St. John the Theologian: a reflection by Eugene Peterson

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In his exceptional essay, “Poetry from Patmos: St. John as Pastor, Poet, and Theologian” in Subversive Spirituality, Eugene Peterson describes the Apostle John as the sort of theologian we most need and are most ready to hear. Theologians sometime receive a bad name because they seem removed from existence. But the best theologians step into the muddle of everyday life with a word about God that is life-giving and clarifying. May God give us more theologians like this.

St John is a theologian of a particularly attractive type: all his thinking about God took place under fire: ‘I was on the isle, called Patmos,’ a prison isle. He was a man thanking on his feet, running, or on his knees, praying, the postures characteristic of our best theologians. There have been times in history when theologians were supposed to inhabit ivory towers and devote themselves to writing impenetrable and ponderous books. But the important theologians have done their thinking and writing about God in the middle of the world, in the thick of the action: Paul urgently dictating letters from his prison cell; Athanasius contra mundum, five times hounded into exile by three different emperors; Augustine, pastor to people experiencing the chaotic breakup of Roman order and civitas; Thomas, using his mind to battle errors and heresies that, unchallenged, would have turned Europe into a spiritual and mental jungle; Calvin, tireless in developing a community of God’s people out of Geneva’s revolutionary rabble; Barth arbitrating labor disputes and preaching to prisoners; Bonhoeffer leading a fugitive existence in Nazi Germany; and St. John, exiled on the hard rock of Patmos prison while his friends in Christ were besieged by the terrible engines of a pagan assault: theologos.

The task of these theologians is to demonstrate a gospel order in the chaos of evil and arrange the elements of experience and reason so that they are perceived proportionately and coherently: sin, defeat, discouragement, prayer, suffering, persecution, praise, and politics are placed in relation to the realities of God and Christ, holiness and healing, heaven and hell, victory and judgment, beginning and ending. Their achievement is that the community of persons who live by faith in Christ continue to life with a reasonable hope and in intelligent love.

The Christian community needs theologians to keep us thinking about God and not just making random guesses. At the deepest levels of our lives we require a God whom we can worship with our whole mind and heart and strength. The taste for eternity can never be bred out of us by a secularizing genetics. Our existence is derived from God and destined for God. St. John stands in the front ranks of the great company of theologians who convince by their disciplined and rigorous thinking that Theos and logos belong together, that we live in a creation and not a madhouse.

Returning to Square One: Eugene Peterson on the Essence of Christian Spirituality

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Last Friday, I read a pointed, pastoral call to basic attention to God and His word throughout our lives, and it resonated so deeply with me that I wanted to share it. These words come from Eugene Peterson’s essay “Back to Square One: God Said (The Witness of Holy Scripture),” included in a collection of his writings, Subversive Spirituality.

Peterson refers to “Square One” below, which he describes earlier in the essay as “the place at which we realize that there is a huge world that we have not yet seen, an incredible creation that we cannot account for…There is far more that we don’t know than what we do know” (21). It is the place we encounter our limitations, or human finitude, and begin to learn of God and listen for God. In particular, Square One is where we attend to God’s Word in Scripture, “listening to God call us, heal us, forgive us” (27), and respond to God.

That is the background to what Peterson writes in the final two pages:

I want to simplify your lives. When others are telling you to read more, I want to tell you to read less; when others are telling you to do more, I want to tell you to do less. The world does not need more of you; it needs more of God. Your friends do not need more of you; they need more of God. And you don’t need more of you; you need more of God.

The Christian life consists in what God does for us, not what we do for God; the Christian life consists in what God says to us, not what we say about God. We also, of course, do things and say things; but if we do not return to Square One each time we act, each time we speak, beginning from God and God’s Word, we will soon be found to be practicing a spirituality that has little or nothing to do with God. And so it is necessary, if we are going to truly live a Christian life, and not just use the word Christian to disguise our narcissistic and promethean attempts at a spirituality without worshiping God and without being addressed by God, it is necessary to return to Square One and adore God and listen to God. Given our sin-damaged memories that render us vulnerable to every latest edition of journalistic spirituality, daily re-orientation in the truth revealed in Jesus and attested in Scripture is required. And given our ancient predisposition for reducing every scrap of divine revelation that we come across into a piece of moral/spiritual technology that we can use to get on in the world, and eventually to get on without God, a daily return to a condition of not-knowing and non-achievement is required. We have proven, time and again, that we are not to be trusted in these matters. We need to return to Square One for a fresh start as often as every morning, noon, and night.

[From Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 30-31.

(You may also enjoy the article I wrote for Preaching Today, Remembering Eugene Peterson: 10 ways he shaped my pastoral ministry.”)

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.]

