Tag Archives: Ministry

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Continued)

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 Reflections at the end of a 20 Year Ministry
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As I have been up packing books and sorting out papers in preparation for the move of my church office home, I have had plenty of time to remember and reflect on the ground that we’ve been covered together in these last 20 years, and I am sharing some of the highlights this week in my blog. This certainly isn’t everything that these last 20 years have been about, but here are some of the things that are closest to my heart, in no particular order.

  • The Leaders

In my first full-time church ministry back in Idaho in the summer of 1974 I heard a guest speaker at a church conference say that the difference between churches are their leaders, and that a church will never rise above the vision and passion of those leaders. Well, here 44 years later I fully understand the truth of these statements. Northway has long been gifted with skilled and visionary leaders. The Elders, Diaconate, Ministry Chairs, Trustees, and Executive Committees that I have had the privilege of working with over these past 20 years have been among the finest Christians I have ever known. You have consistently blessed me and this church with your commitments, and you have kept faith with the part of God’s purpose that has been placed in our hands as a community of faith. “Well done Thou good and faithful servants.”  

  • The Communion of the Saints

The closing scene of the movie “Places in the Heart” shows a communion service taking place in a small country church and all of the characters from the story – the living and the dead – are gathered there in the pews as the trays of bread and cup are being passed.  The doctrine of the Communion of the Saints refers to the way that the church exists in two dimensions at once across time – those Christians who are alive on earth right here and now in this present moment, and those Christians who have died and are now alive in God’s nearer presence.  Hymn #654 in the Chalice Hymnal is based on a poem that was written by Frederick Hosmer in 1882 –

I cannot think of them as dead, who walk with me no more;
along the path of life I tread they are but gone before…

And still their silent ministry within my heart hath place,
as when on earth they walked with me, and met me face to face…

Their lives are made forever mine; what they to me have been
has left henceforth its seal and sign engraven deep within…

Mine are they by an ownership nor time nor death can free;
for God hath given to love to keep its own eternally…

In my mind and heart I see the faces of all those dear Northway members who are no longer present with us physically, but who remain alive and dynamically present with us still. As St. Augustine put it, “we never lose those we love when we trust them to the God whose love we never lose.”

  • The Ordinations

By my count there have been 12 Northway people ordained to Christian ministry in the past 20 years, there is 1 person who is currently scheduled to be ordained in May, and there are 2 people who are currently in the ordination process. 15 men and women have gone out, or soon will go out into lives of Christian ministry from the membership of this congregation in the last 20 years! That’s a remarkable record, and I am grateful for each one of these servants we have had a hand in shaping for ministry.

  • The Ministerial Team

From Richard English, Marilyn Dickson, and Rod Fisher when I first got here in 1997 to Mark Bender, Barry Preston, and Megan Turner today, I have been blessed with the best ministerial partners anybody could ever ask for.  And in-between then and now – Jack Arrington, Rochelle Richards, Lea McCracken, Micah James, Shari Sims, Jennie Churchman, J.T. Tucker, Casey Tanguay, Jamie Plunkett, Cheryl Scramuzza, Mike Johnston, George Patterson, Leslie Irwin, Zena McAdams, Kristal Seid, Regina Franklin-Basye, Ruby Henry, Dana Lobaugh, Casey McCullough, Bill Morgan, John O’Neal, and Justin West have all shared part of this journey with me.  I respect each one of these people deeply and honor their gifts and graces greatly.  What joy is mine to have labored in the Vineyard beside each one of them.  Of special note is Margaret Mulvey-Claiborne who was at the organ when I arrived in 1997 and who will be at the organ after this Sunday when I am finished.  Thank-you my dear and talented friend.

                           

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A Long Obedience in the Same Direction

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 Reflections at the end of a 20 Year Ministry
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What a wonderful party we had after church last Sunday. Mary Lynn and I are both overwhelmed by the affection that you have extended to us, by the appreciation that you have voiced for us, and by the affirmations of this ministry that you have offered to us so generously.

Half of my ordained ministry has been right here with you at Northway.  I spent close to 20 years in ordained ministry at Lubbockview Christian Church in Lubbock (1979-81),  First Christian Church of Plainview, Texas (1981-84), Memorial Drive Christian Church in Houston, Texas (1984-1993), and First Christian Church of Amarillo (1993-97), Texas, before getting to Dallas. The Central Christian Church in Pocatello, Idaho, before starting seminary, and the Melissa Christian Church up in Collin County during seminary were the two churches that first took a chance on me when I was young and green, and I would not have gotten here without their faith and support.  All of the credit and none of the blame for my ministry can be given to these seven congregations.

The gift of a long pastorate is the depth of the relationships that get formed, and the ups and downs, the twists and turns in the journey of faith that gets shared. Eugene Peterson in one of his book of sermons, quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, talked about “the long obedience in the same direction” that’s involved in faithfulness. I thank Northway for the opportunity to have shared this “long obedience in the same direction” with you.  Mary Lynn and I will always be grateful, and while we won’t be around, we will always think of Northway as our spiritual “home.”

