Category: spirituality

The Wilderness: A Lenten Meditation

Few of us have spent 40-days in the wilderness like Jesus did, but that is exactly what Lent challenges us to do.  Here’s a brief meditation that I am presenting tonight for our community lenten service.

The Wilderness: A Lenten Meditation

Matthew 4:1-11 NIV(1984)

1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”

Continue reading “The Wilderness: A Lenten Meditation”

10 Books That Changed My Life and Ministry

A fellow pastor emailed me with some kind words, and a suggestion — blog about the 10 books that changed my life and ministry.  What a great idea, and here goes, Clay!  Of course, the Bible goes without saying, but I said it anyway to avoid unnecessary comments on its absence from this list.  And, I’m not including books that influenced me as a kid, like Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Captains Courageous, and Call of the Wild.  These are all post-MDiv discoveries which provided fundamental transformation in aspects of my theology and ministry practice.  Okay, here’s my list in no particular order —

1.  The Celtic Way of Evangelism by George Hunter.  This book changed how I look at the whole process of evangelization.  The memorable phrase in Hunter’s book for me was that Celtic Christians encouraged people to belong before they believed.  In other words, they incorporated strangers into the community with hospitality and many gradually came to accept the Gospel.  Hunter’s book piqued my interest in reading more about Celtic Christianity, but there is no doubt this book changed my ministry.

2. Jesus Christ For Today’s World by Jurgen Moltmann.  This was the first book I read by Jurgen Moltmann, and tears came to my eyes reading this phrase: “The Bible is the book of remembered hopes.”  What a wonderful description and Moltmann moved me then, and still does several volumes later.  One of his latest books, Son of Righteousness, ARISE, is spectacular.  Moltmann’s conversion story captures the hope of the Gospel, and his theology of hope is the result.

3. The World’s Religions by Huston Smith.  This is one of those classic texts that should be in every library, minister or not.  Smith’s reputation and sympathetic treatment of the world’s great religions is unsurpassed.  I have new appreciations for other faith expressions.  When read along with Veli-Matti Karkkainen’s An Introduction to the Theology of Religions, one can appreciate how Christian theologians through the ages have dealt with the issue of world religions.  Get the illustrated edition of Smith’s book if you can because the graphics add much to the telling of these ancient stories.

4. Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh.  If you have not read Thich Nhat Hanh, please do so.  Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, a Zen master, a peace activist nominated by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize, and a gentle soul.  His books are short, often repetitive, but his writing has a calm and reassuring affect.  Nhat Hanh also talks a great deal about practice, primarily the practice of mindfulness.  I have used his breathing technique many times to “calm body and mind” as he teaches.  One of the renown Buddhist scholars and teachers today, Thich Nhat Hanh is perhaps second only to the Dalai Lama in worldwide influence.

5. Dissident Discipleship by David Augsburger.  I read this book for a class I took from David Augsburger, but I was captivated by his Mennonite witness and his multi-faceted approach to discipleship.  Augsburger writes about “tripolar spirituality” which includes God, self, and others as foundational to following Jesus.  If you don’t know David Augsburger, this is the book to start with.

6. Night by Elie Wiesel.  The Holocaust is an inexplicable horror and Wiesel writes his first-person account of his experience in Nazi concentration camps.  The tone is understated for the tragedy speaks for itself.  Wiesel presents the question of evil and suffering in graphic detail and comes away with no answers, only memories.  A classic that should be read by anyone concerned with evil, suffering, and the presence of God in its midst.

7. Covenant of Peace by Willard Swartley.  Swartley’s subtitle for this book is “The Missing Peace in New Testament Theology and Ethics.”  His contention is that peace has been neglected, and that God’s shalom is the heart of our theology.  Written from a Mennonite appreciation for peace as a practice, this book convinced me that peace with God, man, and creation is what God is ultimately up to.  Swartley makes his case compellingly, and he changed my perspective on peace.  If you like John Howard Yoder, you’ll love Swartley.

