Temporary Pastors and the Life of the Church

This coming Sunday will be, for the foreseeable future, my final Sunday in full-time pastoral ministry. This has been a bittersweet transition—while I am excited about what comes next, my call to pastoral ministry remains unchanged; I love my people and have enjoyed the privilege of ministering to them. Three and a half years was entirely too short a time with them. And yet both I, and they, must move on. This is in many ways the very nature of pastoral ministry.

Interestingly enough, these were some of the very words I preached to them on the Sunday when I was installed at my present church. That day, reading the story in Acts 20 of Paul’s tearful parting and farewell from the elders of the Ephesian church, I pointed my members to four features critical to all pastoral ministry. Looking back, I spoke perhaps better than I knew. Allow me to review them with you today.

1. All Pastors are Temporary. This seems an obvious point, but it is one we are apt to overlook. Paul was pastor at Ephesus for three years. My predecessor at the church where I serve was present for sixteen years, his predecessor was there for twenty years, and I’ve served now for three and a half years. Nestled within each of these terms of service lies an important fact—each one was temporary.

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Let’s be explicit. At some point a pastor will leave a church, whether he is called to another church, decides to retire from full time ministry, leaves under ignominy, or dies in service. And it’s not only the pastor, but you also, as an individual member of a given congregation, who may be called to other cities, other churches, other ministries. Indeed, it is you also who will one day inevitably die. Ministry at every local church is unavoidably temporary.

Despite the obvious self-evidence of this point, rarely do we live this way. Most often we operate as if our models for ministry are based on permanence. We presume that our pastors will and should remain forever. We assume that, like custom cabinets, once the minister has been “installed” he will be a permanent feature of the building. From this perspective, pastors go on to build ministries that are so dependent upon their particular gifts and personalities that the ministry cannot continue without them. Churches are complicit in these schemes, and are content to allow the pastor to do most of the work of faith for them. In the end, this kind of ministry treats the pastor as someone who provides an essential service to the congregation. I do the work, and you show up to benefit from the work. I am the spiritual chef, you show up to eat. The Church is a service—like a restaurant or a shop—where you come to purchase your spirituality with a tithe. But this is clearly not how faith works, and that leads to the second lesson.

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Job Description: Become obsolete.

2. All Church Ministry is Shared. Again, let’s be explicit—a pastor can never do the work of faith for you. The best he can do is equip you to do your own work. And because the pastor’s role is fundamentally and essentially temporary, we must acknowledge that all church ministry ought to be shared. Ministry is not something I do and something you receive. It is not something for which I am an expert and you are a plebeian observer. No, ministry is something I do as an example in order to lead you into your own maturity in ministry. The proper image for the pastor is not that he stands above you in power to dominate your faith, but that together you stand side-by-side in a common mission. As a pastor I am a specially designated and set-apart servant of the mission that Christ intends to accomplish in a particular place and time. What this means is that while the pastor gives you an advantage—as a crutch gives you an advantage when you’ve broken your leg—the goal of the pastor—like the goal of the crutch—is to one day step aside so that you can walk on your own.

Paul, in Acts 20, clearly sees his ministry as one that is shared with the Ephesian elders. There is a real partnership at work between them. And in the event that you are tempted to claim that Paul’s words are for the elders only, I want to remind you that even the office of ‘elder’ is temporary. Everything in the church, with the exception of our Lord, is temporary, and therefore the charge that Paul gives is in some sense the special task of the whole fellowship. Not that everyone should be in charge, but everyone in Christ should have the same goals, the same concerns, and the same dire need for serious integrity. And that from the very top to the very bottom, each of us is concerned with attending to Christ—we all serve each other in bringing our common attention to Christ Jesus. This leads to the third lesson.

3. Ministry Must Be Anchored on Christ Alone. Ministers will change over time. Where you live will change over time. All church buildings will one day dissolve into dust. Everything in the church is temporary except our Lord and master, Jesus. Because He is the only certain constant, we must ensure that we have truly and completely focused our efforts on attending to Christ. One of my favorite verses is Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Your pastors will change, but Jesus Christ is the same. Your home will change, but Jesus Christ is the same. Your nation may change, your family may change, your job, your calling, your situation in life, your health, your finances—all these will change, but Jesus Christ is always the same.

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We’re all connected to the hub.

Because I am temporary, but Jesus is eternal, my primary job has been to help my people look at Jesus. I do not stand in the place of Jesus. I am not to be the ultimate focus of their attention. My job is to stand side-by-side with my people, pointing at our common master, and working to remove obstacles and offer such a compelling vision of King Jesus that when I fade away their attention remains fixed on Him. In this process—because ministry is fundamentally temporary, and because it is designed to be shared—Christ in turn serves as the fixed point of reference for leaders and elders. Only Christ ensures that pastor after pastor is performing the same mission. Only Christ and His purposes can unify a diverse and changing group of elders. Only Christ creates the conditions whereby the eternal continuity of the Church is maintained.

This leads to our fourth and final lesson:

4. The Standard for Evaluating Ministry is Integrity. All of this—that ministry is temporary, shared, and Christocentric—in turn helps us to see why Paul spends so much time speaking about his personal integrity in his Acts 20 speech to the Ephesian elders. Have your ministers and elders embodied integrity with respect to the ministry of the Gospel, to the Kingdom of God? Have we as ministers served Christ with humility? Have we suffered for the sake of the gospel—not necessarily in being beaten, stoned, or chased out of town, but have we stood for the truth of Christ even when it hurt? Have we declared to you the fullness of the gospel, both in public and in private? Have we been good stewards of our finances? Have we defrauded you in any way, shape, or form? Have we been an example in caring for and helping the weak and powerless among you? Have we, ultimately, pointed you toward Jesus?

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A fracture in integrity damages everyone.