As I have been up packing books and sorting through papers in preparation for the move of my office home, I have had plenty of time to remember and reflect on the ground that we’ve been covered together in these last 20 years, and over the next few days I would like to share some of the highlights in the last week of my church blog. This certainly isn’t everything that these last 20 years have been about, but here are some of the things that are closest to my heart, in no particular order –

  • Bible Study

This week I will conduct my last Bible Study of my ministry at Northway. This all began on a Sunday evening in the fall of 1997 and has continued uninterrupted ever since.  All four Gospels in harmony, the Gospel of Luke all by itself, Acts, Romans (twice), I & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, 1 & 2 Peter, 1,2,3 John, Jude, and Revelation (twice) – we have studied every word of the New Testament together over the past 20 years!   It has been one of my highest aspirations to be a “V.D.M.” – a “Verbi Dei minister” – a “Minister of the Word of God” – and you have made this aspiration actual for me.

  • The Northway “Reservoir” and “River”

Churches exist in two forms – as “reservoirs” and as “rivers.” The church as a “reservoir” exists as a core community of people who belong, support, and participate in its life and work. The Northway “reservoir” is committed, connected, and involved. It is your loyal prayers, presence, gifts, and service that upholds Northway. Thank-you for your faithfulness. The church as a “river” refers to all of those people who pass between its banks of ministry and mission on their way from somewhere else to somewhere else. These are the people who were with us for a while, and who then moved on. While they did not become, or remain, part of our “reservoir,” we were nevertheless allowed to share the journey of faith with them for a little while, and we were able to contribute to their sacred search for meaning, direction, and purpose even as they made real contributions to our life and faith as a church. This is a privilege that we should never take for granted or discount because they didn’t stay. I am grateful for every opportunity that we have had to travel with all of these beloved people for a while together.

  • The Ministry of Place and the Property Sale

From the athletic fields and green spaces that have served our community as parks for years, to the Meals on Wheels that are delivered daily from our front parking lot, to the community groups like the Hillcrest High School Young Life, and AA, and the early morning boys Bible Club for the families at the school next door that meet in our facilities, to our church’s weekday children’s program, to the property sale and the new possibilities for reaching out to and meeting our neighbors through the school that we now share this block with, I am grateful for the way that our campus has had a ministry and makes a powerful witness of hospitality, cooperation, compassion, and concern for human thriving and well-being.  To be continued…

 

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“To Know Jesus Christ More Intimately…”

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 “At Covenant, we believe a Seminary Education is successful only if – at its end–
the student knows Jesus Christ more intimately than at its beginning.”

This is the mission statement of Covenant Seminary in St. Louis. This is a school that was, and still is intimately associated with the ministry and legacy of Francis Schaeffer, the teacher on whom I cut my theological teeth. I am not the same person that I was when I first started seriously reading Francis Schaeffer as a college freshman in 1971, but in many ways he set the theological table at which I still sit and from which I still feast, and I am deeply grateful for the ways that he first pushed my thinking, and for the ways that he continues to shape my believing.

Because of this connection, when I first saw this mission statement in an advertisement for Covenant Seminary in Christianity Today some 40 years ago, I immediately clipped it and pinned it to the cork board that I keep on the wall beside my desk.  I appreciated its clarity of purpose, and it wasn’t long before I found that I had adopted it, and adapted it to fit my own sense of personal mission.

 “My ministry will be successful only if – at its end – the people in my care
know Jesus Christ more intimately than they did before.”

Yesterday, the church I serve, celebrated my 20th year with them as their pastor. It was a wonderful day. Half of my ministry has spent at this one church.  I could not be more blessed.   They have been patient, responsive, resilient, discerning, missional, and pastoral throughout this long journey we have made together.  We have shared joys and sorrows, accomplishments and failures, growth and decline, renewal and resolve. In the climactic moment in the movie “As Good as it Gets,” the Jack Nicholson character tells the Helen Hunt character, “You make me want to be a better man,” and this is what Northway has consistently done for me, in me.  This church has made me want to be a better minister.

When I am asked how you stay at the same church for 20 years, the first thing I say is that it has almost everything to do with the church and very little to do with the minister. In 80 years this church that I serve has had just 3 senior ministers — 3!  My immediate pastoral predecessor served here 20 years, and his pastoral predecessor served here for more than 40!  That’s a remarkable record of steadfastness.  Quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, Eugene Peterson named his collection of sermons on the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134) A Long Obedience.  This comes from the Nietzsche quote –

The essential thing “in heaven and earth” is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.