Bibliography for Ephesians series

 

Here is the resource bibliography to accompany the recent preaching series, “Ephesians: A Crash Course in Basic Christianity.” 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 our preaching team utilized throughout the series. The books I found particularly helpful are marked with an asterisk.

Bibliography on the book of Ephesians:

* C. E. Arnold. “Ephesians, Letter to the.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, 238-249. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993.

F. F. Bruce. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984.

John Chrysostom. “Homilies on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff, vol. 13, 49-172. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004.

LaMoine F. DeVries. Cities of the Biblical World. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997.

*Harold W. Hoehner. Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.

William W. Klein. “Ephesians.” In Expositor’s Bible Commentary, rev., vol. 12, 19-173. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

Eugene Peterson.  Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.

* Andrew T. Lincoln. Ephesians. WBC. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1990.

Handley C. G. Moule. Ephesian Studies. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1900.

Klyne Snodgrass. Ephesians. NIVAC. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

John R. W. Stott. The Message of Ephesians: God’s New Society. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1979.

Following Jesus is Not a Consumer Activity: Eugene Peterson on maintaining our spiritual footing

Eugene Peterson 2Working on a message on Ephesians 6:10-24, I came across this timely gem from Eugene Peterson in his book Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ.

The message to the Ephesians is a solid orientation for the entire Christian church in the conditions created by God in Christ through the Spirit for a life of growing to maturity in Christ. This is a dependable place to stand. This is solid ground. Conditions here are favorable to growing up to the “measure of the full stature of Christ.” Stand firm.

We live in an advertisement culture in which new products are continuously presented to us. This is a culture of built-in obsolescence. Nothing is designed to last. In order to keep the economy healthy we are conditioned to respond to the latest as the best: a new car, the latest fashion in clothes, the breakthrough model of computer, the newly published best-selling novel, the just-discovered miracle diet. We have no sooner bought or tried one thing than we are off to the next. Quickly bored, we are easily diverted from whatever we have just purchased or the book that we have not quite finished or the church we joined two months ago. Highly skilled and lavishly budgeted attention-getters target us tirelessly. Every “latest” is overtaken by another “latest” in dizzying succession.

When this novelty mentality seeps into the church, we start looking for the latest in God, the latest in worship, the latest in teaching, the best preacher in town. Church shopping is epidemic in America. When religion as novelty spreads, maturity thins out. The well-established and much-verified fact is that following Jesus is not a consumer activity. Prayer is not a technique that can be learned as a skill; it can only be entered as a person-in-relation. Love cannot be improved with jewelry or an exotic cruise; it requires submission and sacrifice and reverence.

Paul has warned us that we are perpetuating our adolescence when we indulge in spiritual novelties: “We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine. . . . we must grow up” (Eph. 4:14-15). Brace yourself. Keep your footing. Stand firm.

Jesus is Local and Personal

Healing_of_a_bleeding_women_Marcellinus-Peter-CatacombI’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ way of doing ministry recently. A number of years ago, I read Eugene Peterson’s outstanding book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places. Ever since reading it, I have grappled with what it means to truly minister to people in Jesus’ way.

In the midst of my reflections, I have been surprised once again by how Jesus always spoke and acted with specific people in specific places. In many ways this is so straightforward that I initially failed to give it much thought.

However, Peterson helped me to see how this is often not the way that we tend to think about Jesus or ourselves as North American Christians today.

We tend to be captivated with formulas and generalities that we can mold and apply to our Christian life, whether habits or purposes or principles. Jesus, however, did not offer generalities or formulas that could be broadcast on billboards or used as marketing slogans.

Instead, Jesus dealt with specific people in their specific places.

He asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water and then conversed about life, human soul-thirst, and the nature of the Messiah (John 4). Walking along with His disciples, Jesus addressed prevailing notions of sin and its physical repercussions by interacting with a man born blind. He spit in the dust, caked it over the man’s blind eyes, and told him to go wash in a nearby pool (John 9).

Jesus is undeniably local, personal, and relational. He does not seem too concerned with developing broad-based programs or ideas into which people are plugged like so many disposable appliances in an over-crowded kitchen. Quite the opposite!

What Jesus does is this. He calls this one – Zacchaeus – into relationship in a personal manner as they talk about life over a meal (Luke 19). He calls these four – Peter and Andrew, James and John – to follow Him from their lake-fishing into people-fishing for the lost while walking along the shore (Matthew 4).

Jesus lives locally with specific people in specific places. What about us? Do we live in that way? Do we minister in that way?

The Weekend Wanderer: 5 January 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.

View More: http://thejoesphotos.pass.us/anyabwilefamily“Diverse Theologians to Read in 2019”Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor at Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition, offers a great resource for those trying to broaden the voices of their theological conversation partners. “Recently a brother on Twitter asked if I could recommend some orthodox theologians from around the world that he could read in 2019. It’s not the first time I’ve gotten such a request. So I thought I’d put together a short list of theologians and leaders from differing ethnic backgrounds for those who may be interested to diversify their reading lists.”

