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A Haiku Kind of Life

“You’re just a nice-looking boy, a bit slight, well scrubbed and well mannered. All that is fine, but it’s your existence I love you for, mainly. Existence seems to me now the most remarkable thing that could ever be imagined” ~ Marilynne Robinson[1]

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Turns out one of the most famous haiku ever written was penned by Matsuo Bashō (1644–1694), an acclaimed poet during Japan’s Edo period (1603–1868).

As a bit of a refresher, a haiku is a Japanese poem composed of seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five, designed to draw readers’ attention to the natural world.

Without further ado, here’s the haiku by Bashō:

An old silent pond.
Into the pond a frog jumps.
Splash. Silence again.

Read it one more time:

An old silent pond.
Into the pond a frog jumps.
Splash. Silence again.

There is no hidden meaning. So don’t think, “The silent pond symbolizes a dark night of interminable pain,” or “The frog leaping into the pond represents overcoming your fears.” No. Stop it. It doesn’t mean any of that.

Rather, the aim of a haiku is to freeze-frame a moment in time—to soak in the present, relish its distinct beauty, and enjoy its unrepeatableness. (I’m pretty sure I just made up a word.)

Since most people live on auto pilot, they fail to embrace the present, thinking only of where they have to go, what they have to do, what they need to say, and how everything and everyone else must conform to their agenda. It’s a rather dehumanizing existence that shrivels the soul and incapacitates one’s ability to appreciate the grandeur of the world.

Haiku enable us to stop, to pause, to taste, to gaze, to savor the present. (Re) acquiring this virtue will require reordering our priorities. We’ve power walked in the Kingdom of Noise for so long that we’ve forgotten how to frolic in Aslan’s den.[2] (Re) imagining what life can be like means (re) learning a sacred truth: You’re a human being, and the people you talk to, that walk passed you, that sing next to you in church, are also human beings.

Taking in the delectable sights and sounds of the image bearers and creaturely delights before us each moment entails throwing aside desultory living. Our souls were meant to shout the praises of our Savior, not suffocate under an endless blast of demands and activities—to say nothing of passively consuming the soul-deadening world of social media. (And I still think John Piper’s right: “One of the great uses of Facebook and Twitter will be to prove at the Last Day that prayerlessness was not from lack of time.”)

The haiku life calls us to see the world and the people in it.

Do you get the point yet? Stop, look, and listen. You’re alive. And you might not have been. There’s reason to praise.

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[1] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead: A Novel (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2004), 53.

[2] The phrase “Kingdom of Noise” is taken from C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 119–120. Aslan is the Christ figure in Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia.

Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart: Book “Review”

Countless books on pastoral ministry flood the Christian market each year. My guess is only a few are worth reading—and perhaps even less worth remembering. Amid the torrent of this year’s releases, one came hot off the presses with much fanfare and many a recommendation—Harold Senkbeil’s The Care of Souls: Cultivating a Pastor’s Heart. Given his over fifty years of experience, I sank my teeth into this gem with verve.

Rather than providing readers with a traditional book review, I’ll simply offer four reasons I appreciated Senkbeil’s work and then round out the post with one quibble.

Four Appreciations
First, he rightly notes that all pastoral ministry is the application of God’s Word. Pastors shepherd people from the Word of God. Since God has provided everything we need to accomplish our task, we’re not charged to make things up as we go. Nevertheless, applying the Word skillfully requires a pastoral habitus—an important concept throughout the book (18). Habitus refers to intuition, a demeanor, or formed character. While contributing to this dimension of a pastor’s life, seminary training cannot impart pastoral piety and care into the fabric of a pastor’s heart and life: “This habitus can’t be instilled merely through pedagogy or acquisition of intellectual knowledge” (18). Ministers must swim in the realities of daily pastoral life to acquire this disposition.

