Apocalyptic Imagination

The apocalyptic imagination Eugene Peterson talks of gives us a sense of ‘deep time’ – a sense of ‘ages’ that transcends the compulsion of time-management experts.  But the working environment of pastors erodes patience and rewards impatience.  People are uncomfortable with mystery (God) and mess (themselves).  They avoid both mystery and mess by devising programs and hiring pastors to manage them.  A program provides a defined structure with an achievable goal.  Mystery and mess are eliminated at a stroke.  This is appealing.  In the midst of the mysteries of grace and the complexities of human sin, it is nice to have something that you can evaluate every month or so and find out where you stand.  We don’t have to deal with ourselves or with God, but can use the vocabulary of religion and work in an environment that acknowledges God, and so be assured we are doing something significant…

…The secular mind is terrorized by mysteries.  Thus it makes lists, labels people, assigns roles, and solves problems.  But a solved life is a reduced life.  These tightly buttoned-up people never take great faith risks or make convincing love talk.  They deny or ignore the mysteries and diminish human existence to what can be managed, controlled and fixed.  We live in a cult of experts who explain and solve.  The vast technological apparatus around us gives us the impression that there is a tool for everything if only we can afford it.  Pastors cast in the role of spiritual technologists are hard put to keep that role from absorbing everything else, since there are so many things that need to be and can, in fact, be fixed.

Eugene Peterson in The Contemplative Pastor

Supper and Salvation

Bread of the world in mercy broken,

Wine of the soul in mercy shed,

By whom the words of life were spoken,

And in whose death our sins are dead;

Look on the heart by sorrow broken,

Look on the tears by sinners shed;

And be Thy feast to us the token

That by Thy grace our souls are fed.  (Reginald Heber)

 

The Eucharist stands as a bulwark against reducing our participation in salvation to the exercise of devotional practices before God or being recruited to run errands for God.  It is hard to get through our heads, but the fact is that we are not in charge of salvation and we can add nothing to it.

Continue reading “Supper and Salvation”

You’re Too Busy To Read This

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If you’re busy and you know it clap your hands….Now get back to work you slacker!

We are all suffering from the disease – the dis-ease – of of what someone has called “hurry sickness.”  We glory in telling others how busy we are, we justify our Sabbaths and relaxation with movement and activity just so whoever may be spying on us can be reassured that even when we “rest” we do not slack off!

Hurry sickness is a perverse god of the modern age.  It demands and promises more and more whilst fulfilling and satisfying less and less.  Dude, get over yourself, how important do you really think you are to the turning of this world?  In order to prove ourselves to others (and to ourselves), we work through our coffee breaks often, take shorter lunch breaks – food is for losers; time is money – and slowly squeeze play and contemplation from our lives.  After all, what consumer driven society such as the Western world wants people to stop and think! Continue reading “You’re Too Busy To Read This”

Pastoral Care and Weak Tea

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Pastoral Care Musings

Imagine sitting down to watch a Jane Austin production.  As you watch, the characters take shape, their personalities, odd ways, petty grievances, massive dysfunctional relating to ‘get their man’, hidden agendas (and I don’t mean like when the Secretary hides our leadership agendas and we have to find them).

In the course of the drama, in steps another character.  This one isn’t really taken too seriously and is always presented in one of two ways: 1.  As a sinister plotting megalomaniac intent on getting what he wants by any means necessary, including murder and pillage, and like a locust he is off to fresh green pastures that he will no doubt devour.  2.  As a limp wristed, thickly be-speckled, wispy, goofy, dribbling buffoon.    Welcome the vicar-minister-preacher-parson-”religious-nut”!

While shows like East Enders do their best to produce characters in the number one mode, period dramas such as Jane Austin (etc), produce characters firmly rooted in the two mode.  It is this mode that has shaped a cultural view of the ministerial role; this mode helps us to assume we know what a minister is and what pastoral care really is;  this mode is what sits deep, happy and unchallenged in the popular imagination of Christians and non-Christians alike.

In short, if we want a bit of drama to our mostly pretty drab lives, we may risk an occasional rendezvous with Pastor number one.  But really, most of us (by most I really do mean 99.99% of the world’s population), really do want a soppy drip of a man to be at our beck and call, to be seriously interested in the details of why the begonias are not as productive this year as they were the past (500 years – global warming and the Muslims I tell you), and they seriously expect this weak man to drink weak tea in a pretty weak way!

My burden and my challenge is simply this:  The pastoral role, for me as a pastor, and for us as a caring and loving church must be rooted in the radical and dangerous ground of the Gospel, or it is nothing.  We must be people who are saturated in the Gospel or we have nothing to offer.  If the pastoral care is to be biblical, then it must be shaped primarily on Jesus (and also on Paul), and I am absolutely certain, that if it was shaped around this biblical mandate then both roles described above would be ditched in the time it takes to watch Pride & Prejudice.

In short, if we insisted that the pastor visit and the pastor was Paul we would soon stop insisting he visit.  If we insist that pastoral care is really social care and our end-goal is not the growth, maturity and joy of the believer in glorifying God, then we must drop ‘Baptist Church’ from our name and call ourselves ‘Itching Ears Social Club’.

