A Legion of Quiet Heroes

Pastor’s Study, FBC Valley Mills

There is a passage from the Bible that came to mind this week while I worked around my place, trying to survive the winter storm. It is found in 1 Thessalonians 4:9-11. This is what it says:

Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.

Paul begins with an affirmation, commending the Thessalonians for their acts of love. But he adds an exhortation: lead a quiet life.

A quite life differs from a private or reclusive life. After all, Paul says that living a quiet life, minding one’s own business and working with one’s hands, can result in Christians gaining the respect of outsiders. Self-reliance can result from this kind of life, but not necessarily withdrawal or isolation. Paul writes that the quiet life in Christ can be part of daily life, a life marked by love, peace, and productivity.

I suspect that for many of us, a “quiet life” hasn’t been a goal. We want applause, acclaim, success, fame. Or we want to party, and all the corresponding pleasures. Or we want power, maybe so we can mind the business of others and tell them what to do.

A quiet life isn’t an obvious choice for us, not in our culture, not in this age. We know, at the deepest level, that we were made for a life of meaning and significance. And we think the only way to satisfy that drive is to live loudly. We think we need to draw attention to ourselves in order to be significant.

But once you know that the lives we lead are known and noticed by God, we do not need to live loudly. We already have meaning. We already are significant. We already have the attention of the only being who, in the end, matters. We’re significant because we’re made in the divine image. We’re significant because we’ve been redeemed by Christ. We have meaning because we were made to live according to God’s purposes, for God’s glory. We’re freed to be faithful, to live the life that God has called us to live before God alone, even as our life brings us into contact with others both inside and outside of the community of faith.

We could use a legion of quiet heroes, people who commit themselves to serving God and loving others, who don’t concerning themselves with the thoughts and opinions of others, and who wholeheartedly devote themselves to the good work that is theirs alone to do.

Congregations would be blessed by pastors who understood their vocation as one of quiet service, prayer, and ministry of the Word, rather than as a vehicle for influence, notoriety, or fame.

Communities would be blessed if followers of Christ conducted their work (in the marketplace and at home) in a quiet manner, confident that God not only sees the work but the heart of the worker and honors those who seek to please the Lord.

Christ followers would be motivated to pursue excellence in all things and inspired to do all things to the glory of God. They would quit worrying so much about what other people think. There’s freedom in living before an audience of One.

The days ahead, and the years for that matter, hold countless opportunities to do quiet work as part of a quiet life in service to a God who sees and who sends us into the world to bless others, all for the eternal glory of the kingdom of God.

Awaiting a Winter Storm

There is a “historic winter storm” headed our way. We’ve kept an eye on the weather.

The yard is already frozen. We picked up groceries this morning. There was black ice on the roads. We fueled our vehicle while we were out and parked at our neighbors’ place on return. They have a flat driveway; ours is a hill.

Molly and the kids stockpiled firewood in the garage. While at the public library on Friday, Molly checked out DVDs and library books to keep us occupied. We covered our outdoor faucets and pulled out our extra hats, gloves, and coats. We’ve closed the blinds and pulled the curtains in an attempt to keep the cold out and the heat in.

Before today it was already cold. Winter weather moved into our area on Thursday, complicating matters for the region. I moved my class online and decided to cancel this weekend’s spiritual formation retreat. Public schools opened on delay. Area colleges and universities began cancelling classes early on Thursday afternoon. Thankfully, road conditions for most were passable during school pick up hours. In Midway, I gathered our school superintendent took heat. Some residents disagreed strongly with the decision to have school.

I feel for the guy. If you decide to have school and weather conditions worsen to an unanticipated degree, you are held at fault for insufficient clairvoyance. If you cancel school and the weather turns out fine, parents are upset their plans for the day were disrupted. And if you call off school and the weather is as bad or worse than expected, you don’t get any credit for making the right call. “Any dummy could’ve made that decision,” it is reasoned.

Yesterday evening Molly and I began looking at the extended forecast, wondering aloud if we’d have church on Sunday. Current projections call for snow early on Sunday morning, but yesterday it appeared as though precipitation would begin Sunday afternoon. Sidewalks and steps outside the church building were already slick on Thursday. We did not have salt on hand. We could put down kitty litter, but the amount of work that could be done to prepare the facility would be limited. One slip and someone could break a hip. Or multiple someones. That’s just at the building. If road conditions are bad, well, accidents could happen on the way.

