Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Old Wounds Run Deep

Old wounds run deep, my boy.

When I was your age,

The Church was not as it is now.

Ah! I can see the question in your eyes,

And I shall answer it.

We are all subject to the wrath of time, you see.

Some things we cannot see

Because we are not old enough to see,

And other things are changed by time,

So that now we see them differently

Than our fathers ever dreamed we would.

My fathers were good men,

Sons of God indeed,

But they never saw—nor wanted to see—

The unity that you and I have, my boy.

My fathers worshipped in wooden churches

Where the pulpit was in the center

And the Bible always open on that pulpit.

Your fathers worshipped in cathedrals,

With the altar in the center

And upon it the Beautiful Sacrament.

Both loved Christ,

But neither truly loved the other.

Ah! But fear not—

They shall have all eternity to learn that love,

And it will be a lesson rich in laughter.

Oh, it’s true! Do you doubt me?

There were many days when missionaries

Would plant only their own little churches,

Even if the soil was hard indeed,

And ignore the good work of the Spirit

Already begun by another church.

Another Church, you ask?

Can there be such a thing?

My boy, I am glad you live in an age

Where such questions seem reasonable.

True, we still have differences of opinion, don’t we?

We can’t all be right.

But that which divides us is not as important

As that which makes us one.

In my day there were men of fervent faith on both sides,

With righteousness as their raiment,

And grace in every word.

And I remember the joy of it all,

When we first began to realize

That we were no longer enemies.

It took a long time, it’s true.

But it was the Spirit who led us here,

He who convicted us of truth,

And He who made us one.

You see all these steeples, my boy?

These are the houses of your family.

Some things are worth fighting for,

And some things are not,

And we must discern carefully

Between the two.

But rest now, my young friend.

My ramblings have made you weary.

Tomorrow?

Oh yes, I shall see you tomorrow.

I am your neighbor after all,

And your brother

And your friend.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Extraordinary Greatness

The past couple weeks have been busy ones for me, pushing through a course on the Old Testament at breakneck speed. But now I have a week off, time enough to get ready for another semester, brush up on my Greek, and plunge back in. The problem is that when I have time off, I’m woefully undisciplined at using it constructively. It’s hard to keep to a monastic round on one’s own. But things are going well here in Denver, which may be finally starting to warm up after a cold spell. Rachel’s back at school as well, and she seems to be enjoying it most of the time and pluckily persevering the rest of the time. We were both drafted onto our church’s mission team a couple weeks ago, so it’s been fun to get involved in that way, planning out a few services for next month.

One of the things that has been on my mind since coming to seminary, and especially in the last few weeks, is the issue of greatness. Last semester my scholarship group—myself and five other guys, all on some sort of pastoral track—read J. Oswald Sanders’ classic, Spiritual Leadership. In his first chapter, Sanders addresses the desire to lead as “an honorable ambition.” Further, he writes, “Desiring to be great is not a sin. It is motivation that determines ambition’s character.”

I think Sanders is right. The problem for me, though, is that my motivations are often mixed. I don’t know how far such ambitions extend among others, but I’ve never given up the dream of having a heroic life. Not necessarily famous, mind you, but heroic—I want a life that will make a good story by the end. I take an odd sort of pleasure in circumstances that are downright unpleasant—like getting stranded all night in a deserted mudpit along a landmined highway in the Angolan bush—simply because it’s so adventuresome. One of the most difficult verses for me to accept wholeheartedly is Paul’s advice in 1 Thess. 4:11 (which I’m now going to quote in truncated form, and blatantly out of context), “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life.” Taken at face value, though this advice does have some quaint appeal, it sounds boring to me. I take comfort in the fact that Paul’s own life certainly doesn’t conform flawlessly to this ideal. I would much rather be like Paul than like a quiet Thessalonian workman. Maybe in the end of all things it will be the workman, and not the intrepid missionary, who gains the greater reward, but it is the latter ideal that drives my heart.

