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.

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

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

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Job Description: Become obsolete.

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

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

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

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We’re all connected to the hub.

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

This leads to our fourth and final lesson:

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

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A fracture in integrity damages everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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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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.