C. S. Lewis: “Joy is the serious business of Heaven”

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This from C. S. Lewis in his wonderful book, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer:

I do not think that the life of Heaven bears any analogy to play or dance in respect of frivolity. I do think that while we are in this ‘valley of tears,’ cursed with labour, hemmed round with necessities, tripped up with frustrations, doomed to perpetual plannings, puzzlings, and anxieties, certain qualities that must belong to the celestial condition have no chance to get through, can project no image of themselves, except in activities which, for us here and now, are frivolous.

For surely we must suppose the life of the blessed to be an end in itself, indeed The End: to be utterly spontaneous; to be the complete reconciliation of boundless freedom with order–with the most delicately adjusted, supple, intricate, and beautiful order?

How can you find any image of this in the ‘serious’ activities either of our natural or of our (present) spiritual life? Either in our precarious and heart-broken affections or in the Way which is always, in some degree, a via crucis?

No, Malcolm. It is only in our ‘hours-off,’ only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy. Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for ‘down here’ is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were place here to live.

But in this world everything is upside down. That which , if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is likest that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven.

– C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (San Diego: Harvest, 1964), 92-93.

Transformation into Christlikeness is Possible: Dallas Willard

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While preparing for a retreat with Eastbrook Church’s student ministry, I came across this excerpt from Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard that hit home to me. Given some of my recent reflections on the nature of pastoral leadership in North America (see “Five Themes of Resilient Ministry” and “Five Steps for Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership“), this section on the gaps and possibilities of Christian formation in our lives, particularly the Christian formation of pastors and leaders, was resoundingly important to me. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

First of all we must be clear that such a transition as is envisioned in Christian spiritual formation can actually happen, and can actually happen to us. This, today, is not obvious.

What we see around us today of the “usual” Christian life could easily make us think that spiritual transformation is simply impossible. It is now common for Christian leaders themselves to complain about how little real-life difference there is between professing, or even actual Christians, on the one hand, and non-Christians on the other. Although there is much talk about “changing lives” in Christian circles, the reality is very rare, and certainly much less common than the talk.

The “failures” of prominent Christian leaders themselves, already referred to, might cause us to think genuine spiritual formation in Christlikeness to be impossible for “real human beings.” How is it, exactly, that a man or woman can respectably serve Christ for many years and then morally disintegrate? And the failures that become known are few compared to the ones that remain relatively unknown and are even accepted among Christians.

Recently, I learned that one of the most prominent leaders in an important segment of Christian life “blew up,” became uncontrollably angry, when someone questioned him about the quality of his work. This was embarrassing, but it is accepted (if not acceptable) behavior; and in this case, it was the one who was questioning him who was chastised. That is in fact a familiar pattern in both Christian and non-Christian “power structures.” But what are we to say about the spiritual formation of that leader? Has something been omitted? Or is he really the best we can do?

The same questions arise with reference to lay figures in areas of life such politics, business, entertainment, or education, who show the same failures of character while openly identifying themselves as Christians. It is unpleasant to dwell on such cases, but they must be squarely faced.

Of course the effects of such failures depend on the circumstances, on how widely the failure becomes known, and on various other factors. In another case a pastor became enraged at something a subordinate did during a Sunday morning service. Immediately after the service he found that subordinate and gave him a merciless tongue-lashing. With his lapel mike still on! His diatribe was broadcast over the entire church plant and campus-in all the Sunday school rooms and the parking lot. Soon thereafter he “received the Lord’s call” to another church. But what about the spiritual formation of this leader? Is that the best we can do? And is he not still really like that in his new position?

Malfeasance with money is less acceptable than anger, and sexual misconduct is less tolerated still. But is the inner condition (the heart) all that different in these cases-before God?

The sad thing when a leader (or any individual) “fails” is not just what he or she did, but the heart and life and whole person who is revealed by the act. What is sad is who these leaders have been all along, what their inner life has been like, and no doubt also how they have suffered during all the years before they “did it” or were found out. What kind of persons have they been, and what, really, has been their relation to God?