 

Screen Shot 2019-01-02 at 1.14.18 PMThe Tech-Wise Family Challenge – Without a doubt, the best book that I have read related to living a healthy life as a family in the digital age is The Tech-Wise Family by Andy Crouch. If you have not read it, I would strongly encourage you to do so. Because of this, I was thrilled to hear about Barna Group partnering with Crouch to offer a 21-day Tech-Wise Family Challenge that begins this coming Monday, January 7. Find out more about it here.

 

uganda peace“Risking Peace: How Religious Leaders Ended Uganda’s Civil War” – At Commonweal, David Hoekema writes about the influence of religious leaders in shaping peace for the end of the conflict between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and the Ugandan government. “Far less known—scarcely mentioned in news reports—was the formation of an alliance of religious leaders in the darkest period of the conflict. Overcoming centuries of mistrust and disagreement, the Protestant, Catholic, and Muslim communities of the Acholi region joined forces to help relieve suffering caused by the violence and to bring government and rebel leaders to the negotiating table. Their work bears witness to the transforming power of interfaith collaboration and to the ability of local communities in Africa to resolve a seemingly intractable conflict.”

 

Jerry Falwell Jr“Jerry Falwell Jr. can’t imagine Trump ‘doing anything that’s not good for the country’ – In an interview with Joe Heim in The Washington Post, Jerry Falwell, Jr., speaks out in favor of Donald Trump in a way that is worth paying attention to because his justification is theologically questionable. Falwell credits his ongoing support for President Trump as based on Trump’s success in business and that we need a President “to run the country like a business.” While that could be true, Falwell  goes on to dismiss the importance of character in public leaders and downgrades the importance of caring for the poor. Citing a simplistic approach to two kingdoms theology, Falwell says: “In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country.” Alan Cross, a Southern Baptist Pastor, offered a scathing critique of Falwell’s statement that is worth pondering.

 

85735“Building on the Black Church’s Bible Legacy” – “African Americans have held tight to their Bibles over the years. Amid cultural shifts in beliefs and reading habits, their demographic consistently outranks other racial groups for their reliance on the Word. Last year, the American Bible Society (ABS) once again named African Americans ‘the most Bible engaged in the US.'”

 

dante inferno online“An Illustrated and Interactive Dante’s Inferno: Explore a New Digital Companion to the Great 14th-Century Epic Poem” – I guess you could be wasting your time playing Fortnite, so why not explore Dante’s Inferno? “The online, interactive companion to the Inferno you see screen-shotted here does not attempt to join their ranks. Its charming, children’s-book-graphic visual presentation takes a G-rated approach, ditching accurate human anatomy and horrific violence for a cartoonish video game romp through hell that makes it seem like a super fun, if super weird, place to visit. Created by Alpaca, an Italian design cooperative, and design studio Molotro, the tool aims to be ‘a synsemic access point to Dante’s literature, aiding its study.'”

 

Thomas Merton“Thomas Merton, the Monk Who Became a Prophet” – In The New Yorker, Alan Jacobs offers a wonderful reflection on the life of Thomas Merton, that quirky, most-popular monk of the twentieth-century. “Merton lived the public world, the world of words and politics, but knew that living in it had killed him. (‘Thomas Merton is dead.’) He sought the peace of pure and silent contemplation, but came to believe that the value of that experience is to send us back into the world that killed us. He is perhaps the proper patron saint of our information-saturated age, of we who live and move and have our being in social media, and then, desperate for peace and rest, withdraw into privacy and silence, only to return. As we always will.”

 

85769“Billy Graham, Eugene Peterson, and Other Evangelicals Lost This Year” –  Christianity Today highlights some of the most notable figures in the evangelical world that died in this past year. While most of us probably heard of the deaths of Billy Graham and Eugene Peterson, we may not have known about the passing of James Earl Massey, Bob Buford, George Lindbeck, and others on this list.

 

book open“10 Novels Every Pastor Should Read” – I stumbled upon this article by Kolby Kerr and liked it right away. Here he offers an apologetic for reading fiction for pastors that is winsome and clear, while also offering a very energizing list of suggested reading for pastors. There were a few on this list that I haven’t read, and so I look forward to exploring them. There were some missing that I would have included, but such is the subjectivity of book lists. Some may not know that the reason I studied English Literature as an undergrad was because of my calling toward pastoral ministry. I could not have been more happy for the education that I received and the way it has shaped my life and vocation.

 

PNG.jpegWhich country has the most languages?” – The BBC reports: “Papua New Guinea has about eight million people, but more than 800 languages. The oldest ones, in the Papuan group, date back tens of thousands of years. So why are there so many languages in this mountainous island country?”

 

[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.]