praying hands

Heavenly Father, creator of the universe, source of perfect love, to You belong all glory and praise. To you belong all things. In your bounteous love you have provided for us. You provide for our needs before we know that we have needs. You love us in our inadequacy. You offer us salvation in our unworthiness. You guide us in our blindness. You care for us when we are abandoned by all others.

Too often I have failed you. I have held back in fear. I have ignored your call. I have run from my obligation to you, the Father. And yet, you continue to love me, forgive me, and call me to You. I will follow You in faith because, while I cannot understand your reasons, I trust in Your unfailing goodness. You know and I follow for you are Holy.

Your unfailing strength and love is the source of all that I do. Allow me to follow in your footsteps. Empower me, through the Spirit, to wash the feet of men.Encourage me when I am abandoned by others.Guide me when I wander from Your loving teaching and example. Strengthen my faith when my faith fails me. 

Guide all ministries in which I am involved. Make me useful to Your purposes. Make me Your tool, the conduit for Your message. Let my actions demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control every day and in every action.Send Your Spirit to me.Make me a beacon for others that they might enjoy the joyful life eternal You offer to all believers. 

I thank You and bless Your holy name, praying in the name of Your Son, sent among men, to live, suffer, die and be resurrected as Your sign that everything, even death, is conquered in your name.Bless and keep me and my endeavors in Your most holy name.  Amen.

Walt Hoshaw is a Master of Divinity student at Northern Seminary, as well as a board member and Sunday school teacher with the Creekwood Church in Rockford, Illinois. Walt thanks Darren Loeppke for his instruction on prayer.

lukewarmAs a veteran follower of Jesus Christ, I have suffered through many seasons of lukewarmness, days and weeks when my passion for God gives way to tepidness. Perhaps you have experienced the same.

Last week God cured me, if but for a season, of that ailment through the writing of a student. Her words rekindled the fire of my soul. Here is a selection from a paper submitted by a Northern student who participated in my pastoral ministry course. Maybe it will do for you what it did for me. The selection begins with these words:

Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.

Be Thou my Wisdom, and Thou my true Word;
I ever with Thee and Thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one.

As I reflect on how I am to live out my calling as a pastor, I can’t help but think of the words of that old Irish hymn. As a lowly servant of Christ, prone to sin, I pray that Christ be my vision. With all that I am, all that I will be, may I live with Christ as my vision.

I am to live as a disciplined woman with strict obedience to God, my Father. The Word of God is my ethical code and the Holy Spirit my moral guide. John writes in the Gospel of John 16:13, “When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, will guide you into all truth.” Without strict adherence to scriptures and the Holy Spirit, I will fail.

I can say with the deepest conviction and electricity that I am madly in love with God. I am a sinner saved by grace and in desperate need of God’s presence in my life. I long and thirst for God to fill, lead, guide, and direct my life. I long to be a woman who pleases Him and Him alone – He is the one that I live for and the air that I breathe.

seminary church 2Here are excerpts from a blog by Ed Stetzer on four things seminarians gain by not going to a church surrounding the seminary. He suggests, as an alternative, that seminarians get involved in church planting, church revitalization, or other ministry outside of the seminary context. Here are Stetzer’s four reasons seminary students shouldn’t choose a seminary church:

First, seminarians gain an early understanding of real world ministry.

Second, when seminarians go to a seminary church everything looks easier and better than it really is.

Third, since seminary churches attract students a seminarian’s opportunities for ministry are limited.

Fourth, seminarians learn that mission is not something you engage with after graduation.

Nice list, one that highlights another strength of Northern Seminary. Since we don’t have a “seminary church,” our students get involved in ministries outside of the seminary context. This practice better prepares our students for ministry after graduation as well as enriches the churches in our community.

Alter In the WorldI wasn’t sure what to expect when we gathered for class to discuss An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor. (Here’s a link to a review of the book.) I anticipated acclaim for Taylor’s writing and praise for her preaching (from those who have had the privilege of hearing her). I wasn’t sure how the class would respond to Taylor’s list of disciplines for life in the world. I asked the class to read the book to prompt a conversation on an essential strategy for pastoral effectiveness: personal holiness and wholeness.