Real spiritual need and change, as we have emphasized, is on the inside, in the hidden area of the life that God sees and that we cannot even see in ourselves without his help. Indeed, in the early stages of spiritual development we could not endure seeing our inner life as it really is. The possibility of denial and self-deception is something God has made accessible to us, in part to protect us until we begin to seek him. Life the face of the mythical Medusa, our true condition away from God would turn us to stone if we ever fully confronted it. It would drive us mad. He has to help us come to terms with it in ways that will not destroy us outright.

Without gently though rigorous process of inner transformation, initiated and sustained by the graceful presence of God in our world and in our soul, the change of personality and life clearly announced and spelled out in the Bible, and explained and illustrated throughout Christian history, is impossible. We not only admit it, but also insist upon it. But on the other hand, the result of the effort to change our behavior without inner transformation is precisely what we see in the current shallowness of Western Christianity that is so widely lamented and in the notorious failures of Christian leaders.

The Church is a Hospital for Sin-Sick Sinners: J. I. Packer from a Quest for Godliness

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This past weekend in my message, “Friend of Sinners,” I mentioned an article by J. I. Packer that I read many years ago in which he talks about the church as a hospital for sinners. In searching for it, I discovered that the article was actually an excerpt from Packer’s book, A Quest for Godliness. I found an excerpt that I am sharing below:

Truth obeyed, said the Puritans, will heal. The word fits, because we are all spiritually sick — sick through sin, which is a wasting and killing disease of the heart. The unconverted are sick unto death; those who have come to know Christ and have been born again continue sick, but they are gradually getting better as the work of grace goes on in their lives.

The church, however, is a hospital in which nobody is completely well, and anyone can relapse at any time. Pastors no less than others are weakened by pressure from the world, the flesh, and the devil, with their lures of profit, pleasure, and pride, and, as we shall see more fully in a moment, pastors must acknowledge that they the healers remain sick and wounded and therefore need to apply the medicines of Scripture to themselves as well as to the sheep whom they tend in Christ’s name.

All Christians need Scripture truth as medicine for their souls at every stage, and the making and accepting of applications is the administering and swallowing of it.

J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 1990, reprint (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 65, paragraphing added.

Bibliography for Daniel series

After many of my preaching series, I enjoy sharing a bibliography that I used to help prepare for that series. Sometimes they are wide-ranging, such as the series on the life of Joseph, while at other times they are more clearly bounded by one specific topic, such as the series on prayer.

Here is the resource bibliography that accompanies my recent preaching series, “Daniel: Apocalyptic Imagination and Exile Faith.” Although I utilized many books or resources for specific messages within this series, I did not include all of those in this bibliography. Instead, I limited it to books I utilized through the series. The books I found particularly helpful are marked with an asterisk.

Bibliography on the book of Daniel:

Joyce Baldwin. Daniel: An Introduction and Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1978. [This volume in The Tyndale Old Testament Commentary series was recently replaced with a new volume by Paul R. House, which was released this November. Baldwin’s commentary is still a wonderful resource.]

*John E. Goldingay. Daniel. WBC. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1989.

*Sidney Greidanus. Preaching Christ from Daniel: Foundations for Expository Sermons. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012.

James M. Hamilton, Jr. With the Clouds of Heaven: The Book of Daniel in Biblical Theology. NSBT. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

*Tremper Longman III. Daniel. NIVAC. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1999.

Ernest C. Lucas. “Daniel.” In Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, vol. 4. John H. Walton, gen. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.

________. “Daniel.” In Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets. Mark J. Boda & J. Gordon McConville, eds. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

W. D. Tucker, Jr. “Daniel: History of Interpretation.” In Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets. Mark J. Boda & J. Gordon McConville, eds. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Ronald S. Wallace. The Message of Daniel: The Lord is King. BST. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1984.

Practicing Spiritual Direction [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 11]

fullsizeoutput_ae1Spiritual direction is difficult. Pastoral wisdom is not available on prescription. Every person who comes to a pastor with a heart full of shapeless longings and a head full of badgering questions is complex in a new way. There are no fail-proof formulae (179).

