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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Schadenfreude and the Psalms

Every Christian who reads the Psalms devotionally is confronted with a dilemma. The Psalms are a book of prayers, of the recorded prayers of the people of God as they recount the various and diverse experiences of their humanity in relationship with God. Thus, recording this intimate conversation between God and His people, the Psalms are heartfelt, and rich, and occasionally quite raw. The raw quality is most evident in what are called the imprecatory Psalms, those prayers that cry out for vengeance. Perhaps you are familiar with some of the language, such as in Psalm 58:6 where David cries out, “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God!” Or consider his ironic request from Psalm 109:17, “He loved to pronounce a curse—may it come back on him.” Or maybe you’ve read the stunning, astonishing prayer of Psalm 137:9, “How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.” If the Psalms are a book of prayer for God’s people—a book that shapes and forms our emotions for God—then how are we supposed to pray such prayers?

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When I was young and didn’t really have enemies, this was merely an academic question. But as I’ve gotten older and gathered opponents, this question has become more pressing. Just the other day an enemy of mine was brought low. This is not a person you know, and, as a matter of fact, it is not someone that I know, either. As is often the case in our world today, this is a person I’ve observed online, and this person had been belligerent, unkind, unwilling to listen to reason, and in the process had actively and publicly deceived the people of God by means of what that person believed to be ministry. When I learned that this person had been brought low, I could not contain a kind of pleasure; it was an emotion the Germans describe as schadenfreude. You’ve probably felt it too at some point, because it describes the pleasure we take at another person’s misfortune.

I take it as axiomatic that a significant part of growth into Christian holiness and maturity is growth into Godly emotions, what Jonathan Edwards termed our affections. I am increasing in holiness not so much when my conduct appears holy (although this is important), but when my inner man loves the things God loves, and hates the things God hates. In this, the Scriptures are to be seen as a book which shape our affections, molding our inner persons to love rightly those things that are most worthy of love. It seems clear to me that the Psalms, perhaps more than any other book, expose us to these primal, ordered, loves and hates after which we must pattern our own affections. With this in mind we might consider Psalm 139—that marvelous poem about God’s loving and creative hand. In God’s hands we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and in the record of God’s plan are written “the days that were ordained for me.” Rising in praise, David cries out, “How precious also are Your thoughts to me, O God!” Indeed, how precious—and many people, I suspect, would prefer it if the Psalm ended there, but the following verses mark a startling turn, because right after this David cries, “O that you would slay the wicked, O God,” and then, “I hate them with the utmost hatred.” Such a reversal of mood might cause a modern reader to wonder if perhaps David were not bipolar. However, when we consider that the Psalms are training our affections, then possibly we can see that the journey from understanding the intensity of God’s loving provision for us, to understanding the intensity of hatred for those things which draw us from that provision of God, is not so distant after all. The more I come to love the things of God, the more I ought, quite naturally, to come to hate the things that He hates as well. This is an essential component of what it means to train our hearts for holiness.

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Edwards is unquestionably America’s greatest theologian.

Let’s return now to schadenfreude—the pleasure at someone else’s misfortune. If this is indeed an emotion I experience, then it is one of the emotions which requires shaping by the Scriptures. Do I find warrant for the experience of schadenfreude in the Scriptures? The answer is, in some ways, yes. When Moses composes his song after the destruction of Pharaoh and his army in Exodus 15, the lyrics open with the words, “I will sing to the Lord for He is highly exalted; the horse and its rider He has hurled into the sea,” and a few lines later Moses cries out, “The Lord is a warrior, the Lord is His name.” This is a song of clear exultation at the demise of Pharaoh and his army. The Israelites are singing a song of pleasure at the demise of their enemies. It is an anthem of schadenfreude. This is not the only example. Malachi 4:2-3, exulting in the coming day of the Lord’s judgment, says, “But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and skip about like calves from the stall.” A nice enough image, is it not? But the following verse turns it somewhat grim, “‘You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,’ says the Lord of hosts.” The calf is leaping for joy because it is leaping upon the ashes of its enemies!