Anyway, these peculiar leanings of mine are often coupled with a desire for greatness. Sometimes it takes the form of prideful yearning for personal attention, but more often it’s a sincere desire to see God doing great things in and around me. I want to be a tool of great usefulness in the hands of the King, and that desire knows almost no bounds. Maybe I have a messianic complex, but there are times when I dream of shaking the nations singlehandedly for the cause of Christ. Luckily for my pride, though, I’m not in a position to do that, except through prayer. Still, having been lauded fairly often for my preaching, writing, scholasticism, and even my insatiable wanderlust, the monster of pride lurks all too near the doorways of my heart. In the beauty of God’s workmanship, though, I’ve found that even when he does do great things through me, I’m often blissfully unaware of his move until well after the fact. By then all the glory has faded, and I am left speechless with wonder and love for his measureless grace.

But the point of this rambling string of thoughts is only indirectly about me. I know you wouldn’t get that idea from reading the paragraphs above, but it’s true. The thought that struck me, following on the heels of my last post, is that God is not nearly so concerned about using me to do great things as he is concerned with using his church to do great things.

I am slowly learning to be content with anonymity and commonness, for no one is anonymous or common to God or to the church. I am discovering the joy of not being a reckless individual in the middle of the spotlight, but rather being a member of the body that dances in the unending light of God’s grace. Whatever else comes in this life, whether my days make a good story or not, I will know that I have belonged to something truly extraordinary, to something that defies all measure of greatness—I will have been among the saints of God; I will have been among the church.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Pursuing the Will of God Through the Church

Well, after a great Christmas in both Maine and Pennsylvania, Rachel and I are back in Littleton, surrounded by the freshly-fallen snow of two recent blizzards. Our poor little car was buried deep, and I, without a snow-shovel, had to unearth most of it with a cookie tray. But overall, we’re happy to be back. It’s hard to say another round of goodbyes to our families, but at the same time it’s nice to be out here among our Colorado friends again. Rachel went back to work at the alternative high school today, and I’m about to plunge back into classes for a hectic two-week intersession class.

One thing I’ve been thinking a lot about since coming to seminary is the future—where God will call us and what sort of ministry we should be pursuing. This is, of course, the common struggle of most Christians our age, and as a whole we probably make the process much more stressful than it needs to be.

A few years ago I gave up the frantic chase to discover God’s special plan for my life and settled into a more patient pace. To constantly be harrying God to reveal his specific purposes for one’s life is to generate a negative view of God—that of a harsh and distant master who teasingly watches his servants stumble around in the darkness. Rather, it seems to me that when God does have a specific task for someone to follow, he makes it dramatically evident. There is no guessing, no wrestling with shadowy unknowns. God’s special plans were always made clear in Scripture through such means as dreams, visions, angelic visitations, and the like. For most of us, I expect, this isn’t the norm. Instead, I’ve come to a place of trying to make the best decisions possible and to trust that God is working through my actions, empowering me with wisdom as I choose my course.

But the decision is still difficult when it comes to career choices. Most days I would ecstatically welcome an angelic visitation telling me what to do. Pastoral ministry is an exciting prospect, but I worry that some of the tasks involved will be extraordinarily difficult for me, especially as an introvert. I could just as easily see myself as a missionary to Muslims, a linguist, a teacher of church history, or even an author. More often than I’d like to admit, I’m dissatisfied enough with my current track that I seriously consider pursuing one of these other alternatives.

But recently a thought occurred to me—I’m pursuing these things in a very individualistic way. The problem in that is that the basic social unit in the Kingdom of God is not the individual, but the church. And for those who are called into ministry, the New Testament often paints a picture of the church calling and appointing those men and women into service. It’s rare, if ever, that such ministers are shown pressing themselves into service because they think they have the gifts to do the work well.

I don’t fully know how this could be worked out practically, but I’m now considering a new angle on this old question of where I’m headed. Rather than setting up my own plans, I should be open first and foremost to the call of God through the church. It will be the gifts and skills that the church recognizes and calls me to use that will form the framework for my future service. Looking back from this vantage-point, I can clearly see already that the church has been incredibly formative in calling me towards preaching, writing, and missionary service. How these things will combine in the future I don’t yet know in full. But I’m excited to walk this journey in and among the people of God, and to be used wherever the Body of Christ calls me to serve.