8. ______________ by N. T. Wright.  Okay, I’m cheating here, but N. T. Wright has been a tremendous influence on me.  His books on Jesus, Paul, the Bible, and eschatology (Surprised by Hope) are amazing. Wright gave me a new perspective on the “new perspectives” on Jesus and Paul, and with it a firm connection to the contexts in which Jesus and Paul ministered.  I believe Wright calls his approach “biblical realism” or “historical realism” or something like that which I have not taken the time to look up and footnote.  Whether you agree with Wright or not (John Piper does not), Wright is a force to be reckoned with in theological insight.

9.  Gandhi: An Autobiography by M. K. Gandhi.  I have a Buddhist, so why not a Hindu on my list?  Of course, Gandhi transcends categories, both cultural and religious.  Martin Luther King took his nonviolent approach to civil rights from Gandhi.  Gandhi changed the British empire, liberated his people, and left his mark on the world by demonstrating that nonviolent resistance in love is an irresistible force.  See the movie, read the book, Gandhi’s life is one you must know.

10. The Friends of God by Meister Eckhart and company.  Of course, this is not a real book, but I have been more influenced by Meister Eckhart and the gottes freunde in the 14th century than I can attribute to one book.  I’m reading Dorothee Soelle’s book, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance, and she quotes extensively from Eckhart.  Of course, Eckhart and the friends of God were mystics in that German sort of way that gets your head spinning when you read their stuff.  But they were, and continue to be, a tremendous influence in the arena of the immediate experience of God.

I also could have added Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama, Taitetsu Unno (Buddhist), Marcus Borg (no, I do not agree with everything Borg says), Stanley Hauerwas, William Willimon, and Leonardo Boff.  Plus, Thomas More, Richard Foster, Piero Ferruci (The Power of Kindness) and Cynthia Bourgeault.  Plus, I am sure, many others whose books have affected my life and ministry by providing new information, insight, inspiration, and challenge.

What are the top 10 books that have changed your life and ministry?

The Question No One Asks: How is it with your soul?

Weighing the soul-1875. Courtesy Harpers.

We probably wouldn’t think of asking someone today, How is it with your soul?, but maybe that’s exactly what we should be doing.  Of course, the question itself sounds outdated and very 19th century, certainly not the kind of question we would ask anyone in this postmodern, technological era.  But our failure to ask that question may be a clue to why people are increasingly choosing to stay away from our churches.  Let me explain.

The Neglect of the Soul

The concept of soul has fallen on hard times in our uber-scientific age.  We no longer entertain the quaint notion that we need to attend to, or care for, our souls.  As a matter of fact, the whole business of the human soul is up for grabs.  I just finished reading Whatever Happened to the Soul? In it the authors discuss the various theories of the human soul, including the theory that the soul doesn’t really exist, that humans are no more than their component physical parts.  The book rejects that notion, and opts for a holistic view of human beings as a unity of body and soul.

Thomas Moore, in his bestselling book, Care of the Soul, writes from a monastic background, but expands the idea of soul to include more than a person’s eternal destiny.  Moore contends that we need to care for our souls, the essence of who we are as living beings, and pay more attention to the “soul” of all things both living and inanimate.

Of all places, we should be talking about and attending to the idea of soul in our churches.  And, that is the way things used to be.  John J. McNeill’s classic book, A History of the Cure of Souls, traces the importance of the soul in pre-Christian and Christian cultures.  In short, the church used to pay great attention to the idea of soul and the condition of the souls of its congregants.

Before the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, and Descartes’ famous, “I think therefore I am”, man’s existence revolved around the idea of his soul.  Granted, there was a lot of Platonic dualism, separating the idea of physical body from immaterial soul, but even with that duality, soul was more than just that part that went to heaven. Soul was the essence of humanity, the part of mankind that responded to God, and souls needed “curing” — which meant both caring for and gathering into the Christian community.

But with the Enlightenment, science and the scientific method pushed faith and God out of the public realm.  One could talk about things that were provable, but of course, faith and the soul were not among those things.  Hence, the loss of the soul began.

The Christian Message Becomes Centered in the Intellect

In the 20th century, the shift continued as the Christian message was intellectualized.  The appeal was to what the individual had or had not done:  Have you accepted Christ as your savior?  Have you been born again?  Do you believe the Bible?