Pastors are soul physicians. Soul physicians apply the balm of the gospel with precision. Precise application of the gospel involves attentive diagnosis and intentional treatment (67). As pastors treat souls, then, pastors must take note of four issues in particular. They must pay attention to a person’s faith—or lack thereof. They must prayerfully discern the shape of God’s providence in a parishioners’ life. Additionally, Senkbeil urges pastors to determine whether the person with whom their speaking understands God’s holiness and his call for saints to walk in holiness. Finally, in our sacred conversations with people, Senkbeil asks his ministerial colleagues to ensure that Christ followers comprehend genuine repentance: Does your conversation partner believe he or she is a sinner in need of God’s grace? Do they desire a clean conscience? Since our chief responsibility is a person’s relationship with God, these four guideposts can aid in conversations that echo into eternity.

Pastors give themselves to God and their people. Ministers live coram Deo (before the face of God) and pour themselves out in service to their people. Above all, this means a pastors life is taken up with prayer and meditation. In one sense, if pastors maintain good devotional habits, everything else will fall into place. They must be God besotted, Christ focused, Spirit empowered conduits of the gospel.

Pastors can prepare for spiritual attack. Satan will aim to discourage pastors in multiple ways, whether through overt attack, accusations (from Satan and/or people), or general rough patches of ministry. For this reason, pastors must fight against acedia—spiritual sloth. Acedia afflicts a pastor, according to Senkbeil, when he finds himself limping through his pastoral duties—performing them grudgingly rather than enthusiastically.  While I might differ with Senkbeil’s definition of acedia, his overall point remains: Ministry demands resilience and perseverance.

One Quibble
My quibble centers on the form and not the content of the book.

First, unnecessary repetition. Oddly enough, the book’s overall strength becomes a major weakness. As I worked through the material, I got the feeling that when Senkbeil didn’t know what to say, he reverted to his emphasis on the importance of word and sacrament ministry. I frequently found myself saying, “We get your point, brother.”

Second, artless expression. The prose lack elegance and beauty.

But Still . . . 
Eugene Peterson once remarked that the aim of his books was to recapture the pastoral imagination. I think he would be happy with Senkbeil’s contribution.

Two Reasons Christians Should Care about the Doctrine of the Trinity

Note: Fred Sanders’s book The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everythingprompted the following thoughts.

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Evangelicals yearn for immediacy and practicality, not necessarily prolonged contemplation on the being, wonder, and glory of the triune God. We can agree, I think, that droves of evangelicals are more likely flock to a conference on parenting rather than attend a symposium on the doctrine of the Trinity. After all, most would ask, “What’s the payoff?”

Despite this pragmatic bent, evangelicals remain Trinitarian–they display a “tacit” Trinitarianism, according to Sanders (52). Using his thoughts as a framework, here are two reasons why Christians should care about the doctrine of the Trinity:

The Trinity = The Gospel
Christians should care about the Trinity because without the Trinity we have no gospel. The Bible unveils both the gospel of God and the God of the gospel—the surprising story of a God who aims to share the joy of his life with fallen sinners bent on their own self-destruction (Jn. 15:11). Yet whether we realize it or not, as soon as we begin talking about Jesus and salvation, we’re ushered into the “happy land of the Trinity” (68). How and why is this the case? It’s the case, because, as Sanders highlights, “The Trinity is the presupposition of the gospel” (25). Such an assertion is made plain when we call to mind that 1) the Father sent the Son to accomplish our redemption (Jn. 3:16) and 2) that the Spirit applies the gospel to human hearts (Eph. 1:13–14).

Dipping into theological language, we need to see that soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) is grounded in the atonement of Christ, which is predicated upon the Son’s incarnation, which is a result of the Father sending his beloved Son on a rescue mission. Get it? Divine rescue, therefore, is “a Trinitarian affair.”[1] And if our salvation is a Trinitarian affair, then we should tune in, sit up straight, move forward in our seats, and listen well: “God’s begetting [the Son] ought to have the tribute of our reverent silence.”[2]

