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    Thursday
    Sep222016

    The Church and the Collective Yes

    Is Jesus Lord, or are the forces of advanced modernity lord? The church that cannot say no to all that contradicts its Lord is a church that is well down the road to cultural defeat and captivity. But the courage to say no has to be followed by an equally clear, courageous and constructive yes--to the Lord himself, to his gospel and his vision of life, humanity and the future, so that Christians can be seen to live differently and to live better in the world of today.

    - Os Guinness, Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization

    The claim that Christianity in Western civilization faces numerous challenges is uncontroversial, though the ways in which people respond to those challenges are broadly diverse. One option is retreat, the preference of some fundamentalists, who are too often content to create isolated subcommunities of doctrinal and moral purity that fervently condemn those on the outside. Another option is syncretism and assimilation, outcomes which are never embraced or intended outright, but reach fruition over time as Christian communities slowly accommodate themselves to the dominant cultural narratives, a reality that is all too often seen among milquetoast “mainline” Christian denominations. A third response is quietism, a way forward typified by withdrawal from public discourse that may be accompanied by dedication to private piety, but leaves the concerns of the present age largely untouched.

    I have immense respect for the work of Os Guinness. I have read his books and once heard him deliver a lecture while I was a student at The University of Kansas. Guinness works diligently to present orthodox Christian convictions in light of the foremost challenges (some will say threats) of our times, and to do so with a charity and winsomeness that is seldom found within evangelicalism. He also does his best to explain the causes of these challenges, whether they be political, philosophical, social, or theological, and to urge the church toward a steadfast faithfulness to the gospel.

    But the question that remains is that of how. It is one thing to tell people to be faithful, grow in knowledge of the Scriptures, and to pray fervently. Reminding Christian people of their calling to conduct their work to God’s glory or to engage in public discourse is a noble admonition. But what to say, and how to say it, and who to partner with are the practical considerations that most often go unanswered. That is not always their responsibility. The church must heed the voices of her prophets, and turn to the Lord for answers.

    Answers begin to emerge, in part, through local associations. For Christians, this is the church. Or, in any given community, the ecumenical efforts of the body of Christ who are connected within the business or professional communities. Intellectual theorists and academics serve the church well when they help Christians assess their moment, lend understanding, and offer prescriptions. But it is all talk until those prescriptions are field tested, either through action or in prayerful conversation.

    Individuals are not powerless. All of us can live according to Christian convictions. Private prayer is a powerful act. But our best "courageous and constructive yes" to our Lord Jesus Christ is a yes alongside others within Christian fellowship. Together we are better equipped to live according to the commands given by Jesus himself, and to embody his vision in this age and in preparation for the age to come. The church, to the degree we are faithful, also provides a more powerful and compelling no to the ways of the world. It is one thing for the world to be faced with a faithful individual, it is yet another to be confronted by a faithful community. To paraphrase Stanley Hauerwas, the church’s first task is to be the church, thereby making clear that the world is, in fact, the world.

    Challenges will not dissipate entirely and suffering may come. Jesus was plain on that point. But Jesus remains Lord. Take courage. Fear not.

    Wednesday
    Sep212016

    Can Pastors Keep it Real and Lead Well? An Interview with Mandy Smith

    Church leaders are people. This means they possess both strengths and shortcomings. On some days, they fulfill their calling and serve really well. And then there are the days when everything falls apart. Eugene Peterson observed, “Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.” Our pastors come with flaws.

    That is not always easy to remember. We compare one minister to another and often have selective memories. Our expectations differ from those of other congregants. We want our pastors to please everyone. Simultaneously our concerns are considered the foremost criteria by which we evaluate our ministers. The way in which pastors choose to lead becomes more complicated when we consider the scene beyond the local context: celebrity pastors, excellent podcasts, and en vogue models of leadership influence our understandings of success. Those models can be too narrow.

    The dominant and prevailing understandings of pastoral leadership are insufficient. That’s why we need other voices, not only for the sake of pastors trying to find their place but also for congregants. There is more than one way to be a healthy congregation, and more than one way to lead. It is hard to remember that sometimes.

    Mandy Smith serves as lead pastor of University Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry (InterVarsity Press, 2015). Her book is a welcome addition to the broader conversation concerning church leadership. She is forthcoming about her experiences and provides an alternative way of understanding the pastoral task, which includes a profound reliance on God, an openness to the Spirit at work in the congregation and community, and what I’ll describe as holy patience with oneself as God works out his purposes within the life of the minister.