Going to church is a habit. Hebrews 10:25 exhorts those addressed to not neglect meeting together. The early Christ-followers began gathering on Sunday, rather than Saturday, in remembrance and celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. It was a subtle move, theologically reasoned and practically executed. There is a connection between sabbath keeping and Sunday worship, but it takes work to get there.

In Acts 20:7 we see Paul meeting with the Christian community on the first day of the week, which would have been Sunday by the Jewish calendar. Worship of God with the fellowship of faith is a wise practice, prescribed in the Bible. But when, and how often, and toward what end is up to each local Christian community. With that said, Sunday isn’t a bad idea at all, carrying with it a historical resonance of that first Sunday, where, by Christian reckoning, all of human history hinged and then changed. Resurrection Sunday marks the first day of the new creation.

As I think back over the last two decades of life, the circles I’ve run in have talked a lot about the church. A common refrain has been that the church is not a building. Church is also not an event. The church is a people. The Greek word is ekklesia, or “called out ones.” In the first century this term carried a political connotation. An ekklesia could form the moment everyone was called from their houses into the town square to hear a message, have a debate, or make a public decision. The term still holds that meaning, but it has taken on new shades. The Christian community remains a political body, with an allegiance to Jesus as king, and a way of life that should be distinctive from that commonly practiced among those with allegiance to the kingdoms of this world.

But the church is also a mystical body. It is bound together “in Christ,” sharing in the same Spirit. Ephesians 4:1-32 describes this reality, carrying with it the implication that the church is still the church whether assembled or sent, gathered or scattered. Ephesians 4:4-6 says, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

One way or another, we’re bound. This binding transcends time and space. We are “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses” whether we are in the building, or not. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get together. Ephesians 4, again, points us in the right direction. God has given the church “the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers can do their work a little easier when we meet together. And if you consider the witness of the New Testament more broadly, the “one another” commands that are given to the church presume a community.

But tomorrow, the course eventually chosen by our church leaders was to remain scattered due to the winter storm. I don’t think it is right to say worship is cancelled, or even that worship is online, even if the order, or service, is facilitated, communicated, and broadcast on the web. Worship takes place wherever the people of God find themselves and, bound together in and by the Spirit, is collectively offered to God as individuals lift their hearts and attribute worth to the One Who is Worthy of All Glory and Honor and Power Forever and Ever.

There is more going on in the spiritual realm, more than we often contemplate, and certainly more than we perceive. It has always been so, but we, as modern people, have had our perceptions dulled to these realities. Perhaps we should humbly ask God to teach us anew, to help us discover and experience the fullness of communion with God and the communion that exists among the saints.

I’m looking forward to the coming days, because I love my family, we are well supplied, there is a fire in the hearth and I have plenty of work to do that can be done remotely, assuming we keep power. I know it is not so for everyone. As the cold has descended, my mind has drifted toward the words of the BCP‘s first rite for Daily Evening Prayer:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or
weep this night, and give thine angels charge over those who
sleep.  Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless
the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the
joyous; and all for thy love’s sake.

I’ll confess that these words also provide the framework for a book I’ve been reading [affiliate link]. But they connect to the present circumstance. This morning, we prayed for our area shelters, as well as for friends who serve in shelters in other cities.

The storm is coming. We may not gather tomorrow. Nevertheless, offer praise. Worship the Lord. Remember the saints. Anticipate the next gathering, and then savor it when it occurs. Rejoice when meeting resumes–and be there. Frozen conditions may keep us out of the building. But they do not severe the ties of the body of Christ.

The Best Listeners Are the Best

Photo by Franco Antonio Giovanella on Unsplash

Jeff Tweedy, in How to Write One Song, writes, “In my opinion, it’s more important to be a good listener than to be a good musician. In fact, I wouldn’t separate the two. I think the best musicians are the best listeners.”

This is also true of spiritual directors, pastors, preachers, parents, plumbers, principals, psychologists, poets, presidents, programmers, police officers, pharmacists, physicians–anyone, really.

If you want to be great at something, start by opening your ears, softening your heart, and paying attention.

When Does Leadership Begin?