Several students, including Tyone Hughes (pictured below to the right of Sherman Lee), prepared remarks to guide our conversation. He pointed us to the chapter on the “Practice of Encouraging Others” where Taylor began a paragraph with this quote from Jonathan Swift: “We have just enough religion to make us hate one another, but not enough to make us love one another.” Taylor continues:

TyonBecause we are human, which is to say essentially self-interested, we are always looking for ways to add a little more authority to our causes, to come up with better reasons to fight for what we want than “Because I want it, that’s why.” If we can convince ourselves that God wants it too – even if that means making God in our own image so we can deny the image of God in our enemies – then we are free to engage in combative piety. We are free to harm others not for our own reasons but in the name of God, which allows us to feel holy about doing it instead of just plain bad. (99)

Now that’s a prophetic word! And there were many more takeaways from this book that encouraged us to compliment the classic spiritual disciplines with these:

• The Practice of Waking Up to God (Vision)
• The Practice of Paying Attention (Reverence)
• The Practice of Wearing Skin (Incarnation)
• The Practice of Walking on the Earth (Groundedness)
• The Practice of Getting Lost (Wilderness)
• The Practice of Encountering Others (Community)
• The Practice of Living with Purpose (Vocation)
• The Practice of Saying No (Sabbath)
• The Practice of Carrying Water (Physical Labor)
• The Practice of Feeling Pain (Breakthrough)
• The Practice of Being Present to God (Prayer)
• The Practice of Pronouncing Blessings (Benediction)

While we struggled with “Getting Lost,” prefer that the word “Incarnation” be restricted to theological dialogue, and aren’t too exciting about “feeling pain,” we received Taylor’s invitation to engage the ordinary with the hope that, in so doing, we may recognize the extraordinary character of our normal lives.  All in all – a good read and a great class.

Everything BelongsMy course on pastoral ministry continues to enrich and challenge me. In our last session, Maurice Ward led the class through a spirited conversation on John Williamson Nevin’s Lectures on Pastoral Theology. It is an understatement to say that Maurice “raised the bar” for student presentations. His presentation was so effective it felt like we were sitting in Nevin’s mid-nineteenth century classroom.

The session also opened the door to discuss liminal space. I am not sure how we arrived at that subject. We may have been led there by John Nevin’s radical call to personal holiness or by my recent fascination with the subject.  

Regardless of how liminal space entered our discussion, we all agreed that, even though the subject is more anthropological than theological, it speaks truth into our lives and into our ministries. It’s hard to summarize how we came to that conclusion, but a few excerpts from Richard Rohr’s book Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer may help.

Let me introduce you to a concept anthropologists call “liminality.” It’s also called liminal space. The Latin word limen means threshold. It is central to initiation rites and is a good metaphor for preparation for transformation. (47)

Initiation rites are always about leading (one) out of the world of business as usual (the cultural trance we walk in) and leading (that same person) into liminal space. It is a voluntary displacement for the sake of transformation of consciousness, perspective, and heart.  (47-48)

Liminal space induces a type of inner crisis to help us make a needed transition. In brief, it should wake us up a bit. That’s what is meant by a liminal experience. The greatest liminal experiences, of course, are birth and death. (48-49)

We have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality. All transformation takes place there. We have to move out of ”business as usual” and remain on the “threshold” where we are betwixt and between. There, the old world is left behind, but we’re not sure of the new one yet. That’s a good space. Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. It’s the realm where God can best get at us because we are out of the way. In sacred space the old world is able to fall apart, and the new world is able to be revealed. If we don’t find liminal space in our lives, we start idolizing normalcy. We end up believing it’s the only reality, and our lives shrivel.  (155)

This much is sure, I am not done studying liminality and liminal space. In particular, I would like to study the relationship between liminal space and discipleship, as well as the relationship between liminality and liturgy. Rohr has been thinking. He challenged me, especially with the suggestion that one function of the pastoral ministry is to lead Christ-followers into liminal space: “The way things are must somehow be interrupted. The system must be deconstructed. That is the job of the prophet. The prophet leads us out of normalcy, dismisses it, debunks it.” (156)

 

chrysostomOne of the greatest challenges facing the contemporary pastor is preaching. On one hand, preparing a weekly sermon requires pastors to spend a great amount of time with the Scriptures, draw from that study one twenty to thirty minute lesson each week, and then deliver that lesson with conviction and persuasively. On the other hand, pastors preacher to people who may find it easier to criticize the sermon than receive it as a word from the Lord.

