Category Archive: Theology – Pastoral
Building on what he said (in the quotation here) about the communion of saints being in Christ — the communion of saints is not that I’m connected to you and you’re connected to me, but that I’m in Christ and you’re in Christ and we’re connected in Him — Jim Jordan makes an application with regard to our unity and community as the church.
Building up our community in the church includes obeying commandments (e.g., the “one another” passages in Paul’s letters). There are things that the church ought to be doing and there are good practices we can adopt. But those practices and our obedience to the various summonses we find in the Bible aren’t the source or basis of our unity and community. We aren’t together because we share these practices but because we are in Him, and if we want community to grow, we need Him to work: “We must go through Christ, and then we have communion with everyone else. If we have a lack of communion here, we must go through Christ to get it with others.”
I never knew a good horse which had not some odd habit or other, and I never yet saw a minister worth his salt who had not some crotchet or oddity: now these are the bits of cheese which cavillers smell out and nibble at; this man is too slow, and another too fast, the first is too flowery, and the second is too dull.
Dear me, if all God’s creatures were judged in this way, we should wring the dove’s neck for being too tame, shoot the robins for eating spiders, kill the cows for swinging their tails and the hens for not giving us milk. When a man wants to beat a dog, he can soon find a stick; and at this rate, any fool may have something to say against the best minister in England. — Charles Spurgeon, John Ploughman’s Talk, 23.
Here’s how Charles Spurgeon describes the “religious grumbler” who listens carefully to sermons and loves to find things to complain about:
One tribe of these Ishmaelites is made up of high-flying ignoramuses who are very mighty about the doctrine of a sermon — here they are as decisive as sledgehammers and as certain as death. He who knows nothing is confident in everything; hence they are bullheaded beyond measure. Every clock, and even the sundial, must be set according to their watches. The slightest difference from their opinion proves a man to be rotten at heart.
Venture to argue with them, and their little pots boil over in quick style; ask them for reason, and you might as well go to a sand pit for sugar. They have bottled up the sea of truth, and carry it in their waistcoat pockets; they have measured heaven’s line of grace and have tied a knot in a string at the exact length of electing love; and as for the things which angels long to know, they have seen them all as boys see sights in a peep-show at our fair. Having sold their modesty and become wiser than their teachers, they ride a very high horse and jump over all five-barred gates of Bible texts which teach doctrines contrary to their notions.
When this mischief happens to good men, it is a great pity for such sweet pots of ointment to be spoiled by flies, yet one learns to bear with them just as I do with old Violet, for he is a rare horse, though he does set his ears back and throw out his legs at times. But there is a bragging lot about, who are all sting and no honey, all whip and no hay, all grunt and no bacon. These do nothing but rail from morning to night at all who cannot see through their spectacles.
If they would but mix up a handful of good living with all their bushels of bounce, it would be more bear able; but no, they don’t care for such legality. Men so sound as they are can’t be expected to be good at anything else; they are the heavenly watchdogs to guard the house of the Lord from those thieves and robbers who don’t preach sound doctrine, and if they do worry the sheep, or steal a rabbit or two by the sly, who would have the heart to blame them? The Lord’s dear people, as they call themselves, have enough to do to keep their doctrine sound; and if their manners are cracked, who can wonder! No man can see to everything at once.
These are the moles that want catching in many of our pastures, not for their own sakes, for there is not a sweet mouthful in them, but for the sake of the meadows which they spoil. I would not find half a fault with their doctrine if it were not for their spirit, but vinegar is sweet next to it, and crabs are figs in comparison. It must be very high doctrine that is too high for me, but I must have high experience and high practice with it, or it turns my stomach. — Charles Spurgeon, John Ploughman’s Talk, 21-22.
I’m greatly enjoying Charles Spurgeon’s John Ploughman’s Talk. Here are a few choice bits about lazy people:
The ugliest sight in the world is one of those thorough-bred loafers, who would hardly hold up his basin if it were to rain porridge; and for certain would never hold up a bigger pot than he wanted filled for himself. Perhaps, if the shower should turn to beer, he might wake himself up a bit; but he would make up for it afterwards (10).
Idleness is the key of beggary and the root of all evil. Fellows have two stomachs for eating and drinking when they have no stomach for work. That little hole just under the nose swallows up in idle hours that money which should put clothes on the children’s backs and bread on the cottage table (13).
