The Pastor as Guide on the Spiritual Quest [Working the Angles with Eugene Peterson, part 8]

fullsizeoutput_ae1This post continues my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s book Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began as an attempt to honor Peterson’s influence upon me while also reconsidering the essential aspects of pastoral ministry that Peterson affirms. The book explores what he calls the holy trigonometry of pastoral ministry, built around three angles of ministry: prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction.

This is the third and final post on the second of those angles, Scripture, which began with Peterson’s exhortation for pastors to return to hearing Scripture and continued with his call to contemplative exegesis. This next chapter, chapter six entitled “Gaza Notes,” was very powerful for me personally, as Peterson focuses on the hermeneutical work of the pastor bringing Scripture to life for people. He starts into the chapter with an extended reflection on Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40, particularly looking at the questions between the two:

  • “Do you understand what you are reading?” (8:30)
  • “How can I unless someone explains it to me?” (8:31)
  • “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” (8:34)
  • “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” (8:36)

Essential to this is Peterson’s emphasis that good exegesis – which brings meaning out of the text – must be augmented by good guidance – leading a person in the way of the text.

Pastoral-biblical hermeneutics presupposes exegesis but involves more. The African invites Philip into the chariot to accompany him as his guide….Philip has to make a choice: will he stand alongside the chariot, providing information and answering questions about Scripture, exegetical work that comes easily for him, or will he involve himself in a spiritual quest with this stranger? (128).

This brings us into the essence of how Peterson applies Acts 8 to the ministry of pastors: we must become guides on the pathways of interpretation, walking alongside of and entering into the lives of those before us. The challenge of this is the perceived distance between the world around us and the world of Scripture.

Reading Scripture involves a dizzying reorientation of our culture-conditioned and job-oriented assumptions and procedures…Scripture calls into question the domesticated accommodations we are busily arranging for the gospel. The crisis into which the act of reading Scripture brings us does not usually mean emotional intensity or dramatic turn-about, but rather the solemn awareness, repeated as often as daily, that the world of reality to which we have vowed ourselves in belief and vocation is a divinely constituted world in which God calls upon us; it is not a humanly constituted world in which we, when we feel like it, call upon God (132).

And with this, Peterson launches into a portion of the book that moved me so deeply that I actually had tears in my eyes as I read it aloud with my wife, Kelly. On pages 133-139, he calls pastors to take a different way in their preaching and handling of Scripture; a way set apart from “breezy familiarity” (132), “abstraction” (134), or “distilling truths from Scripture” (135). All those tendencies are hallmarks “of the gnostic, for whom matter is evil and history inconvenient.” This is, in my opinion, the most common approach to preaching in North American Christianity today. It is something I have tried to resist in my preaching, but have at times felt like a wild man in the wilderness when everyone else is trying to “preach one main point” or “serve up the principles of the text.” Peterson continues, highlighting the temptation to become a gnostic purveyor of principles instead of a steady guide through the jagged terrain of Scripture:

In the early Christian centuries the gnostic program was to dump the entire Hebrew Scriptures and disembowel the Gospels. The parts of St. Paul that talked theology they liked pretty well. What they proposed instead can be read in the documents discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1946: Jesus as guru, safely distanced from the common and profane, serenely uttering eternal truths. This is tea-room religion where the ‘women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo’ (T. S. Eliot)” (136).

It is in paragraphs like these that Peterson’s prophetic edge comes forth. It is an edge that is so painfully necessary in our day that it felt both painful and liberating to read. That prophetic edge strikes, to borrow a quote from Franz Kafka that he uses earlier in the chapter, like “an ice axe to break the sea frozen inside us” (133).

To close out the chapter, Peterson retells Walker Percy’s parable from The Message in the Bottle about longing, communication, and meaning in a way that connects with life in the church and the ministry of the pastor with the Scriptures. I will not retell it entirely here, although it is worth the read, but let me share the final words:

Most mornings on the island on many of its beaches there are people walking, wonderingly attentive, looking for bottles with a message in them. On Sunday mornings they gather on some assigned beaches and read to each other what has been collected over the years. A lot of people on the island have yet to figure out what all the fuss is about (145).

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

The Weekend Wanderer: 10 November 2018

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.

2018-09_ELS“Most Evangelical Leaders Identify as Independents” – In light of the elections this past week, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) shared a recent study indicating that two-thirds of evangelical leaders identify more as independents than purely with a political party. Leith Anderson, president of the NAE, said:“Most evangelical leaders prioritize their Christian identity over political party identity. Faith comes first whether independent, Democrat, Republican or another registration.” This is all fine and good, as long as this does not mean evangelical leaders fail to clearly address biblical issues with political ramifications.