As a pastor, I have been encouraged by the fact that I am not the only one facing such challenges. For some reason it feels good to know that I am not alone. Maybe such knowledge hinders me from blaming myself for the struggles or modifies my expectations. Whatever the reason, it is good to know that pastors throughout the world and throughout the ages have faced similar challenges – and by God’s grace they have both persevered and remained faithful to their calling.

One such pastor is John Chrysostom (344-407). Many view him as one of the greatest preachers in the history of the church. My “Pastoral Ministry” class at Northern Seminary spent some time with him last week. Here is a short selection from “Book Five” of his Lectures on the Priesthood. It describes the challenges facing the fourth-century pastor. At the same time, it reminds us that while much has changed over the centuries, much remains the same.

In the first place, most of those who are under authority refuse to treat preachers as their instructors. They rise above the status of disciples and assume that of spectators sitting in judgment on secular speech-making. In their case the audience is divided, and some side with one speak and others with another. So in church they divide and become partisans, some of this preacher and some of that, listening to their words with favor or dislike.

And this is not the only difficulty; there is another, no less serious. If it happens that a preacher weaves among his own words a proportion of other man’s flowers, he falls into worse disgrace than a common thief. And often when he has borrowed nothing all, he suffers on bare suspicion the fate of a convicted felon.

But why mention the work of others? He is not allowed to repeat his own compositions too soon. For most people usually listen to a preacher for pleasure, not profit, like adjudicators of a play or concert. The power of eloquence, which we rejected just now, is more requisite in a church than when professors of rhetoric are made to contend against each other.

This past week at Northern Seminary, we kicked off what I hope will be an exciting nine weeks with fourteen students dedicated to learning more about the pastoral ministry. Its my first attempt at the seminary level teaching such an important subject.I expect a fun journey filled with challenging dialogue. In the end, I hope that each participant will have a clearer picture of what it means for him or her to be a pastor in a local congregation.

Vision Frame 2Towards that end we are utilizing a tool called the “Vision Frame.” This tool was developed by Will Mancini for use by church leaders. I am hoping it will help us categorize our thoughts and clarify our understandings of pastoral ministry. I have not used the Vision Frame in this context before, so I may discover it unable to meet the challenge. But our initial conversation suggests that the Vision Frame is especially well-suit for the diversity of perspective represented in the class. It provides enough flexibility, for example, for each student to adopt values which harmonize with her or her theological tradition.

Here are some more specifics about the Vision Frame. The center of the vision frame is the picture of where God is leading us as pastors or shepherds. The four sides of the vision frame are:

  1. Mission = What we are doing as pastors?
  2. Values = Why are we doing what we do as pastors?
  3. Strategy = How do we fulfill our pastoral ministries?
  4. Measures = When we will be “successful”to our callings as pastors? (Of course, we will need to define the word “success.”)

During our nine weeks together, we will read several books ranging from the fourth century (On the Priesthood by Chrysostom) to twenty-first century. After each reading we will discuss how it informs our vision frame. We began our study with the apostle Paul with help from Pastoral Ministry according to Paul: A Biblical Vision by James Thompson who describes pastoral ministry as “participation in God’s work of transforming the community of faith until its ‘blameless’ at the coming of Christ” (20). This coming week we will test and tease that statement, then move on to Chrysostom. How exciting is that?

 

Testament of DevotionEvery few years I have the privilege of leading a class entitled “Classics of Christian Devotion.” The course was initially designed by Dr. Charles Hambrick-Stowe, a former Academic Dean at Northern Seminary. In this course students explore a representative sample of Christian devotional literature from the early church to recent times.