And, mid-20th century evangelicals asserted  a fundamental faith in the Bible, and several denominations engaged in what Harold Lindsell in 1978 called, The Battle for the Bible.  Again, an appeal to a system of beliefs, not the state of one’s soul.  Of course, belief is important and the history of the church confirms this with the ancient creedal statements of the faith that addressed doctrinal matters from an intellectual standpoint.  But what was lost in the 20th century was an emphasis on the condition of one’s soul, because that was displaced by the condition of one’s mind — what do you believe?

The Church Is Uniquely a Soul Place

But if we return to asking the question, How is it with your soul?, we would accomplish several things.

  • First, the human soul would again become the location of our spiritual lives. Some might call this a heart-vs-head battle, but that doesn’t really express it.  To be a human soul is not to choose warm affection over clear-headed intellect.  Being a human soul encompasses both.  But if we must choose a focus, that focus should be on our souls, not our brains.
  • Secondly, focus on the condition of our souls would remind us that the soul needs constant care.  The loss of concern about the condition of our souls has come about because we think that all we have to do for our souls is to “trust Jesus as our personal savior.”  That certainly is a critical part of both caring for, and “curing” our souls.  But to assume that the totality of soul care is a one-time decision is equivalent to believing that we only need to eat one meal in our lifetimes to care for our bodies.  We attend to our bodies each day with food, drink, and care, and our souls are no different and no less important.
  • Finally, to ask, How is it with your soul?, is to invite another to search their own soul for the answer.  The question can be asked of believer and non-believer alike, and can lead to further conversation about the care of souls through prayer, spiritual practice, and of course, surrender to God through Christ.

Churches should be communities in which the real issues of our humanity are presented.  Instead of answering questions about the soul, however, much of our effort focuses on popular problems and their solutions.  While it’s fine to have a series on “how to have a great marriage” or “what the Bible says about finances” the problems of 21st century life are soul problems, not just technical problems followed by self-help answers.  We must not become cultural technicians, when what the world needs are doctors of the soul.

So, how is it with your soul today?  Not, did you attend church last week?, or do you have a quiet time each day?, but how is your soul doing?  And how are the souls of your church members today?  Are they strong souls, grieving souls, healthy souls, or lost souls?  We may need a new way to ask that old question, How is it with your soul?, but if we fail to ask it we are failing to attend to the most basic need of human beings.

Entertaining Angels: Who are Angels and Why Do We Need Them?

Entertaining Angels:  Who Are Angels and Why Do We Need Them?

In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.

5For to which of the angels did God ever say,
“You are my Son;
today I have become your Father”? Or again,
“I will be his Father,
and he will be my Son”? 6And again, when God brings his firstborn into the world, he says,
“Let all God’s angels worship him.” 7In speaking of the angels he says,
“He makes his angels winds,
his servants flames of fire.”

14Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

Why Angels?

Today I am beginning an eight-week series titled Entertaining Angels.  That might seem to suggest that we’re going to look at the most entertaining angels in the Bible, but that’s not quite it.  Frankly angels have been called a lot of things, but entertaining is probably not one of them.

But I’m taking the title from the passage in Hebrews 13:2 KJV, which says —

2Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. -Hebrews 13:2 KJV

My interest in the topic of angels was piqued over the Christmas holiday by the news that Anne Rice has come out with a new book titled, Angel Time.  You may remember Anne Rice as the wildly popular author who gave vampires a very hip and sexy remake in her Vampire Chronicles series.  Tom Cruise played Lestat, the very attractive yet deadly vampire, in the 1994 movie, Interview with the Vampire. Rice is generally credited with reviving, if you’ll forgive the pun, the entire vampire myth and making vampires a part of popular culture in the last decade of the 20th century.

But something happened to Anne Rice, avowed atheist, along the way:  Anne Rice returned to the faith of her childhood, the Roman Catholic Church.  I’ll let you explore the details of her recommitment to Christ, but shortly after her change of heart, she began writing about Jesus.  Her first book about Jesus published in 2005 was Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, was followed by a second in her announced four book series, called Christ the Lord: The Road To Cana.