The integrity of a church’s ministers serves, in turn, the integrity of the fellowship. Paul in verses 28-32 describes the challenges to come—troubles from both without, and within. There will be those from outside the fellowship who come and seek to overturn the good we do. They will approach as wolves, seeking to defraud and take advantage of the Church. Our integrity—our focus on Christ—preserves us and protects us from those dangers. Others from within the church will see in twisting their theology means by which they can gain advantage for themselves—whether advantages of popularity, advantages of finance, advantages of being well thought of. Our integrity—our commitment to the Kingdom of Christ—will give us the clarity to expose and reject those false distortions. And heed my words, Christian brothers and sisters, no faith is perfectly stable until it is secure in eternity—that is, no faith is perfected until you are dead. And while you live your faith will be challenged by wolves and charlatans, and your focus must be so clearly on Christ and on his purposes, and your ministers and elders must have so instilled in you a conviction of their integrity, that you are able to navigate those challenges. Integrity is the standard by which we evaluate ministry.

For the past three and a half years I have been called to serve at Burnaby Alliance Church. There, to the best of my ability, I have been tasked to help my people to love Jesus more. I have been called, to the best of my ability, to show them Jesus in my life so that they can, through following Jesus on their own, show Him to the other people in their lives. I have been called to love them—however imperfectly—with the love of Christ so that they can love others. I am called to be so faithful that I never stand between them and faith in Christ. I am called to point so effectively at Jesus that when I depart they will still be focused on Christ Jesus, who is the same yesterday, and today, and forever. And by the grace of God I have been enabled to discharge, I hope, just such a ministry.

If you would benefit well from your temporary pastor, then there are two things you must do. First, you must examine your own hearts and your own motives. Ask yourself: Am I using my pastors well, and appropriately? That individual is an asset to your faith, but not a replacement for it. Have you taken advantage of church for the benefit of your life with Christ? Have you thought of church as a service performed for you, or of church as a place where you journey along with others seeking Christ? Are you here to get a vision of Jesus, or are you here to feel good about yourself?

Second, the pastor is a powerful lever who can facilitate great change, both personally and institutionally. And because he is positioned to leverage everyone in the community to some degree, that also makes of him a target. If the devil can take your pastor out, he can hurt the whole community; but if together we overcome the devil, we can all be strengthened. Because of this reality, your pastor truly needs your prayers. He needs prayer for his own integrity. His wholeness will be challenged by sin and temptation. He needs your prayers for his sustenance. He needs your prayers for his rest. He needs your prayers for his family—for his life as a husband and father, for his children’s lives as individuals who also need to learn to follow Jesus. Through all of these, your pastor needs your prayers to be filled God’s Spirit in power and service.

Few careers come with the challenges, burdens, and eternal consequences of full-time pastoral ministry. If you have read this today and are a minister, may you be encouraged to prioritize your own integrity, your own temporality. If you have read this today and are a member of a congregation, may you be encouraged to benefit rightly from the gifts offered by your pastor. And may you commit to upholding him in dedicated prayer!

When Winning is Losing

In one scene of the 1985 classic Real Genius Lazlo Hollyfeld, reclusive genius, encounters Chris Knight in the dormitory and asks him about his final exam. He says, “Well, how’d you do?” Knight, energetic, answers, “How’d I do? I passed! But I failed! Yeah!” And Hollyfeld responds, “Well, then I’m happy and sad for you.”

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It was difficult not to remember these words following the astonishing results of the US election this past week. Certainly (and regardless of outcome) it was going to be a pass that was a fail, a failure that somehow passed. My own summary comment, which I offered on Facebook, was this: “There are victories that are losses, and losses that are victories. The cross is the latter. Very often, politics are the former.” This is a truism that any married person will be able to confirm from experience. There are occasions when winning an argument might well mean losing part of the relationship. Winning, in other words, isn’t everything. Tuesday’s win may well be a real loss for Christians in America.

Underlying this is a conviction, perhaps strange to hear, that a Clinton presidency would have been fundamentally better for our public Christian witness. Why should this be? Because while such a presidency would likely have been grievous to our Christian comfort—creating the potential for loss of liberty and opposition to our cherished beliefs at the highest office of the American nation—in the light of such an opposing power structure our Christian convictions would require clear, solid, and enunciated articulation. The discomfort would force us to stand clearly for our beliefs and to strive to re-articulate them to a culture which views us largely as an antiquated mystery.

This upcoming Trump presidency will likely be more comfortable for Christians, but it will also be summarily more damaging. It is foundationally difficult to maintain a countercultural stance when you represent the dominant power structure. In the cloud of our political comfort our true convictions are likely to be sullied and masked by controversy, distortion, and association. The many people we are called by Christ to reach on the left are in this moment becoming unreachable because of our new ascendance to power and association with Trump. This situation also makes it difficult for us to reach those American Christians on the right who confuse nationalism with faith. It is hard to envision a scenario where this victory is not a defeat for Christian witness in America.

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A further reason why this is so damaging is because we have not sufficiently reflected on the relationship between power and witness. The apostles, of course, married their witness to power—spiritual power. Signs and wonders accompanied their proclamation of the gospel both as a testimony to the living power of God and as tokens of the validity of their message. Those signs proved that their witness was sanctioned by supernatural power structures—i.e., that the Kingdom of God had arrived and Jesus was its Risen King. But we should observe that, while the signs are present for all to see, individuals who witness them remain free to choose their response. This is a hallmark of the divine use of power: God does not force people. Forcing people violates freedom, and violating freedom both invalidates faith and nullifies relationship. God wants us to make a choice to follow Him. Apparently, He wants friends and not slaves.

