begin to get people to drink a little less.  In this, we can also teach people how to be as safe as possible when partying.

And finally, let’s teach women that sexual assault is never, ever her fault: A Short Guide to who is to Blame in Cases of Sexual Assault

 

The Journal of John Woolman – A Not-Review

John Woolman was a Quaker who lived just prior to the American Revolution.  But he is not known for anything to do with that, for he was fighting a much bigger fight, speaking our against slavery while the vast majority of people in the colonies still accepted it.  Woolman did not just speak out about it, he put his words into action.  If he was employed to write a will for someone, he refused to write the portion of the will that spoke of ownership and passing on of slaves.  He encouraged the people to free their slaves.  During his travels he would often stay with other Quakers who were slaveholders.  In such situations, he insisted on paying for the hospitality he received.

You can read Woolman’s story in his journal.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – one of the best qualities of e-books is the cheap availability of classic works.  Maybe I would never have read Woolman’s journal, which would have been to my own detriment, if I had to buy a hard copy.  But at 99 cents?  I will go so far as to say any Christian with an e-reader ought to purchase this book.

Woolman’s journal does not just reveal his anti-slavery work.  It also sheds a light on a man who lived a simple, Christ-centered life.  His words on overcoming the desire to get more stuff and instead being content with just enough to meet your needs are beautiful and challenging:

My mind, through the power of truth, was in a good degree weaned from the desire of outward greatness, and I was learning to be content with real conveniences, that were not costly, so that a way of life free from much entanglement appeared best for me, though the income might be small. – The Journal of John Woolman, Quaker (and Other Selected Writings) (A Christian Classic!) (Kindle Locations 314-316).

Along with his thoughts on simplicity, I was struck by how he learned to be silent until led to speak by God.  It seemed that, like many of us, when he was younger he would often enter into an argument, believing he had the truth and had to share it (and in being against slavery, he was correct in this).  But over time he seemed to have learned, as we all need to, that there is a time to be silent and a time to speak:

It was my concern from day to day to say neither more nor less than what the spirit of truth opened in me, being jealous over myself lest I should say anything to make my testimony look agreeable to that mind in people which is not in pure obedience to the cross of Christ – The Journal of John Woolman, Quaker (and Other Selected Writings) (A Christian Classic!) (Kindle Locations 1224-1226).

I think his words in regards to business would also be good for Christian (or all) business leaders:

As he is the perfection of power, of wisdom, and of goodness, so I believe he hath provided that so much labor shall be necessary for men’s support in this world as would, being rightly divided, be a suitable employment of their time; and that we cannot go into superfluities, or grasp after wealth in a way contrary to his wisdom, without having connection with some degree of oppression, and with that spirit which leads to self-exaltation and strife, and which frequently brings calamities on countries by parties contending about their claims – The Journal of John Woolman, Quaker (and Other Selected Writings) (A Christian Classic!) (Kindle Locations 1439-1442).

I was renewedly confirmed in a belief, that if all our inhabitants lived according to sound wisdom, laboring to promote universal love and righteousness, and ceased from every inordinate desire after wealth, and from all customs which are tinctured with luxury, the way would be easy for our inhabitants, though they might be much more numerous than at present, to live comfortably on honest employments, without the temptation they are so often under of being drawn into schemes to make settlements on lands which have not been purchased of the Indians, or of applying to that wicked practice of selling rum to them – The Journal of John Woolman, Quaker (and Other Selected Writings) (A Christian Classic!) (Kindle Locations 1532-1536).

If this was a real review, I could be a bit critical.  The journal is a bit slow at times, with a lot of “we traveled here and slept here and met this person and so on and so forth.”  Some questions are left unanswered as the journal only provides a glimpse into his life that a biography would fill.  One example is his wife.  What happened to her?  He does not mention her much, that is for sure.  But such things aside, this is a Christian classic.  So I’ll just leave you with a few (a bunch!) more quotes that I found challenging, thought-provoking and inspiring:

The love of ease and gain are the motives in general of keeping slaves, and men are wont to take hold of weak arguments to support a cause which is unreasonable.

Travelling up and down of late, I have had renewed evidences that to be faithful to the Lord, and content with his will concerning me, is a most necessary and useful lesson for me to be learning; looking less at the effects of my labor than at the pure motion and reality of the concern, as it arises from heavenly love. In the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength; and as the mind, by humble resignation, is united to Him, and we utter words from an inward knowledge that they arise from the heavenly spring, though our way may be difficult, and it may require close attention to keep in it, and though the matter in which we may be led may tend to our own abasement; yet, if we continue in patience and meekness, heavenly peace will be the reward of our labors.

