All Saints’ Day: A Celebration and Encouragement

fullsizeoutput_ae3.jpegToday, is the celebration of All Saints’ Day. What is All Saints’ Day and why should we celebrate it?

Since the 4th century, Christians have celebrated the lives of saints and martyrs. However, it was not until AD 609 that Pope Boniface IV dedicated one day of remembrance for all martyrs. Since that time, and after a broadening by Pope Gregory IV in 837 into a celebration of all past saints, All Saints’ Day has been a solemn holy day in the Roman Catholic Church, often connected with reverence for past Christians and relics.  While often criticized for idolatrous veneration of departed Christians, even after the Reformation, most Protestants continued to celebrate All Saints’ Day as a way to connect God’s faithfulness to His people in times past with God’s faithfulness to His people now.

In Hebrews, chapter 11, the writer takes us through what is sometimes called the “Hall of Faith.” We hear of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Joseph, Moses and Rahab — all of whom faithfully walked through their ups-and-downs with God. The first words of chapter 12 take a sudden turn to the present: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.” The lives of great heroes of the faith are celebrated as an inspiration for the Christians listening in the present moment, that they too might live with God faithfully in their everyday lives.

I love that phrase: “since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.” Those witnesses are the believers in God that have gone before us. They bear witness to us that there is a way to live faithfully with God upon earth now even as they also bear witness that there is future hope with God beyond our earthly lives. Although it may sound strange to our ears, all past believers are ‘saints’ in that they are ‘holy ones’ (the literal translation of the Greek word hagioi) through Jesus Christ. All Saints’ Day brings to the foreground the spiritual bond that exists between believers from all times and in all places. More specifically, All Saints’ Day highlights the connection between the saints who have gone ahead of us into God’s presence (sometimes called “the Church triumphant”) and the saints still upon this earthly plane (sometimes called “the Church militant”). We celebrate those who have gone before us so that we might be encouraged to run the race before us with our eyes fixed on Jesus.

In a culture dominated by the ever-pressing latest and greatest that is new and now, All Saints’ Day is a powerful corrective. It reminds that we are an important part of God’s story, but we are not the only part of the story. When we celebrate the saints of previous times we realize that we would not be here were it not for Abraham, Jacob, Ruth, David, Esther, Isaiah, Mary, and so many more.

In a culture that is obsessed with our present opinions about our present matters, All Saints’ Day offers us perspective. It helps us grow beyond “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about,” to steal a phrase from G. K. Chesterton. We reconnect with Catherine of Siena and Augustine of Hippo, with Perpetua of Carthage and Janani Luwum of Uganda, with Sojourner Truth and Blaise Pascal. We need them; perhaps even more than we know.

In a culture that has forgotten how to think about the future, All Saints’ Day reminds us to have hope of a future day. Since there are saints who have gone before us, we can persevere now as saints upon earth. Jesus Himself told us that He is preparing a place for us and, as John testifies, there will be a great company there of saints from every tribe, tongue, and nation around God’s throne celebrating in God’s eternal kingdom.

By God’s grace, we, too, will join that great company. But until we do, we celebrate God’s faithfulness in their lives as a means to lean into God’s faithfulness in our own lives as persevering pilgrims in this land that is not our home.

Remembering Stuart Briscoe (1930-2022)

This past Saturday, Kelly and I attended the memorial service for Stuart Briscoe at Elmbrook Church. It was a joy to reconnect with friends and former colleagues I hadn’t seen in some time and to celebrate God’s work in and through Stuart’s life. My first full-time vocational role in ministry was as the Pastor of Collegiate Ministries at Elmbrook after Stuart had already retired. Although I did see Stuart from time to time during those years at Elmbrook, I actually grew to know him more personally during my last decade or so at Eastbrook. During my first at Eastbrook, I reached out to Stuart to talk about transitions in ministry, specifically how to best follow a founding pastor. I asked him if he had any advice about how to fulfill my calling as a new Senior Pastor, and he shared his oft-repeated essential advice for pastoral ministry: preach the word, love people, and pray for the Spirit to move. Before I left, Stuart gave me a signed copy of his memoir, Flowing Streams. In recent years, I enjoyed other opportunities, both formal (see further below) and informal to connect with Stuart and Jill. Their down-to-earth manner, filled with commitment to Christ and a healthy sense of humor, encouraged me greatly. You can view Stuart’s memorial service, which was about two hours long, below.

Through all this, I was reminded of the Leadership Community gathering we hosted at Eastbrook three and a half years ago with Stuart and our Pastor Emeritus, Marc Erickson (no relation, believe it or not). Stuart began the night with a 20-minute message on three distinctly Christian aspects of the leader’s character. During the next portion of the gathering, I facilitated a Q&A with Stuart and Marc about the character of a leader. This led us to explore some important questions in our current era, as well as many interesting insights and funny stories from their own lives. I hope you enjoy this view into the lives of two pastors who have steadfastly walked with Christ over the years.

The Greatest Must Be a Servant: Jesus’ Way of Leading

“Jesus called [His disciples] together and said, ‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

How do we connect Jesus’ words on greatness with many of the current prescriptions on leadership today? For Jesus, greatness and being first means:

  • Being a servant of those around
  • Being a slave of all
  • Giving our lives for others

Does this mean not leading, or not exercising authority, or not wanting positions of power? Is it about power or about the approach to power?

Clearly, Jesus led others. He taught. He rebuked those who needed it. He set His agenda for ministry (in concert with the Father). Jesus was a leader, but His way of leading and exercising power was, to cite someone else’s wording, ‘downwardly mobile’. He focused on His Father’s agenda. He was often interrupted by people while working toward another goal.

