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Lessons Gleaned from a Retirement Ceremony

Life in a post-Genesis 3 world ensures both heavenly and hellish days as we march toward the New Jerusalem. Whether we’re basking in the warmth of God’s blessings or trudging through the snow of a difficult season, notes of grace are all around us. An unexpected note of grace opened before me this past weekend with my mentor, Steve McLean (about whom I’ve written in a previous blog), as I attended his retirement ceremony at Argyle Presbyterian Church—the body of believers he served so faithfully for thirty-three years.

I must admit that I had no category for a moving retirement celebration, but as I’ve reflected on that weekend a number of lessons came to mind. Here they are:

  1. God’s faithfulness. He sends servants to minister to his people, no matter where they may be. And thankfully, he works in the hearts of people, moving them to willing service. God took a city boy from Philadelphia to an isolated rural community in upstate New York. As one elderly saint put it, “It must be the call of God because it’s not common sense.” Indeed.

 

  1. Living on mission makes a difference. Testimony after testimony poured forth from the lips of Argyle’s residents. From Steve’s work as a volunteer firefighter, to his wife Kim’s incessant substitute teaching—these servants of God lived not for themselves but “for him who for their sake died and was raised” (2 Cor. 5:15). They modeled the tagline of their church: Making disciples who make a difference.

 

  1. God is a true comedian. Since Steve planned on serving a church near his hometown of Philadelphia, upon graduating from Gordon Conwell he urged his denomination to send his résumé to churches within a certain radius. They complied with this request, dutifully disbursing his résumé to the appropriate sixty congregations in need of a pastor. Except that didn’t happen. Due to an “accidental oversight,” an additional résumé was unintentionally sent to a rural church in Argyle, New York. And as they say, the rest is history. Steve served this congregation from 1986 to 2019. Truly, the words of the sage ring true: “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9).

 

  1. The tender relationship between pastor and people. True shepherds love their people and Christ’s sheep maintain a fond affection for their overseers. Yes, the pastor has his faults and the people have their foibles, but such is life together. Ministry is real life, not a staged Facebook or Instagram story—which is why God’s people should prefer an imperfect pastor who wrestles with self-doubt over a “vision-caster” who walks with a swag, and why pastors should opt to serve the congregation in front of them and not the imagined one in their dreams. In a ministerial culture jam-packed with platform-builders, Steve took a different route. He faithfully plodded and persevered, applying himself to the tasks of pastoral life—preaching, praying, pronouncing benedictions, along with planning sessions and presiding at weddings and funerals, voicing laments with the heartbroken and uttering praises with the joyful.

 

  1. The benefit of a long ministry. You can make a difference by staying put in one church for a long time. While it’s not always God’s will for a pastor to serve one congregation throughout his time in ministry, so long as it depends on us, we should strive for a long, enduring ministry in one place.

 

  1. Ministry is gift, not gain. Here I purposely borrow from and yet modify David Gibson’s words. But the overall point is the same: Ministry is a privilege. We didn’t earn it. Whether we serve a mega-church filled with wealthy suburbanites or a rural congregation that struggled each year to make budget, the fact remains—it was all grace. Yes, the bruising demands of ministry are real. Yes, sheep bite. Yes, wading into people’s lives is messy. But when it comes time to pronounce the last benediction over our people and the images of our lives flicker movie-like in the theater of our minds, truly we’ll confess with our lips, “It was all of grace. It is well with my soul.”

 

Memento Mori: How Contemplating Death Leads to More Intentional Living

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints (Psalm 116:15).

“Resolved, to think much on all occasions of my own dying, and the common circumstances which attend death” ~ Jonathan Edwards
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They say gray hair is a sign of wisdom. If so, I received such wisdom from an older, gray-haired pastor last week. He said, “Life is like the Hebrew alphabet. You can only read it backwards.” Those insightful words spurred me to contemplate the shape of my life. As I reflected, I distinctly recalled how although God drew me to himself at age fifteen, I also saw how he put me on the path toward following Christ and the road to pastoral ministry earlier in my life. For example, I began contemplating death at an early age. The first impression came when I was about seven years old, sitting in a brown rocking chair in my family’s living room.

Transfixed by the thought of death, I wondered: What happens when you die? Do we simply fade into a dark oblivion of nothingness, with no memories of our former existence? While I tried to push such thoughts out of mind, they returned with some frequency.

While some imagine contemplating death as morbid, the Bible regards it as healthy. Solomon counsels, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (Eccl. 7:2). Why? Because contemplating our end is the path to the good life. This is why David prayed, “O LORD, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!” (Ps. 39:4). Additionally, Moses petitions, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).

Contemplating death often motivates us to change our lives—to set aside negative character traits that we know need attention. Put differently, coming to grips with our own mortality propels us into self-examination—and that’s a good thing.

If you think self-examination is nothing more than narcissistic navel-gazing, please consider that the Christian tradition (specifically the Desert Fathers) urged other Christians to practice what they called memento mori—an exercise of reflecting on one’s death with the aim of leading to more intentional living.

Give it a try.

Close your eyes and picture your funeral. What does the venue look like? Who is there? As people gather in circles to discuss your life, how will they remember you? What will they say? What aspects of your character will they highlight? Will they speak of your generosity, kindness, humility, or love? Will they speak of your anger, bad temper, pessimistic attitude, or hurtful comments you made to them? Will they speak of your stubbornness, bitterness, and unforgiving nature?

What memories will they share? What will your eulogy sound like? What will the dominant theme of your life be?

Okay, stop.

Now write down what you wish people at your funeral will say about you. How do you aspire for people to remember you? What negative qualities would you prefer they not highlight? How do you want to be remembered?

The point of the exercise is to demonstrate that there’s a gap in each of our lives between who we are and who we’d like to be. Identifying your flaws through the exercise of self-examination motivates self-discipline, leading (by God’s grace) to a change in our behavior.

I dare you to try it.

 

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.