I like leisure when I can get it, but that’s quite another thing; that’s cheese and the other is chalk: idle folks never know what leisure means; they are always in a hurry and a mess, and by neglecting to work in the proper time, they always have a lot to do (14).
Men ride stags when they hunt for gain, and snails when they are on the road to heaven. Preachers go on see-sawing, droning, and prosing; and the people fall to yawning and folding their arms, and they say that God is withholding the blessing. Every sluggard, when he finds himself enlisted in the ragged regiment, blames his luck, and some churches have learned the same wicked trick. I believe that when Paul plants and Apollos waters, God gives the increase, and I have no patience with those who throw the blame on God when it belongs to themselves (18-19).
Oops! My wife just got home. I’d better get busy with my Saturday projects!
In the course of his discussion of reading (better: hearing) the Bible, Eugene Peterson draws our attention to the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch: “On the road to Gaza I find the focus for my hermeneutical work as pastor: the Ethiopian reading Scripture and not understanding it; Philip guiding him into comprehension” (Working the Angles 127).
While we often hear in the Bible about people listening to God’s Word in the assembly of God’s people, here we have a case of a man reading it all by himself. I wonder if this stands out to us the way it should. In much of the Christian world today, with its heavy emphasis on daily Bible reading, we may take it for granted that a man would read the Bible all by himself. In fact, this may even be our preference: Ask Christians today which is more important, the private reading of the Bible or the corporate hearing of Scripture in church, and I suspect that many would point to the former.
More than that, I suspect that many trust the former more than the latter. We prefer to read it for ourselves rather than hear someone read it to us, and so even when the minister is reading Scripture in church we open up our Bibles and follow along (or perhaps get distracted by the ways in which his translation differs from ours). To really understand the Bible, we want to study it ourselves.
Now there’s nothing wrong with reading the Bible all by yourself. It was fine for the Ethiopian eunuch to be doing so, and it’s fine for us to do so as well. But if we think that we can understand the Bible best if we study it all by ourselves, poring over the text without anyone else instructing us, then maybe we need to listen more carefully to the story in Acts, where God does not leave the Ethiopian eunuch alone. Peterson writes:
Hermeneutics begins with a question: “Do you understand what you are reading?” (Acts 8:30). The play on words in Philip’s Greek is untranslatable: ginoskeis ha anaginoskeis? The difference between reading and understand seems so slight — a mere prefix (ana) in a Greek verb — that we are slow to realize the abyss that separates what Isaiah wrote from what we understand…. We ride along in uncomprehending familiarity with the biblical text for years, in devout travel to and from Jerusalem, and then a well-timed question stops the chariot.
The question is answered with a question: “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” (v. 31). The questioner is questioned: Will you guide me? The word choice is critical: not explain but guide. The Greek words for “explain” and “guide” share the same verbal root, “to lead,” and have a common orientation in and concern for the text. But the explainer, the exegete, leads the meaning out of the text; the guide, the hodegete, leads you in the way (hodos) of the text. Pastoral-biblical hermeneutics presupposes exegesis but involves more. The African invites Philip into the chariot to accompany him as his guide. This is going to take some time…. Philip decides on hodegesis. He climbs into the chariot and shares the journey (127-128).
I wonder if it would occur to us, accustomed as we are to thinking that we can study the Bible best on our own, to answer Philip’s question the way the Ethiopian eunuch did: “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” The implication, surely, is that without a guide he could not have understood what we was reading in Isaiah. He may have been able to grasp what the various sentences meant and yet he did not get the full meaning of the whole: “About whom does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” (v. 34). In particular, he did not see that Isaiah was speaking about Jesus until he had a guide who led him down that path.
That, as Peterson says, is the calling of a pastor: to guide people into the right understanding of Scripture, and in particular to guide them to Christ. And that is why we need pastors: How can we understand Scripture rightly without a guide?
Reading Scripture is not, it would seem, an autonomous activity. The solitary reader of Isaiah in the chariot on the Gaza road is interrupted by the Spirit-commanded Philip. The Spirit brings people together over Scripture — listening, questioning, conversing toward faith. The questioning reader was joined by the listening interpreter. Isaiah, dead but word-present in the scroll, made a third. The unseen but Spirit-present Christ became the fourth (130).
Some time ago, I learned from James Jordan that the sense of sight and the sense of hearing function in very different ways. With the sense of sight, who’s in control? You are. If you’re looking at a picture you don’t like, you can close your eyes or look away or turn the page or even just let your eyes go all wonky so that the “picture” you see is blurry. You’re in control.