During our ten weeks together, we read Augustine’s Confessions and the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, as well as many selections from other writers. One of those writers was Thomas R. Kelly (1893-1941), the renowned Quaker teacher and author of A Testament of Devotion. I have been working my way through this outstanding book while on the recumbent bicycle at the health club.I have found it an incredible work and hope more readers discover the same. Towards that end, here are a couple paragraphs which introduce his chapter on “Holy Obedience”:

Out in front of us is the drama of men and of nations, seething, struggling, laboring, dying. Upon this tragic drama in these days our eyes are all set in anxious watchfulness and in prayer. But within the silences of the souls of men an eternal drama is ever being enacted, in these days as well as in others. And on the outcome of this inner drama rests, ultimately, the outer pageant of history. It is the drama of the Hound of Heaven baying relentlessly upon the track of man. It is the drama of the lost sheep wandering in the wilderness, restless and lonely, feebly searching, while over the hills comes the wiser Shepherd. For His is a shepherd’s heart, and He is restless until He holds His sheep in His arms. It is the drama of the eternal Father drawing the prodigal home unto Himself, where there is bread enough and to spare. It is the drama of the Double Search, as Rufus Jones calls it. And always its chief actor is – the Eternal God of Love.

It is to one strand in this inner drama, one scene, where the Shepherd has found His sheep, that I would direct you. It is the life of absolute and complete and holy obedience to the voice of the Shepherd. But ever throughout the account the accent will be laid upon God, God the initiator, God the aggressor, God the seeker, God the stirrer into life, God the ground of our obedience, God the giver of the power to become children of God.

The major challenge facing any instructor teaching a class entitled “Current Practices in Worship” is discovering current practices and trends in Christian worship. With few resources at our disposal, my class of twenty students at Northern Seminary (Lombard, IL) developed and conducted a survey of over eighty congregations located between Chicago and Rockford, IL. After the surveys were concluded, students FaKelia Guyton and Samuel Cocar helped me gather, summarize and interpret the data. Here is the first take away from our research: The sermon is the focal point of the Sunday service.As exciting as it is to conduct research ‘on the ground’ of Evangelical church culture, as with any sociological research into the practices and perspectives of a certain people group, we need to concern ourselves with questions of statistical validity. Is our sample size large enough to extrapolate to the general population? What kind of differences in respondents can be counted as statistically significant? And so forth.

In this case, our sample size of eighty Protestant churches occupies a territory somewhere between anecdote and complete empiricism. Hard data is always better than vague speculation, even when the data is more suggestive than conclusive.

One of the clearest conclusions, statistically speaking, from our sample concerned the focal point of the church service. Just over 86% of the churches (69 respondents) cited the sermon as the cornerstone of the Sunday gathering. The other four options combined garnered only 11 combined responses. These broke down as follows: the Lord’s Supper (4 respondents), prayer (1 respondent), music (1 respondent), and fellowship (5 respondents).

It is a staggering figure, and one which overwhelms the usual questions of statistical validity. Nor can it be ascribed simplistically to a sampling bias. This aggregate of churches is emphatically dominated by traditions and demographics which one might more strongly associate with a homiletical focus. In other words, the sample is not predominated by Euro-American, Baptist and Reformed churches.

Indeed, our sample is one that not only reflects racial diversity, but cuts across a wide swath of denominational affiliations, from Missionary Baptist and Lutheran to Assemblies of God, United Methodist and Mennonite. Incidentally, although the liberal-conservative polarity has become strained beyond its capacity to accurately categorize the range of Christian beliefs, this affirmation of the sermon as the focal point of the service seems invariably to extend to those on both the Left and Right—socially, politically, and theologically. If anything, one might have expected the large bloc of Pentecostal and Charismatic churches to temper this focus by opting for prayer, fellowship, or music, given their corporately expressive mode(s) of worship.

And yet, the sermon prevails. One wonders if even Roman Catholics would be as univocal in proclaiming the Eucharist as the center of their worship service. The sermon focus of the sampled Protestant churches represents something remarkable—namely, unenforced unity. No American denomination hires policy managers to steer unruly congregants’ attention toward the sermon and away from other liturgical focal points. The placement of the sermon as the center of worship does not result from the enforcement of any formal policies or incentives. Instead, it reflects something of a common Reformational heritage, extending even to those Protestant traditions which sprang into existence after the sixteenth century (e.g., the Wesleyan tradition, Baptists).

