The Weekend Wanderer: 21 September 2019

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

 

article_5d72a06785e29“Catholicism Made Me Protestant” – After college I worked in a Roman Catholic books and church supply store for about nine months. As I learned to navigate the store and its contents, I also went on a journey of exploring the historic roots of the Christian faith. More than once since those days, I have searched out Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as possibilities of getting to the bottom of the nature of authority within the church. Each time I have gained deeper appreciation for voices from earlier eras of the history of the church, while also returning to my Protestant roots stronger for the exploration.  Onsi A. Kamel offers an essay at First Things that echoed some aspects of my own search: “Catholicism had taught me to think like a Protestant, because, as it turned out, the Reformers had thought like catholics. Like their pope-aligned opponents, they had asked questions about justification, the authority of tradition, the mode of Christ’s self-gift in the Eucharist, the nature of apostolic succession, and the Church’s wielding of the keys. Like their opponents, Protestants had appealed to Scripture and tradition. In time, I came to find their answers not only plausible, but more faithful to Scripture than the Catholic answers, and at least as well-represented in the traditions of the Church.”

 

Judgment Day Florence Cathedral“Is the ‘final judgment’ really final?” – It would be difficult to not hear some rumblings about David Bentley Hart’s new book, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation. Hart is a rough and tumble essayist and author, whose recent translation of the New Testament spurred a critical exchange between Hart and N. T. Wright, as well as some appreciative yet critical comments from Alan Jacobs about one of Hart’s bad intellectual habits. This latest book has already generated a lot of conversations, but is essentially an argument against the church’s reliance on a form of Augustine’s thinking and for a form of Gregory of Nyssa’s thinking on salvation and hell. The Christian Century provides this excerpt from Hart’s book for engagement. Douglas Farrow’s review in First Things is not all that appreciative of Hart’s thinking in the book, but engaging with Hart’s theological project at some level is necessary work for pastors and Christian leaders.

 

Willow Creek jd word cloud“Willow Creek, What’s a Pastor?” – I have been on a journey of recovery in pastoral ministry for the last year or two. It has led me toward rediscovering what it means to be a pastor by listening to voices like Eugene Peterson and John Chrysostom, as well as exploring the dark side of leadership and what keeps ministry resilient. After serving within it for the past fifteen plus years, I am questioning nearly every aspect of non-denominational, evangelical, megachuch Christianity in North America. The flagship church for that is Willow Creek, who is now searching for a new Senior Pastor. I have some sadness for how Willow has taken so much flak in these days, but not enough sadness to avoid pointing out that most of the historically essential work of the pastor is really not present in the job description they have put forward for this role. Scot McKnight says it with much better clarity than me in this article.

 

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?“When Philip K. Dick turned to Christianity” – Most fans of science fiction know that the movies Blade Runner (1982) and the recent sequel, Blade Runner 2049 (2017) were inspired by Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? I was surprised to read this article in Salon a few months back about Dick’s turn toward Christianity shortly before his surge to fame within 1960s counterculture. While he didn’t stick with the church in its institutional form, his turn toward faith did, apparently, shape his later outlook and writings.

 

0_omPrFdurOKV3rsyv“A Radical Guide to Spending Less Time on Your Phone” – Those closest to me know that I’ve been on a multi-year journey to shed much of my closeness to my smartphone, some forms of technology, and social media. The most recent version of that is a project I affectionately call “the dumbest smartphone in the universe,” which is an attempt to radically simplify the apps available on my smartphone. Someday, maybe I’ll blog about it, but in the meantime read Ryan Holiday’s article which echoes many of the changes I’ve made.

 

William Blake“A blockbuster show at Tate Britain gives William Blake his due” – Two summers ago, my wife and I had the chance to get away to London for a week as part of celebrating twenty years of marriage. While there, we returned to places we had visited years ago when we both participated in a summer study program. Seeing works of revered artists in Tate Britain and Tate Modern was a highlight. While we saw many of William Blake’s drawings and etchings, this new show sounds like a delightful look at his work.

 

Music: Daniel Lanois, “The Maker,” from Acadie.

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

Learning to Minister: John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood

The past year has been an interesting one for pastors in North America. A series of colossal moral failures from famous pastors is matched only by the rash of recent pastoral suicides. The heartbreak on one side and the outrage on the other leaves many pastors simultaneously sympathetic and disappointed. In that dark valley, pastors, too, search for answers to pressing questions. Why has this happened in our day and time? Is something devastatingly wrong with our models of ministry or conception of the church? At the most basic level, what is ministry really all about?  More personally, how can I make it as a pastor in this day and age?