Through all of the “ups and downs” and the “ins and outs” of a ministry over two decades, a church must consciously cultivate this “long obedience” mindset if a minister is to survive, let alone thrive.  I have been given this gift from this church that I have been privileged to serve for these past 20 years.  They have “kept on keeping on.” But this same gift of perseverance, or “stick-to-it-iveness” as the chair of a search committee I once visited with put it, must also be consciously cultivated in a minister’s heart if s/he is to remain on that pastoral path of the long obedience in the same direction.

I keep a note card in one of the prayer books that I regularly use on which I wrote down the advice that Dr. Charles Kemp gave us in seminary about the four ways that we would find “repose” in our ministries. He said that peace in a minister’s heart comes by way of:

  1. Perseverance – That is, working steadily toward the goal;
  2. Patience – Ministry is relational, and relationships take time, so suppress the “I want it now” mentality that is always trying to take over our expectations and desires;
  3. Perspective – Always keep the long view of an entire ministry in mind, and not the just the present moment. Celebrate the moments of collaboration and cooperation; and
  4. Prayerfulness – Never forget that this is the Lord’s Work — we plant the seeds and we water the fields, but it is God who gives the growth (I Corinthians 3:6).

I know that I have reached the milestone of 20 years at Northway through perseverance, patience, perspective and prayerfulness, all that, and one more thing – purposefulness. From that first day on the job 20 years ago, to the anniversary celebration last Sunday, I have known who I am, why I am here, and what I have been called to do.

“My ministry will be successful only if – at its end – the people in my care
will know Jesus Christ more intimately than they did before.”

In the Reformed spiritual tradition (which I believe is our most natural spiritual habitat as Disciples) it was not uncommon for ministers to put the letters “V.D.M.” after their names.  F.F. Bruce explained the meaning of these three little letters –

“No letters indicating academic achievement or public honor can match in dignity the letters ‘V.D.M.’ applied to the pastor’s name in some Reformed churches – ‘Verbi Divini Minister’ – ‘Servant of the Word of God.’” 

A “V.D.M.” — That’s all I have ever wanted to be.  And when I am done, the most that I could possibly hope might be said of me is – “We know God in Jesus Christ just a little bit better because he was here with us for a little while.”  And I understand that the only way for me to be able do this – the only way that I know how to help people become “just a little bit better acquainted with God in Jesus Christ” – is to lead them to the Scriptures, and to let it facilitate the transformative encounter with Christ who is the living Word who changes how we think, what we value, why we act, and who we are.  DBS +

___________________________________________________________________________________________                                                           The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.
Isaiah 40:8

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Seven Reasons Why I think the Disciples of Christ Are Right

It is General Assembly week for the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).   We are so focused on our congregational life and mission here at Northway that I fear that it is sometimes easy for us to miss the life and mission of the larger church, the General Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada.  What follows here is part of a keynote address that I presented for a leadership training event in the Northeast Area of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Southwest Region back in 2004.   What I say here was true for me in 2004, and it is still true for me today in 2017.

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chaliceBack in the 1920’s and 30’s a series of books called New Testament Christianity were privately published and freely distributed to the ministers of our churches.  It was our church’s version of The Fundamentals that were published at just about the same time and for exactly the same reason – to keep the church faithful to its historic convictions.

In the second volume of New Testament Christianity there is an essay by H.T. Morrison entitled “Twelve Reasons Why Disciple of Christ Are Right.” Now, that particular essay from 1926 doesn’t wear especially well today.  Its style is a tad bit more confrontational and its author a wee bit more argumentative than I am personally comfortable with being, but I sure don’t object to the concept.

If we didn’t think that we’re right about some things as a church, then why on earth, or should I say, why in the name of heaven, would we want to be Disciples of Christ?  I don’t know about you, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to be, or remain, part of a church that I thought was fundamentally wrong on the basic questions of faith.  So, what are some of the reasons why I think that the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is right?

Well, here are seven of them –

  • First of all, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about having no creed but Christ.  As a church we’ve put all of our theological eggs in just one basket, and I think that’s proper. We believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and we relate to Him personally as our Lord and Savior. Ours is a decidedly Christ-centered faith; of Him we’re passionately certain, and everything else flows from that basic commitment. I think that’s right.  

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  • Second, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the authority of the Bible. We’re not much interested as a church in a debate about alternate doctrines of the inspiration of Scripture. Don’t tell me about how you think the Bible got inspired; instead show me what you’re prepared to do with what the Bible actually teaches.   Our founders changed their settled convictions about the proper form and candidates for baptism once they got better clarity about what the Bible taught. Many of us in our lifetimes have changed our view on place of women in Christian ministry by reading the Bible more carefully. And our changing perspectives about human sexuality are being driven not by a neglect of Scripture as a church, but rather by a more careful reading of the Scriptures. This practical approach to the authority of Scripture serves us well as a church. We want to be doers of the Word. I think that’s right

 

  • Third, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the Gospel Ordinances – Baptism by immersion and weekly Lord’s Supper. When somebody voiced a desire to have a deeper experience of God’s grace and Christ’s presence, our church’s founders always sent them to the gospel ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. They thought that it was spiritually silly for a Christian to think that he or she could be spiritually vital apart from the means of grace that Christ Himself instituted for our spiritual well-being. And nothing’s changed. Ours is a vital spirituality firmly rooted and grounded in the Gospel ordinances. I think that’s right.