American Christians are appealing to political structures as a method of social change, when God’s model for social change is proclamation, supernatural power, and personal relationships. We are fixated on the top, when we ought to be aiming at the bottom. Rome fell not because the emperor became a Christian, but because Christianity infiltrated every valence of its political, social, and moral world. The stone in Daniel, if you remember, the one not cut by human hands, strikes at the feet and not the head of the great empire statue. The world does not, and cannot, become more Christian by means of earthly power. What I fear is that Christians, by our use of and association with earthly political power, are in danger of attempting to do something for God in a way fundamentally opposed to how God Himself does things. Our use of power does not look very much like His. In the process, it is poisoning our spoken witness as well. The impression generated by this election is that American Christians, at their core, simply want to tell other people how to live. Rightly or wrongly, that vision of “how to live” is now perceptually linked to racism, sexism, and nationalism. The witness to Christ is thus marred by our aping of political structures.

Trump’s presidency may achieve certain desirable ends and may preserve certain freedoms, but it will make our task as Christians in America much more difficult. May God have mercy upon us, and upon our nation.

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Terry Fontaine, “Against the Flow”

The Imitation Danger

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Look at those robes! If I had robes like that, I’m sure I could preach like him.

I’ve been slowly reading through Phillips Brooks’s Lectures on Preaching, which thus far has been an experience both brilliant and enriching. Originally delivered at Yale in 1877, the series of lectures examine the life of the preacher and the construction of the sermon. Whether or not you are a preacher, Brooks’s insights into the ministry and the nature of formation bear fruit in many areas. If you are a preacher, I don’t know that I can recommend it highly enough.

In one chapter on how to construct a sermon, Brooks warns sternly against the danger of imitation in preaching—the unique pitfall of copying the style, mannerisms, and delivery of another preacher. One of the chief criticisms he offers is that, essentially, we are bad at measuring what makes someone successful. He writes, “that which is worst in any man is always the most copiable. And the spirit of the copyist is blind. He cannot discern the real seat of the power that he admires. He fixes on some little thing and repeats that perpetually as if so he could get the essential greatness of his hero” (167). We hear one speaker who tells great stories and conclude, “I ought to include more stories.” We hear another who exposits the text verse-by-verse and think, “I ought to go verse by verse.” One minister reads a manuscript, while another memorizes a manuscript, while yet another preaches extemporaneously. Each model is attempted as an avenue to a certain kind of success. In each case we miss the real point, and in imitation we are perpetually wont to ape secondary, rather than primary, things.

This is as true of church growth models as it is of preachers. Studies are performed which analyze and decode the elements of success which mark churches that grow—the casting of clear vision, administration, the humility of the members, healthy organization, buy-in, etc. Other churches, wanting to succeed, strive to imitate these elements. But in copying, they miss the heart of what brought growth to the church. In essence, all those features are secondary. Churches don’t seek humility as an end in itself, they seek Christ and are made humble in the process. Churches don’t seek good administration in itself, they follow Christ and are forced to learn administration as they follow. Churches don’t invent vision, they seek God’s vision and follow it as it pertains to their particular location, people, and needs. I remember reading about a minister who attended a Willow Creek conference. Returning, and energized, he announced to his church that he knew what they needed to take the church to the next level: they would remove their pews and replace them with Willow Creek style theater seats.

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Brooks admonishes, “if you really reverence a great man, if you look up to and rejoice in his good work, if you truly honor him, you will get at his spirit, and doing that you will cease to imitate his outside ways” (169). If we would truly grow our own ministries, or our own pulpit service, then our imitation must be in seeking the same spirit as those we admire, and not their accidentals. We must become adept at discerning between what C.S. Lewis once called in an essay “First and Second Things.” An application of Augustine’s Ordo Amoris, Lewis observed that we must love in the proper proportion those things which are most worthy of love. If we love second things first—an incidental rather than an essential—then we are on a path to losing out on both the first and the second thing. But if we love the first thing first, then we are likely to get the second thing thrown in as a bonus. Ape the style, and you will miss the soul. Great preachers are great not because they have great style, but because they are marked by a great and convinced love of Jesus. Great churches grow not because they are well organized and manifest all the fruits of the Spirit, but because they have sought and are pursuing a vision of Jesus in their midst.

All in all, you can never put on another preacher’s, or another church’s, success as your own. The clothes will not and cannot fit. At best, they will provide a temporary surge of energy. At worst, in distraction you will lose sight of your true call—which is not to attend to the success of others but rather to obedience to Christ where you are. Brooks has this to say as well, “The temptation of imitation is so insidious that you cannot resist it by the mere determination that you will not imitate. You must bring a real self of your own to meet this intrusive self of another man that is crowding in upon you” (169). The preacher must be true to himself—an individual exhibiting the transforming power of the Gospel as it is filtered through his personality, not the personality of another. In the same way the local church must be true to itself, manifesting the transforming power of grace to its people, in its location, in the flavor and aroma of its city. To do less is to cheat both ourselves and our neighbors of the power of the Gospel.

There will always be shining lights among both preachers and churches. Brooks, of these, says somewhat sardonically that, “There are some preachers who have done noble work, of whom we are often compelled to question whether the work that they have accomplished is after all greater than the harm that they have innocently done by spoiling so many man in doing it” (166). It falls then to individuals and churches alike to ward against the danger of imitation—not by ignoring God’s work done through these bright stars in ministry, but by connecting ourselves with their true source for success: our vine-tapped life into the living work of Jesus Christ.

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Tuning Congregational Worship (On Ministry and Feedback)

For the past three years in pastoral ministry I’ve dedicated a significant portion of my attention to my church’s worship ministry. This has been a strategic choice. A church’s weekly worship service is the highest commodity hour of a given week—it has the highest visibility, the largest attendance, and typically the most buy-in. It is also the place, in sung worship, where the Spirit most often and most powerfully shows up in a congregation. Such visible and valuable time ought to aspire on every occasion to be a visionary channel through which God’s gathered people receive refreshment, restoration, challenge, and encouragement to truly live out the reality of the church in their daily lives. The wise pastor in leadership will take a keen interest in his church’s worship ministry.

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No, Matt Redman is not one of my worship leaders. But I like both him and his music.