    I’ve read a number of church leadership books, and I found this one unique and valuable. Last week I corresponded with her, and asked a few questions about The Vulnerable Pastor.

    B: I really enjoyed The Vulnerable Pastor. What led you to write the book?

    Most of my writing grows from wishing someone else had written it for me. I’ve felt quite alone in figuring out how to lead and yet still be myself so if there’s any way I can be with someone else as they wrestle with similar questions, it’s my joy to do that. And although it’s risky to put my story out there, it’s worth it for the possibility that I may hear back from readers and find our stories are similar. Although writing can be a solitary task, I see it as one part of a larger conversation. I love that conversation.

    B: One of the commitments I found throughout your book was to the practice of prayer, either liturgically, congregationally, or through a cultivated posture of listening to God throughout your day, whether in conversation, study, or through your writing or art. How does prayer shape the work of a vulnerable pastor?

    If we claim to rely on him, it makes sense that we would engage with him. I have a tendency to claim to need God but then spend most of my time talking about him, planning to do stuff for him, troubleshooting in my own strength, fretting over things that are beyond me. So part of prayer is the words I say but a big part is just the choice to pray, turning from the way I act when I think it’s all up to me and choosing to take on the posture of prayer. The act itself of turning reminds me I’m not alone and it’s okay to ask for help. I need that reminder a lot. In prayer there is no shame in our human limitation.

    B: You spoke of prayer as a reminder that God is with us and responds to our petitions for help, and that prayer itself is a reminder of our limits. I can see how those reminders are helpful for the pastor. How do those reminders influence your relationships with your congregants?

    It’s amazing how the things that we think are so shameful and that we try so hard to hide from congregants often become moments of breakthrough when we let them be seen. As much as we think we serve folks by looking strong and competent, it only perpetuates the impression that we live an unattainable kind of holiness. As leaders we don’t want them to see our doubt, our family troubles, our bad days. But strangely enough, and although it’s always uncomfortable, when I’ve said “I have to be honest with you, I don’t have the answers” others have had a chance to offer ideas--or find grace that they also have questions. When I’ve said “I really am struggling today” others have seen faithfulness does not mean always feeling happy. Of course, there are unhealthy ways to rely on folks we’re supposed to be leading but many of our more human moments can be ways to show that we’re all following the Lord together. Then our role is no longer to be the one they rely on. Instead our role is to model reliance on God. In some ways leading by having it all together and looking strong is harder than modeling reliance on God. In some ways it’s easier.

    B: Your book is notable because of your willingness to shatter any existing delusions of pastoral invincibility and to reveal how human limitations and weaknesses are present in church leaders. How does this kind of vulnerability help the church become more faithful to the gospel, for pastors and congregants?

    If God is not limited by our brokenness, that’s truly good news! Whether it’s to help us live out our call or help us in our parenting or save us from sin, it all feels like the Gospel to me! The world teaches us it’s shameful when we need to rest, get old or sick or can’t fix things or don’t understand. But God is not surprised that we’re human and longs to be shown to us and through us as humans. When we come to terms with the limitations and opportunities in the human nature he gave us, we’re more able to fill our role and let him fill His. And we have a greater appreciation of the work of God-as-human (Jesus) and of God-in-humans (the Spirit).

    B: In the latter half of your book you explore how vulnerability informs your teaching and preaching, and examine the relationship between teaching and the overall process of spiritual formation within the Christian community. What do you mean by “process,” and how does your emphasis on process help those in your congregation grow as disciples of Jesus Christ?

    In the western world we’re all about product. Productivity has become sacred. On the other hand, in any creative endeavor (including partnering with God in his recreation of ourselves and this world), the process is significant. How we get there can’t be distinguished from where we’re going. I’ve found that there’s a lot of pressure to arrive--to have all the answers, to be all we should be. But there’s peace to be found in submitting to the humbling process of learning a little at a time. It’s a grace actually--as much as we want it all now, our hearts and minds could not take in the fullness of the goodness and beauty of God all at once! The emphasis on process allows folks in our congregation to set aside the anxious work of creating their own personal brand. Embracing the process gives them grace to trust that whatever God is doing in them is a partnership--a listening and responding to the work of the Spirit. The pressure to arrive gets in the way of the journey and once we’re released from it, we are free to enjoy the unfolding of where God leads us, day by day, together.

