Category Archive: Theology – Pastoral

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May 21, 2010

Revivals?

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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.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:33 pm | Discuss (0)
May 20, 2010

Shopkeepers

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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.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:08 pm | Discuss (2)
November 17, 2009

Imago Dei

Category: Literature,Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

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.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:17 pm | Discuss (0)
June 8, 2009

Fantasy Virtue

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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.”

Posted by John Barach @ 4:03 pm | Discuss (0)
May 14, 2009

Envy

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This morning, I finished reading Joseph Epstein’s little volume on Envy, written as part of Oxford University Press’s series on the Seven Deadly Sins.   Although it was a bit repetitive, it was also insightful.

Epstein distinguishes envy from yearning or wistfulness, such as you might feel when you see some young children playing and wish you could be young like them again, and from jealousy (“one is jealous of what one has, envious of what other people have” [p. 4]), and relates it to its companion vices schadenfreude, the joy you take in someone else’s downfall, and ressentiment, a general bitterness of life that sees everything with a jaundiced eye including the things one desires and is unable to have (“sour grapes”).

For those who can’t put their finger on what envy is or haven’t felt it themselves, Epstein offers this description:

You se something, want it, feel it only sensible and right that it belong to you and not the person who has it.   Once the injustice of the other person having it is established — this doesn’t usually take too long — his unworthiness must be emphasized, at least in your own mind.  Your own greater worthiness goes quite without saying.  His loathsomeness doesn’t; it may be said over and over, to yourself.  Whatever the object of inordinate desire — an item of art or luxury, the friendship or love of another person, the prestige that goes with a position or place or prize in life — the world begins to seem out of joint, so long as he has it and you do not.  The quality of your feeling in connection with it becomes obsessional.  You find yourself thinking about it more than you know you ought, find it difficult to think of other things (p. 19).

In short, envy asks “Why him and not me, when I’m more deserving?”  And the closer to home the object of our envy is, the greater and more damaging it becomes.  We might feel some envy for the fabulously wealthy or beautiful or famous, but we feel more intense and long-lasting envy of colleagues, family members, and neighbors:

Studies such as Robert H. Frank’s Luxury Fever have shown that people would agree to make less total money so long as they make more than their neighbors: that is, they would rather earn, say, $85,000 a year where no one else is making more than $75,000 instead of $100,000 where everyone else is making $125,000.  H. L. Mencken … once defined contentment in America as making $10 a month more than your brother-in-law (pp. 33-34).

Pure envy, as Epstein notes, doesn’t even desire the thing itself; rather, it desires the other person not to have it.  It’s not that I want to be rich; it’s that I don’t want you to be richer than me.  It’s not so much that I want to be showered with accolades; it’s that it galls me to hear you receive praise.  It’s not that I want to be smarter than everyone else; it’s that when you get good grades, I’d like you to be cut down to size.

And so envy drives Marxism (“The doctrine of Marxism is many things, but one among them is a plan of revenge for the envious” [p. 52]), at least some forms of feminism, and a lot of anti-Americanism (after 9-11, Epstein says, “intellectuals weighed in with the notion that America somehow deserved what had happened, implying that, with any justice at all, more of the same kind would be coming its way, and rightly so” [p. 55]).

Envy also drives the sale of magazines.  In the past, Epstein says, we didn’t know very much about the lives of the rich and famous.  Public relations firms tried to keep their lives private.

No longer.  Now we know how much the glamorous and oddly talented earn and what they are like.  One response to this knowledge is to feel the injustice of it all and to go on from there to despise them, at least a little.  Many people, I believe, do comfortably despise them.  Certainly enough do so to make possible the American version of the English gutter press, our grocery press, The National Enquirer, The Globe, the New York tabloids, and the rest, whose central job, it seems to me, is to satisfy envy by displaying, at every opportunity, the talented, the famous, and the wealthy in one or another stage of defeat (pp. 68-69).

Envy and ressentiment, says Epstein, drives the academic world:

The best account for the ressentiment of American academics that I’ve seen is one presented by the philosopher Robert Nozick.  His view was that university teachers were almost invariably people who, because of their superior performance in school, were told over and over again how bright and extraordinary they are.  This continued for 20 years — from grade through graduate school — with sufficient reinforcement, that is, for them to be convinced of its truth.  They remain in the environment, that of the classroom, that has long been the scene of all their rewards, by becoming teachers.