For Jesus, leadership was all about following the Father and His will, and laying down His life for others as a servant.

What about us in the church today? Do we emulate Jesus’ model today or do we look to other pathways toward greatness?

Metaphors for Ministry: Hitting ‘The Road’ with Cormac McCarthy

An article I wrote during the past year was published this week at Preaching Today. It draws from one of my favorite novels of all time, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. If you know McCarthy’s writing, you may know it is very rough around the edges. While The Road is also rough around the edges there is also a tenderness and grace sprinkled amidst the troubles. Because of this, it has been such a balm for my soul in these past few years. I wrote about that, and here is the first section of “Metaphors for Ministry: Hitting The Road with Cormac McCarthy” (you can read the rest here).

When a friend felt forced to resign from his church, he and I met up to talk, pray, shoulder burdens together, and cry out to God. I arrived a little early, so before I met him for brunch, I did what I always do when I have extra time. I stopped at a used bookstore. In the dollar discards was a dog-eared and stained mass paperback copy of Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Road. I picked it up with a few other treasures and headed to the restaurant where we were meeting. We talked about deep pain and fiery hope, works of love and moments of failure. Our conversation roamed the whole range of pastoring within the local church.

After our time of conversation and prayer, as we headed to our cars, I knew it would be a long time until I would see him. I gave him a hug and then handed him the roughed up copy of The Road. I hoped, somehow, this worn out copy of the book might breathe life into his worn out life and broken down ministry.

My friend isn’t the only casualty of ministry in these divided and confusing days. Many pastors I have met are struggling with what it means to be a pastor now, wondering where we should turn for guidance in these times. Scripture and the great pastoral tradition provide the best and first resources, but in times when ministry is unclear, we need other voices to help us gain perspective and see rich metaphors for ministry.

While I am wary of misusing a literary work, I cannot think of any novel more appropriate as a parable for pastors in this present moment than The Road.[1]Against the background of an ashen, decayed world, burned out by an unnamed disaster, a father and son (referred to only as “the man” and “the boy”) walk a road littered with danger and goodness toward a hoped-for, yet unclear, destination.

As pastors today, our situation is similar. Everything we understood as normal is a faint memory in this post-pandemic secular age. Still, we are on a journey through dangerous lands, holding onto hope and goodness amid the perils we face. The Road offers us metaphors for ministry as we seek to shepherd our people with love even in desperate times.

Cormac McCarthy may seem like a strange author to turn to in such times. His spare yet powerful writing is often dark and grotesque. Still, McCarthy’s novels are haunted by some divine presence, even if his views are far from orthodox Christianity. In an interview McCarthy once said, “I don’t think you have to have a clear idea of who or what God is in order to pray.”[2] Throughout The Road, the father invokes God, sometimes in angst and other times in hope. This tension with the divine offers fertile ground for exploring echoes of pastoral work in the novel.

The Christian Leader is…: 15 insights from Henri Nouwen’s “In the Name of Jesus”

This past week our Church Council just finished reading and discussing Henri Nouwen’s In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership. This is a book that has meant a lot to me over the years. On the inside cover of my copy I have written down various settings where I have led groups through discussions of the book. They are a college ministry student leadership group (Summer 2005), a megachurch staff team (Fall 2005), the staff of a new church plant (Spring 2010), and this past summer (2021) with our staff team here at Eastbrook.

Nouwen’s book is framed around the three temptations of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11) and Peter’s reinstatement and call to shepherd the flock (John 21:15-19). I don’t want to summarize the entire book here. For that you can look at my earlier interactions with the book here:

Instead, I want to share what I found in the back of the book while reading it this time. I found a list I made somewhere along the way of Nouwen’s descriptive statements about the nature of the Christian leader throughout the book.

It was helpful for me to remember these things, so I simply want to share them here. Nouwen tells us that the Christian leader:

  • claims irrelevance in solidarity with society’s suffering to bring Jesus’ light (35)
  • knows the incarnate heart of God in Jesus (38)
  • is a mystic who dwells in the presence of the loving Jesus by contemplative prayer (42)
  • is a vulnerable brother or sister, not a “professional” who knows clients’ problems (61)
  • makes their own limited and conditional love a gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God (62)
  • is a servant leader like Jesus, not playing the power games of this world (65)
  • must be willing to confess their own brokenness and ask for forgiveness (64)
  • is called to live the Incarnation, both in their own bodies and in the corporate body (68)
  • is to be a full member of their community—accountable and affectionate—with their whole selves (69)
  • walks in the way of downward-mobility like Jesus, not the upward mobility of our culture (81-82)
  • will be radically poor, thus led where they do not want to go (84)
  • is strenuously theologically reflective (85)
  • thinks, speaks, and acts in the name of Jesus (86)
  • is called to help people hear God’s voice and be consoled and comforted by God’s voice (88)
  • is spiritually formed as a whole person (90)

If you’ve never read the book and Nouwen’s words move you or unsettle you, encourage you or confuse you, I strongly encourage you to read it. It is a great book on Christian leadership and pastoral ministry. Let me close by sharing Nouwen’s final paragraph of the book:

I hope and pray that you have seen that the oldest, most traditional vision of Christian leadership is still a vision that awaits realization in the future. I leave you with the image of the leader with outstretched hands, who chooses a life of downward mobility. It is the image of the praying leader, the vulnerable leader, and the trusting, leader. May that image fill your hearts with hope, courage, and confidence as you anticipate the new century. (92-93).