The Service of the Theologian

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Human life requires God. The theologian offers his or her mind in the service of saying “God” in such a way that God is not reduced or packaged or banalized, but known and contemplated and adored, with the consequence that our lives are not cramped into what we can explain but exalted by what we worship.

Eugene Peterson, Subversive Spirituality, p. 124

I believe God is personal. I also believe God is wonderful, glorious, the most splendid being in all of existence. I believe this God has made himself known, and can be known.

But it is possible to talk about God in such a way that is impersonal. We are capable of god-talk that is informative but uninteresting, accurate but unmoving, static rather than dynamic, cold rather than radiant, dead rather than alive.

I once heard a person described as a good theologian who didn’t care much for God. I think this is possible, albeit tragic. If human life requires God, as Peterson claims, we need more than knowledge about God, we need intimacy with God. The theologian can serve us by helping us gain a greater understanding of God. This is a worthwhile beginning.

But the best theologians, I think, present God to us with the voice not only of a priest or a prophet, but a poet, someone who can help us through language behold the God who has been revealed as the Word of Life (1 John 1:1-3), a God that can be seen and felt and touched, a God who has drawn near to us in Christ Jesus, a God through whom we not only are invited to elevate our thoughts concerning, but a God who has extended to us the gift of fellowship, of eternal communion, now and always.

Loving Those Closest, Loving Those Far

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Paul will not permit us to compensate for neglecting those nearest us by advertising our compassion for those on another continent. Jesus, it must be remembered, restricted nine-tenths of his ministry to twelve Jews because it was the only way to redeem all Americans. He couldn’t be bothered, said Martin Thornton, with the foreign Canaanites because his work was to save the whole world. The check for the starving child must still be written and the missionary sent, but as an extension of what we are doing at home, not as an exemption from it.

Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light: Galatians and the Free Life in Christ, p. 184

For those in Christ, our loving concern is to be extended to every human being, reaching as far as those whom we are furthest from. But it must not bypass those nearest to us. It must encompass and encounter those in our orbit. It must be given to those we look upon every day, particulary our family, and even our enemies, of whom it has been said are often one and the same. Love begins in the neighborhood, and for householders, in the home.

This is a grand mystery. We are commanded to love. We are commanded to love those in the household of faith. We are commanded to demonstrate love for the world in the same manner Jesus demonstrated his love for us. We are to act in loving concern for those who are suffering, those who are downtrodden, wherever they may be found. We are called to go to the nations. We are sent into the world. We often miss the opportunities that are right in front of our faces, foregoing faithful, straightforward obedience in our immediate circumstances for the pursuit of some grand purpose or glorious cause.

This observation is not meant to condemn. Rather, it is intended to invite reflection and discernment. I have long puzzled over the Christian compulsion to pursue grand ambitions in faraway places to the neglect of fellow citizens sharing the same city or state. And yet, some of these grand efforts have acheived great good, leading to transformation and faith. Work has been done in the name of Christ. Nevertheless, it seems we choose to go around people in order to get to other people whom we believe really need the love of Christ, rather than tending first to the needs of those where we are.

Above, Eugene Peterson resolves the tension by reminding us that ultimately the command to love is fulfilled by way of a both/and rather than an either/or, and that the calling to love in the Christian life is one of integrity. If we extend love to those far away, we had better be faithfullly loving those right here.

I confess I am not as successful in keeping the command to love as well as I would hope. It is not an easy command to keep. In order to demonstrate love for humanity, the Son of God crossed the veil separating heaven from earth. He put off divinity and put on flesh. He left a throne for a manger. He set aside the privileges of deity for poverty. He left the security and stability of God’s throneroom and became a refugee. The Ancient of Days became a baby. He left the position of Creator and took a job as a carpenter. He left home in the Galilean countryside and instead became one who had no place to lay his head. The one who came to us as life and light was plunged into death and darkness. He was propelled to obedience through love, a love for the Father, and a love for us. Jesus put aside a lot, for love.

When I see a love like that, I find a reservoir from which I can draw which is not only a well, but a river of life, which Jesus said springs up in those who embrace him and enter his kingdom. As an eternal spring, its supply is ample for those who are near and for those who are far, both. We cannot exhaust it. It is the love of God.

The Difference Maker

Maturing in our life of faith brings us to a sense of God’s grace. As we realize how vast the resources of energy of God are in our everyday lives, we find that we don’t have to carry the weight of the world’s sins on our shoulders, that our moral sweat isn’t going to make the critical difference in history, but that the difference has already been made by Christ’s blood.

Eugene Peterson, The Hallelujah Banquet, p. 76

A House of Prayer

First Methodist Church, Waco, Texas

I serve in a seminary. How and where we teach is often conducted with methods and in settings very similar to other, more familiar educational settings. The teacher or professor delivers content, and we sit and listen, much like in a public school or a college lecture hall. We know answers to test questions are being given, and tests must be passed to move on to the next level. We take notes. We study. We produce those answers. And we move on.

This is all fine and good. We do a lot of good work. But the church is a different kind of setting, with different educational modalities and formational aims.

We have a problem when we get our wires crossed and begin thinking that the church is identical with the seminary, and how we’re led and taught effectively in one place is identical with the way we’ll lead and teach in the other. In the seminary, we’re taught all kinds of facts about the Bible, history, theology, and the practice of ministry. Those things are important. But we mistakenly assume that it is these facts, and these points of emphasis, that we’re supposed to stress while with the congregation. When we do this, there is something more central, more important, and more essential that we miss. What are we missing?

In The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes about his discovery that his educational outlook for pastoral ministry was very different than that of a previous generation of pastors, who throughout church history had learned “on the job” within the life of a parish. Seminaries, either as independent institutions or embedded within university systems, are more recent innovations. How we learn now, and how we teach, isn’t the only way to do it, nor is it the only way it has been done.

Peterson discovered both our problem and a different way to approach the pastoral task as a Christian educator. He writes:

My secularized schooling had shaped my educational outlook into something with hardly any recognizable continuities with most of the church’s history. I had come into the parish seeing its great potential as a learning center, a kind of mini-university in which I was the resident professor.

And then one day, in a kind of shock of recognition, I saw that it was in fact a worship center. I wasn’t prepared for this. Nearly all my preparation for being a pastor had taken place in a classroom, with chapels and sanctuaries ancillary to it. But these people I was now living with were coming, with centuries of validating presence, not to get facts on the Philistines and Pharisees but to pray. They were hungering to grow in Christ, not bone up for an examination in dogmatics. I began to comprehend the obvious: that the central and shaping language of the church’s life has always been its prayer language.

Out of that recognition a conviction grew: that my primary educational task as pastor was to teach people how to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical backgrounds of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. I have no patience with and will not knowingly give comfort to obscurantist or anti-intellectual tendencies in the church. But there is an educational task entrusted to pastors that is very different from that assigned to professors. The educational approaches in all the schools I attended conspired to ignore the wisdom of the ancient spiritual leaders who trained people in the disciplines of attending to God, forming the inner life so that it was adequate to the reception of truth, not just the acquisition of facts. The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did.

The educational task of the pastor is to teach, or to invite, people to be in relationship with God. It is to invite, model, instruct, and encourage them in the life of prayer. There are other facets to teaching, of course. But prayer is central.