“Your God Is Too Small”
If the aim of good theology is to know and speak truly of God,[3] then the doctrine of the Trinity should be of interest to every Christian because it guards against unworthy thoughts of God, which is the second reason Christians should care about the Trinity. In order to avoid unworthy thoughts of God, God must teach us about himself: “Leave man to guess God’s mind and purpose, and he will guess wrong; he can know it only by being told it.”[4]

With these thoughts in place, consider the following statement: “God is Trinity primarily for himself and only secondarily for us” (80). Wait, what? What does such a statement even mean? The statement ushers us into the heart of a profound thought: God has a life of his own apart from our experience of him. Theologians refer to this as “the bliss of the Triune life.” Why “bliss”? Because God’s triune life is marked by joy. He is “blessed,” or “happy,” in himself (1 Tim. 1:11; 6:15).

What does this mean for us?
First, it means that creation wasn’t necessary. Sanders writes, “God minus creation would still be God” (75). God created the physical world because he chose to, not because he needed to. Theologian John Webster reminds us, “The act of creation is an act of God’s freedom.” Consequently, he “does not create in response to inner need or outer constraint and [he] could, without loss of perfection, refrain from creating.”[5]

An entailment of the above reflection is that we do not exist by necessity. We continue to live, breathe, and have our being as a result of God’s sustaining grace, not ultimately because of our good eating and exercise habits—and certainly not as a result of brute willpower.

As with creation and our existence, so likewise with our salvation. God’s plan of salvation arose neither out of inner lack nor despairing loneliness. Rather, it was “according to the purpose of his will, to praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:5–6). As one who is other-oriented by nature, God loves to share his life and joy with miserable sinners who deserve the opposite of his mercy and grace.[6]

Sanders argues that these reflections are significant because they guard against unworthy thoughts of God. In a memorable section of his book, he writes:

“The doctrine of the Trinity expels unworthy ideas about the perfection of God’s life. It is unworthy to think that God without us is lonely or bored. God is not looking for something to do in the happy land of the Trinity. God did not create the world in order to fill the drafty mansion of heaven with the pitter-patter of little feet. God is not pining away for companionship in a lonesome heaven” (100).

While we might not say it aloud, I think contemporary evangelicals are bothered by such thoughts. For some reason, the idea of a self-sufficient God rubs us the wrong way. It seems that deep down we want God to need us. Therefore, I think Sanders’s observation is correct: “When evangelicals lose their sense of proportion, they begin to talk as if they no longer care about the character of God unless they get something from it” (75).

Self-centeredness mixed with pragmatism makes for a powerful combination, it seems. But we must resist it. Insofar as our theology is sourced and normed by Scripture, the appropriate reflex of the saints is to bend their thoughts and conceptions of God to his self-disclosure. Maintaining a robustly anti-speculative posture, we come with open hands, ready to receive what God has revealed about himself.

What we have (and need!) is an all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere-present God who, out of perfect freedom, created all things (Gen. 1–2), sustains all things (Heb. 1:3), redeems rebellious sinners (Gal. 4:4–5), and purposes to unite all things in him (Eph. 1:10). To borrow a memorable line from Louis Berkhof (1873–1957), the God who exists is the God who is “not only independent in himself, but also causes everything to depend on him.”[7]

This glorious triune God is the one from whom, to whom, and through whom are all things. “To him be glory forever. Amen” (Rom. 11:36).

In sum, the Trinity presupposes the gospel because the Bible discloses that God the Father sent God the Son to purchase salvation for his people and then indwell them by his Spirit. Additionally, the doctrine of the Trinity rules out unworthy thoughts of God by reminding us that he’s self-sufficient and fulfilled within himself. Such a notion ensures that the works of creation and redemption are gratuitous acts of God and did not arise out of any imperfection in God’s inner life.

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[1] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014), 75.

[2] St. Gregory of Nazianzus, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cleodonius, trans. Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 76. See more recently, Michael Allen, “Dogmatics as Ascetics,” in The Task of Dogmatics: Explorations in Theological Method, eds. Oliver D. Crisp and Fred Sanders (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017), 190–191.