    B: Lastly, what words of wisdom would you offer to those actively discerning a call to serve in pastoral ministry/church leadership? And, since I am married to a woman in ministry, do you have any words of wisdom or encouragement specifically for women?

    As we’re discerning a call, we often look at what skills, personality, passions we have and compare it to other people we’ve seen in leadership. But the models of Christian leadership have been very narrow in recent years. We need men and extroverts and management-oriented folks and we also need women and introverts and artists and folks who often feel like outsiders in the church. So my advice to those discerning that call would be: look not only to contemporary spiritual leaders but also to the many models of leaders in scripture--most of whom had good reason to not feel capable (they were too old, too young, too different, not educated etc) and yet were used powerfully by God. There’s supposed to be a moment when something amazing happens and people say “Hmm, that person is not capable of what we just saw. There must be a greater power at work here!” The question is, are we willing to let our limitation be seen so his power can be obvious?

    On the question about women: The world’s way of thinking about our role as women often has to do with our rights. Which, of course, is not the way of the Lord. For a long time I thought in terms of “The church has to give women a chance! It’s our turn!” but the more I learn about this moment in the history of the Western church, the more I say “The church desperately needs what women bring!” As women entering ministry we’re often painfully aware how different we are from leadership norms and can feel like second-class citizens. But the natural skills women often have (don’t want to speak in stereotypes here) which the world sees as weak or unimportant--warmth, collaborative skills, listening, empathy, flexibility, patience, humility, community building, hospitality, openness to difference--are exactly what God wants to use to lead the church through its current identity crisis. The more I read scripture, the more I see the depth of God’s heart, the more I see the power of a woman’s emotional and spiritual energy to express that heart to the world.

    Many thanks to Mandy for joining me and answering my questions. The Vulnerable Pastor is available at Amazon.

    Thursday
    Sep152016

    Teach Us to Pray

    I do not recall who taught me to pray.

    Somehow, some way, I learned. And I am learning.

    My family was a starting point. Church and Sunday school were secondary settings. Together, we prayed. Or, at least I listened. Through listening, I learned reliable words I could try for myself. I also learned there is a God who hears and who is actively engaged with this world, and there is nothing beyond the purview of that God’s care.

    In his essay “Teach Us to Care, and Not to Care,” Eugene Peterson writes:

    Teaching people to pray is teaching them to treat all the occasions of their lives as altars on which they receive his gifts. Teaching people to pray is teaching them that God is the one with whom they have to deal, not just ultimately, and not just generally, but now and in detail.

    Peterson also writes that teaching other people to pray is an expression of care and is “the most central thing,” claiming that access and intimacy with God is “our genius as Christians.” Most often, teaching opportunities emerge when there is need. When there is need, we care, and in caring we enter “a school of prayer.”

    During family gatherings we prayed for one another, for our neighbors, and our nation. We prayed that the will of God would be done. Hardship often led to an increase in letters received, as loved ones would write and offer advice and encouragement, but mostly prayer. Accomplishments and celebrations were given over to thanksgiving and gratitude. Needs were lifted up.

    The church would also pray, that we might know God more fully and completely, and be given the grace and strength needed for obedience and holiness and maturity. The church also taught the great prayers of Scripture. We would pray for the infirm and the dying, the poor and the anxious, who would often be no further away than the next pew. In praying, our hearts would become more attentive to God, and our eyes would be opened to the reality of our neighbor, whom we are called to love. God’s action--God’s response to prayer--often came through the body of Christ, the people called to care.

    In Luke 11:1, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray. I am asking him still. As we practice what we have learned, we teach, not only in praying but through caring. Our needs are great, but as Christians we serve a God who is greater still. In praying we are taught not only how to speak to God but are given knowledge of the God to whom we are speaking. We are invited to address God “now and in detail,” whatever the circumstances, and to trust in his eternal care.

    Prayer is God’s great gift to us, indispensable for spiritual growth and maturity, and absolutely necessary for the practice of sustained care. But it must be taught, and learned.

    Lord, teach us to pray.

