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Saturday, April 29, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

O God, the true and only life, in whom and from whom and by whom are all good things that are good indeed; from whom to be turned is to fall, to whom to turn is to rise again; in whom to abide is to dwell forever, from whom to depart is to die; to whom to come again is to revive, and in whom to lodge is to live: take away from me whatever you will as long as you give me only yourself. Amen.

(Thomas Dekker) 

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Finding God in the Smell of Mud

(This is a reblog of a post from 2014, originally written as a devotional column for my local newspaper.)
       I grew up here in Maine, but my wife Rachel is a Pennsylvanian. For those who are “from away,” our version of springtime here in Maine is a difficult one to appreciate. Rachel rhapsodizes about springtime in Pennsylvania as a season of green on every side, of dogwoods blooming, of warm sunshine streaming through forests that have come alive in a concert of birdsong. With such a picture of spring in mind, our version of spring—a couple months of mud and chilly rain, followed immediately by blackflies, does not seem appealing at first glance. But, having grown up in Maine, there is something about springtime here that speaks to me in no uncertain terms about the vibrancy of life. And for me, spring is not so much about the colors of green leaves or blue skies, but about smells—the rich, heavy scent of the frozen earth slowly coming back to life. Even if deprived of the main sense I rely on—sight—I could still tell you it was springtime in Maine simply by breathing in the air, by catching the scent of the ground thawing out.

Faith is a little bit like this. Many of us rely on our rational impulses and gut instincts to make sense of the world—these, like our sense of sight, are our primary way of understanding life. But in certain seasons of our life, seasons of doubt or skepticism, these senses don’t have much to offer us. Like looking for greenery at the beginning of a Maine springtime, looking for clear signs of God’s activity using only our gut instincts and a veneer of rationality might not bring a lot of results. So if you’re in that place where it seems like evidence of God is hard to find, I would encourage you to listen to your other senses. All human beings have certain intuitions placed deep within them, intuitions which we take for granted, but which provide clear signposts of God’s gracious presence in the world. We are all wired to desire justice, for instance—everyone objects when treated unfairly. We are also wired to appreciate beauty—in the natural world around us, in works of art, in the sound of a song: something in our hearts responds to beauty in a way that we wouldn’t expect to find if this were a meaningless world. Intuitions like this—our nature to be predisposed towards justice, goodness, beauty, joy—these are things  which stand as signposts in our own nature that we are created for more than merely ourselves. God is there to be found, but sometimes, like finding springtime in Maine, we find him most clearly when we close our eyes for a moment and breathe deep.

         Let me draw one more parallel between springtime and the life of faith. Some people try to grudgingly keep God at a distance, as if opening our eyes to his truth would primarily mean having to buckle down to the hard and bitter work of trying to be good. This attitude entirely misses the point. It would be as if we Mainers, having sat through a long, bleak winter, said to ourselves, “I really don’t want spring to come, because springtime brings a lot of work—raking, planting, mowing, cleaning—I’d rather just sit inside and let it keep snowing.” Rather, most of us are joyfully ready for the simple and soul-cleansing work of spring when it arrives. It’s the same way with coming to faith in God through Jesus Christ—yes, it will mean a change in some of our habits and ways of living—but just like springtime, it will be a change ushered in by incredible joy and energy and new life. The call to come to faith in God is not a subpoena that forces us into a life of gray drudgery; it is an invitation to leave behind our old, closed-up homes, step out into the spring rain, and dance.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Evangeliad (1:1-5)

Section 1:1-5 (corresponding to John 1:1-5)

That Word, which all eternal, vast, and true,
Did dwell in ageless glory none could view:
At dawn of time he was, for he must be;
And was with God, in joint aseity.

This selfsame Word was God, in unity,
And with God did this Word’s divinity
Exist before all worlds, in ageless bliss,
Aflame with undivided holiness.

By his own hand the universe was born,
And endless space stretched out, and stars were born;
No thing existing now has come to be
Except by that Word’s own authority.