[3] I love the way John Webster put it: “Theology is nothing other than an attempt to repeat the name which God gives to himself as he manifests himself with sovereign mercy, ‘I am the Lord, your Holy One (Isa. 43. 15).” See his Holiness (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 16–17.

[4] J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (1958; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 92.

[5] John Webster, “Creation out of Nothing,” in Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic, eds. Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 139.

[6] Timothy Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (New York: Dutton, 2014), 68. Building upon Jonathan Edwards’s thoughts in The End for Which God Created the World, Keller notes that “the only reason God would have had for creating us was not to get the cosmic love and joy of relationship (because he already had that) but to share it.”

[7] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1941), 58.

“Aaron” – George Herbert (1593–1633)

As a lover and occasional writer of poetry, the following words by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813–1855) remain emblazoned in my mind, although I first read them years ago: “What is a poet? An unhappy man who hides deep anguish in his heart, but whose lips are so formed that when the sigh and cry pass through them, it sounds like lovely music.”[1]

While I suppose unhappiness is not a prerequisite for writing poetry, the fact remains that poets’ lips do indeed form and sound forth lovely music. Leland Ryken’s new edited volume The Soul in Paraphrase: A Treasury of Classic Devotional Poems is a great example of this. One such poet whose work I have come to appreciate is George Herbert (1593–1633). Not only was he a “metaphysical poet,” but he was also an ordained priest in the Church of England. Given his vocation as a minister, he would often weave theological truths and Scriptural allusions into his poems that those less familiar with the Bible might not appreciate.

One beautiful example of this is his poem “Aaron.” Drawing upon the imagery of Aaron’s garments as recounted in Exodus 28:2–38, Herbert masterfully and marvelously (not hyperbole in my estimation!), depicts how Christ clothes broken, sinful humanity with his perfect righteousness. Through the “sweet exchange,” the spotless righteousness of our eternal High Priest covers all our imperfections and transgressions: “For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever” (Hebrews 7:28).

As you read this poem, please pay attention to what Leland Ryken calls the “triumph of organization.” Herbert’s precision and attention to detail are simply exquisite. Finally, you’ll need to read this poem more than once to appreciate the beauty.

Dear reader, bask in the glory of your Redeemer:

Holiness on the head,
Light and perfections on the breast,
Harmonious bells below, raising the dead
To lead them unto life and rest:
Thus are true Aarons dressed.

Profaneness in my head,
Defects and darkness in my breast,
A noise of passions ringing me for dead
Unto a place where is no rest:
Poor priest, thus am I dressed.

Only another head
I have, another heart and breast,
Another music, making live, not dead,
Without whom I could have no rest:
In him I am well dressed.

Christ is my only head,
My alone-only heart and breast,
My only music, striking me even dead,
That to the old man I may rest,
And be in him new-dressed.

So, holy in my head,
Perfect and light in my dear breast,
My doctrine tuned by Christ (who is not dead,
But lives in me while I do rest),
Come people; Aaron’s dressed.

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[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, trans. Alastair Hannay (NY: Penguin, 2004), 43.

Three Verses That Keep Me in the Fight

With his retirement on the horizon, my mentor/friend, Steve McLean, was asked to speak to a group of a missionaries on the topic “Three Verses That Kept Me in the Ministry.” As you can tell, the topic spurred me to consider the same question for myself. After some prayer and reflection, I selected the following verses and ruminated on them a bit. The result is this blog.

While you may not serve in vocational ministry, I’d love to hear what verses or passages in the Bible have meant a lot to you in your life. As for me, here are some verses to which I return quite often.

For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Ephesians 6:12)

Ministerial life is a combination of exceeding joy and inescapable sorrow (“sorrowful yet always rejoicing,” to quote Paul [2 Cor. 6:10]). Far from a holiday at the sea, it implants one squarely within the throws of the perennial war between God and the devil. Such tension makes for an adventurous earthly trek, to say the least.

One moment we’re pulsating with resurrection life; the next we’re pining within due to death and disappointment—and a veritable host of other tragedies that make up one’s life east of Eden.