Her latest book, Angel Time, is the first in her new Songs of the Seraphim series.  Rice being the successful author that she is, knows a good thing when she sees it.

I recently posed the question in my blog, Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor — “Are angels the new vampires?”  By that I meant, Will Anne Rice do for angels what she did for vampires in the last decade?  I posted the article that asked that question last Sunday.  In less than one week over 1,000 people read that article.  And, to make things even more interesting, Anne Rice (I’m sure it was someone who works for Anne, and not Anne herself) linked my article to her website under reviews of the book, Angel Time.

The response to my article got me to thinking about the interest in angels, and about what we typically know about angels.  When Dan Brown published The DaVinci Code, the American Christian community was up in arms over that book which told an intriguing tale of secret societies, and the heretofore untold story of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene.  All of which, was totally made up stuff, but Dan Brown didn’t care because he sold millions of copies, and created a flurry of publicity that made even those who disagreed with Brown want to read his book.

My point in resurrecting The DaVinci Code controversy is to tell you why I’m preaching this series on angels.  Wouldn’t we be better off to know more about what the Bible and the historic church fathers say about angels than not?  So, before Anne Rice does for angels what she did for vampires, we’re going to look at what the Bible has to say about angels for ourselves.

But, there’s another, more important reason than Anne Rice or Dan Brown or popular culture for entertaining the idea of angels:  No other topic in scripture is so widely misunderstood, or ignored than the topic of angels.  So, we’ll be entertaining angels in this series for the next eight weeks.

According to a 2005 Harris Poll, 68% of Americans believe in angels, 15% are unsure, and only 17% do not believe in angels.  These were not church members necessarily, but a cross section of American adults.  If you add those who believe in angels and those who don’t know, that’s a total of 83% of Americans who believe, or don’t know, if angels exist.  Only slightly more than that believe in God, so angels are pretty popular with the general public.

Who Are Angels?

In the Christian Year, angels crop up on two primary occasions — the birth of Jesus and the resurrection of Christ.  Christmas and Easter, in other words.  But, as I said earlier, there is probably no topic, no other doctrine, that is so widely featured in Scripture both Old and New that is so widely ignored.  It’s as though we see the word angel, and simply skip over it, or relegate the idea of angels to another day and time.

Of course, that is exactly correct.  Before the Enlightenment of the 16th and 17th centuries, the world was thought to be inhabited by spirits, both evil and good.  Gargoyles perched on the sides of the great cathedrals of Europe to serve as downspouts, but also to remind worshippers that evil lurked outside the walls of the church.  Some also believe that gargoyles also were placed on church buildings to frighten away evil spirits.  Either way, most people, including Christians, believed that unseen spirits existed and affected personal and community events.

But with the Enlightenment and the adoption of the scientific method, religion was relegated to the world of superstitions and improbabilities.  There was no scientific proof of angels, demons, or even God Himself, and so while it was okay to continue to believe personally and privately in the scientifically unverifiable, religion was not a suitable subject for rational people to go on about.

While the Enlightenment did give the world great advances in the sciences, religion and the belief in the unseen world became merely a source of speculation, opinion, and superstition.  That included angels and demons, of course.

The Flaw of the Excluded Middle

Paul Hiebert, the late Fuller Seminary missiologist, wrote a classic paper titled, “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle.”  In that paper, Hiebert painted the picture of the typical Western missionary beliefs, or for that matter the typical Western Christian beliefs.

Hiebert, who served as a missionary to India himself, tells this story:  One day while teaching at the Bible school Shamshabad, a local Indian pastor named Yellayya appeared at the classroom door.  He was obviously tired from the long walk from his village.  Hiebert finished the class and greeted his friend.  As they talked, Yellayya explained that many in his village had contracted smallpox.

As was the village custom, the elders, who were not Christians, had consulted the local diviner who told them that the goddess Maisamma was angry with the village.  The village would have to perform the water buffalo sacrifice to appease this goddess.