 

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  • Fourth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the unity of the church. The late Evangelical theologian Francis Schaeffer used to say that Christian unity is the “final apologetic” of the Gospel. Jesus Christ gave the world the right to examine the love of Christians and the unity of the church as the evidence of the truth of the Gospel. The church’s witness to the unconditional love of God simply has no credibility when we can’t get along with or won’t cooperate with our brothers and sisters in other churches. We call the disunity of the church a sin. I think that’s right.

 

  • Fifth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the freedom of conscience and the right of private interpretation under the Lordship of Christ. As Disciples we cherish the freedom that we have to search the Scriptures for ourselves and to arrive at our own settled convictions without the overbearing interference of others. As individual Christians and congregations we want to be able to work out our life of faithfulness under the Lordship of Christ and in response to the guidance of the Word and Spirit. And this right that we claim for ourselves, we are in turn required to accord to others. In my relationship with you, I must begin with the assumption that you are just as committed to Jesus Christ as I am, and that you are just as concerned as I am about being faithful to Him. This community of faith is not created or maintained by an authoritarian insistence upon conformity in doctrine or morality, but in our common commitment to listen carefully to Jesus. I think that’s right.

 

  • Sixth, I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about not forcing a choice between the church’s spiritual mission of witness and the social mission of service. Evangelism and justice are twin mandates of Christ’s church. We are commanded to preach Christ and to feed the hungry; to make disciples and to shelter the homeless; to teach everything that Christ commanded and to tend to the sick; to baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and to work for the liberation of the oppressed.   Like “the two blades of a pair of scissors or the two wings of a bird” or the two pedals of a bike, Christ’s Church has two mandates. We are called to save souls and to serve society. We refuse to choose between them as a church, and I think that’s right.

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  • And finally I believe that we’re right as Disciples of Christ about the ministry of every believer. There is nothing that I am qualified or required to do as a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) that you are not qualified and required to do as a member as well, and that’s Biblical. I can baptize; you can baptize. I can preach; you can preach. I can preside at the Table; you can preside at the Table. I can lead a person to Christ; you can lead a person to Christ. We believe that Christian ministry has been placed in the hands of every believer. You were ordained in the waters of baptism and equipped for ministry when you were filled with the Holy Spirit. Part of God’s eternal purpose has been entrusted to you. Each one of us has a place in the ministry of the church. And I think that’s right.

You don’t have to agree with me about what appears on my list, that’s what the freedom of conscience and the right of private interpretation under the Lordship of Christ means. But then again, you’d better have a list of your own, or start working on one, because that’s a big part of the responsibility of being a Disciple.   It was Socrates who said that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” And I would argue that an unexamined church is not worth joining.   If you conclude that the Disciples are wrong, then, for conscience sake, you need to find a church that you think is right. And if you conclude that the Disciples are right, then you need to start acting like it — get excited, talk about it, and be prepared to make some sacrifices for it. And if you just don’t know, then isn’t it time to start figuring it out for yourself?   DBS +

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“We Do Not Lose Heart”

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Archibald Hart, the longtime Dean of the Graduate School of Psychology of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, said that he thought that depression was an occupational hazard of ministry. In his 1984 book Coping with Depression in the Ministry and Other Helping Professions (Word), Dr. Hart explained –

The work of ministry, when it is undertaken with great sincerity and earnestness, is bound to open the way to attacks of despondency. The weightiness of feeling responsible for the souls of others and of longing to see others experience the fullness of God’s gift; the disappointment of seeing believers turn cold and pull away; the heartbreak of watching a married couple destroy each other, unable to utilize love and the grace of God in repairing the broken relationships – all will take their toll on sensitive and dedicated ministers. (17)

In a really insightful essay on ministry that he wrote back in 2011, Kevin DeYoung, one of the leaders of the “young, restless and Reformed” Movement in the church today, wrote about Paul’s “Apostolic Anxiety” (http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/apostolic-anxiety/). He began it by saying that 2 Corinthians 11:28 had always been one of the stranger Bible verses to him, that is, until he became a minister himself. This verse is preceded in 2 Corinthians chapter 11 by Paul’s recital of the very real and tangible threats to his life that he had faced as a minister –

24 Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.

