Dear James (C)–Sloth, Disobedience, and Listening

Dear James,

It is true, as you say, that Pride is traditionally thought to be the sin of the Garden. That doesn’t mean that Lust wasn’t part of it as well. But please note that I was very careful in my last letter to avoid suggesting that Adam and Eve’s sin was some form of sexual consummation. Rather, I focused on how their sin elevated an appetite above their obedience to God. It was carnal, therefore, in the sense that it was rooted in the body, in that it was a sin of the flesh. Claiming that their sin was a sin of Lust does not eliminate Pride, but perhaps merely augments it. (And for what it’s worth, I still believe Pride was central in that moment, but we’ll have to discuss that another week.) What this does illuminate for us clearly—and what you note as well—is that there seems to be a blurring between these sins as we’ve dealt with them so far. As far as I’m concerned, this blurring is to be expected, if only because (as Jeremiah says) the heart is deceitful above all else. Its deceit is surely manifested in the manifold ugliness of our invention for sin, and in the festering motives which sit rooted in the heart. It is the heart that is sinful, and the Seven Deadly Sins are useful inasmuch as they can bring me into fresh insight about my own, corrupted heart. In that sense, Gluttony or Lust or Pride aren’t the problem—they are symptoms. The problem is deeper—it is sin itself, rebellion against God—and all our acts of meditation and personal reflection upon sin are ineffective if they don’t target the real problem.

When you think about it, it seems that a great deal of Christian spirituality is geared toward addressing symptoms. We’re a very ad hoc people—always addressing the problem of the present moment. Part of the reason for this, surely, is that we’ve become so bad at simply listening. We hold one-way conversations with God. We abhor silence. We privilege activism over reflection, tangible service over prayerful contemplation. If you set aside time for silent reflection, however, it won’t take long for God to begin to show you your deep need for Him, and to do this by bringing to your awareness your misdeeds and failures. At least that’s what He does for me!

Ironically, this failure to listen generates our widespread subservience to Sloth, which is, I imagine, the sin we most commit out of simple negligence. The irony, of course, is that for many people silent reflection looks like laziness—it is Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus while there are things to be done. But true contemplation is never laziness, and nor, for that matter, is laziness quite the same thing as Sloth. Sloth is the business of ignoring our duty, or, of seeing it, and then neglecting to do it. It is an indolence in the face of a call, a turning away of our attentions from what God is asking us to do toward our own preferences, a disposition of disobedience, and it is deadly. Consider how the Rich Man in Jesus’ story reveals his Sloth by ignoring Lazarus at his doorstep.

Sloth wars against our human call to magnanimity—and here I borrow from Josef Pieper’s language. As humans we each bear within us an urge toward greatness, one that I expect is rooted in the image of God. This urge is toward what Pieper (quoting Aquinas) calls the extensio animi ad magna—the stretching of the soul towards greatness. To deny this urge is to deny something essential to our humanity. To ignore its call, or to deflect it, or to live in intentional ignorance of what it implies, is to live in Sloth. In the grip of Sloth, I sanctify my own disobedience.

The tonic to this, of course, is listening and obedience. We set aside time for meditation and reflection, to listen to God’s voice, to really hear what He wants to say. From those gleanings, we must seek to obey His voice. As a rule, this process becomes cyclic—the more we listen and obey, the more He speaks, and the more opportunities we are given to obey. Ultimately, because our true greatness can only be found in obedient service to Christ (and not by our own efforts at greatness), it follows that an attitude of intentional listening is critical to the fulfillment of call. The kind of listening, in fact, which is precisely in view when we approach a season of fasting such as this one.

In view of this, is it not possible that in some sense busyness—our chronic mania of activity—is actually a manifestation of Sloth? From what we’ve seen, the Slothful person could conceivably be extremely active and busy, but busy about all the wrong kinds of things. And indeed, how often it is that we utilize our busyness wickedly, whether to earn credit with God for our actions, or to drown out our true obedience. Busyness dulls the ears from hearing God’s voice.

