Sunday, November 30, 2014

Happy New Year

It's a long voyage indeed. Today I get to wish everyone a happy new year. Yep, November 30. The body of Christ has long observed the Sunday closest to St. Andrew's Day as the start of the year.  Andrew, the first apostle to be called by Jesus, the one who found and brought his brother Simon, has his day today. And today, being Sunday, we start the new year. It's a time of new beginnings. It's a time to look again to the Lord, asking him to come with his forgiveness and grace.

How do we start the year? Is it a big party? Actually, that's another counter-cultural factor of the Church. We begin the year with a period of repentance. The season of Advent is a time for preparation to welcome the Christ who is to come. We look to his second coming but we also look to the celebration of his first coming, in a manger, in humble circumstances. And as we look to the coming of Christ we humble ourselves. We sing songs which are subdued. It's a time of fasting. It's a time for repentance. It's a time to look forward to Christ, the redeemer of the world, whose coming we will recognize on December 25.

Happy new year! It's time to start out the day slowly and carefully, knowing that everything will be cooking for real pretty soon.

By the way, people often ask about the tradition of Advent candles and wreaths. For what it's worth, that's a pretty new custom, dating back into the 1800s. There are four candles around the perimeter. One is often rose colored, while the others are usually blue or purple. There may or may not be a white candle in the middle. On the first Sunday of Advent light the one which is toward the front. Work around clockwise, one candle at a time. On Christmas, light the white candle if there is one. Different commentators have assigned different significances to the individual candles or different themes to the different weeks. It's up for grabs. A fun thing but by no means with a long history or any definitive traditions.

The Advent candles or an Advent calendar do give us a good structure for taking on something new or rededicating ourselves to something old, maybe a brief family Bible reading, singing a song, or having an extra time of prayer for some situation in the world.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Peterson, 1987. Chapter 4, "Turning Eyes into Ears"

Chapter 4, “Turning Eyes into Ears” (Loc. 836)

Peterson begins this chapter by observing that the Scripture is given to use not so we can analyze it but so we can hear from God. “But it is just this quality of zestful passion to listen to Scripture that diminishes, even to the point of disappearance, in the course of pastoral work” (Loc. 840). Listening and reading are very different activities. Listening is entering into dialog of some sort. God calls us to listen.

Peterson suggests (Loc. 868) that printing has had the side effect of decreasing our zeal for God’s Word. It is not common and easy to find, which may make it hard to “hear.”

Likewise (Loc. 898), the interactive personal task of learning has often been replaced by the more passive reception of schooling. If we have become passive in pursuit of truth we will not receive that truth.

Finally, Peterson thinks (Loc. 937) that we have gone astray by becoming consumers and customers rather than creators. The pastor is called to hear God’s Word, to seek it out, and to shepherd God’s flock. This is counter to much of modern culture. It is something we will do well to recover.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Peterson, 1987. Chapter 3, "Prayer Time"

Chapter 3, “Prayer Time” (Loc. 620)

Peterson expresses surprise at the number of things people would ask a pastor to do, especially considering that religious concerns seem less important to many people than they were in prior generations. Yet Peterson observes, “among the considerable demands on my time not one demanded that I practice a life of prayer” (Loc. 630). Yet Peterson insists this life of prayer, practicing how to respond to God’s Word, is heart and center of ministry.

Peterson ties this concept (Loc. 662) to the need for a sabbath, a day of rest. While we tend to think of night as the end, the biblical concept of a day starts with night, a time of expectancy. We look forward to God’s overarching plan and move in and out of his activities in our pattern of work and rest. The Sabbath then is the large time of rest, ordained by God.

The sabbath then is “Uncluttered time and space to distance ourselves from the frenzy of our own activities so we can see what God has been and is doing” (Loc. 727). Keeping this time and space is God’s command, allowing us to see him. Yet Peterson says we have a great desire to simply work harder. This is finally depending on ourselves rather than on God.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Peterson, 1987. Chapter 2, "Praying by the Book"

Chapter 2, “Praying by the Book” (Loc. 421)

Prayer plunges us into vivid communication with the living God. It also sets us apart from and sometimes into opposition with our community. So why are our prayers weak? Prayer “has been uprooted from the soil of the word of God” (Loc. 433). We realize that “prayer is never the first word; it is always the second word. God has the first word. Prayer is answering speech; it is not primarily ‘address’ but ‘response’ (Loc. 446). Therefore, when we begin an event with prayer, we need to confess its character as an answer to God’s Word.

Where do we learn to pray, to answer God? We go to the Psalms. Through all history they have been the prayer book for God’s people. Peterson discusses the division of Psalms into five books with divisions before Psalm 42, 73, 90, and 107. In location 534 Peterson suggests the books have a relationship to the Pentateuch, each section answering the themes of one book. However, when we look for the specific themes we are disappointed. God’s communication with us is complex, as are the many types of answers we find in the Psalms.