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

Strong and Weak is a little book by Andy Crouch, and in it he contends that human beings are meant to flourish. That’s what we’re made for. How do we flourish? Crouch answers with a paradox: we have to be strong and weak.

Strength comes when we embrace the authority we have as divine image-bearers, people made in the image of God.

Weakness is embraced when we admit we’re mortal, vulnerable, that we need God and community.

The two go together. Strong and weak. Crouch writes, “We are meant to experience more and more of the full authority intended for human beings, which can never be separated from the full vulnerability–the ultimate meaningful risk–of entrusting ourselves to one another and to our Creator.”

This two by two grid illustrates the dynamics at play:

We can try to control everything. High levels of authority without vulnerability leads to exploitation.

We can play it safe. Unwillingness to be vulnerable and rejecting authority leads to withdrawal.

We can undergo suffering–or inflict it. We know of people who are vulnerable but who lack authority, either because of marginalization, exploitation, oppression, or other causes. These people aren’t flourishing. They are suffering.

But cultures that encourage members to embrace the authority while also risking vulnerability–these communities can flourish, and they often do. Why? They are led by the strong and weak.

Crouch writes:

Leadership does not begin with a title or position. It begins the moment you are more concerned about others’ flourishing than you are about your own. It begins when you start to ask how you might help create and sustain the conditions for others to increase their authority and vulnerability together. In a world where many people are simply withdrawn into safety, where other are imprisoned in the most extreme vulnerability, where other pursue their own unaccountable authority, anyone who seek trust flourishing is already, in many senses, a leader.

Crouch adds, “Leader…are no longer looking primarily to help themselves but to spend themselves on others.”

Leaders give. They risk. They embrace their gifts, and their authority. They build. They have the confidence the work can be done.

We need leaders. Are you concerned about the welfare of others? Do you want to see others flourish?

Then we need you.

This Old “Sunday’s Coming” is Still Contemporvant

I know this video has been around about a decade. But I’m bookmarking this to keep it in mind for my classes. Liturgy shapes us, even when we don’t call it liturgy, and we replicate what we see and experience. When it comes to “modern” worship, television has dominated our imagination, and has for the past four or five decades.

Digital media and the internet now shape how we think about leadership, community, modes of communication, etc. which will have implications for how we communicate about God, how we shape the worship gathering, and more. What does that mean for the future of Christian worship?

Does Theology Even Matter Anymore? Dear Lord, Yes!

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

Things are bad. Maybe they’re so bad that theology doesn’t even matter anymore. I don’t think so, though. Be patient with me. I’ll get around to telling you why. But first, I’ll have to tell you how I got there.

Matt Ward informed me congregations have overwhelmingly felt the effects of this dreadful year–its pandemic, contested election, racial tensions, lockdowns, culture war battles and on and on and on–and suffered church conflict, budget shortfalls, precipitous attendance decline, waning influence, and pastoral impotency. Stress reveals fault lines; crisis reveals character. A bad year uncovers and accelerates bad things that have been lurking there all along. Suffering shows us where we stand. Prosperity often hides ills, or at least distracts us from shortfalls.

Dr. Ward shares the bad news before proclaiming the good news. What’s the good news? There are theological reasons for gratitude and thankfulness. Trials and trepidation and suffering and sorrow are never pleasant while they are being endured, but Christianity is a home to heralds and bringers of hope, for the message itself is one of resurrection. Pastors can lead the way during dark times. They proclaim, model, exhort, encourage, and exhibit faith in God as they lead their congregations through hardship and horror. They do this in difficulties large and small. This isn’t the first global crisis the church has endured in its history. It won’t be the last.

How do we make our way through? God is a waymaker, as we sing. Our reality is bad, but we can face that reality by placing it within view of a greater reality, the reality of God. Ward writes, “Let’s be extremely honest about our circumstances. They are not good. And then let’s be extremely honest about our God. He is very good. That will lead us into thanksgiving.”

Dr. Ward grounds the practice of thanksgiving in the character of God. He warns us against glib behavior. He cautions against sentimentality. He encourages truth-telling. These are good reminders, all.

