Thursday, December 15, 2011

Pastors and Presence, and a Bonhoeffer Quote

There's been some good back and forth lately about the nature of pastoring, with different models being proffered, and some discussion over which type of pastor is needed at this moment.  Mark Galli got things rolling with this.  Tod Bolsinger argued against more chaplains, in favor of a new kind of missionary-leader. Then Chaplain Mike wrote in praise of the chaplain pastor.

Certainly not my area of expertise, but my two cents is, this is not like personality types.  Many are going to say that if a guy has the gifts and persona to grow a huge church, then that's what he should do, and the tasks of meeting with everyday people-- to know them and shepherd them-- can be secondary.  This is not going to cut it.  To this idea, in happy contrast for the little people, stands the very word "pastor." A pastor pastors, or else he's not a pastor, it would seem.  Jesus' "big" work was interrupted many times by the "small" work of individual attention, of paradigm shifting for the everyday people.  This can't be over-simplified as one particular task, but one thing it's not is carelessness for the sheep, or de-personalization of the work at hand.  One pastor I know recently said he doesn't want his church to get bigger than will allow him to know everyone personally. This warmed my heart.

I would sum this up as the ministry of presence, and it's central to the yearning of Advent, and the celebration of Christmas.  Being there is the Way of Jesus, of the Incarnation.  The awareness of Jesus' here-ness is what changes us, and this is accomplished by his Coming.  That's what the Kingdom announcement is all about. For myself, this is a very attractive alternative to the subject I've been haunted by in the last few posts.

Bonhoeffer, in no uncertain terms, makes the issue's weight quite clear (can't he ever just lighten up?) through Matthew 9-10.  The last paragraph has much to say about this:

The Savior looks with compassion on his people, the people of God.  he could not rest satisfied with the few who had heard his call and followed. He shrank from the idea of forming an exclusive little coterie with his disciples. Unlike the founders of the great religions, he had no desire to withdraw them from the vulgar crowd and initiate them into an esoteric system of religion and ethics.  He had come, he had worked and suffered for the sake of all his people...  
Where is the good shepherd they needed so badly? What good was it when the scribes herded the people into the schools, when the devotees of the law sternly condemned sinners without lifting a finger to help them? What use were all these orthodox preachers and expounders of the Word, when they were not filled by boundless pity and compassion for God's maltreated and injured people?  What they need is good shepherds, good "pastors."  "Feed my lambs" was the last charge Jesus gave to Peter.  The Good Shepherd protects his sheep against the wolf, and instead of fleeing he gives his life for the sheep.  He knows them all by name and loves them.  He knows their distress and their weakness.  He heals the wounded, gives drink to the thirsty, sets upright the falling, and leads them gently, not sternly, to pasture.  He leads them on the right way.  He seeks the one lost sheep, and brings it back to the fold.... 
No man dare presume to come forward and offer himself [as a laborer for the harvest] on his own initiative, not even the disciples themselves.  Their duty is to pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers at the right moment, for the time is ripe...
They are not left free to choose their own methods or adopt their own conception of their task.  Their work is to be Christ-work, and therefore they are absolutely dependent on the will of Jesus.  Happy are they whose duty is fixed by such a precept, and who are therefore free from the tyranny of their own ideas and calculations. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

This Stuff Needs to Get Out

I was going to write another whole post on the subject of the last two posts, but I'll just throw out some quotations I've run across. From the New Reformation Press, a Lutheran blog:
I can’t imagine being on a never ending treadmill of “maintaining my salvation through my own constant active efforts to be better than the sinful guy I was yesterday”!

You can say that again.

Michael Horton wrote a recent Christianity today article, on why Jesus as a historically separate person from ourselves remains the substance of Christianity, and not some hazy, ill-defined "Jesus-power" inside of the believer, leading us by our own reason and moral conviction.  Jesus as Incarnation, that which we celebrate this season, marginalizes our constant need to resort to inwardly focused spiritual adjustment programs in the service of what we've deemed as sanctification:

Our inner self is not the playground of "spirit," but the haunted plains on which we build our towers of Babel. In other words, our hearts are idol factories, in bondage to sin and spin. 

The mistake we make is that "now that I'm born again, my heart is corrected, so I can go ahead and whip all that sin in my life."  Epic fail.  The heart is still a "haunted plain," and while the Spirit takes ground on it gradually, it's safe to assume that your default position is idolatry, that only death will free you, and that you can't be trusted to "work for your sanctification" as many assume. The end result of this is not some worm theology, it's joy in who Jesus is and what he's done. 

Here's what Gerharde Forde says about this:
Talk about sanctification is dangerous. It is too seductive for the old being... 
The result of this kind of thinking is generally disastrous. We are driven to make an entirely false distinction between justification and sanctification in order to save the investment the old being has in the moral system. Justification is a kind of obligatory religious preliminary which is rendered largely ineffective while we talk about getting on with the truly “serious” business of becoming “sanctified” according to some moral scheme or other. We become the actors in sanctification. This is entirely false. According to Scripture, God is always the acting subject, even in sanctification.

"Holiness hype" is the lemon juice in the eye of a Gospel conversation.  If there's anything that's going to kill joy and awe over the gospel, it's being told that there's a danger that we're going to backslide if we don't tie up all the moral loose ends in our life, and that it won't happen without our devotion and effort.  This can be subtle.  A simple shift in emphasis.  Think about this the next time you're in one of these conversations.  See how quickly it degenerates from Jesus Christ, the Risen and exalted King, into talk about us and our faith or our progress.  What would happen if, every time someone decided to move the subject from "Jesus is amazing" to "how we can fix ourselves and our faith," we pointed it out and brought it back to Jesus.  One could become unpopular very quickly.  But ever since I've begun to notice these subtle, uncalled-for shifts, it's been like sand grating into my eyeball.  Hopefully, this won't be too painful...