Peterson develops an idea that the Torah walks us from birth to maturity and that during each stage we respond through the prayers of the Psalter. When we are thus equipped we are ready with prayers empowered by God.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Peterson, 1987. Chapter 1, "Greek Stories and Hebrew Prayers"

Peterson, Eugene. Working the Angles: the Shape of Pastoral Integrity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987. Kindle Edition.

In his lengthy introduction Peterson lays out the idea that a geometric shape is determined by its angles. The three angles he sees as most important in shaping the pastoral life are prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction. Those are the pastor’s indispensable elements.

Chapter 1, "Greek Stories and Hebrew Prayers” (Loc. 200).

Sometimes in the midst of chaos a pastor seems to be non-essential. Peterson compares it to “putting plastic flowers in people’s drab lives” (Loc. 209). On the contrary, pastors are called to minister in Word and Sacrament, something which may seem irrelevant at times and does not fit into our framework of sense. Yet throughout history communities have always set aside pastors to minister in word and sacrament.

What is essential in all this? If we hold to a life of prayer it will keep “Pastoral work true to itself centered in word and sacrament” (Loc. 254).

Peterson uses the ancient Greeks as an illustration of reality. The gods were selfish and capricious yet the Greeks sought knowledge and wisdom. The work of the pastor is in large part preparing people to live and die in a fallen world. Peterson affirms (Loc. 318) that in the 19th century prayer was “pushed out of the action” as enlightenment values overcame the Church. When biblical history was recast as a sort of mythic narrative, free from the power of God, the vivid life of prayer declined as well. The solution is to return the Psalms and the life of prayer to the center of Christian community life.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Chapter 5, “The Pastoral Work of Community-Building: Esther”

Chapter 5, “The Pastoral Work of Community-Building: Esther” (Loc. 1837-2296)

“All pastoral work takes place in the setting of the church, the community of faith. The pastor is never a private chaplain to individuals; the pastor is never an impersonal speaker to crowds; the pastor is set in community and given the task of building that community” (loc. 1841). Peterson says this is viewed as good until our community notices we are building a community of faith, not what they might desire. There are so many secular substitutes for a community of faith that it is easy to be misunderstood (Loc. 1853). Yet the community is central to a biblical idea of God’s people. “There are no Robinson Crusoe traditions in the biblical narratives” (Loc. 1875).

Peterson draws our attention to “Esther because it presents the issue of the nature and function of God’s people in stark and simple terms; survival versus annihilation” (Loc. 1914(. The people around Esther were largely hostile. At best they were indifferent. How do God’s people live in community? In Esther they do, celebrating the victory of their people over the enemy. Our concern is that we have this joyful celebration in its right context. “Joy, separated from its roots in God and pursued apart from the community of faith, becomes mere sensation” (Loc. 1940).

There is little known about the Jews in their captivity in Babylon. We know that the people in Susa tended toward syncretism (Loc. 1988). This was not Judaism at its best. Our congregations are not perfect Christianity. All remain due to God’s grace (Loc. 2000). The size of the congregation is not its security but the Lord is (Loc. 2052).

Peterson diagnoses the problem. We prefer the active leadership of King Saul to the quiet faith of Mordecai. “The importance of Mordecai for the pastor derives from his style of leadership, a style that exemplifies the way of the servant” (Loc. 2179). Though he is the leader who protects all the Jews from destruction and who has been faithful to the pagan king, he does not seek honor or prestige.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Chapter 4, “The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying: Ecclesiastes”

Chapter 4, “The Pastoral Work of Nay-Saying: Ecclesiastes” (Loc. 1428-1836)

The work of the pastor, as a visible individual, is often highly symbolic in people’s eyes, of the work of God. People want something from God and they expect the pastor to deliver it. There is, however, a drawback. “We work on a street teeming with competition. Every kind of religious leadership is offered to persons who want ‘god’” (Loc. 1450). Peterson suggests that people’s desires lie essentially in two directions, that they want miracles as they want answers (Loc. 1458). Amid the various demands, Ecclesiastes warns us what we must avoid (Loc. 1468). The dating and authorship are unclear. It is, however, clear that the preacher is in a time when religion and its wisdom are seen as delivering a life which is very fulfilling. We can discern that religious life was not entirely victorious. The author brings out the theme of enjoyment repeatedly (Loc. 1522) as if it is lacking in practice. The solution the preacher gives is the “yes” of the Gospel, not any other positive message (loc. 1536). as a result, when there is a message which tries to use God to gain our wants, the pastor’s response is “no” (Loc. 1565).