Does this mean, then, that schadenfreude is one of the emotions I can cultivate on my journey towards Christian holiness? Consider for a moment the curious warning offered in Proverbs 24:17-18, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles; 18 Or the Lord will see it and be displeased, and turn His anger away from him.” This appears to be a straightforward warning but gets odder the more you consider it. We are commanded not to rejoice when our enemies fall, and not to let our hearts be glad when he stumbles, and this appears at first like a clear warning against schadenfreude. And yet, look closely at the second clause: the reason the Proverb urges us to restrain from rejoicing is because if we rejoice, God might lay off His punishment of the wicked person. In other words, if my rejoicing will shorten your suffering, then I better keep a straight face so that your suffering will continue longer!

Does this imply that pleasure at another’s misfortune an unqualified good in the Christian life? Not quite. One of the things that is not immediately clear in the Psalms is the way that the experience of exultation—that unique joy at the vindication and revelation of God’s perfect justice—is placed squarely on God’s justice more than on the persons of the wicked. The Psalmist who praises God’s justice has in view God’s justice, not the wicked. The pleasure he experiences is the pleasure of vindication, the pleasure of things being made right. And while there is a piece of that pleasure which, yes, is found in the fittingness of a wicked person receiving his or her comeuppance, I don’t think that this is the primary pleasure we ought to exult in. This is an important distinction. The more I seek the pleasure of witnessing the wicked be brought low, the less I am looking at God’s perfection—in fact, my sight becomes distorted by my undue focus on the wicked themselves (and you should look to Psalm 73 for when this happens). It is David’s focus on God’s goodness that makes him despise the wicked in Psalm 139, not David’s hatred of the wicked that makes him love God more. And it is here, I suspect, that schadenfreude requires Scriptural shaping, shifting its focus from the pleasure at the individual’s misfortune, to pure pleasure at God’s vindication and His revealed, eternal justice.

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“He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.” Psalm 37:6

I don’t know that any of this gets us closer to understanding quite how we are supposed to navigate the complex feelings we have when our enemies receive comeuppance. I can only offer an autobiographical answer. When, the other day, my enemy received a comeuppance, I did experience a moment of vindication, and furthermore, intermingled with that vindication was a feeling of distinct pleasure. I think that, rightly understood, this is merely the reflection of my heart’s inward desire for justice being fulfilled. There is a kind of universal fittingness whenever bad things happen to bad people—it’s the way we are imprinted to believe that the universe works, because we are creatures made with a longing for justice. However, my pleasure was rapidly tempered by a few thoughts. First, I wondered to myself who might feel such pleasure at my downfall? And furthermore, am I certain that I am in the right? And in turn these thoughts gave way to prayer, because I did not wish for the destruction of this person more than I wished for repentance and change on their part. I hoped that the experience would bring about an adjustment in thinking, in attitude, and in public discourse. Critical to recognize for the Christian who wishes to grow in holiness is that it will be difficult to experience full-blown schadenfreude when you are praying for your enemies and blessing those who persecute you. Heartfelt prayer means that my intentions toward all the individuals in my life, those with whom I agree as well as those with whom I disagree, means that I am eager for all of their difficult experiences to bear fruit in greater repentance, more Christlikeness, and real, lasting change.

In the end, it seems to me that the right ordering of the experience of schadenfreude is to ensure that my exultation and rejoicing are situated more upon the inevitability of God’s justice than it is on the suffering of the person. Should I look to rejoice in the visible displays of God’s justice? Most certainly, and rightly, and it is good and meet so to do. And yet we must be ever cautious to ensure that our pleasure gives way to compassion, concern, personal reflection, and deeper prayer.

An Uncharacteristic, Personal Update

Dear Reader,

As you may or may not have noticed, this is not a blog where I talk about me very often, if at all. Today, however, I wanted to break that convention in order to let you in on some significant life changes in the near future. Long story short, in January I’m beginning PhD studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. I’d like to take today’s post to tell you about how I’ve been led to this decision.

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Years ago, when my faith was first truly coming into its own, it did so under the influence of two men who taught me to love Jesus. Those two men were Lyle Dorsett and Jerry Root—both were C.S. Lewis scholars, both were committed to the Church and the Academy, and both exhibited a pastoral faith that had been deeply enriched by their respective PhD studies. It was a model that appealed to me.