That’s not to say that our lives won’t be full. Busyness and fullness are not the same thing at all. Nor are rest and play to be confused with laziness. The Lord has given us time and pleasure as gifts. They only become wicked when utilized out of proportion to their purpose. In this sense, in addition to listening, Sabbath keeping would be another ironic answer to Sloth. In Sabbath, I declare that I am not too busy to stop, rest, and enjoy God’s goodness.

May God continue to bless your fasting, James—please pray also for mine!

Blessings,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (B)–Medieval Wisdom and Lust

Dear James,

I’m pretty sure I understand your concerns about the lurking Catholicism and implicit medievalism in the practice of fasting and the language of Gluttony. There is, of course, nothing wrong with things that are specifically medieval. For whatever their liabilities, theirs was also an age which seemed to know a great deal more about the interaction of the body and soul. And I hope we’re both sufficiently self-aware to evaluate beliefs on their intrinsic merit, and not on their association with a specific time period. Where the medievals were right we ought to agree with them, learn from them, and utilize their thoughts as a corrective to our own, distorted age. It’s the same with things we might consider more “Catholic” than others. Whatever the liabilities or merits of Roman Catholicism, we would be foolhardy to assume that all Catholics throughout all of history are to be dismissed because of the errors of some Catholics at some points.

In this, it seems to me that our Medieval Catholic friends showed extreme wisdom in highlighting what today we know as the Seven Deadly Sins. Not because there are only seven sins, nor because we ought to rank sins as a way to measure how good we think we are. No, what the medieval mind shows is a kind of comprehensive awareness of those things which have power to keep us from the fullness of life in God—Gluttony, Lust, Sloth, Envy, Wrath, Greed, and Pride. Ignorance of the means by which these things can keep us from God is not a strength on our part. Similarly, medievals had a robust conception of the body and the need to mortify it for the sake of our enriched life with God. Just this morning I read in Walter Hilton that “The flesh must be chastised, with discretion, to atone for past sins, and to restrain sinful inclinations, and to make the body obedient and compliant to the soul.” Note the strength of his claim—the body must be chastised. Your faith will remain infantile until some sort of physical mortification has taken shape in your spiritual life. But note the immediate appeal to discretion—we mustn’t go too far, or exceed our body’s capacity to benefit from the activity. And note the ultimate purpose—that we are striving to make our bodies “obedient and compliant to the soul” That, with concision, seems to me precisely what this season of fasting is really about, and illustrates nicely why it is at such places that we must study at the feet of our medieval, Catholic masters.

You are right to observe that by identifying sexual indiscretion as a sin of Gluttony I must therefore mean something much more nuanced by Lust. I still hold the first assertion to be true, if only because a significant part of our growth in faith and awareness of sin is the business of disambiguating the motivations of the heart. Many people who have committed sexual indiscretions may think they’ve committed a sin of Lust, when really they’re in the grip of Gluttony, sinning against both pleasure and time. They would sin less, not by denying their sexuality, but by both building up their temperance and striving to savor those pleasures which are appropriate for the given time. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t something intrinsically sexual about Lust, but I think the heart of the sin is placed somewhere different.

For me, the essence of Lust is in the privilege it gives to our animal nature. In Lust, my desires (and, specifically in focus, my most animal, instinctual desire—the desire to procreate) are granted decision-making power over my will. The result is that by privileging my animal nature over my spiritual I begin to deny my humanity. Lust, by fixating on desire, reduces me to nothing more than my desires. Sub-human, then, I am crippled in my capacity for relationships. By privileging personal desire above all else, Lust makes me supremely selfish.