And then, at the zenith of his list comes this –

28 And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.

And Kevin writes –

Ever since I became a pastor, I have found unusual comfort in this verse… I’m not surprised that Paul felt daily pressure for the churches… every earnest minister feels this burden for the church… Ask any pastor who really takes his work seriously and he will tell you of the pressures he feels in ministry — people in crisis, people leaving, people coming, people disappointed by him, people disappointing to him… And most pastors feel a burden for all those other things that they could be doing: more evangelism, more for the poor, more for missions, more to address global concerns, and more to address social concerns. There are pastors reading this who wonder if the church is still responsive to their preaching; if the leadership will ever be responsive to their leading; and if the congregation will ever grow like the churches they hear so much about. On top of all this, every pastor has his own personal hurts, his own personal mistakes, and his own spiritual health to attend to. We are all weak.

Some say that the primary theme of 2 Corinthians – one of Paul’s most personal and heartfelt letters – is about how easy it is for us to “lose heart” as people of faith.  It’s not just ministers who suffer from this “Apostolic Anxiety,” it’s everyone who loves Christ, belongs to the church, knows the Great Commission and is trying to reach their world.  2 Corinthians 4:1 reads like the letter’s thesis statement, and the bedrock of a Christian’s assurance –

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.

To this end, throughout 2 Corinthians Paul spoke encouragement into the lives and ministries of Christians who were growing discouraged in the struggle of faithfulness –

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God.  Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God,  who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant.. (2 Corinthians 3:4-6)

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.  We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed… (2 Corinthians 4:7-9)

So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure,  because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.  (2 Corinthians 12:8-10)

Recently, in a moment of my own “Apostolic Anxiety” and ministerial despondency, in my devotional readings I stumbled across a pastoral word “to a discouraged minister” from a ministerial colleague of a previous generation, Friedrich Zündel (1827–1891).  His counsel has provided me with some solid handholds of encouragement on the steep climb and sharp winds of ministry in the church today, and so, with hope that they will help you as they have helped me, I offer them now to you knowing just how hard this life can be. DBS +

“To a Discouraged Minister”

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Friedrich Zündel (1827–1891
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When difficulties pile up before you like insurmountable mountains… When behind you, you see nothing but failures.  When before you, you see nothing but trouble . . . 

  1. Do what is at hand to do.  Consider each single day to be your appointed task.  Leave to God the care of the future.
  2. Don’t desire to harvest.  You are only a sower.
  3. Remember that on the island of Nias the missionaries prayed for 25 years for an awakening.
  4. If you can be comfort and strength to even one single person, then even fifty years of no success have not been in vain.
  5. It is no help to a struggling person for you to be annoyed with him or her.  What he or she needs is seeking love.
  6. Even for Paul, the “thorn in the flesh” remained.  His grace is sufficient . . . 
  7. Christ can fight his battles even with broken swords.
  8. It is not ability but faithfulness that counts (I Corinthians 4:2).  “He dared to believe his way through the deepest gloom.”  

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First, you have to show up…

songIt was an off-handed comment made by my college professor of Old Testament, Dr. Song Nai Rhee at Northwest Christian College.  We were looking at the book of Job, specifically at the “pastoral malpractice” of Job’s three friends – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite (Job 2:11).  Dr. Rhee contrasted the power of their initial silence (Job 2:13) with the foolishness of their subsequent “lectures” throughout the rest of the book.

Dr. Rhee related a story about a time that he went to visit the parents of a student who had tragically died in an accident.  A modest man, Dr. Rhee had arrived at the house of sadness without great fanfare, and sat quietly with the grieving parents for a while.  He didn’t say much.  He simply sat with them in their grief, and then he took his leave.  Weeks later he told us that he received a thank-you note from those parents saying that of all the visits that they had received in their time of loss and sadness, that none had meant more to them, or done more to actually help them, than had Dr. Rhee’s.  And then he told us, budding ministers one and all, don’t worry about what you are going to say, just go.  The words you speak are far less important than the fact that you are there.

Later I would hear this idea discussed as the ministry of presence.  At the School of World Mission at Fuller where I started Seminary, they often talked about the three levels of ministry – Presence, Proclamation and Persuasion – the “3P’s.” And they argued that most of us begin thinking that ministry is going to consist mostly of Proclamation – telling people what’s true about God in Christ – and Persuasion –  trying to convince them to believe it.  But the fact of the matter is, they said, most of our ministry was going to consist of Presence.

We live in a word-resistant age, the late great John Claypool used to say. Before people are going to listen to what we have to say, they first have to see it credibly matter in our own lives. “Becoming” precedes “Broadcasting” in effective ministry. If people can’t see the difference that Jesus Christ makes in our lives, then they are never going to consider it as a viable option for their own lives no matter how intelligent and persuasive we have made the case for it.