When I graduated from Wheaton with a degree in Ancient Languages (Greek and Latin), and my wife with hers in Art, we were well situated to be highly educated but unemployable. I knew that further education would be necessary for me to advance in a career. One option I considered was Classics (further Greek studies), potentially at Oxford. Another option was a program in Patristic Studies (early Church history) at Notre Dame. Neither seemed quite right.

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In the meantime, worshipping one Sunday at Church, our minister put out a call for volunteers to preach at a local retirement home. I felt like I ought to give it a go, prayed it through with my wife, and before I knew it I was preaching to a group of 80 year old women. To my astonishment, I found that I loved it. Once a month I wrote a fifteen minute sermon and delivered it, and I was energized after each visit. I was so energized that, while walking with my wife and discussing further education, we came to the conclusion that seminary was the best option for us. Our provisional plan was that I would pursue a seminary degree, then move on to complete a PhD immediately following. We began to look at schools.

The events that brought us to Regent College in Vancouver, BC, are outside the scope of this post—but suffice it to say that we went in a very brief time from being unable to identify Vancouver on a map to deciding to emigrate there. Regent especially appealed to us because of the sense we had that Regent offered a kind of “liberal arts” version of the seminary experience (they even advertized themselves as the “un-seminary” at that time). Because of this, it felt like an ideal place to pursue an MDiv on the way to a PhD.

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The next four years involved an enormous amount of discernment as to the nature of my call, and in the process I experienced a curious vacillation. One month I would be encouraged in pursuing pastoral ministry, but it would be accompanied by some measure of discouragement about pursuing a PhD. Another month I would be actively encouraged in PhD studies but discouraged in pastoral ministry. As part of my MDiv requirements I was placed in a small group where we mutually discerned our calls and attempted to speak truth to one another. At the close of that group, after more than a year together, that group firmly and clearly affirmed my call to both pastoral ministry and the academy.

However, at graduation my PhD prospects were not clear at all. I had received a fairly devastating criticism in one of my last classes, and that criticism cast real doubt on the topic for study that I was then considering. In the meantime, I had been preaching on a monthly basis at a local Vietnamese church and greatly enjoying their fellowship and company. Once again, the cycle of discouragement and encouragement was in full swing, and when they asked me that summer to serve as their pastor, with no clear PhD prospects on the horizon, I said yes. I made it clear, however, that I didn’t know how long I would be able to stay with them. I ended up serving as their pastor for five years.

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We at Pho at a restaurant called Pho Tau Bay nearly every Sunday for all five years. It was amazing.

At the end of my service with them, I transitioned to a Chinese church, and I’ve been ministering to them for the past three years. Over the past eight years I have continue to nurse, in prayer, the call to a PhD. I’ve had a lingering sense that it was something I am still supposed to do, but I could imagine no way to accomplish it—whether logistically or financially. And so when I prayed about it I would always offer it to the Lord as a thing He could give me or take; the refrain of my prayers at this time was simply this, “Lord, give me no desires you don’t intend to fulfill Yourself.” I didn’t want to desire the PhD if God didn’t want me to have it. Occasionally I would discuss this sense of call with my Church members, and one time a smirking member told me that maybe the PhD God wanted me to get was my, “Preach Here, Dummy.” I laughed heartily at the joke, but also took it to heart. Maybe that door was closed.

In fact, I was very near to giving up on the dream altogether when, in December, I learned of a new program at St. Andrews. It would focus on Analytical and Exegetical Theology—that is, on philosophy and Bible—and everything about the program felt right up my alley. The subject was right, the instructors managing the program are some of the best in the world, and I had wanted a UK degree in part because they are shorter (three years) and focus chiefly on writing. For the first time in a long time I became excited about the possibility of further studies. I consulted with my wife and some key friends, and each counseled me to apply.

Over a two-week holiday in January I completed the application. Several professors with whom I had kept in touch encouraged me unreservedly (and wrote recommendations). My mentors in faith, Jerry and Lyle, were equally encouraging. And so with confidence I clicked submit and began to wait. I would wait a lot longer than I expected.