    Wednesday
    Sep142016

    Living What We Know

    In Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton writes:

    A purely mental life may be destructive if it leads us to substitute thought for life and ideas for actions. The activity proper to man is not purely mental because man is not just a disembodied mind. Our destiny is to live out what we think, because unless we live what we know, we do not even know it. It is only by making our knowledge part of ourselves, through action, that we enter into the reality that is signified by our concepts.

    When Merton speaks of "man" he addresses all of humankind, both male and female, who are equally adept at the substitutions described above. Within the same chapter, Merton states, "Spiritual life is not mental life. It is not thought alone. Nor is it, of course, a life of sensation, a life of feeling--'feeling' and experiencing the things of God, and the things of the spirit."

    This understanding of the spiritual life does not exclude the mind or emotions. Merton states plainly, "It needs both." Spiritual life is human life, and encompasses every aspect of our being. Merton writes, "If man is to live, he must be all alive, body, soul, mind, heart, spirit. Everything must be elevated and transformed by the action of God, in love and faith."

    Jesus summed up the Law and the Prophets by saying that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and spoke a parallel command to love one's neighbor as oneself. Love directed toward God leads to proper self-love that overflows to those around us. Both Jesus' exegesis of the Old Testament and his sequencing is significant. When the entire self is directed toward God and then metamorphosized by God's grace, the natural result is action.

    Action within the spiritual life is characterized by living what we know. What we know is the God who has decisively been revealed in and through the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In John 17:3, Jesus says, "Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."

    In John 20:21, the resurrected Jesus sends his disciples as he has been sent. To encounter the resurrected Christ is to be incorporated into his action, his mission. Jesus is no longer a concept, but the living Lord who calls us to act as agents in his eternal kingdom, which is our newfound reality.

    God's action always precedes our own. It is grace that initiates, sustains, and brings our faith to completion. Grace also calls, activates, empowers, and sends us forth to act as servants of Jesus Christ. Knowing him, may we live what we know.

    Tuesday
    Sep132016

    Prayer: Making the Familiar Strange

    In The Work of Theology, Stanley Hauerwas argues “that a theological sentence that does its proper work does so just to the extent it makes the familiar strange.” Writing theological sentences that accomplish this aim is good but difficult work. Hauerwas writes, “I have the sense that few of us have thought about the conditions necessary to write a theological sentence that has the potential to make readers stop and rethink what they thought they think.”

    I recently completed Karl Barth’s brilliant lectures on the Lord’s Prayer, and I was struck by how his writings fit the criteria offered by Hauerwas. The familiar became strange, I stopped, and I rethought what I think. I concluded that Barth’s writing on prayer was compelling not only because it was theological, but because all too often the sentences became prayer. Barth moves seamlessly from addressing “we” and “us” to “Thee” and “Thou.” In doing so, I found my prayer joining with Barth’s prayer; his petition became my own.

    In Barth’s introductory remarks he offers several observations. His exploration of prayer will draw from the Reformers: Luther, Calvin, and the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism. Barth writes, “The Reformation appears to us as a great whole: a labor of research, thinking, preaching, polemic, and organization.” However, “it was more than all that.”

    Barth continues by claiming that the Reformation “was an act of continuous prayer, an invocation.” He adds that the Reformation was also “an act of human beings, of certain persons, and at the same time a response on the part of God.” The Reformation consisted in great action (research, thinking, preaching, etc.), but the fundamental action undergirding it all was the act of prayer.

    Barth warns that the weaknesses of any age may be the result of those failing to heed words like those of Luther, who wrote, “For we know that our defense lies in prayer alone. We are too weak to resist the Devil and his vassals...For what has carried off these great victories over the undertakings of our enemies which the Devil has used to put us in subjection, if not the prayers of certain pious people who rose up as a rampart to protect us?” With that one well chosen quotation, Barth convicts and challenges. Who, in our time, is our rampart? Who stands in the gap? Is it I? And who among us, outwardly seeking a gospel movement, is inwardly a true person of prayer?

    For those who feel “familiar” with prayer, Barth makes the familiar strange. He reminds us that prayer is a “problem,” for “How is it possible for me to have an encounter with God?” To pray, Barth says, “is a grace, an offer of God.” It is also an “altogether simple act by which we accept and use the divine offer; an act in which we obey this command of the majestic grace that identifies itself with the will of God.” Barth clearly reminds us that prayer is possible because of Jesus Christ, who has made us his brothers and sisters within the family of God.