I think it’s interesting that when we look at the creation of human persons in early Genesis we see a kind of recipe for the human creature—dirt, plus the Spirit of God. We are material (earth), and spiritual (God’s breath), at the same time. This is the central thing that sets us apart from the rest of creation. When as human creatures we are operating rightly, then the spiritual is in a position of governance over the material. But when we begin to privilege our animal desires and give them precedence over our spiritual ones, then we break the human creature and death is a necessary consequence. In this very specific sense, the sin of Adam and Eve in the garden was a sin of Lust—of the privileging of animal desire (for fruit, for knowledge) over our spiritual selves (in submission to our maker). In this, it seems of especial note that our Lord’s first temptation centers on food, and that his answer to the devil was that man doesn’t live by bread alone. Fasting, it would appear, is about getting our humanity back in the right place—it’s like a scheduled tune-up for the human machine.

Fasting is therefore extremely useful in addressing Lust. However, we must be careful not to turn it into a kind of cure for Lust—or indeed for any sin. There are two things to say about this. First, we mustn’t think that by engaging in spiritual activity we can merit specific spiritual merits. What I mean is that we can’t bargain with God by saying, “I’ll fast in this way if You’ll fix me with regard to sex.” That’s not the point of fasting, and that’s not how things work with God. (And yet I wonder how often these attitudes creep quietly into our thoughts when we’re fasting!) To be fair, there will always be some spiritual benefit for all intentional acts of spiritual self-discipline, but we don’t get to determine what those will be. The best thing that can happen—especially during a time of fasting from food—is that I might gain a new sense of quiet patience before the Lord, a submissiveness, a prayerfulness. From that quietude, perhaps He will work in me something unexpected, like a desire for greater kindness, or a conviction of a certain unkindness. It can be anything! But better attention to the Word of God seems to me the sole and pure motive of fasting—I starve my belly so that I can open my ears.

Second, while fasting is useful against Lust, when we use fasting to try to “defeat” sin then we open the door to self-pity. Think of it this way. When we make our fasting penance for sin, then in addition to turning it into a bargaining chip with God, we also interrupt the central process of quietude and attentiveness to God. Our focus is upon our selves and upon self-evaluation when we ought instead to have been listening to God. And so long as our attention is self-focused in fasting, the snake of self-pity writhes in our subconscious. Hunger becomes quiet self-acclamation. Sin generates a need for further self-focus. The simple truth is that fasting in itself cannot defeat sin. Fasting opens us to God, and it is God alone who defeats sin. And so long as we are seeking some other thing through fasting, then we are interrupting the very process which might actually change us.

I wonder if the positive virtue which best aligns against Lust isn’t contingency. If, in Lust, there is a temptation to depend upon my own desires as determinative of my identity, then wouldn’t it be answered by an awareness of my true, deeper dependency upon God and God alone? “Man does not live by bread alone.” Fasting seems to me one of the best ways to go about getting that relationship sorted out. Additionally, if this disordering of my desires in Lust creates selfishness, then the other positive area of focus would be intentional relationships and acts of sacrificial service. Anything, in short, that can get me out of the echo-chamber of my own desires.

Please lay aside any concerns about our correspondence. I’ve always looked forward to your letters, and it seems to me that this Lenten season has given us a perfect opportunity for just this kind of discussion about sin, fasting, and goodness. As always, I hope it will continue to be mutually beneficial!

Blessings,

Jeremy Rios

Dear James (A)–Lent, Fasting, and Gluttony

Dear James,

I read with real pleasure of your intention to fast during this Lenten season. It seems to me more important than ever, in a disembodied and Gnostic age such as this one, that we humans strive to bring our bodies into alignment with our souls. Discipline is a very unpleasant and unpopular word, but it seems immensely good for us. In fact, all acts of bodily submission appear to bear some spiritual fruit. Not in a base and absurd way, as if we could bring our good deeds to God and bargain with Him for advantages, but simply because measured and intentional self-denial is a process which inevitably bears fruit. I applaud your intentions, and am eager to walk with you in fasting this season.