In the midst of questions like these, we need sane guides for pastoral ministry in our current milieu. We need voices that can speak about the pastoral vocation with a clarity and sensibility that is hard to find. I confess that it is hard to find because there are not many pastors writing about pastoral ministry today. Don’t misunderstand me. There are pastors writing today, but, valuable as some of their writing is, most of it has very little to do with the ministry of the pastor.

To find sane guides for pastoral ministry, we will need to look elsewhere, to other times and places. For the last year or so I have been searching out those voices. One of those I recently listened to was St. John Chrysostom through his brief work entitled On the Priesthood. John Chrysostom, whose life stretched from 349-407, was the renowned Patriarch of Constantinople, dubbed “the golden mouth” for his power as a preacher. His writings take up six volumes of the first series of The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (outmatched only by St. Augustine of Hippo’s eight volumes), mostly due to his extensive homilies on the Scripture.

His small work On the Priesthood is an apology for the serious nature of pastoral (or priestly) ministry, particularly elevation to the calling of the bishop. The book is structured around a dialogue between Chrysostom and his friend, Basil, based around an event centering on Basil and John’s election and forced ordination to the bishopric. While foreign to us, such a situation was more common in their time. John eludes elevation while Basil, thinking that John had given in to ordination, submits and becomes a bishop, only to find out later that John had avoided it entirely. Some scholars debate whether the dialogue structure and situation are historically true or a fictitious creation or literary device to discuss the heart of the book, which is all about “the pre-eminent dignity, and sanctity of the priestly officer and the peculiar difficulties and perils which beset it.”

While I have no desire to summarize it, one particularly interesting aspect of the book is just how much effort Chrysostom gives to describing reasons why someone might want to avoid pastoral ministry. Since the situation giving rise to the book is a justification for Chrysostom’s avoidance of forced ordination to the bishopric, he makes a strong case for how one might avoid the calling to ministry due to the difficulty and dangers of ministry, significant pressures of caring for the flock, the requirement of a excellence of spirit, and even love for Christ. If only we had more frequent mention of these warnings before entry to ministry today, we may have warded off some who entered ministry more for the sake of their own reputation or personal gain than for the sake of Christ.

When discussing the temptations that come upon the pastor, Chrysostom does not hold back. The minister is to be a person of high character with “a healthy, robust soul” (83). The minister must always be alert and attentive. “A priest must be sober and clear-sighted and possess a thousand eyes looking in every direction, for he lives, not for himself alone, but for a great multitude” (82). It is not merely the activities of ministry that are required of the minister, but deep attention to their own soul, for ministry will reveal all that we are  not just what we can do. “The priest’s shortcomings simply cannot be concealed. On the contrary, even the most trivial soon get known” (85).

Again, it is to the character of the pastor that Chrysostom returns again and again, even when discussing the necessary tasks of ministry, such as visiting widows or the sick, enforcing church discipline, and preaching. What sort of character should the pastor have?

Consider, then, what qualities a man needs if he is to withstand such a tempest and deal successfully with these obstacles to the common good. He must be dignified yet modest, impressive yet kindly, masterful yet approachable, impartial yet courteous, humble but not servile, vehement yet gentle, in order that he may be able calmly to resist all these dangers and to promote a suitable man with full authority, even though everyone opposes him, and reject an unsuitable man with equal authority, even though everyone favours him. One thing alone he must consider: the edification of the Church. (93)

Chrysostom holds up a weighty list that may feel overwhelming to pastors. But he does not stop there. He also holds up the eternal rewards and punishments for the pastor who does or does not undertake his ministry well, referencing more than once the words of the Apostle James: “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).

It is understandable that the book ends with significant attention to the ministry of the Word. This is a primary responsibility of the pastor, but also a primary interest for John Chrysostom himself, whose renown is largely linked with his powerful ministry of preaching. In another place on my blog, I shared a passage from Chrysostom’s call for the preacher to seek to please God more than pleasing humans, which is one example of his dual attention to the craft of preaching and the character of the preacher.

If you read this short work you will feel at times like it has arrived from another planet, whether due to the situation that gave rise to writing it, comments on women in the church, or other cultural uniquenesses. However, other passages come across just as relevant to our own day as if they were written by an astute pastor observing the struggles of the twenty-first century North American church in its crisis of ministry. As contemporary pastors, may God give us ears to hear the old voices, like that of St. John Chrysostom, echoing strong and sturdy with time-tested truths about pastoral ministry. And may we not only hear it, but heed it as we live out our calling in a confused time.