 

webRNS-Copts-Massacre1-110518“Anger erupts in Egypt after massacre of Christian pilgrims” – Last Friday (November 2) near Minya, Egypt, a city south of Cairo, two buses carrying Coptic Christians were ambushed as they left a monastery, leaving seven people dead and wounding nineteen others. According to news sources, the Islamic State in Egypt has claimed responsibility for the attack.

 

69543“Bonhoeffer’s Answer to Political Turmoil: Preach!” – Ryan Hoselton’s offers a meaningful exploration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s preaching in light of the national and global turmoil related to the rise of The Third Reich in Germany.  Leaning into Bonhoeffer’s sermon, “Overcoming Fear,” delivered on January 15, 1933, Hoselton illustrates Bonhoeffer’s distinctive pastoral response to his circumstances. This reminds me of another book that I read a couple of years ago, Preaching in Hitler’s Shadow: Sermons of Resistance in the Third Reich, in which Dean Stroud points to a number of examples, including Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and Martin Niemöller, who spoke God’s word powerfully in the midst of political strife.

 

84341“A New Guild Aims to Equip Women and Amplify Orthodoxy”Christianity Today reports on The Pelican Project. “Two year ago, Karen Swallow Prior started fielding phone calls from women who all expressed the same desire: to find community among women united in their orthodox belief….A few months later, about 20 women from across the country met together to talk and pray about how to practice orthodoxy in the public square and how to equip the church to better disciple women in their midst. The group launched publicly this week as The Pelican Project.”

 

Churchome_virtual_church“Judah Smith Launches Church ‘in the palm of your hand’” – This past week, Judah Smith, pastor of Churchome (formerly ‘City Church’) announced via Twitter that the church’s latest “site” would be through an app on your smartphone. This move, listed as on of the locations on the church’s web-site, is dubbed “Churchome Global.” This is the utterly unsurprising to me, as it seems like the next logical move beyond online small groups or campuses resulting from the disincarnate, gnostic, North American evangelical church’s focus on “connection” and “reaching people.” Once again, this faddish push fails to realize that the “ends” do not justify the “means,” which violate the essential incarnational communion of an enfleshed Savior. Studies have shown that online “connection,” whether through social media or other means, usually contributes to increased levels of loneliness, stress, and depression. It is one thing to share information or resources online, but it is another thing to promise church (sanctorum communio) online.

 

Santa_Maria_Novella_Florence_façade“Sandals on the Ground: My Pilgrimage with the Sonnet”Jeanne Murray Walker writes about the challenges of hitting a wall as a poet, and how returning to the writing the classic form of the sonnet helped her. “That sunny fall morning was the first time I realized that I might not be a writer anymore. Or more terrifyingly, that I couldn’t write. After all, there does come a time in some writers’ lives when they inexplicably run out of ideas. Or words. Or metaphors. Or perhaps—this seemed like a dimmer possibility—something had depleted my passion to write….After publishing thirteen books, winning prizes and fellowships, and enjoying a career teaching poetry, I felt suddenly alone and terrified about my future as a writer.”

 

84337“CCDA President Noel Castellanos Resigns” – “On Tuesday morning, CCDA [Christian Community Development Association] announced that Castellanos had resigned prior to the 30th annual gathering, but the ministry’s board decided to wait until afterwards to announce his departure in a ‘sincere effort to keep the focus on this tremendous milestone as well as honor the life and commitment of our founder, Dr. John Perkins.’ Castellanos, who led the Christian justice ministry for more than a decade, spent the past two years engaged in a reconciliation process with former coworkers, according to CCDA.”

 

AdventResourceGuide2016“Advent Resource Guide” – The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship has pulled together this wonderful compilation of resources as we near Advent. You will find helpful resources for singing, preaching, visual arts, intergenerational worship, children’s ministry, and so much more.

 

freddie-mercury---barcelona“Freddie Mercury’s family faith: The ancient religion of Zoroastrianism – In light of the recent movie, Bohemian Rhapsody, about the English rock band Queen, this piece on lead singer, Freddie Mercury, took a religious spin. “It might come as a surprise to some that Freddie Mercury was born Farrokh Bulsara. He came from a Parsi family that had roots in India and he was a Zoroastrian by faith.”

 

[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.]

Preaching as a Three-Way Conversation

A good sermon is one side of a passionate conversation. It has to be heard  in that way. There are three parties to it of course but so are there even to the most private thought: the self that yields the thought, the self that acknowledges and in some way responds to the thought, and the Lord. That is a remarkable thing to consider.
– Reverend John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead

This quotation from Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Gilead, is illuminating. When pastors preach, we are not simply talking to those in the congregation who receive from us. Preaching is a wondrous experience of preacher and congregation standing together in the presence of God as all three parties simultaneously interact with one another.

The pastor speaks and listens to God, while also speaking and listening to the congregation. The members of the congregation speak and listen to God, while also speaking (many times non-verbally) and listening to the pastor. And, most definitely of all, God is speaking and listening to all parties.