But when it comes to the sense of hearing, someone else is in control. If I’m preaching and you don’t like what I’m saying, you can try plugging your ears with your fingers but it’s not going to work. I can talk loudly enough that you can still hear me (unless, of course, you start shouting yourself so that all you hear is your own voice saying, “La la la la la la” the way people do when someone is about to give away the ending to a movie they haven’t seen yet). If you really don’t want to hear me, you’re going to have to leave. (And if you do start shouting “La la la la la,” I suspect someone is going to make you leave.)
With sight, you’re in control. With hearing, someone else is in control. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that the Bible often speaks of the eyes in connection with judgment, starting with Genesis 1 (“And God saw … and it was good”) and running through all of those passages about people doing things that are “right in their own eyes.” All through the Bible, eyes and sight have to do with judgment. But hearing has to do with submission. In fact, the word for “hear” often has the sense of “obey” in the Bible.
This distinction applies also to our reading of the Bible. When you read something, you’re using your eyes. If you don’t like what you’re reading, you can close your eyes or look away or turn the page. But we are not to sit as judges over Scripture. Rather, we are to sit under Scripture, to submit to it. And so we find that the Bible does not command us to read the Word; rather, the commandment that we frequently encounter is “Hear!” If we really want to appreciate Scripture, we ought not (just) to read it but rather we ought to hear it, even if that means reading it aloud when we’re by ourselves.
All of this, I say, I learned several years back from James Jordan. I imagine that I encountered it first in either his Reading the Bible lectures or perhaps in Reading the Bible (Again) for the First Time. Probably both, in fact. But the other day, as I was reading Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles, I came across some similar insights:
Listening and reading are not the same thing. They involve different senses. In listening we use our ears; in reading we use our eyes. We listen to the sound of a voice; we read marks on paper. These differences are significant and have profound consequences. Listening is an interpersonal act; it involves two or more people in fairly close proximity. Reading involves one person with a book written by someone who can be miles away or centuries dead, or both. The listener is required to be attentive to the speaker and is more or less at the speaker’s mercy. For the reader it is quite different, since the book is at the reader’s mercy. It may be carried around from place to place, opened or shut at whim, read or not read. When I read a book, the book does not know if I am paying attention or not; when I listen to a person the person knows very well whether I am paying attention or not. In listening, another initiates the process; when I read I initiate the process. In reading I open the book and attend to the words. I can read by myself; I cannot listen by myself. In listening the speaker is in charge; in reading the reader is in charge.
Many people much prefer reading over listening. It is less demanding emotionally and can be arranged to suit personal convenience. The stereotype is the husband buried in the morning newspaper at breakfast, preferring to read a news agency report of the latest scandal in a European government, the scores of yesterday’s athletic contests, and the opinions of a couple of columnists whom he will never meet rather than listen to the voice of the person who has just shared his bed, poured his coffee, and fried his eggs, even though listening to that live voice promises love and hope, emotional depth and intellectual exploration far in excess of what he can gather informationally from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Christian Science Monitor put together. In the voice of this living person he has access to a colorful history, an incredibly complex emotional system, and never-before-heard combinations of words that can surprise, startle, move, gladden, or anger him — any of which would seem to be more attractive to an alive human being than getting some information, none or little of which will make any impact on the living of that day. Reading does not, as such, increase our capacity to listen. In some cases it interferes with it (88-89).
What are some of the things you lose by reading (i.e., looking at) a text instead of hearing it (even if you are hearing it from your own mouth as you read aloud)?
Peterson seems to be suggesting that if you read instead of hear, you lose the sense of a relationship: you no longer have the sense that you are engaged with a person; instead you are examining an object, in this case a printed page. More than that, you do not have as strong a sense that the words you are reading are over you, precisely because with reading you are in charge.
Peterson also indicates that attentiveness may be also be lost. Perhaps. I’m well aware that minds may wander while someone else is speaking. Such things have even been known to happen during the sermon, possibly even when I’m preaching. My own mind has wandered even when people I love are talking to me. And I have paid close attention to things that I have read … though as soon as I say that, I realize that paying close attention as I read usually involves at least subvocalization. I have to slow down and savor — hear! — the words to pay attention to them.