Honoring this weekly time has required a number of small changes along the way. One of the first was my insistence that video be used in a strictly limited fashion. Too much of our attention is directed to screens throughout our weeks, and in this we too often ape the world’s ways, showing videos and clips as cheap bids for attention rather than invitations to worship. I also limited the phenomenon of individuals “coming up to give announcements.” In every church, members see the pulpit for what it is—a powerful organ of communication. Seeing that organ, they desire to access it for their ministry agendas, whether good or bad. However, the pulpit and its public power do not exist for promotion of anything but the gospel message. The whole service, in all its power, exists for the exaltation of King Jesus—from prayers, to sung worship, to sermons, to announcements, to Holy Communion, to the benediction. That, indeed, is a critical aspect of forming our theology of worship—to understand that from the opening words to the closing benediction, the entirety of the service is worship, and ought to be prepared and regarded in that way.

A critical part of this process has involved my worship leaders. We have met monthly for the past three years, praying, listening, worshipping, planning together how we might best exalt our God every Sunday. It has been a very rewarding experience to walk with them in this way, not least of which because they are a wise, discerning, and heartfelt group. Together we’ve set standards for our worship, determined which songs to sing and which to proscribe, discussed ideal rehearsal strategies, preparation strategies, and so forth. We also troubleshoot problems. At one point, about a year ago, it became clear that our Sunday members had largely stopped singing. My leaders had each been serving for years, and many of them were tired. In their exhaustion, they were attempting to keep up interest in worship by playing new songs. But the new songs, while interesting to the worship leaders, were sectioning out the congregation. In response, I placed a six-month moratorium on new songs, and insisted that we play only familiar songs in the interim. This did the trick, and within a few weeks, members were singing once again, and they have continued to sing. This provided us with a further opportunity to examine what kinds of songs we ought to be selecting, and as a result we’ve agreed as a team to only introduce new songs by mutual agreement and review. Beyond this, the chief criteria for songs in public worship are their orthodoxy and singability. Orthodoxy, because we must acknowledge the fact that sung worship is a part of the teaching ministry of the church (on the spiritual gift spectrum, I believe that worship leaders qualify as teachers); and singability because it’s in the tune that the song sticks and helps us to remember and internalize our faith. Beyond these criteria, my leaders are free to sing whatever they wish.

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From Getty Images. This is the desert outside Masada in Israel. One of things people don’t realize is just how many rocks there are in Israel’s landscape–it’s so many that if they were to cry out in praise, their numbers would rival the voices of people.

Our meetings have also given us opportunity to explore our ideas of response and feedback. During one of our meetings I offered the following conversation topic: “What kinds of spiritual experiences do we expect from our congregation realistically?” From this, we had an illuminating conversation. Feedback, of course, is a curious phenomenon. We are not, of course, performers looking for personal acclaim after a given worship service. And yet, we most certainly desire to have some effect on our people. What does that effect look like? Here are some of the answers my worship leaders gave:

We want people to be humming the songs when they leave the church building. One of the great benefits of our sung worship is the way it cements truth in our hearts through song, the way a song will be remembered even when spoken words are lost.

We want people to be engaged in worship—eager to hear God’s voice in the service and after. When people show up on time, ready to worship, it makes a huge difference in the worship leader’s job. Instead of generating worship, it becomes his or her job to direct it.

We love it when we can move past the form of worship and get to the really real. Music always reflects an uncertain balance between freedom and limitation, between emotion and rationality. Weekly religious services are by nature patterned and formal, and can by virtue of their regularity begin to stifle the authentic experience of worship. It takes a special obedience, and occasionally an act of God, to move past our forms and really begin to worship.

We are encouraged when people tell us that the worship “spoke” to them, and when they thank us. Good feedback is hearing where God’s word and God’s Spirit meet a person—in this way we receive a note of encouraging return on our investment of time and effort.

We are encouraged when we have a sense that what we are doing in worship is working in tandem with what God is doing in your life. When a song speaks to a particular place, or where your presence in worship brings healing, comfort, or conviction, then we are encouraged to see that God’s hand has been present in our preparation beyond our knowledge and capacity.

We are encouraged when we can hear the congregation singing back to us. Nothing is worse than the feeling that you are alone. The problem is that our sound systems and monitors can isolate our worship teams, removing from them the awareness of the congregation’s effort. At times our enjoyment of public worship is shielded by our own technologies. But in those moments when we can hear the congregation swell, then it is a powerful reminder of the nature of the church as one body, praising Christ.

We are encouraged when we ourselves enjoy God’s presence, and when worship is fun. It is easy for the details to crowd God out of our own experiences of worship—to be so concerned with time, and how many times to repeat the chorus, and the mistake someone just made, that we forget to worship. But when we can remember to be worshippers first, and leaders second, then in those moments worship once again becomes fun.

We are encouraged when we transcend our own inhibitions and simply worship. Church services are not performances. When you stand in front of people, they are your friends, family, and coworkers. Churches inhabit political environments, pretences, and memories. Navigating all of these pressures can easily lay burdens upon worship leaders which inhibit their freedom to transcend inhibitions. But by God’s grace, we can forget all those fears and focus on Him alone.

I am, and have been, deeply impressed with the quality and dedication of my worship leaders. I have enjoyed watching God change our worship service these past years as well, to honor Himself more and more in our weekly worship. I hope, that in some small way, these simple reflections might help you in your life of worship as well.

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Why You Should Read Wil Derkse’s “The Rule of Benedict for Beginners.”

derkse-coverThe Rule of Benedict for Beginners: Spirituality for Daily Life is easily the best book of Christian spirituality I have read in recent memory. I read it once last year, recommended it to my church elders, and read it again with my summer interns over the past few months. Without reservation I think you should read it too.