Friday, December 2, 2011

Spiritual Progress & The Sanctification Mistake. Aka "Grace is wonderful and all, but what about becoming holy?"

Gotta admit, the Mockingbird blog really has some fine content. 

There's a piece today on The Rhetoric of Progress.  It's a good follow-up to my last quotation from Tullian Tchividjian's book Jesus + Nothing = Everything.   It covers a theme I gravitate towards, partly because it's where I've come to recently, and also because I know several people that are affected by this rhetoric, some pretty seriously. On some level I suppose, it's what affects all of us.  I've certainly made the sanctification mistake a time or two, and will probably make it again, it rings true to me that "rhetoric of Christian progress" is largely based on mythology.  Meaning that when we begin to talk about our "progress in whatever," we are very noticeably talking about...ourselves!  And that's the exact opposite of what sanctified people do, most of the time.  But when we are engulfed in the sanctification mistake, Jesus is a footnote in our lives, and our personal holiness is far more interesting than his.

Here's a section from Mockingbird piece:
The logic underlying the rhetoric is the same across traditions even if the actual words are not.  Evangelicals speak in a progress rhetoric equally well-developed and theologically imprecise.  They talk of “going deeper” and “growing stronger,” of “godly living” and “taking the next step,” of deriding “spectator Christians” and urging people to “get connected.”  Some Reform-minded Christians, guarding against the impression that the disciple’s works contribute to progress, speak of “growing in faith” or “deepening one’s understanding of faith.”  Yet they simultaneously emphasize the importance of intentionality and obedience, which pours an unintended meaning into their phrases of choice.

One way that unintended meaning speaks to us, my friends, is through our conditioning by a consumer culture and the Christian celebrity-mania that drives much of public ministry.  Preachers, speakers, singers, revivalists.  The American Idol complex awaits the progress Christian- "I'm constantly on a stage, and I'm being measured by my performance."  (And naturally, the guys we watch doing this, the guys who make a living onstage, are used to looking pretty good. They're trained to do so.)  "When I 'get there' I'll look and feel just like [insert Christian pop icon here]."  And we have a mind-boggling array of "ministries" that will assist us in the worship of progress, using any means possible.  

But then we do something that Awesome Preacher Guy would never do, and it becomes painfully clear that we haven't made it.  Yeah, God might approve of me and all, but I should still try to put my faith into practice, and people are supposed to be able see the fruit.  Back to square one. 

Those of us who are far more hip than this may word things differently, and present a more nuanced me-centrism, but the principle is the same. I'm the point, God's looking at me, and it's important that I at least try to be good.  Define being good as you please.  Line up all the requisite principles, methods, and imperatives that make it sound "not legalistic."  The ringing voice of the Father that said "This is my Son with whom I am ever delighted," now seeks to say the same thing about me, though he may not if he finds a problem.  Or even if he does, my church friends might not.  The notion is that the "Christian ideal" we're running after is basically characterized as a position or responsibility we fulfill (or ought to) and that part of that responsibility is dwelling on our personal progress.

Take K for instance.  K plays in a Christian band, faithfully attends church, reads his Bible, and seeks to have an edifying presence among his brothers.  And he often does.  He's sharp and witty, but he's nearly always aware that he may be violating someone's standard of how far is too far, of some boundary that must not be transgressed.  He'd like to write a novel, but wonders how he could incorporate themes of his faith into it, as a testimony.  He's smart, but he's aware that one can become "too intellectual" and thus walk in what is simply "head knowledge." Deep down, there's a constant question of whether or not his life, his desires, his actions, are lining up with the Christian ideal. This type of scrutiny is commended by his peers as "sanctification."

But these questions don't lead us anywhere that's creatively honest, or faithful to our own story.  They are, quite honestly, a compromise, in that their destination is perpetual self-involvement.  We stand at the edge of our imagination and see it as a vast chasm into which we dare not leap because someone might object to a cuss-word, or call us lazy or something.  We might justify this as a "concern for our weaker brothers," when what would really make the weaker brother strong is seeing our relentless freedom to be human.  But usually the real reason for not offending another with the human reality of our lives is that we're desperately grabbing for the nearest fig-leaf.  We're self-important, it feels good, and it's justifiable under this banner of progress and holiness.

To be gloriously imaginative without a thought as to whether our work is describably "Christian." Or to how it will be received, what will happen to our reputation. Or to be a mess, if that's what we are- to be a mess in a world for which Jesus was crucified and rose.  That would be honesty.  And it would be the groundn on which it's possible to make more of Jesus than ourselves.  The seasons come, the seasons go.  Yet this "progress theology" asserts that "If I'm truly seeking with all my heart, spring will come a month early."  Foolishness.  Utter folly.  Not only folly, but narcissistic folly.

And that narcissism is labelled, as often as not, sanctification.  

I've often heard it said that those words "this is my Son, with who I am delighted," are for us now that we are in Christ.  And that this is the "big secret" to progress in sanctification. Well, they are true, but they're not the key.  They won't get us where we're headed  because in time, this notion will only feed the narcissism that we never wanted to let go of to begin with.  You see, we're still the center of the picture.  No, I'm afraid we must, like John the Baptist, disappear from sight altogether.

What God the Father does is he still looks at Jesus, and still says of him "I am always delighted in my Son. Isn't he amazing? He is the Man I have been waiting for."  That's what he says about Jesus, and will keep saying about him, forever.