But I suspect that Peterson is not talking so much about attention, which we can lose whether we’re reading or hearing, but about attentiveness, about an attitude. When we’re dealing with a person, when someone is speaking to us, we know we are to pay attention. But when we’re in charge, when we’re picking up a book and turning its pages, we feel free — or freer — to let our eyes drift a bit, to skip the dull parts, to look for something that grabs us, to skim over whatever seems needlessly complicated or unimportant. You can read Patrick O’Brian and skip all the nautical details and the love interest and read only the battle scenes if you want, though I don’t recommend it. But how much worse is it if we aren’t attentive to Scripture, if we dip into it here and there, if we approach it without the sense that someone is speaking to us and that everything He says — whether it’s obscure rules or genealogies or seemingly irrelevant stories or the dimensions of a building we’ll never see — is important, worth hearing, worth paying attention to?
Peterson doesn’t mention it, but it strikes me that if we read instead of hear, we also lose the musicality of Scripture, the patterns and rhythms of writing that was meant to be heard. If you’re reading, it’s easy to skim the repetition — Numbers 7, anyone? — but if you’re hearing it read out loud, it takes the same amount of time to say those words the tenth time that it does the first time. Reading can make us impatient: “What’s all this stuff here for? We’ve already heard this!” but hearing requires submission: “This must be important. God says it, and so I have to make the time to hear it.”
So if a minister ought not to be a shopkeeper, aiming at getting more customers to buy the church’s goods, what should he be doing? Eugene Peterson gives three answers: praying, reading (actually: hearing) Scripture, and giving spiritual direction. Working the Angles devotes three chapters to each of those tasks.
When it comes to prayer, Peterson urges caution:
We want life on our conditions, not on God’s conditions Praying puts us at risk of getting involved in God’s conditions. Be slow to pray. Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back. Be slow to pray (44).
That may sound odd, but consider Ecclesiastes 5:2: “Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God.” Prayer is dangerous, Peterson maintains, and we should not pray lightly. But so often such light prayers seem to be what people demand of pastors:
One of the indignities to which pastors are routinely subjected is to be approached, as a group of people are gathering for a meeting or a meal, with the request, “Reverend, get things started for us with a little prayer, will ya?” It would be wonderful if we would counter by bellowing William McNamara’s fantasized response: “I will not! There are no little prayers! Prayer enters the lion’s den, brings us before the holy where it is uncertain whether we will come back alive or sane, for ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.’”
I am not prescribing rudeness: the bellow does not have to be audible. I am insisting that the pastor who in indolence or ignorance is politely compliant with requests from congregation or community for cut-flower prayers forfeits his … calling. Most of the people we meet, inside and outside the church, think prayers are harmless but necessary starting pistols that shoot blanks and get things going. They suppose that the “real action,” as they call it, is in the “things going” — projects and conventions, plans and performances. It is an outrage and a blasphemy when pastors adjust their practice of prayer to accommodate these inanities (46).
What does Peterson recommend as a remedy? Saturating ourselves in Scripture, and the Psalms in particular, understanding that all of our prayers are responses, second words in response to God’s first words:
What do we do? We do the obvious: we restore prayer to its context in God’s word. Prayer is not something we think up to get God’s attention or enlist his favor. Prayer is answering speech. The first word is God’s word. Prayer is a human word and is never the first word, never the primary word, never the initiating and shaping word simply because we are never first, never primary… (47).
For a long time I have been convinced that I could take a person with a high school education, give him or her a six-month trade school training, and provide a pastor who would be satisfactory to any discriminating American congregation. The curriculum would consist of four courses. Course I: Creative Plagiarism. I would put you in touch with a wide range of excellent and inspirational talks, show you how to alter them just enough to obscure their origins, and get you a reputation for wit and wisdom. Course II: Voice Control for Prayer and Counseling. We would develop your own distinct style of Holy Joe intonation, acquiring the skill in resonance and modulation that conveys an unmistakable aura of sanctity. Course III: Efficient Office Management. There is nothing that parishioners admire more in their pastors than the capacity to run a tight ship administratively. If we return all telephone calls within twenty-four hours, answer all letters within a week, distributing enough carbons to key people so that they know we are on top of things, and have just the right amount of clutter on our desks — not too much or we appear inefficient, not too little or we appear underemployed — we quickly get the reputation for efficiency that is far more important than anything that we actually do. Course IV: Image Projection. Here we would master the half-dozen well-known and easily implemented devices that create the impression that we are terrifically busy and widely sought after for counsel by influential people in the community. A one-week refresher course each year would introduce new phrases that would convince our parishioners that we are bold innovators on the cutting edge of the megatrends and at the same time solidly rooted in all the traditional values of our sainted ancestors.