The sermon-as-focal-point also testifies to the unique nature of the sermon. Namely, it is a flexible and polyvalent medium of communication. If such a wide variety of traditions can identify the Sunday morning sermon as integral to spiritual formation and ecclesial practice, it suggests that the medium itself is a veritable chimera. Indeed, while Biblical exposition is at its core, the sermon can be prophetic, moral exhortation, narrative. In can also serve a more therapeutic or pastoral care function. That so many functions could be fulfilled by variations of one medium suggests its tremendous adaptability and persuasive power.

Lastly, the survey allows us to conclude that the sermonic focus of the Sunday service appears built into the warp and woof of the Protestant mind and heart. Consequently, if church leaders in low-church traditions—such as the Brethren, Baptists, and Bible Churches—want to explore the transformative potential of other liturgical expressions, they can do so with little fear that their congregants will start dismissing the importance of the spoken Word.

Fire of LoveOne of the assignments in my recently concluded course on the “Classics of Christian Devotion” invited each student to write a paper on a classic of Christian devotion. The paper was to include an introduction describing the reasons for selecting the book, a brief introduction to the author of the book, a description of the historical context in which the book was written, a history of the book since its publication, and a reflection on the contemporary value of the book.

Of the many great papers submitted, one stood out, that by Dirk Labuschagne, who wrote on Richard Rolle’s The Fire of Love. Here are two excerpts from Dirk’s paper, reprinted with his permission. Perhaps it will encourage you, as it did me, to spend some time with Richard Rolle, a fourteenth-century English mystic.

The first excerpt has been drawn from the introduction.

Richard Rolle’s work focuses on the human heart’s contribution to the believer’s experience of God, as opposed to a strict adherence to the mind’s cognitive emphasis. It was this emphasis that drew me to The Fire of Love. I have, increasingly over the last year, realized the importance of the heart’s contribution to my own faith journey. I have for so long relied on intellect and new ideas to fuel my religious life, but have somehow still felt a lack of intimacy and connectedness in my own devotional time. When I read about Rolle’s suspicion of academic fervor without an affective base, as well as his inspirational descriptions of his experiences of the love of God, I was intrigued. “Out of all the various things that clamour for our attention, let us make it our prime concern to love God rather than to acquire knowledge or to engage in dialogue. For it is love that delights the soul and sweetens the conscience” (Rolle 1972, 58).

And here is an excerpt from the conclusion:

I started this paper by mentioning my appreciation for Rolle’s emphasis on the role of the heart in the devotional life. He is wary of a strong emphasis on the contribution of the intellect alone to one’s spiritual life, and strongly argues for the inclusion of the heart. This is a theme that resonates with me, and that I think is one of the central notions that makes this book valuable for today. When we speak about the Christian faith, so much of what it encompasses involves what is, or should be, believed. This leads to the formation of doctrine and principles, as well as distortions of these ideals, all of which very soon starts to occupy the mind without including the heart. Of course, proper teaching does have its place, but it should not be at the expense of the interior life that inspires and makes the heart burn with fire. Rolle echoes this: “Nowadays too many are consumed with a desire for knowledge rather than for love, so that they scarcely know what love is or what is its delight. Yet all their study should have been directed to this end, so that they might be consumed with the love of God as well” (Rolle 1972, 61).

For many Christians, myself included, it is always a struggle to find a balance between the devotional life and life of service to others. The Mary and Martha story gets repeated again and again through the history of the Church, only to still be unsure about whether contemplation or service is more important. Rolle takes upon himself the task of considering the importance of a contemplative life and the dangers of only living a life of acts. He clearly values the interior life, arguing that God looks at one’s heart and intention. Therefore, the contemplative life is clearly more important, because their deeds distract those who focus on active service, which thwarts their intentions. In his own words, “Actives, to be sure, serve God with their toil and outward activity, but they spend little time in inner quiet. And the result is that they can only rarely and briefly know spiritual delight. On the other hand contemplatives are almost always enjoying the embrace of their Beloved” (Rolle 1972, 110). Although, I would not go as far as saying the contemplative life is better—I would think finding a balance between the two works best—I do appreciate the emphasis Rolle puts on a rich interior life. We might not all share Rolle’s mystical experiences, but we can all learn about the importance of desiring to experience the love of God. And before we can do so, “[b]efore we can experience even a little of God’s love, we must be really turned to him.”

And the good news? There is still time to add The Fire of Love to your Christmas list!

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