You are right to mention, of course, that a traditional part of the Lenten season is to reflect upon our sin and strive for fresh repentance. But I would hate for that to be where our focus stops. Surely, as in all spiritual exercises, our true end and goal is intimacy with God. Sin is not an end upon which we ought ever to focus exclusively, but only a road-stop on the way to life in God. It seems to me that we’ve got to keep that in mind as we reflect and pray these next six weeks. It can help in this to put special emphasis on things like the fruit of the Spirit. We are as much mired in sinfulness as we are deficient in Godliness, are we not? So if you’re going to meditate on an area of sin, then I would advise marrying that meditation to a similar area of Godliness. Our meditations, then, will have teeth, because we’ll have something positive to aim for.

It’s of note to me that you bring up Gluttony. On one point I have to disagree with you, because I don’t think it’s accurate that Gluttony is the sin which fasting most addresses. Gluttony is less about food, explicitly, than it is about pleasure. After all, I can fast for a day then break my fast on the next day by eating extravagantly. To make the most spiritual benefit from a fast, there’s an extra step that must be taken. That extra step, in turn, applies to all our sins. Of course, fasting is linked most commonly to food, and fasting from food is the simplest and easiest way to fast. It is also the way our Lord fasted, so that’s something keep especially in mind. But deeper than this, and for whatever reason, physical hunger has the capacity to awaken our awareness of not only our dependence upon God, but also our innate sinfulness. You’ve experienced, no doubt, the peckishness and inattentiveness that comes from a long time between meals. You can easily lose your temper, or not give proper focus to a task at hand. It has the effect of showing us just how contingent we are—if I don’t get my regular meals, I suddenly turn into a monster! But a simple act of self-denial has such remarkable power to not only illuminate my dependencies, but to show me what kind of a person I become when my presumed comforts are removed. In a word—a bad one! This drives me to pray, and seek the Lord, and to strive for His transforming power to work in these ugly, exposed flaws which simple hunger have revealed. In this way, fasting offers us special insight into our sin—and not merely the sins of food.

That’s not to suggest that Gluttony is a sin which doesn’t require redress—far from it! Gluttony is one of the most widespread yet unacknowledged sins of our time—a pet sin, a favorite sin, especially in its clearest forms. We take pride in overeating, and occasionally in being full of food and drink we do this to the expense of those who hunger and thirst. With our food, we have the capacity to violate righteousness, and this is a frightening prospect. What gluttony truly impinges on, however, is pleasure. I am no longer enjoying the bite I’m chewing because I am hasting to stuff my mouth with the next bite. I am no longer enjoying the meal I’ve eaten because the quantity which now fills my stomach has created pain. I am not enjoying the food in front of me because it isn’t as rich as what I would like to be eating. In the grip of Gluttony, I lose my capacity for the enjoyment of simple things. I wonder even if the phenomenon of photographing food is an indirect expression of gluttony—the artificial extension of pleasure, the pleasure at showing other people what I’m eating.

The deception of Gluttony is that, while I think I am consuming, in reality some other thing is consuming me. I am not enjoying a single episode of a show, I am watching all of them at once. I am not enjoying dessert in proportion, I am eating the whole cake. I am not enjoying the business of holding hands with my beloved, I am eager to drive forward into the marriage bed. I am not present with the person in the room, I am striving for presence with something called “the world” through access to the internet. I wonder, come to think of it, if our common usage of the internet is not the clearest expression of Gluttony we have. In all of these ways, by demanding the consumption of increasing pleasures, Gluttony eats at joy.

We have both agreed previously that pleasure is a marvelous gift from God. It is one of the ways that He calls people to Himself, a harbinger of those “pleasures forevermore” that we will discover in His presence one day. God is liberal with these pleasures, and manifold in their design. But Gluttony flattens this cornucopia of pleasures to one alone—my personal satisfaction in this present moment. We see less because we only wish to see what will make us full to our specifications. Contentment, it seems to me, is the virtue most attuned to Gluttony. That we would know when to say “enough.” That we would practice presence with our pleasures—whether it be a bite of food, or a walk on the beach, the holding of a hand, or the person in the room; that in each and every experience of pleasure we would offer a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord who gives them out so liberally.

May your fasting be enriched this season, James, and may we each, in our hunger, hunger most for our common Lord!