Roughly two years ago I was in a bit of a bad way. I was stressed and struggling to find balance and order in my ministry life. Recognizing that a fresh approach to my personal calendar was going to be part of bringing order to the frustration, I resolved myself to set apart the first Wednesday of each month as a personal retreat day. From some friends in ministry I had heard that there was a Benedictine monastery nearby which facilitated day retreats. I contacted the guestmaster there and set up a day to come by. Little did I know how life-altering that simple choice would be.

I arrived on a chilly February day. I met the guestmaster at the door. He gave me a brief tour and showed me to a room where I could rest and pray. He told me about the lunch hour and that I would need to join the monks for prayer in the Abbey Church beforehand. After he left I closed the door and was struck almost immediately by the near absolute quiet of the place. No conversations. No computer noise. No electronic hums. No music. No blowing air. It was exactly what I needed. I joined the monks for prayer in their stunningly beautiful chapel, then for lunch (which we ate in silence while a monk read aloud from a book). After lunch I re-entered the front door and looked around. There, by the entrance, was a small selection of books for sale (you drop money in a box if you want the book). My eye was immediately drawn to a goldenrod volume with iconographic images. It was Wil Derkse’s book, and I bought a copy.

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Image from trekearth.com

Malcolm Muggeridge writes that “There are always ideal circumstances for reading any book, which should, perhaps, be indicated on the dust-jacket, along with particulars of the authors and subject.” These were ideal circumstances for me to read Derkse’s book, because upstairs, in solitude, while journaling and reading, his simple prose spoke to my needs.

If I were to summarize Benedictine spirituality in a single phrase, I think I would say that it is grounded in a kind of attentiveness, a listening. Its chief aim is to attempt to query every situation, person, task, or event, with a divine perspective: “What is God asking of me at this moment?” How am I serving God in washing these dishes? In conversing with this friend? In writing this blog post? In answering this email? From such simple attentiveness, Benedictine spirituality invites us to follow those prompts with obedience; obedience to the call of God in my daily circumstances. Eating, then, is the time for eating; praying the time for praying; working the time for working; and so forth. These are enormously simple admonitions, but in Derkse’s straightforward and readable prose they resonate with import. There is, in these plain understandings of life and work and meaning, something that provides a way for us—who are so often busy, harried, and divided—to bring our Christian convictions to bear upon our life’s vocation. There is something extraordinarily wholesome about Derkse’s book. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Over the next months I continued to drive out to the monastery on a monthly basis. I came to value the ordinary ordering of the lives of the monks, of whom I was but a distant and casual observer. While I am not called to a monastic vocation (and while I am also not Catholic!), my association with that place did me no small amount of good. I fed off of their stability, and was enriched by their order. It has given me a vision of this daily spirituality—the spirituality of dishes, and service, and solitude, and work, and prayer—which I believe we all require in some measure.

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Image from trekearth.com

After finishing Derkse’s book I read a copy of St. Benedict’s Rule (also purchased from the monastery), as well as Esther de Waal’s Seeking God: The Way of St. Benedict. Both books further enriched my appreciation of Benedictine spirituality. Over time, I developed my own routine for visiting the monastery—a morning set aside for silence, prayer, and journaling, lunch with the monks (always silent, of course), an after lunch walk to shake off the sleep, time sitting still at the monastery lookout, then more time to read and journal and pray. With each successive visit I came to appreciate more and more the simplicity of the place. It has shaped me.

This shaping is not without some irony. I am, at the moment, an ordained minister in the Christian and Missionary Alliance, and across the street from the monastery entrance is an Alliance Church. So, I travel a distance to find a place to restore my soul from the burdens of ministry, and when I arrive I turn symbolically away from my denomination and into the arms of the Catholics! But this may not be so strange after all. Protestants are gifted activists, but we make poor contemplatives; we value our spiritual highs, but are not particularly competent when it comes to everyday spirituality. When you think of a great Protestant Christian, he is either someone “filled with the Spirit,” or someone possessed of extensive doctrinal knowledge. But the great Catholic is as often a man or woman of contemplation. I can’t help but imagine that a solution to Protestant burnout might be found in the patient spirituality of our Catholic brothers and sisters.

In view of this, it is unfortunate that many Protestants remain skeptical of Catholic expressions of spirituality. Such skepticism robs us of the fullness of what it means to be a communion of saints, and facilitates what is often in Protestants a highly regrettable ignorance of the breadths and riches of the Church in all her historic glory. Benedict, clearly, was a follower of Jesus who sought to outline how other such followers could effectively dedicate themselves to a life of prayer and communal living. His words strike us at our Christian and human need, which suggests why they have stayed with such power for such lengths of time.

Regardless of your situation or your vocation, whether you are an ordinary layman or a minister, I recommend that you spend a little time exploring the contours of the Benedictine vision for life. In Derkse’s book you will find a readable, rich, memorable, and wholesome guide. I pray it might shape you as it has me.