It all seems like a good life, but soon it is spoiled by the realization that people who did less well than they in school seem to be faring rather better in the world.  Not quite first-class lawyers are now making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year; dullish boys and girls, now practicing medicine, have large summer homes near gentle lakes.  Coarse creeps are scoring heavily in the stock and commodities markets.  While they, once the darlings of their teachers — who bestowed all those lovely A’s upon them — are struggling along, not only financially but spiritually….

Teaching turns out to be less exhilarating than promised.  Those brilliant books one had hoped to write haven’t got done.  One’s students refuse to demonstrate a passion for the life of the mind worthy of one’s own.  The leisure that teaching allows is as advertised, but the pay really isn’t quite adequate; certainly it doesn’t allow one to live up to one’s own high state of cultivation.  Why does some ignorant lawyer have enough money to buy a villa in Tuscany when one knows so much more about the art of the Italian Renaissance?  What kind of society permits this state of things to exist?  A seriously unjust one, that’s what kind (pp. 80-81).

Epstein’s quotations and observations are helpful, not least because envy is closely related to coveting, the inordinate desire forbidden in the Tenth Word.  The book is a fun read.  But Epstein’s analysis stays pretty close to the surface, concluding finally that if envy isn’t a sin it is at least “poor mental hygene.”

Furthermore, Epstein offers no solution.  He toys with the Greek notion, as he calls it, that envy is just human nature and can’t be changed, mentions the Christian view that envy can be eradicated, but doesn’t come to any conclusion on that matter and therefore doesn’t present any attempt at —  or even any hope of — a cure.

But the good news is that fallen human nature can be changed and those practices and attitudes which characterize that human nature do not need to continue to corrupt our relationships.  Christ is creating a society characterized by love, a love that does not envy, does not seek its own, thinks no evil, does not rejoice in iniquity, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things — a love that denies itself, takes up its cross, and follows Christ, willingly becoming the slave of all in order to exalt others.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:29 pm | Discuss (0)
February 10, 2009

Smoke, Smoke, Smoke

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I had read part of this quotation before, but the other day, over at my friend Dave Mazzella’s place, I came across the whole of it.  Here, just for fun, is some pastoral advice by the great Southern Presbyterian theologian James Henley Thornwell, written to “Sister Adger,” who according to Thornwell’s biographer, Benjamin Palmer, had made “a very serious appeal against his favorite habit” and who, it appears, suffered from facial pain of some kind or another. The paragraph breaks are mine, for ease of reading:

Theological Seminary, September 24, 1861
Dearly Beloved Sister Adger:

My sympathies have been greatly moved by the piteous accounts I have received of your keen and manifold sufferings, in that most important of all organs to a woman, “the human face divine.” I know how to feel for the sufferer, especially for such a sufferer as the wife of a friend who has no rival in my heart.

My own experience has led me to recognize the fact that one effect of our afflictions is to disarm us of capricious and idle prejudices, and to reconcile us to what we once abhorred. In my own case, this principle has been most signally illustrated. At one time in my life, sheep, blackberries, and tea were my utter abominations; and I marveled how any human being could reconcile himself to the use of such monstrous articles of diet. But I was brought low. I had either to starve, or to feed on sheep with the voracity of an ancient patriarch or Jew; and I finally came to believe that even a Christian man might make dainties of the fruit of briers, the offspring of the fold, and the leaf from China. My prejudices are all gone; and I sit down to these abominations with as much composure as I would encounter ham, plum pudding, or roast beef. After giving up my prejudices, I began to mend.

Now, it has occurred to me that there is a proud place in your heart, which requires to be humbled. You have some unaccountable prejudices, from which it behooves you to be delivered; and my interest in your carnal comfort prompts me to deal very freely with you on this most delicate subject.

I have no doubt that if you would open your mind to liberal views of that most delectable of all weeds, the tobacco plant, your sufferings might be greatly relieved, and greatly modified. Just reflect upon it as a balm which nature has kindly provided for aching teeth or agonized jaws. Let me advise you, as you prize your comfort, to provide yourself with a clean pipe and a short stem, and set upon the goodly process of inhaling the exquisite fragrance.