January passed, then February without news. This was not terribly surprising, but in March I was notified that I had been wait-listed. I still felt that this was manageable, but some uncertainty began to settle in. In many ways I felt that if this program didn’t work out, the PhD was not going to be a thing for me, and I was even then resigning myself to this possibility. In April I attended the Wheaton Theology Conference and, unsolicited, a large number of people (more than ten over a four day period) affirmed not only my writing but specifically encouraged me to pursue a PhD. When I shared that I had applied for a program, they expressed their excitement. I came back to Vancouver encouraged, but still waiting with bated breath. In May I spent a monthly retreat day at a Benedictine Monastery. While praying on a park bench for some encouragement from the Lord a couple walked up to the lookout. They began speaking in English accents, and I, wonderingly, asked the Lord, “Would you speak to me, Lord, through an accent?” Feeling uncertain, I continued my prayer, “You’ll have to give me more than that.” Moments later, another group walked up to the lookout, unrelated to the first—and would you know it, they also had English accents? Now my eyes and ears were open, but I’m not sure I was convinced. Ten or so minutes later one of the monks came to the bench and sat next to me. He was smoking a pipe and listening to music. On top of his pipe’s bowl was a curious metal contraption, and I interrupted him to ask what it was. Being hard of hearing, and misunderstanding me, he said, quite loudly, describing the pipe itself, “IT’S ENGLISH.” In my heart I said to God, “I will only be able to tell this story, Lord, if you send me to Scotland.”

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It was late June when I finally heard from the school—I was admitted to the program but without any offer of funding. One of the key prayers throughout the intervening months had been that if God wanted me to pursue this program, He would need to provide the funding. No funding, and I wouldn’t go. Acceptance from the school was then not enough to confirm my sense of call. My wife and I began to pray. She secured the word “miracle” on the wall of our home as a reminder of our prayers. And in two weeks’ time two things happened—first, the school offered me a 50% tuition scholarship, and second, I contacted a friend who offered significant support toward the program. In two weeks we had gone from no resources to more than 60% of the total cost of the program—living expenses and tuition. We felt that God had clearly showed us His intention to provide the rest, and so in faith we have agreed to go, and in prayer we are continuing to await the remainder of His provision. I have formally resigned from my church work, and in January we will sell many of our things and my family of five will change countries and spend the next three years at St. Andrews in Scotland. While we are there I will be writing about the Trinity, and Family Systems Theory, and the Incarnation, and Suffering. It promises to be an exciting set of years.

One friend asked me, “Did you choose Scotland, or did Scotland choose you?” The answer is “Yes.” But the overarching sense is that, indeed, Scotland has chosen us, and I can say that because the process of being led to this course of study has been of a piece with all of the previous ones. By God’s guidance I have applied to only one University (Wheaton), and only one Seminary (Regent), and now only one PhD Program (St. Andrews). He has been the one arranging my education, not me, and I am more than content to continue to submit to His guidance in these matters.

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Illinois forest preserves are pretty nice places.

When my wife and I were walking that Illinois forest preserve all those years ago and discussing seminary and doctoral studies, we certainly did not anticipate eight years of intervening pastoral ministry. And yet these years have been good. We have been enriched by our time in Vancouver, and we have made lifelong friends in the two churches in which I’ve served. I’ve been able to develop as a writer, and my pastoral call is a confirmed and entrenched reality. I remain called to serve the Church, and moreover I love the Church! I have wanted to stress to my members the fact that transitioning to PhD studies is in no way a departure from the Church. Rather, this is the completion and augmentation of my call. What career I pursue at the close of the next three years is yet to be seen, but we can await it with anticipation and not fear, because the One who is ordering our steps has ordered those events as well. We have only to keep our eyes open, and to obey when the time is right.

Thanks for Reading!

P. Jeremy Rios

A Developing Call—Some Thoughts On Why I Write

When I began this blog, six years ago next week, it was in response to a call from the Lord. He had instructed me to write, and so in obedience I began to write. I began blogging here at Mustard Seed Faith, then working on a book, then another book, then another blog, and so forth and so on. Any discipline pursued over time will change you, and over these past years writing has become such an integral part of my life that I have trouble now imagining life without it.