To conduct the sacrifice, each village family was asked to give something toward the purchase of the buffalo.  This shared offering was not just to raise enough money, but to show that all the villagers recognized Maisamma’s anger and were making this sacrifice together.

Of course, you can imagine the reaction of the Christians in the village.  Although a minority, the Christian families refused initially to participate in the offering or the sacrifice because Maisamma was a pagan goddess.  Under extreme pressure, some Christian families wanted to participate because merchants were refusing to sell to them, and they had been forbidden to draw from the village well until they gave.  But their pastor, Yellayya, would not give them permission.

To make matters worse, Yellayya said that one of the Christian girls had also contracted smallpox.  Yellayya wanted Paul Hiebert to come to the village to pray for the girl’s healing.  Hiebert went, but as he knelt in prayer in the village, he said the thoughts of total inadequacy raced through his mind.  He believed in God, he had attended seminary, and yet here he was praying a prayer for healing in a spiritual showdown between Hinduism and Christianity.

It was at the moment that Hiebert realized that his faith had answers for the future including heaven and God’s eternal reign.  He also realized that his faith had answers about the past including how sin had come into the world, and how Christ had come to provide forgiveness to humankind.  But Hiebert realized, he had very few answers for the present, like what do you do when a child is sick, or others explain life events by the presence of unseen spirits.

Hiebert returned to his teaching, and the next week Yellayya showed up again.  The girl had died.  But Yellayya was excited because the non-Christian villagers had seen the hope of resurrection and the belief that her family would see her again in heaven.  All of them realized that even if the girl had been healed, she would have died eventually as all do.  But the Christian hope for a life beyond this life had captured the imagination of those who were not Christian, and they wanted to know more.  — Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Reflections on Missiological Issues, pgs. 189-201.

Even though that story turned out well, Hiebert still wrestled with the gap in Western Christianity and our ignorance of the unseen world.

And that is why we are talking about angels for the next eight weeks.  What would you have done if Yellayya had asked you to come to his village and pray for the healing of the Christian girl?  Would you have faced the same internal conflict Paul Hiebert did?  Would you have had the same uneasiness about the unseen world, and about the ability of God to heal?

The Basics About Angels

Who, then, are angels?  Although almost 7-out-of-10 Americans believe in angels, we believe mostly in the cartoon or greeting card version of angels.  Or we love the cute and cuddly cherubs that adorn our Christmas cards each year.  But who are angels, if they are not as we commonly see them portrayed?

First, angels are created beings.  In Colossians 1:16, Paul says that —

16For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him:

The terms Paul uses — “thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers” — are believed by most theologians to be an incomplete list of the orders of angels.  Even Billy Graham, in his book Angels: God’s Secret Agents, acknowledges these words as titles for part of the hierarchy of angels.

An early heresy that surfaced in the first century stated that angels “emanated” from God, as though they were part of God Himself, now separate from God, and therefore divine and worthy of worship.  Paul also refutes this idea in Colossians 2:18 —

18Do not let anyone who delights in false humility and the worship of angels disqualify you for the prize. Such a person goes into great detail about what he has seen, and his unspiritual mind puffs him up with idle notions.

Secondly, angels were created before the world.  In Job 38:4-7, God says to Job —

4 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.

5 Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?

6 On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone-

7 while the morning stars sang together
and all the angels shouted for joy?

So, the angels were present at creation, but are themselves created beings.  In addition, here are some other characteristics of angels that Christians have believed during the 2,000 years of church history —

  • All the angels were created at once, and there are no more angels now than there were at their creation.
  • The angels who rebelled against God did so prior to the creation of earth and mankind.
  • There are more good angels than there are those who rebelled.
  • Angels are individuals, yet they have no bodies unless they take an appearance to communicate with humankind.  — Pascal Parente, The Angels
Why Do We Need Angels?

We’ll explore more of the characteristics and mission of angels in the next seven weeks, but we need to answer one other question first — Why do we need angels?

After all, aren’t angels sort of Christian folklore — nice to read about, but more like fairies, leprechauns, and other fantastic creatures? Why do we need them in the 21st century?