Blessings,

Jeremy Rios

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.

crumbling-church-3

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.

crutches

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.

wagon-wheel

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?

fractured-foundation

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!

Six, or Maybe Eight, Devotional Books I’m Taking to Scotland

The absolute worst part about moving overseas—worse than saying farewell to friends, or uprooting from favorite restaurants, or even dealing with the stressful immensity of the transition—is choosing which books to take with you. For readers like me, the forcible separation from the one’s library is the most violent and unpleasant of changes. I have loathed it.

libraryOf the many hundreds of books we own, I will have to choose a mere handful to take with us. The selection process itself is painful. Is this a book I will need, or one I merely want? Will I really read this again within the next three years? Will a library substitute suffice? Are there books that I will want to read in the UK simply because I’m in the UK (like Barchester Towers)? What books give me comfort when I wish to be consoled? It is a staggering set of considerations.

One is forced to divide the library into categories, and choose from each of those categories volumes which warrant the expense of traveling with you—Literature, Nonfiction, Fantasy, Theology, Pastoral Theology, Counseling, Commentaries, C.S. Lewis books (yes, he gets his own category), Poetry, and so forth. Some whole categories get axed (I can use the library for things like Theology and Commentaries), while from others I will select a few books at a time (Do I bring Gerard Manley Hopkins? Which Lewis books do I bring?).

For some months I’ve been thinking about the category of Devotional Literature—those books which I dip into daily alongside my reading of Scripture. The process has forced me to pick my absolute favorites. For me, to qualify as a Devotional the book must reveal deep reflection, resonate in striking ways, and regularly improve with time. Also, such a book is typically consumable in small portions (making it suitable for daily devotion). The books that rise to the top for me are books that form me in an ongoing way, books that I have read, and re-read, and plan to re-read again and again. Each of these books has been part of my personal formation in Christ, so I thought I would take a few minutes today to recommend them to you as well.

imitation-of-christ_cover1. The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis
One of the most famous devotional books of all time, à Kempis’s fifteenth century meditations on the heart and its work to imitate Christ are timeless. Often austere, he calls the believer to remember that following Jesus is a full-time job. It is a book that I find calls me, in particular, to greater holiness.

“No man can safely mingle among people save he who would gladly be solitary if he could. No man is secure in high position save he who would gladly be a subject. No man can firmly command save he who has learned gladly to obey. No man has true joy save he whose heart shows him to have a clean conscience. No man speaks surely save he who would gladly keep silence if he might.” Book I.20.

Diary of an Old Soul_Cover.jpg2. Diary of an Old Soul, George MacDonald
Eighteenth century Scottish author and pastor George MacDonald’s Diary of an Old Soul is a series of daily devotional poems. I find, when reading them, that their subjects haunt me throughout the day. C.S. Lewis considered George MacDonald his spiritual father—it isn’t hard, reading MacDonald, to imagine why, because to read MacDonald is to swim in the depths of his meditative thought.

How many helps thou giv’st to those would learn!
To some sore pain, to others a sinking hear;
To some a weariness worse than any smart;
To some a haunting, fearing, blind concern;
Madness to some, to some the shaking dart
Of hideous death still following as they turn;
To some a hunger that will not depart.
~ June Sixteenth

letters-to-malcolm_cover3. Letters to Malcolm, C.S. Lewis
Lewis, one of the great lights of 20th century Christianity, penned this series of fictional correspondence between himself and his friend “Malcolm.” Written at the end of Lewis’s life, these letters reflect his studied and honest ruminations on the meaning and significance of prayer. In some ways, the marriage of style is also highly appropriate—because prayer, also, is like writing letters to a friend. When I read Malcolm, I find that my thoughts about God are expanded.

