sittserA good word for us from Gerald Sittser and friends:

We have much to learn but only if we are humble and teachable. Augustine once wrote that the only way to understand something is to love it first, that is to study it with sympathy, patience and appreciation. True understanding requires the courage to surrender ourselves to the subject and let it have its way with us. In his wonderful essay “Meditations in a Toolshed,” C.S. Lewis observed that there are essentially two ways to learn something. We can look at the subject from another – and usually alien – point of view, which gives us ultimate authority over the subject; or we can look along with it, allowing the subject itself to illumine the world for us. Obviously both are legitimate methods of study. Still, I prefer the latter (Water from a Deep Well; Christian Spirituality From Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries, 20).

It was Holy Week 2014 and my “Biblical Theology of Worship” class was scheduled to meet on Maundy Thursday evening. Embarrassed by my lack of foresight and failure to cancel class that evening, I planned a short liturgy for my class, one that included the Lord’s Supper.

The liturgy included five movements: God’s Call to Worship, Our Praise, God’s Grace (The Lord’s Supper), Our Response, and God’s Commission. The liturgy included formed prayers, a season of open prayer, three contemporary songs (one hymn and two songs from the Black Gospel tradition), and a fifty year old ritual for the Lord’s Supper borrowed from the Reformed Church in America.  The students shared in the leadership of the liturgy while I led the singing from a piano.

Word got out about the service and the students from two other classes joined us. It was an incredible experience. We were blessed by the Lord’s Supper. We were blessed by the prayers. We were blessed to gather as a community.

But another blessing came days later. One member of the class was Bishop John Senter (pictured above), founder and senior pastor of Faith Walkers Assembly International (FWAI) in Rockford, IL.  He took the liturgy to his church where, in his estimation, the Lord used it to bless his congregation.

That’s what I call cross-fertilization – the interchange or interaction of different ideas and cultures of a broadening and productive nature. What we see here is the interaction between:

  • The seminary classroom and the sanctuary,
  • My predominantly Euro-American context and Bishop John Senter’s predominantly African American context,
  • The past and the present,
  • Those who prefer formed worship and those who prefer free worship, and
  • The traditional and the contemporary.

Furthermore, our interaction as a class was broadening and productive. It affirmed the sevenfold unity of the church articulated by the apostle Paul: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4-5). For that reason alone it was beautiful.

DNAIn a seminary setting we affirm that words have the power to shape reality. Hence, we encourage one another, in and out of the classroom, to practice discernment when selecting words. In a recent conversation, for example, a student wisely questioned the contemporary practice of referring to the church’s presence in the world as “incarnational.” She thought such usage tends to reduce the incarnation of Jesus Christ to something less than mysterious and miraculous. She may be on to something.

While I don’t envision the word “incarnational” disappearing from conversations about the Christian faith, I wish a few other popular phrases would disappear. I refer to phrases lacking biblical and theological precision and, thereby, tend to distort, rather than convey truth. Here are three.

1.      DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)

We read and hear DNA being used with reference to local congregations. Who hasn’t heard someone proclaim that “every congregation has a DNA.”Those who use that phrase compare the culture (behaviors, values, patterns of living) of a local congregation to the human body with its unique and unchangeable genetic code. And herein lies the problem with the phrase: the implication that a congregation’s culture is “unchangeable.” Would the Holy Spirit?

2.      Externally-Focused Church

The phrase offers a corrective to congregations who become preoccupied with their upward orientations or inward orientations and, thereby, neglect their outward orientations. However, if we are an externally-focused church we must then be internally and upwardly out of focus. Is that really a better option to a balanced and healthy three dimensional life?

3.      Life is Worship

It has become a commonplace interpretation of Romans 12:1 to conclude that all of life is worship. Three questions rise from such a conclusion.First, did Paul say that? Or did he compare and contrast Old Testament worship, which included offering dead animals as sacrifices to the Lord, to New Testament worship, which calls us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices? Is not the central thrust of this text, then, a call to discipleship? An affirmation of Luke 9:23-24? Second, from a theological perspective, is it true? Didn’t Augustine teach us, and the Church confirm, that the essence of life parallels that of our Triune God, which is love? Third, does it make sense?If all of life is worship, worship is, in the end, ubiquitous and meaningless.

Three popular phrases which lack precision and, in the process, distort rather than convey biblical truth. How about we help them disappear from current conversations about the Christian faith? Perhaps you can add others to the list?

BonhoefferWhat is a seminary’s responsibility to local congregations? One possible answer to that question comes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer with help from Keith Johnson. 

In the Spring of 2012, the annual Wheaton Theology Conference centered its attention on the thought and ministry of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.Keith Johnson, a professor of theology at Wheaton College (IL), presented a paper entitled “Bonhoeffer and the End of the Christian Academy.” In this paper, Johnson entered a conversation with Bonhoeffer about the purpose of the Christian academy. The article is included in Bonhoeffer, Christ and Culture edited by Keith L. Johnson and Timothy Larsen (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013).

Bonhoeffer, according to Johnson, believed that the Christian academy exists in and for the church in order to help the church exist in and for the world (163). The church needs help in this area because of its tendency to focus on self-preservation, as if that were an end in itself (165). It needs encouragement to embrace the world in confidence that the Jesus Christ has already gone before it.

Johnson includes a couple quotes from Ethics by Bonhoeffer:

In Christ, we are invited to participate in the reality of God and the reality of the world at the same time, the one not without the other. 

The church is not there in order to fight with the world for a piece of its territory, but precisely to testify to the world that it is still the world, namely, the world that is loved and reconciled by God… The church can only defend its own space by fighting, not for space, but for the salvation of the world. 

Johnson adds, “If the church really is the space and the place where Christ proclaims and visibly demonstrates himself as the center of all reality and history, then the church cannot be an end in itself, but rather is must be a community ordered toward an end outside itself. It lives in this way when it follows in line with Christ and adopts the pattern of his life, proclaiming the gospel of the judgment and justification of the cross to the world for the sake of the world’s salvation.”

Of course, writes Johnson, “this task requires discernment: sometimes it means standing over against the world by proclaiming judgment against ways of thinking that run contrary to the gospel; at other times, it involves seeing God’s hands at work in the world in new and unexpected ways. …. The church can live for the world only when it sees the world as it truly is, because only then can it engage the world honestly and faithfully” (166).

And here is where a seminary like Northern finds its place. It is uniquely positioned to equip the church “by modeling what it looks like to discerningly yet honestly embrace the world in its concrete particularity.” We help the church figure out how “to engage the world as it is from the perspective of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (166).

Johnson’s wraps up his paper with these words:

This is Bonhoeffer’s concrete picture of how those inside the Christian academy live with those outside it within one church. It is a picture of a community with one hand firmly grasped on the world, refusing to let go, while its other hand is firmly grasped by Christ himself, sitting at the right hand of the Father. In this position the church stands between two worlds, its arms stretched out across history, its very life bearing witness to the crucified one for the sake of the world’s salvation (173).​

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.

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