 

True charity is an excellent virtue; and sincerely to labor for their good, whose belief in all points doth not agree with ours, is a happy state.

To keep a watchful eye towards real objects of charity, to visit the poor in their lonesome dwelling-places, to comfort those who, through the dispensations of Divine Providence, are in strait and painful circumstances in this life, and steadily to endeavor to honor God with our substance, from a real sense of the love of Christ influencing our minds, is more likely to bring a blessing to our children, and will afford more satisfaction to a Christian favored with plenty, than an earnest desire to collect much wealth to leave behind us; for, “here we have no continuing city”; may we therefore diligently “seek one that is to come, whose builder and maker is God.”

To consider mankind otherwise than brethren, to think favours are peculiar to one nation, and to exclude others, plainly supposes a darkness in the understanding: for as God’s love is universal, so where the mind is sufficiently influenced by it, it begets a likeness of itself, and the heart is enlarged towards all men.

If we, by the operation of the Spirit of Christ, become heirs with him in the kingdom of his Father, and are redeemed from the alluring counterfeit joys of this world, and the joy of Christ remain in us; to suppose that one in this happy condition can, for the sake of earthly riches, not only deprive his fellow creatures of the sweetness of freedom, which, rightly used, is one of the greatest temporal blessings, but there with neglect using proper means for their acquaintance with the Holy Scriptures, and the advantage of true religion, seems at least a contradiction to reason.

 

Getting Off on the Right Foot…And Then the Next Step

Junia absolutely loves walking Skippy around the neighborhood.  Obviously she cannot hold his leash on her own as he would easily pull her over…and probably keep going.  The solution was to attach one leash to Skippy and attach a second leash to that leash.  So Junia holds the second leash while I, holding the first leash, am controlling the beast. Walking Skippy is the highlight of our day.

Unfortunately, many old trees with large roots have led to our sidewalks being quite uneven.  This means there are many potential places one can trip.  Junia has tripped and fallen many times on our walks.  Thankfully, as she has gotten older and better at walking, Junia trips less.  Now when she trips she is usually able to regain her balance without falling.  Trouble comes when she is watching something else – a car drive by, another dog or person, a cool looking leaf or bug – while walking.  Then…bam!  Down she goes.

It reminds me of a semester in ministry on campus. Heading into October, one month is in the books.  The first month of school seemed like a whirlwind of events and meeting new students.  Through this a lot of new students have joined CSF.  I was amazed at how many we reached during our orientation activities.  We handed out 300 care packages, gave ice cream to 100 people and had nearly 50 at our cookout!  You could say that we planted many seeds.

Our first “official” CSF meeting had about 15 new people.  The next one had some of those same people along with a few additional new people.  Some of these new students have already taken the step beyond just coming to weekly meetings by joining us in volunteering at an after-school program in the city and traveling to State College to work the concession stand for a PSU football game.

Looking back on the first month, I am very impressed.  It seems like one of our more solid first months since I have been with CSF Berks.

That said, it is just a beginning.

Hard to believe, the semester is already 1/3 over.  Students are extremely busy.  It would be tempting to rest on our laurels and do the bare minimum.  But it is vital for CSF students to go the extra mile to make an impact on campus.  So far, they are.

Two of our leaders who are dorm residents are working hard at creating a small group gathering in the dorms during weekends.  Many students head home for weekends and those left behind say it is boring to be here.  There is an opportunity for these guys to create something that could really impact people.  This past Sunday they organized a volleyball game.  Next time they do it they also want to include some Bible study.  Pray for them in this new ministry.

Another students is working on building a commuter Bible study.  This is another opportunity for something good, a way to reach the students who might not be on campus in the evenings for our normal CSF activities.

We are planing additional service and outreach opportunities in October.  One of the goals the leaders had was to do more of this as they felt CSF often drifts into an inward focused, even cliquish, community.  We are trying hard to resist this, but I know it will only get more challenging for students to dedicate time to such things as their schoolwork piles up.

Yes, we got off on the right foot but that is only the first step.  Like Junia walking down the bumpy sidewalks in our neighborhood, if we aren’t careful, if our focus drifts, we could find ourselves tripping and falling.  Pray for CSF to keep their eyes and hearts focused on Jesus Christ so they can work out his mission on campus.

(Each month I send out an update from PSU Berks where I do campus ministry to all my supporters; this article is the primary article in my October newsletter. If you are interested in being added to my mailing list, contact me.)