Peterson observes the pastoral function of the wisdom literature (Loc. 1592ff), noting that it is intended to focus worshipers in their everyday world. Contrary to this, the people found unsatisfying platitudes (Loc. 1640). Counter to this, God has revealed himself in Scripture which can be examined and held up to investigation (Loc. 1644). That knowledge and wisdom, though, needs to be kept in its context. It may not be divorced from God or it becomes mumbo-jumbo. “The only way to keep knowledge from becoming separated from relationship with God is to return to the confessional base of worship” (loc. 1662). Here we confess the God who works miracles at the same time that we learn to live in him whether he works those miracles or not. The true worship of God may well not be showy but will always be in consonance with God’s covenant (Loc. 1752). This is what creates vitality in worship.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Chapter 3, “The Pastoral Work of Pain - Sharing: Lamentations”

Chapter 3, “The Pastoral Work of Pain - Sharing: Lamentations” (Loc. 1088-1428)

“Among other things pastoral work is a decision to deal . . . with suffering” (Loc. 1092).  The Bible likewise shows God entering into our suffering. The book of Lamentations helps us see that suffering. The book of Lamentations helps us see that world of suffering which God enters. The book of Lamentations was traditionally read publicly on the Ninth of Ab, a fast remembering the Babylonian Captivity” (Loc. 1120). Lamentations is a highly structured book. “The laments are all composed on an alphabetic structure as acrostics. The five laments constitute, in company with Psalm 119, the most elaborate acrostic composition in the Bible” (Loc. 1130). Peterson traces some of the patterns of emotional movement found in the different portions of Lamentations. In the repetition of Lamentations Peterson sees that we return to consider our troubles even as we see they have an end. The pastor can help in healing. “the simple act of making an appointment to return to listen again to the tale of tragedy or sorrow or whatever begins to put boundaries around it” (Loc. 1181). Peterson further points out that the content of our lamentation is concrete. It is linked to actual happenings, not simply to feelings. Suffering has a root “in a locatable place and at a datable time” (Loc. 1196).

Peterson next moves to the concept of anger. “If, at one level, Lamentations is an immersion in human suffering, at another level it is an encounter with God’s anger” (Loc. 1243). Seeing suffering in a context which includes a personal God who can be angered also allows us to conceive of a God who can forgive. Here the person enduring trials can find comfort. Peterson observes that this leads to dignity, as opposed to the shame which other humanist traditions bring (Loc. 1315). Peterson is very critical of clinical pastoral training as it reduces the pastor to the servant of the medical model. It is through pastoral care that the hurting person can receive healing.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Chapter 2, “The Pastoral Work of Story-Making: Ruth”

Chapter 2, “The Pastoral Work of Story-Making: Ruth” (Loc. 683-1087)

Peterson views the pastor’s move from chancel to narthex as very difficult. In the chancel everything was ordered, neat and tidy. In the narthex he runs into the challenges of life (Loc. 697). “Ruth is a particularly useful book for the narthex, for the story is placed in ‘the times the judges judged,’ a notoriously disordered age” (Loc. 719). It is not who Ruth is or who the people of Israel are which makes them important. It is what God has done and declared (Loc. 746). Israel was aware of this aspect of life, which spurred them to write history. “This historical consciousness of Israel, made frm the stuff of election and covenant, has been thoroughly discussed by biblical scholars and does not need further elaboration here” (Loc. 772). Yet Ruh was historically read at Pentecost, a time when the people would be reminded by their own work of God’s work gathering a people.

Peterson finds it important that Ruth is in essence a short story, not a didactic text - as with real life, we get to interpret the story. Peterson elaborates on this at some length, then ties the idea to the give and take found in pastoral counseling and visitation.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chapter 1, “The Pastoral Work of Prayer-Directing: Song of Songs”

Peterson, Eugene. Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980 Kindle Edition.

Chapter 1, “The Pastoral Work of Prayer-Directing: Song of Songs” (Loc. 233-682)

Peterson discusses the interaction of sexuality and prayer, both of which have a great deal to do with how we manage intimacy. “Much of pastoral work has to do with nurturing intimacy, that is, developing relationships in which love is successfully expressed and received - shared” (Loc. 239). All relationships can be seen with both horizontal (person to person) and vertical (person to God) dynamics. All our lives are dynamics of the earthly and the heavenly.

Beginning at Loc. 264 Peterson discusses salvation as the rescue of God from slavery to sin and evil. By this rescue, God puts people into their relationships, both with him and one another.  Passover was the time that Israel celebrated their salvation (Loc. 281). At Passover the Song of Songs is traditionally read. Peterson suggests this is to remind Israel of the personal intimacy of their salvation (Loc. 290).

At Loc. 330 Peterson explores Adam and the Fall as a model for our failure to live in covenant with God, a condition usually referred to as adultery or other unfaithfulness. Song of Songs (Loc. 340) is special in that it portrays the positive union rather than looking in negative terms. The connection finally is that of a covenant (Loc. 410) in which God’s love is the truest love there is.