A Letter of Thanks to Donald Trump

Dear Mr. Trump,

You’ve been the recipient of a great deal of public criticism these past months. I’m sure it’s been extremely challenging for you! And yet, for my part, I can’t help but feel that your candidacy for president has generated some significant good for Christians, and for Christianity in America. I thought I would utilize this letter as an opportunity to thank you for some of these crucial contributions.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for helping to expose our tacit lust for power and influence. Christians throughout recorded history have struggled to navigate between the Kingdom of God and the earthly political world. Christ’s Kingdom is, of course, not of this world, and operating in the press between worldly political structures and an otherworldly kingdom has been a source of perpetual tension. In the great American experiment, political power has been placed, in a heretofore unprecedented way, into the hands of its citizens. American Christians rightly feel their duty to be both good Christians and good citizens, and yet it would seem that we have never come to comfortably understand what it means to utilize our religious power in the political sphere. Are we a voting bloc? Is it our best political goal to elect a devoutly Christian president? Do we vote for the person who will lead best, or for the person who most resembles our Christian convictions? None of these questions have simple answers. And yet, what is becoming clear, thanks in part to your candidacy, is that in the process we have apparently come to love both our influence and our power. That we love our influence is exhibited by how much we kvetch about losing it—how America is no longer Christian, how our rights are being restricted, and so forth. That we love power is evidenced in how quickly we will sideline many of our public convictions for the sake of certain political ends. This kind of love reflects an idolatry—idolatry for the best seats at banquets, to be seen and acknowledged as authorities in the public square, for all the kingdoms of the world if only we will bow down.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for illustrating our love for utility. One of America’s great contributions to the world is her drive to make things happen, to get things done. Giving a free rein to capitalism has unleashed creativity powerfully, and that creativity has generated much of America’s wealth and influence in the world. However, at times this freedom—our most treasured asset!—has also manifest itself in utility. We prize what works, more than what is good; we value results, more than process; we are impatient with the slow or the inconvenient, and gobble the quick. In this, we have learned to be utilitarian. Our first question about a thing is not, “Is this good? Is this right?” but rather, “Will it work?” This is, of course, simply an alternate expression of that old phrase, “The ends justify the means.” If I get what I want, then the means by which I arrive there are largely irrelevant. If, for example, we get a Supreme Court which can overthrow Roe v. Wade (which I trust any likeminded Christian would consider an unqualified good), then whatever means we must engage in to achieve that are permissible. In this, your candidacy, which has found support in the Christian world substantially through its appeal to ends (better than Hillary, the Supreme Court) over means (you), has exposed us to the rank and repulsive vulgarity of means.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for helping us to see just how little of America is truly Christian. It wasn’t long ago now that statistical research declared that Christianity in America was shrinking. In fact, what it showed was that many people who were only tacitly Christian now formally identify as not, which provides a helpful winnowing of perception. Further, it has invited ministers like me to consider with greater intensity just what makes someone a mature Christian—it is certainly not their one-time prayer to receive Christ, nor is it their American political identity, nor is it their voting habits or political affiliation, nor is it their opposition to Islam, nor is it their public outrage at various anti-Christian sentiments in the world. No, what makes individuals followers of Christ is their life of, quite simply, following after Jesus. Such a life is marked by a sustained study of the Scriptures, fellowship with other Christ-followers, and an ever forming and reforming personal character into the image and likeness of Jesus. Amazingly, your candidacy has given us an opportunity to see just how much work at converting our fellow Americans remains to us. It is abundantly clear that, somehow, over the past years, we who are the Church have lost much of America to a weakened, unreflective, un-lived, and sometimes outright false or pseudo-Christianity. You have shown us, Mr. Trump, just how much re-evangelization we must perform.

Thank you, Mr. Trump, for giving us this unprecedented opportunity to re-think our political and social strategy. One of the most powerful Christian political movements, of course, happened in the last forty years or so, and was publicly called the “religious right,” or the “moral majority.” Its agenda was to address in the political sphere many of the social and moral problems facing the American nation. When it began, in the early 80s, America’s moral center still largely overlapped with Christian convictions. But in an unprecedented shift, over the past 35 years that center has spun far afield from the comfortable consonance we once enjoyed. Conscientious Christians in America today find themselves, for what may be the first time in America’s history, quite simply at odds with the moral center of their nation. There was a time when policies and politicians formed by sincere Christian convictions would resonate with a majority body of average Americans. Your candidacy has helped us to see that such a time has passed. We are pressed, then, to reconsider our public strategy. If our convictions no longer represent a majority of Americans, then the place to alter those convictions—the place to regain our Christian influence—is surely not at the highest political levels. A president who reflects our convictions will be completely impotent to change the convictions of everyday Americans who disagree with him completely. In this, Mr. Trump, you have helped us to see that our greatest need is not political power, but revival—a revival of Christianity in America through discipleship, through trained Christian character, through the development of the Christian mind, and through a nationwide revival of the spirit. In the light of your candidacy we are enabled to see that the temporary benefit of the presidency, or of Supreme Court offices, is of little value when our public witness is at stake with the very people we so desperately need to reach. What good is it to gain the whole world but lose your soul? What good is it to gain a “Christian” nation, but lose its people in the process?

Mr. Trump, your influence these past months has had, and will continue to have, an unparalleled effect on the reshaping of Christian mission in America. It is my prayer that, if we repent and seek revival, you yourself may become one of the beneficiaries of the renewed Christian mind, and a public image of the formed and forming Christian character in action. In the meantime, thank you for helping us to perceive our real needs!

In Christ,

Rev. Jeremy Rios

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Diagnosing Deception—How Can I Know I’m Not Deceived?

At this moment, in the Church, there are large groups of people who are cripplingly, trenchantly, blindingly deceived. This must be the case, because groups who both claim to be Christian claim mutually contradictory positions to be true. Is Jesus the only way to salvation, or are there equally valid alternatives? Does Christ come to make us healthy and wealthy, or is suffering part of his plan for humans? Does our increase in knowledge mean that our approach to sexual ethics must change as well? Does God bless homosexual unions or not? Abraham Lincoln, reflecting on the divided morality of the Civil War, had this to say: “The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time.” Either Jesus is the only way or he is not, either health and wealth is true or it is not, and either God blesses homosexuality or He does not. There can be no middle ground between them.

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As I see it, however, the really troubling factor sits deeper than a disagreement about doctrine (although doctrine does indeed matter). The real question—the real nugget of the problem—is that both sides in each debate claim to be following God’s Spirit. Both sides claim to have the same religiously derived affirmation, the same spiritual sense that they are right. Both sides are reading the same Bible, claim to pray to the same Being, and experience religious feelings that validate their positions accordingly. If God is not a contradiction, then one side must necessarily be deceived.