There is no sight more truly venerable than that of a mother in Israel, in the chimney corner, with her children about her, refreshing their senses with gales of incense as sweet and cheering as the tones, which proceed from her mouth. It is the very picture of dignified repose. The very idea of neuralgia to such a matron would be a contradiction in terms. Only try it. I never have tooth-ache, jaw-ache, or any other face ache. The reason, perhaps, is that I have no absurd prejudices against “kind nature’s sweet restorer,” a genuine article of tobacco.

How delightful it would be, if you could overcome your antipathies, to visit sister Adger, of a moonlight night, at her hospitable mansion, and join with her in the calm, quiet, dignified composure which the blended fumes of the pipe and cigar would so freely and completely signalize!

My dear, suffering sister, smoke, smoke, and again I say, smoke! It will do you good. Once begin, and you will need no arguments to persevere. The odour of a good conversation and the odour of tobacco sweetly harmonize, and form exquisite incense.

But enough. We all want to see you very much. I think your husband needs looking after; and the worse feature in his case is, that he does not want you to come home. Lizzie, I suspect, is doing pretty much what the boy shot at. The truth is, your presence, provided your face is smooth, would work marvels. But my paper is out.  Be sure to smoke, and let us hear no more of neuralgia.

As ever,
J.H. Thornwell

Posted by John Barach @ 11:10 pm | Discuss (1)
February 9, 2009

Children & Other People

Category: Family,Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

Read this.  If you need more incentive, here’s a paragraph, but you won’t appreciate it properly unless you’ve read the rest of the article:

I realize more and more that the gift of children is the gift of life. Children, my children, are sabbath life to and for the tired and weary. How easy would it be to come home and collapse on the couch and do nothing? How tempting would it be to sit in silence after a long day? But my children teach me to live. They teach me to laugh. They teach me to dance, to move my body, to sing, to pray, to ask questions, to read between the lines, to demand more from the world, more from my time, more from life. They won’t just leave me alone. They won’t let me miss life; they love me too much for that.

When you’re done reading the blog entry I linked, you can go on and read Toby’s posts on “A Theology of Other People.”  And when the latest Credenda comes online, go and read Toby’s article on “Other People” there, too.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:55 pm | Discuss (0)
December 1, 2008

Vague Virtue and Concrete “Meddling”

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The Hebrew prophets came to Israel and Judah with the call to repentance.  Invariably, the call was expressed in concrete terms.  God, they announced, requires repentance from specific, concrete sins.  That is the reason why they were so unpopular.

R. H. Tawney, in his study of Puritan origins, comments that “No church has ever experienced any great difficulty in preaching righteousness in general: no church has ever found a specific to disguise the unpalatableness of righteousness in particular….”  The same problem faces modern critics of society who come to God’s people (let alone the religious rebels) to demand that they amend their specific ways of doing business or operating the civil government.

All the flabby moral platitudes that roll off the tongues of hired servants in the pulpits — those vague calls to godliness devoid of concrete guidelines of daily behavior — receive the automatic “amens” from the congregations that do the hiring.  Let the preaching become specific, and “the preacher is meddling in areas that he knows nothing about.”

What the congregations pay for is a weekly affirmation of their status quo.  Of course, their status quo may be somebody else’s revolution, so they may regard themselves as being very, very daring, very hip, very chic, the vanguard of change; always, however, their status quo is left undisturbed.  That is what they pay for, just as the people of Israel paid for it in the eighth century, B.C. (Ezek. 14).  The result for the people of Israel was captivity. — Gary North, “The Biblical Critique of Inflation,” An Introduction to Christian Economics, p. 3.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:37 pm | Discuss (3)
October 1, 2008

Hindrances

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From C. S. Lewis’s last letter in 1930 to his friend Arthur Greeves, written shortly after his brother had come to live with him and his household:

I seem to go steadily downhill and backwards.  I am certainly further from self control and charity and light than I was last spring.  Now that W. is with us I don’t get enough solitude: or so I say to myself in excuse, knowing all the time that what God demands is our solution of the problem set, not of some other problem which we think he ought to have set: and that what we call hindrances are really the raw material of spiritual life.  As if the fire should call the coal a hindrance!  (One can imagine a little young fire, which had been getting on nicely with the sticks and paper, regarding it as a mere cruelty when the big lumps were put on: never dreaming what a huge steady glow, how far surpassing its present crackling infancy, the Tender of the Fire designed when he stoked it.) — Collected Letters 1:944.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:05 pm | Discuss (1)
September 11, 2008

Dreaming of Virtue

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Here’s a snippet from one of C. S. Lewis’s letters to his friend Arthur Greeves.  He is discussing some books by George Macdonald:

Another fine thing in The Pr. & the Goblin is where Curdie, in a dream, keeps on dreaming that he has waked up and then finding that he is still in bed.  This means the same as the passage [in Macdonald’s Lilith] where Adam says to Lilith “Unless you unclose your hand you will never die & therefore never wake.  You may think you have died and even that you have risen again: but both will be a dream.”

This has a terrible meaning, specially for imaginative people.  We read of spiritual efforts, and our imagination makes us believe that, because we enjoy the idea of doing them, we have done them.  I am appalled to see how much of the change wh. I thought I had undergone lately was only imaginary.  The real work seems still to be done.  It is so fatally easy to confuse an aesthetic appreciation of the spiritual life with the life itself — to dream that you have waked, washed, and dressed, & then to find yourself still in bed. — Collected Letters 1.906.

Posted by John Barach @ 12:23 pm | Discuss (1)
July 14, 2008

Is Caregiving Work?

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One of the helpful fruits of Andi Ashworth’s Real Love for Real Life is that it challenges us to think more biblically about what “work” is and what we mean when we speak of a “vocation.”  All too often, it seems, we think of work as something that takes place in public or something that we do in order to earn a living or something productive. 

Even if we’re not so foolish as to think that men who go off to the job site work and women who stay at home with the kids don’t, we may still think that taking flowers to an elderly lady in a nursing home or playing with our children or spending time with a friend isn’t really work.  “I have work to do,” we say, and off we go to our chores.  Or we feel guilty because we spent the afternoon helping our daughter put together a puzzle — as if playing with our children isn’t part of raising them and as if raising them isn’t one of the most important “jobs” we have. 

Because it doesn’t feel like work to us or perhaps because we know that people in the world around us don’t regard caregiving as work, especially when it’s fun, we often don’t either.  The result may be that people who invest their lives in raising their children or giving time and presence and care to others feel as if — or are treated as if — they aren’t really productive members of society, as if they don’t really have important vocations but are rather on a sort of permanent vacation.

Ashworth writes:

As the custodian of a theology of work, the Church has often missed its opportunity to encourage caregiving as a legitimate vocation, one that has an essential place in God’s kingdom.  God calls his people to labor in a great variety of settings.  A view of work that only values what is paid or visible to the public reflects a small and incomplete understanding of all that God has given us to do.  When even the Church fails to make the connection that caring for people takes thought, creativity, time, effort, and hard work, it becomes obvious how much society’s ways of thinking have seeped into our own.  We are embracing a diminished meaning of work and vocation rather than the biblical meaning God offers us (p. 95).

Posted by John Barach @ 2:54 pm | Discuss (0)
July 5, 2008

Presence and Welcome

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When we remember that hospitality comes from an attitude of welcome, we open ourselves to an abundance of creative opportunities for shaping a hospitable life.  Hospitality often involves the practical help of food and shelter, but it also includes the provision of relational connection.  Hospitality can be as simple as making extra food for dinner and welcoming our children’s friends to the table or being the one to initiate conversation with strangers at church, parties, or other social gatherings.

Hospitality can also mean sitting with another person over coffee, showing an interest in who they are.  The “ministry of presence,” as Christine Pohl calls it, is hard to comprehend in our task-oriented world.  Spending time with another person, listening, sharing stories, and bridging the gap of our modern isolation requires an eternal perspective.  If we are aware of our call to hospitality, we will be more likely to remember that people are more important than finished tasks. — Andi Ashworth, Real Love for Real Life: The Art and Work of Caring, p. 71.

Posted by John Barach @ 3:26 pm | Discuss (0)

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