This picture of preaching quickly clears away the illusion that preaching is a simple one-way street of communication from preacher to congregation. It returns us to the wondrous mystery that the human participants are entering a conversation amongst the Triune God that started long before the preaching moment ever began. In that reality, both preacher and congregation are welcome guests attending to the God who has spoken, will speak, and is speaking even now.

Recovering our way: Thomas Oden on the Antinomian infection in North American Christianity

tom odenMy continued reflections on pastoral ministry, the church, and what it means to be in ministry in North America led me back to Thomas Oden‘s Pastoral Theology: Essentials of Ministry. I first read this book while still an undergrad at Wheaton College but enrolled with special permission in a graduate level class entitle “Pastoral Ministry,” I believe, with Dr. Timothy Beougher. The class was outstanding and I still remember many things from it, including Dr. Beougher’s own wisdom from experience as a pastor.

Tom Oden is perhaps best known today for his turn from liberal Methodism to classic Christian orthodoxy through his encounter with the church fathers and mothers. He traces this journey in two works, After Modernity…What?: Agenda for Theology and Requiem: A Lament in Three Movements. The fruit of that journey is Oden’s invaluable systematic theology, as well as the renowned Ancient Christian Commentary series.

While returning to this book with one of our staff members at Eastbrook as part of their ordination journey, I encountered this simple, yet vastly important, statement on the antinomian infection within North American Christianity. Here are Oden’s words:

The tradition has used the term antinomianism (from “against law,” or “lawlessness”) to speak of that undernourished view of God’s grace that views the gospel as if it implied no moral response or ethical constraint or norms of redemptive behavior. Antinomianism is the weird, wild, impulsive, unpredictable sleeping partner of much contemporary pastoral care. It mistakes the gospel for license, freedom for unchecked self-actualization, and health for native vitalism. The classical pastoral tradition has struggled mightily against “cheap grace” solutions and premature reassurances in a way that will be reflected on almost every page that follows.

Keep in mind that antinomianism is our own doing. We cannot conveniently claim to be victims of some external, evil, socially alienating force. We have welcomed it, confusing it with genuine Christian liberty. Its modern forms are sexual permissiveness, egocentric romanticism, and a vague taste for anarchy. If its strength and appetite were less, we would bother less about it. But antinomian hopes have been set loose like Mediterranean fruit flies upon both church and ministry by misguided exegetes and well-meaning but unwise theologians (to whom the popular media are insatiably attracted). Now, full circle, they have brought us to an “improved theology” that assumes that God loves us without judgment, that grace opposes obligation, that “oughts” are dehumanizing if not sick, and that the gospel always makes the law questionable. History is now requiring of us that we unlearn much that we have prematurely learned about aborted “Christian freedom.” This freewheeling grace-without-law theology infects many ancillary problems of pastoral practice….

As if having watched too much television, we have become dazed and addled with an oversimplified gospel that most laypersons easily recognize as innocuous-looking pabulum with highly toxic side effects: God loves me not matter what. Nothing is required by this merciful God. Don’t worry about any response to God in order to feel completely OK with yourself and God. Feelings of guilt are considered neurotic. God turns out to be a naive zilch who permissively turns his eyes away when we sin. How strangely different from the Holy One of Amos, Isaiah, and Jesus.

The central tradition of pastoral care prior to this century would have frankly called this talk nonsense. But we suffer fools gladly with a bored smile. How often we are obliged to cherish it as if it were “obviously good” theology. So when we are engaged in pastoral counseling, we withhold all ethical judgments, aping ineffective psychotherapies. When we preach, we avoid any hint of morally evaluative (“preachy”) demeanor and risk no admonition, disavowing the prophetic office. We offer the sacraments as if this were a morally irrelevant act. The classical pastoral tradition requires us to challenge these assumptions.

The Weekend Wanderer: 22 September 2018

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.

 

melani mcalister“Look Outside America for Fresh Insight on American Evangelicals” – “Melani McAlister, a professor of American studies at George Washington University, wants to tell a broader story by looking outside American borders. Studying American evangelical missionary and humanitarian activity in Egypt, South Africa, Congo, and South Sudan, she says, reveals a movement that has always seen itself as part of a global communion. In her book, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders, McAlister applies this international lens to the past half-century of American evangelical history.”

 

puerto rico maria“The State of the Puerto Rican Church, One Year After Maria” – Gadiel Ríos reports on the challenges to the church in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, and how this disaster is entirely changing the way churches do ministry. ” The church in Puerto Rico and the spiritual lives of its citizens have not been spared of all of this pain and desolation, but their story is still one of grace and love overcoming loss and suffering.”