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This was driven home to me last week.  Flying out to California to be with my sick sister for a couple of days, I finished reading David Well’s God in the Whirlwind (Crossway – 2014) on the plane.  I think this is an important book, a timely corrective to so much of the mush that I hear and read from so many these days.  It is a timely call to take the Biblical God of “holy-love” seriously once again.  Not an easy read, Dr. Wells (the Distinguished Senior Research Professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston) pushes his audience past the culturally soft and sentimental ways that we have popularly come to think about and relate to God (this book is the follow-up to his series of critical books – No Place for Truth [1993], God in the Wasteland [1994], Losing our Virtue [1998], and Above all Earthly Powers [2004]) about what culture has done to contemporary Christianity), and carefully reconstructed the traditional Biblical portrait of a holy God whom we have alienated by our choices and actions, who nevertheless reaches out to us in grace through Jesus Christ.  And in the final chapter, after carefully arguing his case, Dr. Wells challenged those who found it convincing to embrace it by consciously and consistently choosing to become servants of this living God.

It is Christian service – in all its many varieties – that provides the context that lends a human authenticity to the word of the Gospel.  …The reason, quite simply, is that authentic Christian practice signals the presence of another world, a different world, one that is making itself known in our own.  This other world, though, does not intrude loudly.  It does not raise its voice.  It is as gentle as an evening breeze.  This is the remarkable thing about God.  Though he holds all things together, though he is the very center of reality, though he is the very measure of all that is right and true, and though he sovereignly rules over all of life, he nevertheless stoops and makes himself known through others.

…Truth that is practiced is the way in which Christ is often glimpsed for the first time.  It is in his people.  It is here that he takes to himself hands and voices, hearts and feet in the cities of our world, on its corporations, its industry, its hospitals, and its places of suffering.  It is in those who serve, who serve in a thousand different ways, that glimmers of the holy-love of God are often seen for the first time by our skeptical world. (241-242)

We’ve talked about this before.

The “question-posing lives” that Christians live are the “secret” to effectiveness in the church’s ministry according to the Mennonite theologian Alan Kreider.  He has researched and written extensively about the early church.  And it is his conclusion that the early church gathered in worship to shape Christians with Christ-like virtues and values so that when they scattered back into the world to minister they would live “question-posing lives.”  Here is the gist of what he said –

If our lives are to speak, they must somehow be question-posing…

How distinctive are we? Does God want us to live differently? Is God calling us to live more oddly, more interestingly? Does God want us to live in such a way that others can see that we are odd, individually odd, corporately odd?

I have learned a lot from Anna Geyer, a student of mine at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s Iowa extension. Anna is a 30-year-old mother who lives with her husband and children north of the Black Diamond road, in an area where few Mennonites live. Anna tends a large garden, “The Cutting Garden,” to which people can come and cut flowers. They may pay if they wish. A wide variety of women gather at her kitchen table. Anna reports that people look at her and ask questions: “Anna, you’re living in a way that I’m not used to. Why are you and your husband so kind to each other? Why do your kids talk politely? …Why do you live like you do?” And at the right moment, which may take years in coming, Anna will say, “Because of Jesus.” Anna is a radical, who lives simply, who is committed to a peacemaking lifestyle, who is a good friend and an excellent listener. She has built up a remarkable network of women who don’t go to church but who want to talk about life — and about God. Anna is odd and interesting.

The New Testament writers don’t tell their readers to “evangelize” others. They tell them to live   with hope. And if we have hope, and express that hope in deviant behavior (“odd” and “interesting”), people will ask questions that lead to testimony. Peters puts this in classic form in his first letter: “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting of the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15). It is hopeful incarnation of the way of Christ that leads people to ask questions and demand explanation. If we are hopeful, people will want to know why. [www.mennonitemission.net]

Presence before Proclamation and Persuasion.   First, you have to show up… DBS +

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oldSomeone along the way – it might have been Eugene Peterson – suggested that every minister he knew could benefit mightily from reading Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days (1882), his diary from the days that he served the wounded and dying in Washington D.C. during the Civil War.  He went to Washington to look for his brother who had been reported missing at the battle of Bull Run, and then he stayed to do what he could for the men and boys from both sides of the conflict who crowded the hospitals there.  It is an extraordinary account of the importance of the ministry of presence and the power of simple acts of kindness in the healing of the body and soul of people broken by the tragedies of life.

If I were teaching men and women who were becoming ministers, I would make sure that every one of them had a copy of this book, and that they had read it.  And for any Christian who is thinking about taking up the ministry of visitation – and every Christian should be (Matthew 25:31-46) – I can think of few better places to begin preparation than this beautiful and deeply moving narrative.

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How Can You Think That?

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In my last post late last week – “Death with Dignity; Life with Faith” – I wrote about the recent death of Brittany Maynard by assisted suicide and the response that Kara Tippett, another young woman with the very same terminal illness, made to it.  I wrote to urge a little bit more “humility” and “modesty” in the way that we think and talk about public policy issues like euthanasia.  I was reacting to the way that I perceived some of my ministerial peers – both progressives and traditionalists – in their blogs and Facebook postings were using the story of this intensely personal tragedy to score ideological points in support of their predetermined political and social positions.  You don’t have to read very many of my blogs before you discover that this is one of my pet peeves.