Eugene Peterson was right: pastoral work “specializes in the ordinary”[1]—small talk, forays into a congregant’s quotidian existence of parenting, diaper changing, unruly bosses, etc.—but it also involves placarding the splendid truths of the gospel—Christ’s life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at the Father’s right hand, and the marvelous gifts purchased for his people as a result—“the unsearchable riches of Christ” (Eph. 3:8). Moreover, the complexities of soul care usher a minister into the joys and sorrows of his fellow sojourners, lifting one either to the heights of praise or the depths of Sheol.

Perhaps you’re wondering at this point: “Why does this verse keep you in the fight?”

They keep me in the fight because they reveal that the shape of my life is par for the course. Say what you will, but Calvin Miller was right: “Ministry is not for sissies.”[2]

The level of spiritual attack is heightened for those on the frontlines of ministry. An onslaught of accusations from Satan is inevitable; coping with feelings of discouragement is normal; jousting with the inner taskmaster of workaholism is expected; enduring the Dark Night of the Soul is almost a rite of passage. Mini-deaths, intractable people and circumstances, sleepless nights, feelings of worthlessness, tearful goodbyes—such is our lot. Paul’s words plant us firmly in the real world. They winnow me off any notion that ministry will be a life of ease and safety. For this, I am thankful.

“Central to what it means to be ordained is to open the doors of one’s soul to the complexities, pathos, longings, and even sins of those the pastor has vowed to serve.”[3]

From the ominous words of Ephesians 6:12, we move to a life-giving exhortation from the same apostle.

Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. (1 Corinthians 15:58)

Pastoral ministry requires disciplined rather than desultory living. The rhythm of work and rest notwithstanding, we are to “throw ourselves into our ministry tasks” (to paraphrase Paul’s charge to Timothy [1 Tim. 4:15]). Such a call precludes me from having a medley of interests pulling me in varied directions. Rather, I must focus all my energy on fulfilling God’s call on my life.

Nevertheless, it’s at this point that 1 Corinthians 15:58 serves as a ballast for the rough seas of ministry. You see, Satan often tells me that my labor is in vain. And it’s a fight not to believe him. Hence, my deceitful heart needs such a delectable promise!

In a world replete with traps, opportunities to fall, and a ministerial culture brimming with obsessive strivers, we need to rub the scent of Paul’s words deep into our psyches.

My work is not in vain. Brother pastor, your work is not in vain.

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (2 Timothy 4:1–2)

God summoned me into the ministry during one of my pastor’s Sunday evening sermons. Out of nowhere the thought gripped me, “That’s what I want to do. I want to preach.” Through many twists and turns, detours and roundabouts, the passion to preach has never left me.

For this reason, when I drift into ministerial malfunction, Paul’s simple yet profound words to Timothy latch on to my heart like a vice grip. As one who plays a primary role in the mind renewal process (Rom. 12:2), I’m charged with delivering up nutritious meals (sermons) to God’s people. This is both my greatest joy and my greatest burden—my greatest joy because I serve as a steward of the mysteries of God (1 Cor. 4:1); my greatest burden due to the relentless return of Sundays. Therefore, I must rightly handle the Word of God and study to show myself approved (2 Tim. 2:15). This entails drenching myself in the text, kneading it into my own heart and life, so that as a well-trained scribe in the kingdom (Matt. 13:52), I can make the truth glisten, showcasing all of its richness, power, and applicability.

“Let most of what you do be dominated by the demands of the sermon as if your whole life and reason for being is to preach Christ, because it is.”[4]

Conclusion

When it’s all said and done, ministry is pure gift. It’s the privilege itself that keeps me in the fight. Meandering through life with the same group of people, in a specific location, for a lifetime is the greatest privilege imaginable. We live together. We rejoice together. We weep together. We listen together. We pray together. We sing together.

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[1] Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 112.

[2] Calvin Miller, Letters to a Young Pastor (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2011), 23.

[3] M. Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet: Texts and Subtexts in the Ministerial Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 22.

[4] Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 44.