Last month I read a chapter of Jeremiah each morning and night. I was struck, again and again and again at Jeremiah’s uncompromising rejection of falsehood—false prophets, false teachers, those who mislead Israel. His words, speaking for God in Jeremiah 23:31-32, stood out as a particularly clear example,

31 “Behold, I am against the prophets,” declares the Lord, “who use their tongues and declare, ‘The Lord declares.’ 32 Behold, I am against those who have prophesied false dreams,” declares the Lord, “and related them and led My people astray by their falsehoods and reckless boasting; yet I did not send them or command them, nor do they furnish this people the slightest benefit,” declares the Lord.

How can I know that I’m not deceived? If two sides both appeal to the same sets of feelings and data to bolster our mutually contradictory positions, how can we navigate between them? And rather than asking how I can know I’m right, what factors can give me confidence that I’m not a false prophet operating against the Lord?

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The place to begin, if we would have clarity on the issue of deception, is through diagnosing deception itself. In this, I think there might be four components which contribute to deception. The first is that deception is rooted in the corrupted heart. Jeremiah 17:9 states it clearly and simply, The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” Every thought, motive, and action of the human heart is to some degree corrupted by a layer of deception. No human has ever had a perfectly pure motive in his or her life. Even our best motives—to acts of generosity or love or sacrifice—are flavored however momentarily by the lurking desire for rewards and recognition. How much more our middling or base desires? We are sneaky and self-deceiving creatures, eager to make ourselves look good, eager to gloss over our misdeeds and elevate the goods we perceive of ourselves. Solzhenitsyn, writing in his Gulag Archipelago, famously said that “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” G.K. Chesterton, responding to a newspaper inquiry on the topic of “What’s Wrong with the World,” responded, briefly and poignantly: “Dear Sirs,” he wrote, “I am. Yours, G.K. Chesterton.”

Because the heart is deceived, this means that our feelings about whether or not we are right are also deceived. The heart is deceitful above all else, therefore the ratifications of my heart are also subject to this overarching deceptive power. This means that the feeling that I am right about something is in itself insufficient. A couple of examples might clarify this further.

solzhenitsyn_timePreachers (like me) often describe a certain sensation while preaching—it is a strong sense of feeling that rushes to enlarge the preacher and his rhetoric with a sense of divine power. We might call this the “preacher’s spirit,” a rising feeling of being “in the spirit” that comes over us. But the trouble with this feeling is that while I might feel it, and feel that I am really preaching the true gospel, I can listen to another preacher who is also feeling it but preaching the opposite of the gospel! There are very bad preachers—bad in doctrine, bad in rhetorical technique—who nevertheless feel the same rush of the preacher’s spirit. We can only conclude that the preacher’s spirit is an unreliable measure of the teacher’s validity.

Another area of confusion is related to the conscience. Many people appeal to their conscience as indication of their religious orthodoxy—what conscience permits, and doesn’t permit, is considered to be a good indicator of right and wrong. Many Christians even claim that their conscience is virtually the same as the Holy Spirit. The problem is that the conscience, although a genuine moral indicator, is deeply culturally formed. I work in an Asian context, and for my many Asian peers it is unthinkable—indeed unconscionable—to walk into a person’s house wearing your shoes. But this is clearly a trained behaviour, and not a divine mandate. On the opposite side of the matter, there are many things to which my conscience registers no opposition whatsoever, but which the Spirit of God interjects His insistent voice (an unkind thought, an improper look, and so forth). Many Christians have simply neglected the training of the conscience, and in the process have come to believe that they have a relationship with the Holy Spirit when in fact they simply have a relationship with their conscience.

The overarching point remains the same, that our feelings—religious, conscientious, or otherwise—are unreliable guides to truth because of our deceptive heart.

This brings us to the second component, which is that deception originates in the corrupted will. Here I think we can helpfully revisit Eve’s decision in Genesis 3:6, When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable to make one wise, she took from its fruit and ate; and she gave also to her husband with her, and he ate. Eve’s choice was a choice against God’s plan—a choice for personal desire, a choice that placed the human will in priority over God’s. It was, in essence, the choice to cling to God’s gifts—the garden, the fruit—but in a way that rejected God as the giver of gifts. Eve confused the gift with the giver, and that act of self-deception was the inaugurating moment for all our subsequent self-deceptions.

Eve and Serpent

The act of placing desire in priority over obedience birthed a confusion that continues to plague us at almost every valence of human life. We are confused beings, often incapable of making moral choices because our inflamed desires war against our capacity to will rightly. One particular expression of this corruption in our faulty reasoning is in the way that we regularly conclude that possession of a gift is license to use the gift. We see this expressed vividly in life itself, sex, and the spiritual gifts. God gives us life—it is a gift—but in giving it we are not licensed to use it however we please. God gives us sex—it is His great and good idea!—and yet He does not license us to use it how we please, but specifically limits and proscribes its use. And God gives us spiritual gifts as well—preaching, teaching, prophecy, and so forth—but the presence of the gift is not therefore license to use it. The gifts must be used under the permission of God and in accordance with His will. When we assume that God’s gifts are ours to use apart from His permission—when we assume that the presence of the gift is itself permission—then we repeat the sin of Eve.

A third component in diagnosing deception is to recognize that deception thrives in a validating community. In Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 15:33, “Bad company corrupts good character.” In time, such company, uncritically evaluated, can lead the believer astray on a vector angled far from God. The reason for this is because communities—especially the self-elected community of friendship—give us power and permission for our desires. We all have friends to whom we turn when feeling sad, or friends to whom we look when we want to have fun. But in the same way we are also aware of times we have turned to certain friends because in their company we experience a kind of permission for bad behaviour—friends with whom we can get drunk, or cause trouble, or gossip, or whatever. In this way, good communities bolster good behaviours, but bad communities reinforce bad behaviours. This is more than simply an echo-chamber effect, it is the magnification of the will’s corruption through companionship giving license to the illicit.

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Bad company, like bad conditions, kills life.