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My call to write has remained unchanged these past years, but my focus has begun to shift. The lodestone that has guided this shift has been my pastoral call, and, more specifically, my people. It is impossible to ignore today the increased prominence given to the life we live online. I first joined Facebook as a ministry tool, in order to keep abreast of what was going on in my people’s lives. Their likes, dislikes, and comments gave me a snapshot of what was going on socially, politically, ideologically, and theologically. And in the midst of observing their information, a new burden began to grow in me. The burden was about bad information.

Let’s face it—there’s a whole lot of bad information out there, and it’s not just bad, but often deceptive and dangerous. A byproduct of our media obsessions is that very often it is the loudest voice that wins, or the funniest, or the most vulgar. These factors highlight the shocking lack of serious thought, critical inquiry, and Christian witness in the public sphere. I quickly began to realize that, if no good information were being injected into the feeds of my people, the bad information would certainly win the day. Psalm 12:8 observes that “The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honored among men,” and Psalm 11:3 asks the question, “If the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?” There is so much bad information strutting about, unopposed and unchecked, eroding the foundations of what is often a regrettably naïve Christian faith. Where are the righteous voices? Where are the people championing the complexities of Christian orthodoxy? Where are the men and women of faith who are standing up to speak the truth in a measured, ordinary way? I am challenged by that old dictum—that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

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Image from Imgur (http://imgur.com/YO1RIOZ.jpg)

Recently I’ve been reading a biography of German pastor Martin Niemöller, who although a retired U-boat captain and fiercely patriotic, and although he initially supported Hitler and the National Socialists, and although tacitly participating in Germany’s pervasive anti-Semitism, nevertheless came to change his mind. As a pastor he began to recognize the dissonance between the vision of Christianity presented by Nazi Germany and the one represented in the historic Christian faith. Taking stock of the two, Niemöller began to question what was going on in Germany. Bristling at State interference in matters of doctrine and practice in the Church, he helped to organize with other pastors a resistance to National Socialism, and an attempt to call the conscience of Christian Germany to rethink its racism and nationalism. In this way Niemöller was instrumental in founding the Confessing Church, and for his efforts was confined to prison for eight years, many of those at Dachau. At the end of that time Niemöller was uniquely poised to address not only the wrongs done in Germany, but to seek a new way forward. He played a key role in the composition of a document called the Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt. The following words are from that document:

Through us infinite wrong was brought over many peoples and countries. That which we often testified to in our communities, we express now in the name of the whole church: We did fight for long years in the name of Jesus Christ against the mentality that found its awful expression in the National Socialist regime of violence; but we accuse ourselves for not standing to our beliefs more courageously, for not praying more faithfully, for not believing more joyously, and for not loving more ardently.

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Niemöller is also famous for that poem that begins, “First they came for the Trade Unionists, and I said nothing…”

We fought, Niemöller confessed—but not hard enough, not loudly enough, not joyfully enough, not courageously enough. I am convicted by Niemöller’s example. He is a pastor, like me, called, like me, to voice genuine Christianity in the midst of chaos, distraction, and falsehood. He speaks the truth in a prophetic way and pays a great cost for it. He is a spiritual hero for an age of deception and informational chaos. I am coming to pray, as I write, that I will have spoken faithfully, loudly, and boldly, and will not have to apologize later for not having spoken enough.

This, then, is the altered shape of my call to write—at least as I write here and offer comment online. I feel a burden to be a voice for orthodox, rational, traditional Christianity in the public sphere. To do this I keep a public profile, so that almost every post, comment, and interaction is visible for all to see. My motives are not combative (I enjoy a good debate, but not controversy), and nor are they particularly apologetic—in fact, in almost every case I am writing not to non-believers, but to the Church. Throughout, my underlying attitude is deeply pastoral. I read popular content online and consider how it might affect my people. I write about and address issues of public concern because I am motivated chiefly by compassion for my people who may have access only to inferior interpretations of events. I grieve the situation of modern information, and feel compelled to attempt to do my small part to stand for the truth in the midst of chaos. I pray that, when I look back at my life later, I will be able to stand with a measure of the integrity of my fellow pastor Martin Niemöller. May God grant that it so be.