I get terribly uneasy when one of my ministerial colleagues will fire off his or her “hot sports opinion” on a pressing social and/or political issue.  When my theologically and socially conservative friends do this, they make Christianity sound like a caucus of the Republican Party. And when my theologically and socially progressive friends do this, they make Christianity sound like a wing of the Democrat Party.  And I worry about how this creates premature barriers, keeping people from hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ, unless, of course, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is identical to the platform of the Democrats or the Republicans, in which case, please say so — add it to the Good Confession: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, my Lord and Savior, and that to be a Christian is to be a Republican, or a Democrat, as the case may be.

If am a politically conservative and my minister and church preaches the “Democrat Gospel,” then I am marginalized and I am left feeling and thinking that Christianity and my convictions are incompatible.  There’s no room for me at their Table.  And if I am politically progressive and my minister and church preaches the “Republican Gospel,” then I am equally marginalized and left feeling and thinking that Christianity and my convictions are just as incompatible. I am excluded from that Table as well.  We are fracturing the Body of Christ over “inferences” and the conscientious application of Biblical principles and not the gospel itself, which I thought was what the Stone/Campbell Movement came into existence to reject and avoid.   Unless voting for Greg Abbott, or Wendy Davis in the last gubernatorial election here in Texas, as your conscience and conclusion dictated, was one of the so-called “essentials” of Christianity about which we must be unified as Christians, then let it be a “non-essential” about which we are accorded freedom.

Because in our communities of faith we are going to have people of varied convictions and conclusions about the non-essentials, and I am called to be the pastor/teacher of them all, I have consciously and conscientiously taken the position of political neutrality as a pastor.  Oh, I vote, and I will encourage you to do the same.  But I will not tell you how I voted, or how to vote.  This is a matter to be decided in the sacred arena of “private interpretation” for us as Protestant Christians.  This is a Holy of Holies that we dare not barge into uninvited.  You have got to do your own believing, and your own deciding.  And I have to do mine.  My job as a pastor is not to “pass judgment on your opinions” (Romans 14:1), but rather to provide you with the tools to help you “think Christianly” on the great spiritual, moral and social issues of the day.

I get spiritually uneasy when my ministerial friends get political.  But if you insist on doing this, if you are going to tell us what to think about this candidate and that proposition on the ballot, then at least do us the courtesy of explaining why you think as you do.  Don’t just give us the “right” algebraic answer to the problem “de jour,” lay out the geometric theorems and proofs that got you to that answer!  Frankly, “how” you think about an issue is so much more useful than just a concise statement of “what” you think.  Nevertheless,  most of the socio-political conclusions I hear from my ministerial friends get stated with a “twitter-like” brevity devoid of any explanation.  They read like the “therefore let it be resolved” statement in the final paragraph of a General Assembly Resolution without the benefit of any “whereas” clauses that make the case for the recommended action

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Harry Blamires, a student of C.S. Lewis, in his book The Christian Mind (Seabury 1963) proposed this experiment –

Take some topic of current political importance.  Try to establish in your own mind what is the right policy to recommend in relation to it; and do so in detachment from any political alignment or prejudice; form your conclusions by “thinking Christianly.” Then discuss the matter with fellow-members of your congregation. The full loneliness of the “thinking Christian” will descend upon you.  It is not that people disagree with you. Some do and some don’t.  In a sense that doesn’t matter.  [What does matter is that] they will not “think Christianly.”   They will think pragmatically, politically, but not Christianly. In almost all cases you will find that views are almost wholly determined by political allegiance.  Though he does not face it, the loyalty of the average churchman to the Conservative Party or to the Labour Party is in practical political matters prior to his loyalty to the church [and her teachings]. (13)

Of course, all of this presumes that “thinking Christianly” is a category that we actually understand and accept.  The heart of Blamires’ book was an exploration of the “marks” of a mind that in fact “thinks Christianly,” and the presupposition of the whole argument was that God is there and is not silent.  In other words, we have access to what it is that God wants for us, for both our lives and our world.  “Thinking Christianly” means thinking God’s own thoughts after Him; having what the Apostle Paul called “the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16).

The foundation to any theology – a faithful word (“logos”) about God (“Theos”) – is the source of our “knowing.”  Whenever anybody says anything about who God is, or about what it is that God is doing, or about what it is that God wants from us, or of us, the right thing for us to ask is, “So, how do you know that about God?”  The “Quadrilateral,” a model for thinking usually associated with the name of John Wesley, the Founder of the Methodists, is a really helpful way to get at your answer to the question – “How do you know what you say you know about God?”

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According to the “Quadrilateral,” the four sources of our knowledge of God are: Scripture – the record of God’s own self-disclosure in history;   Experience – the stirrings of God in us and around us; Tradition – the stirrings of God in and around other people before us; and Reason – a critical reflection on the claims of both revelation and experience.  Most Christians have very little difficulty in acknowledging how Scripture, experience, tradition and reason have each made a very real contribution to their knowledge of God. The fuss comes when these four souces compete.  When a fight between the Quadrilateral’s four components breaks out, and they do all the time, which one functions as the referee? When reason and experience come to blows, or when tradition and Scripture start throwing punches, which one of the four is supposed to step up and settle the dispute?