Here is where our Baptist statement of belief — The Baptist Faith and Message — is strangely silent. Nowhere is the word “angel” mentioned in the Baptist Faith and Message. But dozens of scripture passages are cited to support the statements of belief and many of these refer to angels. Do we really need angels now, and why?

First, it’s not up to us to determine whether or not we need angels. Angels are God’s creation, and as such are good, as all of creation was pronounced by God.

But angels are in a class by themselves. In the coming weeks, we’re going to see that there are at least 9 varieties of celestial beings, but for now we’ll just call all of them angels. But even at that angels are unique in several ways.
Angels were created before mankind, and mankind is said to have been created in the image of God.
Angels are higher than mankind in the created order. In Psalms 8:6, the psalmist is praising God’s creation of man, but he does so by saying — 4What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? 5For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.
Angels are God’s messengers. Angels appear in both the Old Testament and New, delivering the message of God to God’s people. Consider the life of Jesus —
angels announce his coming birth to both Joseph and Mary;
an angel announces the birth of John the Baptist to his father, Zacharias;
angels announce the birth of Jesus to shepherds;
angels minister to Jesus in the desert after his temptation by Satan;
angels announce his resurrection at the empty tomb;
angels accompany Jesus as he ascends into heaven;
angels appear to the apostles on several occasions;
and John writes of Jesus coming with all his holy angels when he returns to earth.
And those are only a few of the references to angels as God’s messengers.
Angels are more numerous than we can imagine. In scripture, as they are beheld by the writers of the Bible, the angel hosts are described as so numerous “no man can number;” in the book of Daniel, they are described in this manner — A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.

Secondly, angels are God’s messengers, God’s army, God’s protectors, and God’s servants. They perform their work for the holy Trinity of God, most of which is unseen or unknown by us. Angels exist, not for our entertainment or contact, but for God’s purposes.

Third, Jesus spoke of angels, angels attended him, and he will return with the entire host of heaven under his command. It would probably do us some good to know a little about “the angel armies” before that time comes.

Finally, angels are at work in the world today. Imagine sitting next to you on the pew, right beside you, is your guardian angel. Or, imagine that as we sing each Sunday, angels “join the mighty chorus” of our praise to God. Imagine this building ringed with part of the angel army of God, swords drawn, allowing us to worship without interference of either man or demon.

The writer of Hebrews, in the passage we read today, reminds us —

14Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?

So, the question today is not, Do angels exist, or do we have angels? The question today is what are we doing to cooperate with the messengers of God who daily do God’s bidding? If we have no idea what our answer is, then that is all the more reason we need to be aware of this part of God’s creation we call angels.

A Story of Angels

On Christmas Eve, December 24, 2001, Tobi Gabriel and her young son, Gage, left her mother’s home to rent a movie and see some friends. In Moncton, New Brunswick, the weather was rainy and the temperature was dropping. When Tobi and Gage had not returned home by 11 PM, her parents phoned the police and reported her missing. Most folks usually turn up okay, they were assured, and the police told them that no accidents had been reported, so everything must be okay. But it wasn’t.

Early on Christmas morning Linda Belliveau, who lived in the nearby town of Lower Cove, went out to watch for her parents who were coming for Christmas breakfast. Despite the roar of the ocean waves behind her, Linda heard what she thought was the sound of a child crying. Of course, that was impossible at that hour of the morning and in the frigid weather.

But the cry continued and Linda made her way to the beach. There she saw a car lying upside down on the beach. She thought it had probably plunged off the roadway during the night because the ocean spray often turned to ice on the seaside road.

But there was something else that caught her eye. A small figure crawling toward her on the sand. A little child, drenched and frightened. Linda ran to the boy, picked him up and took off her own coat to wrap him in.

In the waves she saw the body of his mother, floating face down in the surf.

Little Gage was taken to the hospital. An investigation determined that Tobi’s car had skidded off the road sometime between 6 and 10 PM that night. No one heard the crash, however. Tobi was killed on impact because she wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. Little Gage somehow survived.

Sergeant Dale Bogle of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police visited little Gage in the hospital, asking him very gently some questions about the accident.