    Barth writes:

    God is the Father of Jesus Christ, and that very man Jesus Christ has prayed, and he is praying still. Such is the foundation of our prayer in Jesus Christ. It is as if God himself has pledged to answer our request because all our prayers are summed up in Jesus Christ; God cannot fail to answer, since it is Jesus Christ who prays.

    What follows is an interpretation of the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus invites us to pray. Prayer is not only a command, it is an invitation. Jesus has instructed us, and also accompanies us in the praying of this prayer. Barth writes, “Jesus Christ invites, permits, commands us to join him, especially in his intercession with the Father.”

    Barth examines the Invocation, the Six Petitions, and the Doxology of the Lord’s Prayer. At every turn he makes the familiar strange. He makes the reader rethink what they thought in praying the Lord’s Prayer. His sentences do the work.

    In the invocation, “Our Father,” Barth reminds us that we may address God as such because of Jesus Christ. Barth writes “We are his children, he is our Father, by virtue of this new birth realized at Christmas, on Good Friday, at Easter, and fulfilled at the moment of our baptism.” We petition our Father “who art in heaven.” Barth reminds us that God “is in heaven, on his throne,” and it is through him that we have freedom, which includes the freedom to enter God’s presence.

    When we pray for the hallowing of God’s name, for the kingdom to come, and for God’s will to be done, we seek to align ourselves with God’s action as it has been revealed in Jesus Christ. The world belongs to God, the cause of redemption is his, and the fulfillment of his purposes is the result of his initiative. We cannot accomplish this on our own. This is why we pray. Barth writes, “We pray so that we might receive the power to show this great joy and this great peace of which we so often speak. May this joy and this peace be noticeable. We pray in order that the Christian arrogance and ignorance and unbelief with which we daily dishonor thee may be a bit arrested, a little suppressed.”

    Our prayer for daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance from temptation are admissions of dependence on God, as well as expressions of simple trust in God’s provision. Barth observes that in the Old and New Testaments “‘the word ‘bread’ is also the temporal sign of God’s eternal grace.” Barth goes further, saying “each meal, whether it be modest or sumptuous is something sacred, for it is the promise of an eternal banquet, of an everlasting feast.” To  ask for bread is to remind ourselves, again and again, that we are dependent creatures.

    Beyond our need for bread is our need for forgiveness. While we may be unsure of where our next meal may come from, our forgiveness is a certain, established fact. Barth writes, “What God’s forgiveness is must be clearly understood. Here it is not a question of an uncertain hope, of an ideal to be sought or imagined...Forgiveness is already given, and this is the reality in which we live.”

    We are forgiven because of what God has accomplished in and through Jesus Christ, the one who has reconciled us to God, atoned for our sin, and secured our hope. Barth writes, “In thy Son thou hast exchanged roles between thyself, the holy and just God, and us, perfidious and unjust human beings...Thou has obeyed and suffered for us; thou hast abolished our faults, the faults of all humankind. And thou hast done it once and for all.”

    Our petition for forgiveness leads us to forgive those who sin against us. We do so as those empowered by the Holy Spirit. And we ask for God’s help in resisting temptation. In the cross of Christ, the Devil has been defeated and his powers have been broken. Barth reminds us that we do not overcome the Devil through our own “moral and religious excursions,” but by the power of God. Because of this, glory be to God! Barth writes, “Thou hast loved us; thou still lovest us. And thy love is efficacious. It delivers once and for all.”

    Barth, by making the familiar strange, brings us into an encounter with the one commanding us to pray. For those so moved, those wishing to respond to God’s gracious action by the practice of prayer, new possibilities emerge, and not only for the individual but also for the church. And we may enter these new possibilities, not because we are determined, but because God has graciously sought and redeemed us through Jesus Christ. Prayer, thus, is the response of a glad heart joined to God. It is not a duty, but a delight. It is not only a privilege, but a service of the saints.

    We worship a God who hears, yet God is greater than our petitions. As Barth reminds us, “The most certain element of our prayer is not our requests, but what comes from God: his response.” Because of this we remain confident. We anticipate God’s redemptive future. We celebrate God’s salvation secured for us in Christ.

    And presently, we pray, “Our Father…”