Solitude Brings Coherence

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness. Only discord can come of the attempt to share solitude. True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures. One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.

– Wendell Berry, “Healing,” Stanza IV in What Are People For?

Wendell Berry’s statement that we lose loneliness by entering solitude seems completely counter-intuitive. Most of us are afraid of solitude for the very reason that we feel, in being alone, we will necessarily become lonely. But it does not have to be that way.

As Berry mentions, it is often in the “wild places” are where I feel most at ease in solitude. The fresh air, the rugged wildness, and the scurrying of creatures around makes me aware of both my smallness in the vastness of God’s creation, yet also God’s infinite attentiveness to the cosmos He has made. In the midst of this, nature’s contours soothe my soul. I am sure this soothing arises in part because, as Berry writes, in these wild places we are without “human obligation.”  In wild places we are away from people we feel obligated to engage with and things we feel obligated to do.

Both for good and ill, it is in solitude that we hear inner voices. Words that have been floating around inside of us – whole streams of though – suddenly take on such clear force that we are at times overwhelmed. We wonder, “Where did that thought come from?” Or, “I haven’t thought about that in awhile.” In reality these thoughts and ideas – these inner voices – are ever-present yet go unheeded because of the clamor of people and things in our daily lives. The voices and thoughts are there, but until we quiet ourselves enough, both externally and internally, we often either suppress them or ignore them.

When we are attentive to these inner voices and more intimate thoughts, we have the opportunity to come to a more comprehensive internal order with God and ourselves. We bring those clamoring voices to the living God and ask to hear His voice in it all. The unheeded voices that were always there speaking messages of fear or hurt or joy to us have been heard, conversed with, and brought to greater resolution in conversation with the God who hears and knows us. They grow quiet now. God’s voice becomes more solid, enduring, and strong. It is in this journey that we achieve a sense of coherence. We become less divided and distracted.

It is from this order and coherence that God sends us out with the ability to more fully engage with others and the created world. We become more fully present and able to connect with those around us.  We are in tune with God and the cosmos because of His work in our turbulent souls. With the Spirit’s power strengthening our will we can face the things that come into our daily lives, both planned and unplanned.

In solitude the various slivers of our distracted and fragmented selves come to a greater unity in God’s presence. That greater unity enables us to receive people into true relationship and bring our tasks toward completion. It is that powerful reality mentioned in the psalms:

Teach me Your way, Lord, that I may rely on Your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear Your name. (Psalm 86:11).

John Chrysostom on Preaching to please God and not for human praise

In my ongoing efforts to re-learn pastoral ministry, I am turning to books commended through the ages about what it means to be a pastor. One of those I just recently read was St. John Chrysostom’s brief work, Six Books on the Priesthood. I share these comments that I found particularly helpful, from the end of that book, about preaching to please God and not for human praise.

Let the craftsman be the judge of his own handiwork too, and let us rate his productions as beautiful or poor when that is the verdict of the mind which contrived them. But as for the erratic and unskilled opinion of outsiders, we should not so much as consider it. So too the man who has accepted the task of teaching should pay no attention to the commendation of outsiders, any more than he should let them cause him dejection. When he has composed his sermons to please God (and let this alone be his rule and standard of good oratory in sermons, not applause or commendation), then if he should be approved by men too, let him not spurn their praise. But if his hearers do not accord it, let him neither seek it or sorrow for it. It will be sufficient encouragement for his efforts, and one much better than anything else, if his conscience tells him that he is organizing and regulating his teaching to please God. For in fact, if he has already been overtaken by the desire for unmerited praise, neither his great efforts nor his powers of speech will be any use. His soul, being unable to bear the senseless criticisms of the multitude, grows slack and loses all earnestness in preaching. So a preacher must train himself all else to despise praise. For without this addition, knowledge of the technique of speaking is not enough to ensure powerful speech.

– John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, trans. by Graham Neville (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1977), 133.

Truly Community

This past weekend at Eastbrook Church, we continued a series called “Roots” by looking at the nature of the Christian community, the church. Building from the Acts 2 birth of the church at Pentecost, we explore the essence of the community life lived out through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.

You can watch my message from this past weekend and follow along with the message outline below. You can also engage with the entire series here or download the Eastbrook mobile app for even more opportunities for involvement.

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Prayer: A Litany of Humility

James Tissot - Jesus Ministered to by Angels

Jesus! Meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred to others, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.
That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. Amen.

Attributed to Rafael Cardinal Merry Del Val by Charles Belmonten in Handbook of Prayers (Manila: Studium Theologiae Foundation, 1986).