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In this second diagram of the “Quadrilateral,”  Scripture is the bigger foundation on which the other three rest, and this has been the traditional perspective of Protestant Christianity.  Sometimes it’s referred to as “Sola Scriptura” – “Scripture Alone” – although more accurately it is more a matter of  “Prima Scriptura” – “Scripture First” or “Scripture Primary.”  In matters of faith and practice, we start with Scripture.  “What does the Bible say?”  is our first concern.  Clearly reason, tradition and experience all have their part to play in the process of understanding what the Bible says and means, but it all starts with Scripture.

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Francis Schaeffer called this the “watershed” – the “great divide” – in the church today.  Belief in an inspired and authoritative Bible sends theological and moral reflection in one direction just as the rejection of an inspired and authortative Bible sends theological and moral reflection off in another direction altogether.  So, coming back around to the tragic life and death of Brittany Maynard and the question of euthanasia (“the act or practice of killing someone who is very sick or injured in order to prevent any more suffering”), how does one “think Christianly” about it?

As a proponent of “Prima Scriptura,” “thinking Christianly” sends me to “Scripture First.”  “What does the Bible say?” is where I begin, and this is where it gets complicated.  When you turn to the Bible among the things that you discover pretty quickly is that there are any number of things in it that were at the center of the author’s concerns in the days when it was written that are no longer of much concern to us today, eating meat sacrificed to idols for instance.  Furthermore, there are things that are of great concern to us today that for whatever reason never get mentioned by the Biblical authors, euthanasia for example. The early church after the New Testament was written took a pretty public, consistent and aggressive stance on infanticide, and they were at the forefront of taking care of people who had been abandoned to death by their families in times of plague.  They did these things not because the Bible specifically told them to, but rather because doing such things were consistent with what the Bible did tell them about the sanctity of life.

The sanctity of life was well-established in their minds by what the Bible told them about all people being made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), about guarding the image of God in human beings (Genesis 9:1-7), about not committing murder (Exodus 20:13) and about our bodies being temples of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 3:16).  If ever there was a case to be made for euthanasia in the Bible, a “mercy killing,” Job in his anguish and distress would seem to be it.  But when it was just hinted at by Job’s wife, it was immediately rejected out of hand as being an act entirely inconsistent with faithfulness to God’s dealings with us (Job 2:9-10).  This same perspective weaves in and out of the book of Ecclesiastes (3:1-2; 7:17; 8:8).

But by far, the most compelling reflection about euthanasia from the Biblical perspective that I’ve ever come across was Oscar Cullmann’s Immortality of the Soul or Resurrection of the Dead: the Witness of the New Testament (Epworth Press – 1958).

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Socrates (470/469 BC – 399 BC); Jesus of Nazareth (7–2 BC to 30–33 AD)

A contrast between the death of Socrates as reported by Plato in “Phaedo,” and the death of Jesus, especially His travail in the Garden of Gethsemane as reported by the Synoptic Gospels – Matthew, Mark and Luke, becomes the frame in which Cullmann brought into focus the Biblical face of death as “the final enemy” (I Corinthians 15:26; Hebrews 2:14-15), and the culturally popular face of death as the liberator from the weakness and limitations of the body.  Euthanasia is a logical choice from the experience and perspective of Socrates, but not so much from the experience and perspective of Jesus Christ. The way Jesus went to the cross kicking and screaming is a powerful witness to the abnormality of death (Genesis 2:15-17) and a foundational argument in the church’s historic resistance to the culture of death in which she lives, and moves and has her being. The Bible may not ever actually use the word “euthanasia,” but the church’s message of life, eternal and abundant, has some important implications for the conversation about euthanasia, especially for people of faith who have named Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.  It is neither incidental nor inconsequential that those Christian leaders who have a high sense of the speaking of God in Scripture and Tradition agree in their opposition to euthanasia. But as persuasive as the weight and logic of their arguments born of their reading of Scripture are to me, even more persuasive is the witness of a simple Christian like Kara Tippett, a woman who is dying and who chooses to embrace each moment she has left with spiritual courage and what she calls “mundane faithfulness.”  More compelling to me than an encyclical from the Pope or a position paper written by a first-rate Evangelical Scholar well-grounded in Scripture against euthanasia, is the letter that Kara wrote to Brittany before she took her life. You can find it at http://www.aholyexperience.com/2014/10/dear-brittany-why-we-dont-have-to-be-so-afraid-of-dying-suffering-that-we-choose-suicide/.

This is a wonderful example of what “thinking Christianly” sounds like, and a clear picture of what “acting Christianly” looks like. There is much that I could learn from Kara.   DBS+

 

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