In making his argument, Ward points to Roger Olson, who near the end of October raised the question as to whether theology matters anymore at all. Ward led me to Olson; thus our question, and my answer. Olson states:

I became a theologian because I felt called to it, so I can never regret it. On the other hand, sometimes I feel like it has been a huge waste of time and effort on my part and that because I really, really wanted to speak into the lives of ordinary Christians, pastors, churches, and inquiring minds of seekers after truth. Instead, it seems, the vast majority of people, even my own family members and friends (not all but most) have never shown any interest in what I do. It’s viewed largely as “ivory tower,” speculative, merely academic, a waste of time.

Now, when eager young men and women come to me expressing interest in becoming theologians I applaud them for their passion but warn them that their family and friends and even their churches will probably distance themselves from them. I tell them they will feel isolated and unappreciated—except by a few people who think like they do—namely, that truth about God matters and the pursuit of truth is a good thing even if it is vastly under appreciated—especially in religion.

Olson is a theologian who serves George W. Truett Seminary. I really respect the man. I think there is truth in his conclusions. I think he’s right to offer his experience as a warning. I think he’s right to bring the romantics among us down a peg or two. I’ve been reading his work for years. I do not regard his conclusion lightly.

I just happen to disagree.

I believe Dr. Olson’s efforts have likely yielded much more good than he perceives. I believe that pastors and pastor-theologians, like Dr. Olson, are called to the work with no guarantees of respectability or even “success” as most define it. These persons should not expect esteem, even though they might long for it, nor should they expect the occasional happenstance of one’s pursuits becoming the center of table conversation; if it ever does, that can make for quite a memorable evening. I think Dr. Olson is right to name the work of theology and the theological aspects of pastoral ministry as mostly thankless work, mostly quiet work, mostly overlooked work.

But that does not mean it is not important work, that it is work that does not “matter.” Theology is always operative. It is inescapable, always on. It matters.

Like Olson, I don’t have stats to back up my claim, only a sense or intuition. I bring twenty years of anecdotal evidence. I bring theological convictions. My experiences in the church and now in the academy, as well as within my family, tell me theology matters.

Some care about theology more than others, but in each of those contexts, theological answers are given to complex problems and theological questions are raised at critical moments. Questions are more often practical than abstract. Some questions are answered; others left open. I’ve seen good theology, bad theology, academic theology, folk theology, practical theology, historical theology, heterodoxy, orthodoxy…you name it, I’ve seen it in effect, toward good ends and, unfortunately at times, bad ends.

Things can matter when we don’t think matter, and even when we don’t think about them at all.

People who’ve walked alongside me, if they really sat back and thought about it, would be able to name ways in which the ideas that we talked about in congregation, the practices that we shared, the worship moments or breaking bread once a quarter and maybe one or two more times each year on Christmas and at Easter, the words of testimony offered or the homilies given at weddings and funerals or the vows that were affirmed at baptism, well yes, they “mattered.” They meant a lot.

They made meaning and they gave shape to our life together. They provided direction. Shaped convictions. Formed character. And then influenced countless thoughts, feelings, and actions. The theology we did together, the theology that informed what we were doing together, made a world of difference, a difference as vast as that spanning the gulf between world and kingdom.

Theology continues to matter. Our theologians continue to matter, too. Pastors are some of our most important theologians, and while many congregants do not think of what they do in congregation as theology proper, they are each being equipped with an operative theology, as well as the requisite tools to raise theological questions and to form theological answers.

A little over fifteen ago I read a little book by Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson named, “Who Needs Theology?” [affiliate link] That little book convinced me that we’re all theologians, that I’m a theologian, and that every person that I minister to and with and among is doing the work of a theologian, even if they don’t call it that. Because Grenz and Olson made a theological argument along these lines, I grew more confident in my own identity as a theologian, while also shifting my perspective on life and ministry, on my work among the people of God.

Let me say this: Dr. Olson shaped my work in serving countless people, Christian and otherwise, as a Christian minister; his voice shaped my philosophy of ministry among “ordinary” Christian people.

How so? Because of the influence of Olson, Grenz, and many others, I concluded that all people bring experience, tradition, and reason to the task of theology, and that we all, together, can read the Bible and seek to interpret the Scriptures in light of the person of Jesus and, by the gift of God’s grace, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

I came to the deep conviction that I should preach and teach while assuming that the work of salvation and redemption and sanctification were possible among all hearers, but that outcomes ultimately belonged to God. The degree to which our witness was either strong or weak, as the people of God, was beyond my ability to fully know or perceive–too much is hidden, seen only by God. I only knew that I was called to be a witness, to seek God, to follow Christ, to walk by the Spirit, to do the work of an evangelist, to be a sower, to tend the sheep, to turn the soil.