Little Gage looked up at Sergeant Bogle during a quiet moment.

“I saw two girls,” Gage said.

Office Bogle was amazed. “You did? Where?”

“Standing in the water, next to Mommy. Their dresses were white.”

Sergeant Bogle asked, “Did they talk to you?”

“No,” Gage replied, “They just smiled at me all night until the other lady came.”

Gage’s grandfather calls him a “gift from God.” He’s older now, of course, and hardly speaks of the accident at all. –( Joan Wester Anderson, In The Arms of Angels, pgs. 1-6.)

Were the “girls” he saw angels? No one knows, except of course, God. Angels are, after all, His messengers.

Amen.

Who cares for the pastor?

Lillian Daniel sparks an interesting conversation about clergy self-care in her article at Out of Ur, What Clergy Do Not Need.  Lillian’s point is that the “self-care talk” given at ordinations has become a joke, a cliche.  What we as clergy need, she asserts, are  deep relationships with fellow pastors and with God.

Further,  Daniel states:  “My hunch, based upon my own experience in times when I have not taken care of myself, is that what I was missing was not within me already. I was lacking something, but it was not something that a lecture in self-care would fix.”

Here’s my comment in response to her post:

While the “self-care talk” may have become a cliche, that does not invalidate serious conversation about the need of pastors to pay attention to their own emotional, spiritual, and physical signals.

Self-care should not imply “self-reliance,” but rather recognition that I as a pastor need to mind my schedule, my commitments, and my relationships — the one with God included. Only we can do that for ourselves.

Blaming the pastor in need of physical, emotional, or spiritual renewal is not productive or helpful. We have too many instances of self-imposed failure to add  failure to care for self  to that list.

The answer lies not just in ourselves but in community with others. While community with fellow pastors is welcomed, my own faith community has most often provided the support, encouragement, and prayer I need. My approach is not to circle the wagons with fellow pastors, but to allow my own community to care for me, as I care for them.

I had another opportunity to experience that communal care this past summer when my brother died. I found being on the receiving end of care a difficult and humbling experience. I am trying to allow my own faith family inside my emotional and spiritual fence so that they can exercise their care for me in a shared call to “bear one another’s burdens.”

What do you think?  Do pastors need each other, or is our own church family a place of healing and care?  Who watches out for your emotional, spiritual, and physical well-being?  This should be interesting, and with hundreds of clergy leaving the ministry each month, this is a conversation we need to have.

A New Model Merges Pastoral Care and Social Action

I am speaking tomorrow at Duke Divinity School to students in the Rural Ministry Colloquia, a monthly gathering of students involved in, or interested in, rural church ministry.  I have been asked to tell our story of how we started a community center, community music school, and several other projects here in our small town of 1300 people.

In addition to telling our story, I’m also going to share some very quick thoughts about the role of small churches in rural areas.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the theology and practice of pastoral care in a missional church, and how that is different from pastoral care in traditional churches.  I think I’ve come up with a least a few questions, if not fully-formed answers.  Here’s some of what I’ll share tomorrow:

  1. Missional theology and praxis calls for contextual, incarnational engagement with the community.  How does “the care of souls” fit into the missio Dei and our part in it?
  2. Why is pastoral care largely ignored in the on-going conversations about the tranformation of the church?
  3. Given the social structures of rural society, and the aging populations of small town and rural America, shouldn’t “the care of souls” be a part of our intentional ministry, and not just an afterthought during times of crisis?
  4. Considering the rampant poverty, increased alcohol and drug abuse problems, lower educational levels, and other social issues affecting rural areas, shouldn’t our care of people also include care for the community, and the transformation of communal issues?

I am also proposing tomorrow a new way to look at pastoral care and social action (which is not a term I like, but I can’t think of another more descriptive).

The typical pastoral care model is a dyad of both the spiritual and psychological care of a person or family.  The typical “social gospel” model (or social action model) is a dyad of  spiritual and sociological engagement with a community, or group in a community.

I am proposing a new model that is a synthesis of both pastoral care and social gospel — a triad of the spiritual, psychological, and sociological concerns addressed by both individual approaches to care, and communal approaches to care.