 

Screen Shot 2018-09-19 at 10.19.57 AM“Leave no dark corner: China is building a digital dictatorship to exert control over its 1.4 billion citizens. For some, ‘social credit’ will bring privileges — for others, punishment” – If you like dystopian literature or film, Matthew Carney’s exploration of China’s in-depth digital tracking of its citizenry may intrigue you. But it also may disturb you. As others have noted, privacy may be a thing of the past, but it reaches a very new level when one’s government agenda includes this: “a vast network of 200 million CCTV cameras across China ensures there’s no dark corner in which to hide.”

 

beth moore“The Tiny Blond Bible Teacher Taking on the Evangelical Political Machine” – Emma Green interviews evangelical Bible teacher Beth Moore about her recent venture into tense conversations within evangelicalism about politics. “On a chilly Texas evening recently, Moore and I sat in rocking chairs on her porch. It was the first time she had invited a reporter to visit her home, on the outskirts of Houston. Moore, who is 61, was the consummate hostess, fussing about feeding me and making sure I was warm enough beside the mesquite-wood fire. But as we settled into conversation, her demeanor changed. She fixed her perfectly mascaraed eyes on me. ‘The old way is over,’ she said. ‘The stakes are too high now.'”

 

webRNS-Abuse-Research-46-091818“Survey shows more pastors preach about abuse in #MeToo age” – “Half of Protestant pastors say they preach to their churches about domestic and sexual violence, an increase from four years ago, when only a third said they raised the issue, a new survey shows. LifeWay Research took a detailed look at Protestant clergy’s attitudes toward abuse and harassment and what they’ve done about it, surveying 1,000 pastors by phone during the summer of 2018 as the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements dominated the news.”

 

Gettys3“Towards a Deeper Song: Why Keith and Kristyn Getty Are Helping the Church to Sing (Again)” – “Often credited with re-inventing the traditional hymn-form, they are passionate about the importance of congregational singing and how we learn truth through song. This year alone, their journey has taken them from the Global Hymn Sing to the UK Houses of Parliament and recently to their own Sing! Conference in Nashville. A few days before the conference, Keith shared more about Getty Music’s vision and why we must never stop singing.”

 

iraqi-refugees“Evangelical Leaders Denounce Trump Administration Refugee Cap, Call for Increase” – “National leaders from the Evangelical Immigration Table sent a letter asking the Trump administration to admit more refugees…The announced new cap is even lower than this year’s historic low of 45,000 for this FY 2018, and the U.S. is on track to take in fewer than 22,000 refugees this fiscal year, also a record low.” This statement was fashioned by conservative evangelicals, including Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, President of National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who says: “America has long been a beacon of freedom and safety for those fleeing persecution, including many persecuted for their Christian faith, but the proposed cap of just 30,000 refugees would mean stepping back from our historic role of global leadership. We can both be a secure nation and a compassionate nation, leading the world in resettling the most vulnerable refugees who have been identified and vetted abroad and ensuring due process for those who reach our country to request asylum.”

 

closed“Let’s bring back the Sabbath as a radical act against ‘total work’William R. Black, a professor of history and religion, offers an interesting critique of our fast-paced, work-oriented culture. He writes: “We usually encounter the Sabbath as an inconvenience, or at best a nice idea increasingly at odds with reality. But observing this weekly day of rest can actually be a radical act. Indeed, what makes it so obsolete and impractical is precisely what makes it so dangerous.”

 

Bill Hybels“Here’s Who Willow Creek Chose to Investigate Bill Hybels” – This past week Willow Creek Community Church announced the leadership of the investigative team looking at the allegations against Bill Hybels reported earlier this year. “The new Willow Creek Independent Advisory Group (IAG) is co-chaired by Jo Anne Lyon, general superintendent emerita and current ambassador of The Wesleyan Church, and Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals. The other two members are Margaret Diddams, provost of Wheaton College and a professor of psychology, and Gary Walter, past president of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Chicago, Illinois.”

 

failure“6 Warning Signs You’re Risking A Moral Failure – And How To Avoid A Fall” – On that note, over at the Vanderbloemen Search Group’s blog, Jay Mitchell writes for those in ministry about six warning signs that may lead you into a moral failure. He follows that with three suggestions about how to safeguard yourself against such a failure. In the current climate of moral failures, both inside the church and outside the church, ministers cannot fail to pay attention to this topic.

 

blue“The Bible described it as the perfect, pure blue. And then for nearly 2,000 years, everyone forgot what it looked like” – This is not your typical exploration of Scripture. “Forty-nine times the Bible mentions a perfect, pure blue, a color so magnificent and transcendent that it was all but impossible to describe. Yet, for most of the last 2,000 years, nobody has known exactly what ‘biblical blue’ — called tekhelet in Hebrew — actually looked like or how it could be re-created.” [Thanks to Micah Mattix for sharing this in the Daily Prufrock.]

[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.]