Pastoral Care as I understand it biblically, is a God-orientated focus and direction to the things and ways of God that the Christian can grow in and learn from.  The template (for want of a better word) is found in Paul’s list of the 5-fold ministry in Ephesians 4:11-13 where he mentions apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher.  These are given, in conjunction with the other aspects Paul mentions in 1 Cor 12 & Romans 12:3-8, for a specific purpose:  for the equipping, maturing and upbuilding of the people of God.  The aim is to:prepare God’s people for work’s of service, so that they attain the unity of fait and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.  Without this as the drive and goal, any church will simply become lopsided or stunted, failing to become what it should be.

We are reminded at this point that pastoral care, especially in the OT but also noted by Jesus in John 10 (cf. Ezekiel 34) that pastoring is also shepherding.  And so once again the image of what pastoral care looks like has to absorb another biblical facet into it’s structure.  Shepherds are strong and caring; sheep are dumb and smelly.  But the shepherd loves the sheep.  It is inconceivable that a sheep would venture to tell the shepherd how to do his job or what he needs, or offer mediocre at best and utterly trivial at worst, insights into what the shepherd should be doing.

Eugene Peterson is a master-writer to pastors.  In his book, ‘The Contemplative Pastor’ he categorises three types of pastor that all pastors should emulate if they are to be biblically faithful to their ordained ministry.  In leading up to this in a previous book, he castigates modern means of the pastoral role.  He says pastors are abandoning their posts at an alarming rate.  They still get paid by the church, they look after the church, they still preach and pray and commune.  He says they are ‘whoring after other gods’ because what they ‘do’ under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t ‘the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries.’  The cult of success, size, faddish business models, wealth, secularism, etc, have all taken their toll on much contemporary Western Evangelicalism.

As far as I can tell, under the lead of God for the actual pastor’s role, is prayer, Bible and discipleship (which includes both the comforting and sending aspects).  Therefore, the three categories he insists a pastor must live by if he is to be faithful and carry out prayer Bible and discipleship is the following:

1. The Unbusy Pastor.  “How can a pastor persuade a person to live by faith and not by works if he has to juggle his schedule constantly to make everything fit into place?”

2. The Subversive Pastor.  “I am undermining the kingdom of self and establishing the kingdom of God.  I am being subversive.”

3. The Apocalyptic Pastor.  “With the vastness of the heavenly invasion and the urgency of the faith decision rolling into our consciousness like thunder and lightening, we cannot stand around on Sunday morning filling time with pretentious small talk on how bad the world is and how wonderful this new stewardship campaign is going to be.”

The reason I mentioned Jane Austin and the two types of minister at the start is simply this:  If I, even for a moment, accept my culture’s definition of me, I am rendered harmless, useless, and helpless.  Peterson gets it right for me.  And if this is right, the pastoral role of “looking after people” takes a radically biblical direction, one that we can only thank God for, since it is rooted in Scripture and is given to us by Christ because of the Gospel.

The role, call and art of the pastoral office, as it has been biblically understood, and seen in 2000 years of church history is constantly under threat:  kill the shepherd and scatter the sheep.  Pastoral care is a primary attack of Satan closely followed by marriage.  And one of the most subtle ways Satan is doing this is for all to see, as John Piper writes:  “Professionalisation is killing pastoral ministry.  The mentality of the professional is not the mentality of the prophet.  It is not the mentality of a slave of Christ.  Professionalism has nothing to do with the essence and heart of Christian ministry.  The more professional we long to be, the more spiritual death we will leave in our wake.  For there is no professional childlikeness (Mt 18:3); there is no professional tenderheartedness (Eph 4:32); there is no professional panting after God (Ps 42:11).  We cannot professionalise the love for the appearing of Christ without killing it.  And it isbeing killed.  The world sets the agenda of the professional man; God sets the agenda of the spiritual man.  The strong wine of Jesus Christ explodes the wineskins of professionalism.”

I write this because if we as a church do not ‘get’ pastoral care, we will never do it as God intends, it will not be done for His glory, nor will we have eternity in mind as we care and lead God’s people.  The proclamation of the Gospel is central to all ministry and church life, that includes pastoral care.  The proclamation of the Gospel is a word about God and the salvation offered to all people.  It is other worldy, it is supernatural, it is beyond us, yet given to us, it is proclaimed but it is unthinkable.

The aim of the Church, is eternal and it is spiritual.  Anything that does not pass a Gospel test or filter, must be releagted to some secondary or third rate level of priority.  Eternity  and spirituality is not shared by any of the professions and it is precisely the failure to see this that we are dying.

Piper writes, “We are most emphatically not part of a social team sharing goals with other professionals.  Our goals are an offense; they are foolishness (1 Cor 1:23).  The professionalisation to the ministry is a constant threat to the offense of the gospel.  It is a threat to the profoundly spiritual nature of our work.  I have seen it often: the love of professionalism kills a person’s belief that he is sent by God to save people from hell and to make them Christ-exalting, spiritual aliens in our world.”