I am reminded here of the chilling words from 1 Kings 22:19-23, when King Ahab, knowing that many of his own prophets were unreliable, demanded that Micaiah, a known prophet of the Lord, speak the truth to him.

19 Micaiah said, “Therefore, hear the word of the Lord. I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right and on His left. 20 The Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab to go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said this while another said that. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’ 22 The Lord said to him, ‘How?’ And he said, ‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ Then He said, ‘You are to entice him and also prevail. Go and do so.’ 23 Now therefore, behold, the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; and the Lord has proclaimed disaster against you.”

Not only was a deceptive spirit at work, but the community of prophets created a validating community which ensured that the deception would remain unexamined and unchecked.

These three factors, then, show the origins of deception—that I choose the thing I want, then validate it with both my emotions and in community. The result of this spiral of deception is the fourth factor in deception—deception bears fruit by redefining God. Psalm 50:21 powerfully describes this attitude, when God saysThese things you have done and I kept silence; You thought that I was just like you. When we give priority to our deceptive hearts, then the end result is that we attempt to form God into our own image, into our own likeness. We shape our theology, our ideas of God, and our interpretations of experiences so that we favor our deceived perspective. We choose our theology over God’s reality, create golden calves to worship and call them Yahweh. Instead of being formed after His likeness, we turn Him into a vile projection of our own wicked desires. He becomes the licensing agent of our own perversions, servant of our lusts, sanctifier of human dissolution and decay.

Golden Calf

To some degree, we each have traveled down all of these deceptive paths—we have listened to our deceptive hearts, we have chosen God’s gifts over God Himself, we have appealed to validating communities to give permission to our choices, and we have redefined God to an image that favors us in the process. Clearly, the first step in preventing self-deception must be to acknowledge my propensity towards deception.

What can be done, then, to prevent further self-deception? Above all else I will require something from outside myself, an outside help. If deception is rooted in the heart, then I require something external to help straighten things out. I am reminded, then, of Jesus’ words in the sixth beatitude, that “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” This is, of course, an impossibility—how can I ever have a pure heart so that I can see God? I cannot—but perhaps the inverse is then true, that those who look to God will be purified in heart. The implication would be that a sustained gaze at God is necessary to purify our sight, our hearts, and our minds—that under the illumination of the vision of God our self-deceptions are in time consumed.

This looking to God is an iconoclasm that takes two forms, and these two forms are two treatments for deception represented in two commitments. The first is a commitment to pursue God as He really is, and not as I want Him to be. This is an attitude of submission to God which permits Him always to define Himself to us, to startle us, to make Himself Lord and master of our perceptions of Him. In this, we reject all our ideas of God in favor of God Himself, all our best thoughts about God are submitted to Him for His own personal review. I am reminded of what C.S. Lewis writes in A Grief Observed. Grieving the loss of his wife, Lewis had become frustrated with the fake images of her embedded in his mind. He didn’t want the image of Joy, he wanted Joy; He didn’t want his idea of God, but God. Not our silly and haphazard constructs of divine ideas, wood and paper and tape and paint—but the real thing.

Lewis and Joy Gresham

In this, the Christian who would be undeceived must maintain a sustained gaze at God, seeking Him and nothing less than Him, craving, longing, desperate to see the fullness of His glory, majesty, presence, and being. This will require a commitment to God’s self-revelation in Scripture. After all, if my heart is deceived, then my heart’s idea of God is also likely to be deceived. I need an idea from outside my heart, and that idea is found in Scripture. How God has revealed Himself in time is of greatest importance when we are filtering out our own, broken ideas of who God is. Such a commitment to the whole of God will also mean not choosing one section of Scripture over another, not putting God in a war with God by placing love in contrast with judgment, or holiness in contrast with mercy. Such a commitment over time means that the more we look at God, the more we permit Him to shape our affections, emotions, wants, and desires.

The second form of this iconoclasm is a commitment to pursue reality as it really is, and not as I want it to be. This is a rejection of subjectivism, of projecting on the world my own desires, of permitting reality itself to be iconoclastic. Proverbs 12:22 says that Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord, but those who deal faithfully are His delight. God considers deliberate falsehood an abomination—it is even enshrined in the ninth commandment that we shall not bear false witness. To act as a false witness, in a court of law, is to contribute to the murder of an innocent person. When we bear false witness toward the world, we commit a kind of murder against the truth. It is a lie where we read the world as we want it to be, and not as it really is. It is, again, an extension of the lie of Eve, who chose God’s creation over God’s will, who chose her version of the world over God’s revealed version of the world.

Again, the Christian who would be undeceived must choose a fundamentally iconoclastic posture of approach to the world. In epistemological humility I must refuse to map my own perceptions onto the world, I must reject subjectivism, I must suffer reality to veto and break my initial judgments and perceptions. Against the choice of Eve, I commit to rejecting all gifts in exchange for the giver. St. Augustine’s famous prayer is illuminating here as well, “O Lord, The house of my soul is narrow; enlarge it that you may enter in.” Break down my old understanding, my own weak and foolish constructs, and reveal to me the magnificence and fullness of who You really are.

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In the early Church, during the era in which the Nicene Creed was being composed, the Church was very nearly overrun by a grand deception. Followers of Arius argued that Jesus was not actually God, but merely the best of God’s creatures. For a time, it looked as if the Arians would win the day—they had the support of a majority of the Christian world and of the Emperor as well. But by grace Arianism was defeated, made subject in the end to the revealed truth of who God is, and especially to Who He is in Christ. We may face similar deceptions today, and they may sweep across the highest echelons of the Church so that even the elect are deceived and the entire ship of the Church appears to all to be off course. And yet through it all God Himself will never be deceived, cannot be deceived. The truth remains unchanged by human fickleness. In the meantime, both sides may be wrong, and one most certainly is! May God strengthen His people to seek to be undeceived, to settle for nothing less than the fullness of Him and Him alone.