Eugene Peterson brings this book, Working the Angles, to conclusion with attention to what it means for the pastoral to practice spiritual direction with his parishioners. As he mentioned earlier in the book, spiritual direction “takes place when two people agree to give their full attention to what God is doing in one (or both) of their lives and seek to respond in faith” (150). But how does a pastor do that well?

Peterson begins by drawing out five examples of how not to do spiritual direction. He borrows those five negative examples from the journal of George Fox, who, in his desperate searching, experienced multiple failed attempts to find spiritual guidance. Here they are:

  1. First Pastor: Nathaniel Stephens, who turns Fox’s search for guidance into a theological inquiry and fodder for sermons he will preach. “When a person comes to me for spiritual direction it is not to get into a theological discussion but to find a friend in a theological context” (182).
  2. Second Pastor: The ancient priest at Mancetter, who “doesn’t see Fox as a person to be directed but as a consumer of spiritual goods, a possible buyer of a remedy” (183). When we depersonalize people into customers, we are missing the point of spiritual direction.
  3. Third Pastor: The priest living about Tamworth, who comes across as “an empty hollow cask” because he is focused on techniques or experiences instead of being the sort of person who can really guide Fox. Peterson comments: “our primary task is to be a pilgrim. Our best preparation for the work of spiritual direction is an honest life” (184).
  4. Fourth Pastor: Dr. Cradock, who is fixated on orthodoxy in theology and orthodoxy in life as a means for diagnosis of another’s life. Yet, when Fox transgresses his models, he lashes out in anger. “If we should mistakenly do our work in the dogmatic schoolmaster style of Dr. Cradock, we will deserve the epitaph ‘miserable comforter'” (186).
  5. Fifth Pastor: one Macham, who is regarded as a pastor of high value, but sets to action upon Fox as a means to accomplish something. “Pastors are particularly imperiled in this area because of the compulsive activism, both cultural and ecclesiastical, in which we are immersed simply by being alive at this time in history” (187).

These pastors have good reputations and experience, hold mastery in degrees and techniques, but fail as spiritual guides to George Fox. When we succumb to these impulses, we, too, as pastors miss the point of spiritual direction. What wisdom does Peterson offer for those of us wanting to stay on track as spiritual directors? The wisdom comes in three main points.

  1. “For a start, I can cultivate an attitude of awe” (188). This calls us as pastors to see those sitting with us as wonders made in the image of God, whose lives, full of joys and challenges, are worth paying attention to. Peterson comments: “George Fox was a remarkable person, but not one of his five pastors had the faintest inkling of it” (189).
  2. “Second, I can cultivate an awareness of my ignorance” (189). There is so much we do not know about the person with whom we are dealing, that we must admit it, or we will fail to see what we do not yet see. Even more, we are often ignorant about God and what He is doing in this person’s life. “My words and gestures and actions take place in the midst of a great drama, about the details of which I know little or nothing” (191). This puts perspective on our limitations, helping us to lean into our dependence upon God to see and hear what is happening in the one we are meeting with.
  3. “Third, I can cultivate a predisposition to prayer” (191). Peterson assumes that what people need most is to learn to pray so that they might enter into conversation with God. We are not merely engaging in discussion about ideas or truths, but trying to take them into deeper engagement with God. “Spiritual direction is then conducted with an awareness that it takes place in God’s active presence, and that our conversation is therefore conditioned by his speaking and listening, his being there” (192).

And so, Eugene Peterson’s “holy trigonometry of pastoral ministry” – prayer, Scripture reading, and spiritual direction – concludes, as does my journey through the entire book. The book ends suddenly, in my opinion, as if Peterson is thrusting us out into the work he has outlined. Perhaps one of the final lines of the book best reminds us of what Eugene Peterson is really calling pastors to in these days:

More often than we think, the unspoken, sometimes unconscious reason that persons seek out conversation with the pastor is a desire to keep company with God (192).

Pastors, let us help people keep company with God. Let us live in and minister from these three holy angles of prayer, reading Scripture, and spiritual direction. Let us not lose heart in the cultural confusion or drift out of focus with fads and models, but once again send down deep roots into the biblical foundations and historic practices of pastoral ministry.

[This post concludes my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began here. You can read all the posts here.]