Finally (for now), all this is rooted in the Gospel, I hope that’s been clear.  Genuine biblical pastoral care, be it the shepherd, the apocalyptic pastor or the teacher evangelist is Gospel centred,; Gospel driven; Gospel motivated; Gospel orientated or we have nothing.  Jude writes that we are to ‘contend’ for the faith because where there is a truth there is a lie.  If the Gospel isn’t central, what exactly are we offering?  More tea vicar?

But no, we contend, defend, stand firm, run the race, fight the fight, build, plant, water; we guard the gospel as a priority.  So we contend for this glorious faith, this Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Jude continues, that we are to ‘build yourselves up in your most holy faith; pray in the Holy Spirit; keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.’  This is the first stage of pastoral care.  We build, pray, keep – ourselves.  Then the very next verse propels us towards those whom God has given us.  We are to ‘have mercy on the doubters, save others by snatching them from the fire, show mercy with fear – hating even the clothing stained by the sinful flesh.’

How can a hungry shepherd feed his sheep?  How can a dry mouth proclaim the Living Waters of Jesus?  How can a fleshly spirit wear the armour of God?  Pastoral care starts right here with people who get the apocalyptic nature of what it really is.  Then, we will have genuine, biblical mercy and hope for those in the fire or those who doubt.

And if like me, you are tempted to think on occasion, you’re not up to this, God is the source, author, goal and point of it all.  Jude 1 refers to those whom God has called, the beloved ones kept for Jesus Christ.  And by the time we get to v24 we read, “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever.  Amen.”

So no, we’re not up to this task/ministry.  But God is, and he who called you is faithful.  He will do it.  

A Wedding does not make a Marriage

 

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I echo 100% the magnificent view of Eugene Peterson:

“When I talk with people who come to me in preparation for marriage I often say, ‘Weddings are easy; marriages are difficult.’ The couple wants to plan a wedding; I want to plan a marriage.  They want to know where the bridesmaids will stand; I want to develop a plan for forgiveness.  They want to plan the music of the wedding; I want to talk about the emotions of the marriage.  I can do a wedding in twenty minutes with my eyes shut; a marriage takes year after year of alert, wide-eyed attention.

Weddings are important.  They are beautiful; they are impressive; they are emotional; sometimes they are expensive.  We weep at weddings and we laugh at weddings.  We take care to be at the right place at the right time and say the right words. Where people stand is important.  The way people dress is significant.  Every detail – this flower, that candle – is memorable.  All the same, weddings are easy.

But marriages are complex and beautiful.  In marriage we work out in every detail of life the promises and commitments spoken at the wedding.  In marriage the long and rich life of faithful love that the wedding announces.  The event of the wedding without the life of marriage doesn’t amount to much.  It hardly matters if the man and woman dress up in their wedding clothes and re-enact the ceremony every anniversary and say, ‘I’m married, I’m married, I’m married’ if there is no daily love shared, if there is no continuing tenderness, no attentive listening, no inventive giving, no creative blessing.

Josiah’s reform was like a wedding.  Jeremiah’s concern was with marriage.  It was a great achievement to repudiate Manasseh and establish the people in covenant with their God; but it was a lifelong career to embrace God’s love and walk in his ways.  The people celebrated Josiah’s reform; they ignored Jeremiah’s preaching.  It is Jeremiah’s lifelong achievement that the soggy religious mush of the masses never dulled his perceptions nor muted his insistent witness.”

Prophets, Peace and Truth

The task of a prophet is not to smooth things over but to make things right.  The function of religion is not to make people feel good but to make them good.  Love?  Yes, God loves us.  But his love is passionate and seeks faithful, committed love in return.  God does not want tame pets to fondle and feed; he wants mature, free people who will respond to him in authentic individuality.  For that to happen there must be honesty and truth.  The self must be toppled from its pedestal.  There must be pure hearts and clear intelligence, confession of sin and commitment in faith.

And peace?  Yes, God gives peace.  But it is not a peace that gets along with everyone by avoiding the hint of anything unpleasant.  It is not achieved by refusing to talk about painful subjects or touch sore spots.  It is a peace that is hard won by learning to pray.  There is evil to combat, apathy to defeat, dullness to challenge, ambition to confront.  There are persons all around us, children and parents, youth and adults, who are being trampled and violated, who are being hurt and despised.  Any preaching of peace that turns its back on these is a cruel farce….

…There are times when truth will receive a wide hearing and times when it will not.  Jesus had a congregation of five thousand one day and four women and two bored soldiers another.  His message was the same both days.  We must learn to live by the truth, not by our feelings, not by the world’s opinion, not by what the latest statistical survey tells us is the accepted morality, not by what the advertisers tell us is the most gratifying lifestyle.  We are trained in biblical faith to take lightly what the experts say, the scholars say, the pollsters say, the politicians say, the pastors say.  We are trained to listen to the Word of God, to test everything against what God reveals to us in Christ, to discover all meaning and worth by examining life in relation to God’s will.

Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses, 86-87

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