This covenantal view of love reaches into the deepest interior relationships which we can have. Peterson extrapolates that this covenantal knowing is related to the frequent naming of God and His people. In Loc. 469 he applies this to pastoral work, indicating that knowing the people by name is one of the most important things a pastor does.

Peterson concludes the chapter by walking through the Song and applying the different situations to our longing, desires, and responses to hurts.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Chapter 4, “Ministry by a Lonely Minister” pp. 81-96

Chapter 4, “Ministry by a Lonely Minister” pp. 81-96

In this chapter Nouwen explores the idea of “both the wounded minister and the healing minister” (p. 82). It is this minister, who operates out of a place of his own weakness, who brings the strength of God to our world.

Nouwen first (p. 83) discusses the weakness in loneliness, something which ministers know very well and which troubled people often fight. Nouwen redefines the issue. “The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift” (p. 84). This is a gift because it makes us look beyond ourselves.

Nouwen goes on to discuss the professional loneliness, in which the minister is minimally tolerated even though he has God’s words of life and hope. Yet it is exactly this pain and alienation which empowers a minister to associate with the pain of others.

nouwen now turns (p. 87) to the minister as a healer. The minister can see “the depth of the human condition which all men share” (p. 88). The wounded minister is able to hve the compassion and grace to be a witness to hurting people. This healing is shown in making purposeful space for the other to open up. it then shows itself to be a very friendly space. In this space, the guest can find healing and care.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Chapter 3, “Ministry to a Hopeless Man” pp. 47-80

Chapter 3, “Ministry to a Hopeless Man” pp. 47-80

Nouwen observes that in all walks of life people lead others. In the simplest form, leadership may be a one-on-one encounter. These simple interactions may be key to understanding more complex relationships.

Nouwen builds a case study involving a patient and a chaplain. The patient is frightened and essentially shuts down conversation. The patient is scared of the impersonal, technological surroundings in the hospital. He was fearful of death but the chaplain did not perceive this. The patient has nothing good waiting for his recovery so does not really know what to desire, not to mention how to express his desires.

We think about these conditions, as does Nouwen on p. 62. “What could or should John have done for Mr. Harrison? But this question is really not fair. For the condition of Mr. Harrison was not immediately clear and comprehensible.” Possibly the theology student could have recognized the impersonal surroundings and given a personal response. This moving forward to make oneself known and knowable is an important step in ministry, especially in a largely impersonal world. The Christian can promise to be present, whether in life or in death. This is a great comfort. We minister through showing “first, personal concern, which asks one man to give his life for his fellow man; second, a deep-rooted faith in the value and meaning of life, even when the days look dark; and third, an outgoing hope which always looks for tomorrow, even beyond the moment of death” (p. 71).

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Chapter 2, ‘Ministry for a Rootless Generation” pp. 26-46

Chapter 2, ‘Ministry for a Rootless Generation” pp. 26-46

Nouwen asks two questions in this chapter. “First, how do the men and women of tomorrow look today? And second, how can we lead them to where they can redeem their people?” (p. 26). Nouwen characterizes this generation of young people in three important ways. he sees them as being “the inward generation, the generation without fathers, and the convulsive generation” (p. 27).

As an inward generation he sees our youth as giving priority to personal matters, often being withdrawn. Rather than looking to outside authority our young people tend to be militantly individual. Nouwen suggests that a ministry which is sensitive can transform the inward focus from one of selfishness to one of a focus on “the reality of the unseen” (p. 29).

As a generation without fathers young people are suspicious of any claims to authority. Having seen the adult world fail young people wish to avoid taking any examples. Unfortunately this can lead to a dependence on peer examples which lack experience.

As a convulsive generation young people who see few real opportunities in their lives attempt to do something to create change. There is hope for real change but the vision is fragmented.

“When we look for the implications of our prognosis for the Christian ministry of the future, it appears as though three roles ask for special attention: (1) the leader as an articulator of inner events; (2) the leader as man of compassion; (3) the leader as contemplative critic” (p. 36).

  1. The minister as the articulator of inner events
The contemplative and other inwardly-focused people often find they need a guide, someone or something outside of themselves upon whom to depend. This personal mentoring is not a work many ministers are accustomed to. The minister needs to find ways of articulating the inner life for others.

  1. Compassion
Nouwen compares compassion with authority, finding that compassion can “become the core and even the nature of authority” (p. 40). We take the compassion of God to our world. This is coupled with professionalism. It sets the Christian minister apart from other professionals.

  1. The minister as contemplative man
As Nouwen considers it, the contemplative person is able to interact with a fast-paced world and keep up with it. yet he is thoughtful about the interactions. This is revolutionary in its own right as it cuts to the heart of difficult issues.