Theology is funny work. Stanley Hauerwas noted that one of the challenges within the university is that universities are unsure what to make of theology as a discipline. Secular colleges and universities no longer make space for theologians, only scholars of religion. Many Christian institutions are unsure of what to do with their theologians, for, hoping for respectability within the wider guild of the academy, they fear their continued choice to fund theology departments is a potential source of embarrassment.

In the church, theology is funny work because while it is always taking place, it is not always named as such. It’s just working itself out, minute by minute and day by day, worship service by worship service and, Lord help us, conference by conference and convention by convention and business meeting by business meeting.

In our lives, theology is funny work because we aren’t always aware when, where, how, and why our theological convictions are operative, but they always are, underneath, scripts running under scripts.

Despite its funny way of working, theology matters. Oh, Lord yes, it matters.

Research Findings: Congregations Are Becoming More Diverse

From the Baylor University press release:

Racially diverse congregations have increased substantially in the United States over the past 20 years, and the percentage of all-white congregations has declined, according to a study by a Baylor University sociologist and two colleagues.

Overall, multiracial congregations — defined as those in which no one racial or ethnic group comprises more than 80% of the congregants — have nearly tripled, with approximately a quarter of evangelical and Catholic churches now being multiracial.

Other key findings:

  • 10% of mainline Protestant churches were multiracial, up from 1%.
  • 22% percent of evangelical congregations were multiracial, up from 7%.
  • 16% of Pentecostals are multiracial, up from 3%.
  • Catholic churches on average continue to be more diverse than Protestant churches with 23% multiracial, up from 17%.
  • Less than 1% of Black Protestant churches were multiracial in 1998 or 2019.

And an important final remark:

Despite these changes, difficulties face racial desegregation in American religion, said study co-author Michael O. Emerson, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“The path to diversity seems to be a one-way street, with people of color joining white congregations but very few whites joining Black churches,” Emerson said. “Until congregations confront the historic structures that keep racial groups divided, diversity inside congregations may function mainly as a superficial performance.”

For researchers, what would this confrontation look like?

And what are the causal factors that have let to increased diversity, where it has occurred?

With all due respect to Dr. Michael Emerson, and acknowledging scholars are often understated in their conclusions and often bent toward skepticism, increased diversity in some congregations “may” be “a superficial performance.” But it may be something else entirely, like behaving toward a preferred way of being based on a shift in theological convictions and religious values. It may also be a movement of God, or a historical return toward the early diversity of the Christian movement.

That aside, I’m encouraged by the trend.

Spurgeon on Reading, Citations, and Learning From Other Minds

Image by Nino Carè from Pixabay

The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. Brethren, what is true of ministers is true of all our people. You need to read. Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers, and expositions of the Bible.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

Quoted from Thomas Breimaier’s Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of C. H. Spurgeon, who cites from Christian George’s Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon [affiliate links].

Don’t get hung up on the pronouns. The wisdom here is for both men and women. While I might not recommend the Puritans, you could certainly do worse. And while light literature may have its place, we are only given so much time, and there are so many books.

The Marks of a Great Preacher

Image by Robert Cheaib from Pixabay

A truly great preacher is marked by a combination of faith and fire–faith in two senses. The first is the faith was once delivered unto the saints. The sermons of great preachers are messages of substance. They are not merely frothy concoctions of sentiment and anecdote, but rather they find their center of gravity in the purity of doctrine, in the profundity of Scripture, and in the power of the gospel. The second is faith in the sense of personal conviction. This living faith is also fuel for the fire. Great preachers have convictions that are contagious. They speak existentially to the whole person, unleashing deep emotions and galvanizing the heart, the intellect, and the will. They move their hearers, and not merely in an ephemeral or superficial way. Deep calleth unto deep. The hearer feels located, as if the preacher is speaking specifically to him or her. The messenger provokes a response in the listener.

Timothy Larsen, writing in the foreword to Thomas Breimaier’s Tethered to the Cross: The Life and Preaching of Charles Spurgeon [affiliate link]

This sounds all of the right notes.