(I have been laughing for several years over this trade school training for pastors with which I plan to make my fortune. Recently, though, the joke has backfired on me. I keep seeing advertisements for institutes and workshops all over the country that invite pastors to sign up for this exact curriculum. The advertised course offerings are not quite as honestly labeled as mine, but the content appears to be identical — a curriculum that trains pastors to satisfy the current consumer tastes in religion. I’m not laughing anymore.) — Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, pp. 7-8.
Any church which forsakes the regular and uniform for the periodical and spasmodic service of God, is doomed to decay; any church which relies for its spiritual strength and growth entirely upon seasons of “revival” will very soon have no genuine revivals to rely on. Our holy God will not conform His blessings to man’s moods and moral caprice. If a church is declining, it may need a “revival” to restore it; but what need was there of its declining? — T. L. Cuyler, Recollections, cited in P. Y. DeJong, Taking Heed to the Flock: A Study of the Principles and Practice of Family Visitation, p. 19.
The pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns — how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.
Some of them are very good shopkeepers. They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations. Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same. The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepreneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists. — Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, p. 2.
This quotation at the outset of Peterson’s book hits the nail on the head, and perhaps especially for church planters (such as I was until recently), for whom the thought “How can I get more people to attend church?” is never far away. This is the second of Peterson’s books on pastoral ministry and I’ve enjoyed it even more than the first, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, valuable as that was. I’d recommend it for every pastor. Expect more quotations from it from time to time, now that I’m back to regular pastoral work and back to blogging.
Those who don’t perceive beauty in the face of a Down’s syndrome person are blind to all beauty or are so fearful of difference that they must at once turn away from every encounter with it. In every face — in even the plainest and the most unfortunate countenances — there is some precious aspect of the divine image of which we are a reflection, and if you look with an open heart, you can see an awesome beauty, a glimpse of something so radiant it gives you joy —Dean Koontz, Seize the Night, 280.
In the second issue of the Mars Hill Audio Journal, there is an interview with the British mystery writer P. D. James. The interviewer, Ken Myers, asks James why evil characters are easier to depict than good characters.
James responds by saying that evil characters are often more dramatic. They commit dramatic crimes, such as murder. Virtuous characters, on the other hand, are often less dramatic. A man may have courage in dramatic situations: the man who runs into a burning building to rescue a child. But most often, courage is expressed in small, undramatic situations and in ways that no one else might notice: the woman who bravely faces a day in which she must carry out a number of duties in spite of ongoing terrible pain.
What James says about virtue resonates with something I’ve noticed recently myself. Paul tells husbands to love their wives, “just as Christ also loved the church and gave himself for her” (Eph. 5:25). Husbands are to model themselves after Christ, giving themselves, pouring themselves out, laying down their lives for their wives.
But more than once, when I’ve said that, I’ve received a certain response. A man will begin talking about how he would be willing, should the need arise, to give his life for his wife. If, say, they were out somewhere and someone held them up at gunpoint, he would be willing to die so that his wife could get away. He would be willing, in other words, to do some dramatic act of self-sacrifice to rescue his wife should the need arise.
What strikes me is how common this response is and how unrealistic it really is. For some reason, it seems to me, we have a tendency to romanticize virtue, to dream of dramatic acts of virtue, to fantasize about being dramatically virtuous, and then to feel good about our willingness to perform such acts if they were ever to be required of us. Our fantasies allow us to feel virtuous without actually having to act virtously.
In fact, we are not likely to be called to risk our lives for our wives in such dramatic ways. What is far more likely to happen is that our wives are going to want us to do the dishes or help clean the house or take out the trash or play with the children or sit and talk when we would rather not be bothered.
“Oh, sure,” we say. “I would lay down my life for my wife, if someone broke into my house and threatened us.” We pretend we’re willing to do the great thing. But all the while, we’re not willing to do the little thing, to pour out our lives for our wives when all they require is a bit of time and attention. We would rather fantasize about being dramatically Christ-like than actually get up, turn off the TV, and serve our wives.
Service seems too undramatic, too ordinary, too humdrum, too much to ask of such virtuous people as we dream ourselves to be. And so we affirm Paul’s words about self-giving love, romanticize them by fantasizing about virtually impossible situations in which we could obey them, and … fail to heed them at all in the real situations in which we live.
As P. J. O’Rourke put it, “Everybody wants to save the earth; nobody wants to help Mom do the dishes.”