In the Bible, salvation is often seen as coming to a people, not just individuals.  Certainly, the salvation of Israel was not thought of as future, but as a present reality that God could, and often did, provide.  This does not diminish the importance and necessity of a personal response to Jesus’ call to “come and follow me” but rather it broadens that call to include the salvation of social systems and communities.

I believe that “the care of souls” is going to burst into our theological imaginations in new and exciting ways.  Some of those will be that care will be more relational and less educational; and, more contextual and less general.

The “care of souls” will also fill the gaps in the social fabric of rural communities who have lost much of their social framework to chain stores, increased mobility, and the loss of public spaces.  I am convinced that we need to see our communities, not just as potential additions to our membership roles, but as “sheep without a shepherd.”

Creating networks of caring, training spiritual directors, offering healing solutions to intractable social problems — these are some of the new ways in which pastoral care in the missional church finds new expression.   One of the primary tasks of churches is to make meaning out of life’s stages and events.  By viewing our communities, and the individuals and families within them, as in need of Christian care, I believe we change the tone and effect of what we are doing.

What do you think?  How has your church, small or large, had opportunity to express care both for individuals and the entire community?  How have you brought about community transformation through “the care of souls?”  I’m really interested in gathering examples of churches doing this because I think it’s the next new awareness of the missional movement.

What business is your church in?

A probing question companies ask themselves in planning is, “What business are we in?”  You might think it would be obvious that a newspaper, for instance, is in the print news business.  But, not so, according to a popular journalism blogger.

Steve Yelvington says that newspapers are in the business of helping other companies sell their products.  In other words, if it weren’t for advertisers (companies) placing ads in newspapers in order to sell more products, the newspaper wouldn’t have the financial support to stay in business — which is exactly what’s happening to newspapers.

Yelvington’s point is that newspapers either forgot or never understood that they were primarily in the business of helping others sell their products, and that’s why they’re in trouble.

Ask that question of churches, “What business is a church in?” and you’ll get several diffferent answers, as follows:

Churches are in the worship business. But, isn’t that getting the cart before the horse? Why do people worship? Who or what do people worship?  And even if you narrow it to the worship of God, then whose god and how should he/she be worshipped?

Churches are in the teaching business. If we could just get people to learn about God, Jesus, Christianity, doctrine, and so forth, we’d be successful.  Most discipleship programs are built on knowledge transfer.  Christian education is wonderful, but knowledge, even about God, is not the business we are in.

Churches are in the helping business. This has several variations, such as serving, caring, loving, and ministering.  But if that’s our business how are we different from the local charity, foodbank, or clothing drive?  Churches may help, but that’s not our core business.

Churches are in the salvation business. This also has several nuances such as eternity, soul, conversion, and transformation.  Of course, the big problem here is that the vast majority of people who live around the world are not looking for salvation, and don’t see the need to be saved from either hell, the devil, sin, separation from God or eternal punishment.  Nor do many see the need to be saved to heaven, eternity, unity with God, and so on.  So, if we’re in the salvation business, we’re in big trouble.

What’s the answer to the question “What business are churches in?”  Here it is:

I think churches are in the meaning business — the meaning of life, the meaning of my existence, the meaning of family, the meaning of love, the meaning of suffering, the meaning of  a thousand other experiences that can only be explained by God.

How do we stick to our business?  By focusing on the answers to the big and small questions of life like, Why am I here? Who is God? What am I supposed to do?  How can my life have significance (meaning) in a world where so much is meaningless?

Those are the questions we should be answering each week, each Sunday, in every worship service, in every small group, and with every person.

Churches are in the meaning business — because if we aren’t nobody is.  That really is the point of religion, isn’t it?  To help people find meaning in all of the confusing, conflicting, crazy stuff of life.  Of course, those of us who are followers of Christ have found meaning in Jesus.  For us, Jesus is the key that unlocks the mystery of meaning.  But our experience of Christ began with some kind of search for meaning.

What do you think?  Agree, disagree, or have another answer?  I think this is a really important question and we need to know the answer.  What business is church in?  What do you think?