“The prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to. Infinitely various are the levels from which we pray. Emotional intensity is in itself no proof of spiritual depth. If we pray in terror we shall pray earnestly; it only proves that terror is an earnest emotion. Only God Himself can let the bucket down into the depths in us. And, on the other side, He must constantly work as the iconoclast. Every idea of Him we form, He must in mercy shatter. The most blessed result of prayer would be to rise thinking ‘But I never knew before. I never dreamed…’ I suppose it was at such a moment that Thomas Aquinas said of all his own theology, ‘It reminds me of straw.’” Letter 15

revelations-of-divine-love_cover4. Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich
Julian of Norwich’s series of visions, and the meditations that accompany them, are often striking in both their simplicity and resonance. It enriches faith to encounter, in this fourteenth century passages, a woman who so clearly knows and loves Jesus. More, perhaps, than anything else, Julian’s meditations call me to listen more carefully to the Lord.

“Our Lord is greatly cheered by our prayer. He looks for it, and he wants it. By his grace he aims to make us as like himself in heart as we are already in our human nature. This is his blessed will. So he says, ‘Pray inwardly, even if you do not enjoy it. It does good, though you feel nothing, see nothing. Yes, even thought you think you are doing nothing. For when you are dry, empty, sick, or weak, at such a time is your prayer most pleasing to me though you find little enough to enjoy in it. This is true of all believing prayer.’” #41

centuries_cover5. Centuries, Thomas Traherne
Written in the 17th century but lost and unpublished until the 19th, Traherne’s series of meditations (in collections of 100 at a time—hence, a century) see in all the dappled glory of the earth opportunities to glorify God. His conception of nature as an avenue for worship have changed how I look at the world.

“Is not sight a jewel? Is not hearing a treasure? Is not speech a glory? O my Lord pardon my ingratitude, and pity my dullness who am not sensible of these gifts. The freedom of thy bounty hath deceived me. These things were too near to be considered… O what Joy, what Delight and Jubilee should there always be, would men prize the Gifts of God according to their value!” Century 1, #66.

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Note: This book is very rare.

6. Look to the Glory, Richard Meux Benson
Benson was founder of a group of Anglican monastics called the Society of St. John the Evangelist (one of the members of which was C.S. Lewis’s spiritual director). Benson combines depths of understanding about God with compassion for the everyday human creature. The combination, for me, has called me to greater personal devotion.

“Patience is most perfect when the visible result is least encouraging. Its efficacy entirely within. By patience, the soul acts upon itself, exerting self-control and forming itself so as to find a tranquil joy in the adverse appointments of God’s providence.” “Seeking Holiness.”

Bonus: These six books are all devotional in nature—they are deep, powerful, and good for short readings. However, there are a couple more books that I’ll be bringing to Scotland that fall more into the category of “spiritual reading.” So, here are two books that don’t quite qualify but I’ll be bringing anyway.

derkse-cover7. The Rule of Benedict for Beginners, Will Derkse
I’ve already written a review of Derkse’s book, but the reason I’m taking it with me is because his steady prose and consistent call to obedience reminds me to be attentive to the tasks at hand—whether they be devotional, familial, or related to my work.

“Listening has its complement in grumbling. Just as obedience is a positive attitude, wanting to listen before anyone has spoken, grumbling is a kind of negative speech before attentive listening, or also because listening has not been done attentively.” 34

 

 

telling-secrets_cover8. Telling Secrets, Frederick Buecher
In this personal memoir, Frederick Buechner speaks of the secrets of the heart and of the soul’s journey toward healing in God. Buechner, perhaps more than any other modern author, has his finger firmly on the pulse of the heart that longs for God.

“As I see it, in other words, God acts in history and in your and my brief histories not as the puppeteer who sets the scene and works the strings but rather as the great director who no matter what role fate casts us in conveys to us somehow from the wings, if we have our eyes, ears, hearts open and sometimes even if we don’t, how we can play those roles in a way to enrich and ennoble and hallow the whole vast drama of things including our own small but crucial parts in it.” 32

Choosing which books to bring is a hard decision. And yet choosing these books is not hard at all. May you, in reading some of them, discover something fresh, deep, and enriching for your own spiritual life as well.

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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