He is, himself, of life the fountainhead;
Life’s source and cause, beginning and its end.
His life illumines mankind from within:
The light of men, unshadowed by our sin.

Into our darkness shone that gracious light,
Lavish and strong, immeasurably bright;
And we, in darkest shame, we hid our eyes:
Our life, our light, we did not recognize.

The Evangeliad

I'm introducing a new project that will be written, in serial fashion, for my Wednesday poetry posts. It's a long project (maybe decades long, depending on how it goes), so I'm anticipating taking breaks here and there, sometimes for an extended period of time, while I work on other poems and hymns. But the basic idea behind this project is to render the full story of the Gospels into the medium of epic poetry. I'm calling it The Evangeliad. It's written as a work of devotional literature, making no pretensions to actually be Scripture, and is in no way intended to replace one's regular practice of reading the Gospels themselves. Below is a set of links to the completed sections; and further below you'll find an explanation of the historical, poetical, and theological considerations behind this work.

1.) Section 1:1-5 (corresponding to John 1:1-5)
2.) Section 1:6-14 (corresponding to Luke 1:5-13)
3.) Section 1:15-18 (corresponding to Luke 1:14-17)  
4.) Section 1:19-24 (corresponding to Luke 1:18-23) 


- What does "Evangeliad" mean? - It's a combination of the Greek word for Gospel (evangel) and the Greek suffix often attached to works of epic poetry--as in the Iliad, the Alexiad, and so on. 

- This doesn't exactly follow the text of any single Gospel. Why not? - I'm not attempting an actual translation of the Gospels; my main interest is to tell all of the stories about Jesus contained in the four canonical Gospels. It will attempt to faithfully include the substance of everything said in the Gospels, but it is an artistic rendering of that substance, not an attempt at a new version of the inspired, authoritative text. The nature of this sort of project, which aims to tell a single, cohesive story, requires a measure of blending, since no single Gospel contains all of the stories, and it would be too long and redundant to try to do four such poems exactly corresponding to each Gospel. So my poem will follow a traditional "harmony" of the Gospels. The text of the Evangeliad follows the structure of the most famous harmony of the four Gospels, the Diatessaron. The Diatessaron (which means "one from four") was a Gospel harmony composed by the Assyrian early church father Tatian in the late second century AD, and it was so widely accepted in the Christian East that it actually became the standard liturgical text of the Gospels used in Syriac churches until the fifth century.

- Aren't there some textual and doctrinal issues with Tatian's Diatessaron? - The Diatessaron is a very faithful harmony of the Gospels. It does have two major exclusions--the genealogies of Matthew and Luke (which I wouldn't include in the Evangeliad anyway, because those sections would be burdensome and unnecessary in an epic poem), and the pericope in the Gospel of John about the woman caught in adultery, which was probably not original to the Gospel (but which I, unlike the Diatessaron, might choose to include). There are some doctrinal concerns which have been raised about Tatian himself, but these tend not to concern the Diatessaron. Tatian was indeed suspected in the West of slipping into heterodoxy or heresy after the death of his teacher Justin Martyr, but these claims are a little difficult to pin down. He was suspected by Irenaeus of developing some Gnostic-ish ideas; but at least one of his major works (his Oratio) continued to receive wide and favorable use in the West, and he went on to tutor one of the greatest of the early church fathers, Saint Clement of Alexandria; so one might fairly assume that the concerns about heretical Gnosticism were overblown. The claim that appears to hit closer to the mark is the accusation that his theology led him too far toward spurning matrimony as an appropriate, God-given institution, which would put him in a camp of Christianity that was, if not exactly heterodox, at least an example of heteropraxy. It should be noted, however, that much of the early Assyrian church, of which Tatian was a part, shared this suspicion of marriage and exalted the celibate ascetic life instead, so in this regard he was largely representative of his own local church culture. In the Syriac-speaking branch of the early church, he remained a pillar of mainstream theology and practice: his Diatessaron, in addition to being used in churches for hundreds of years, also had the distinction of having the great Saint Ephrem the Syrian write a biblical commentary on its text. Thus, since the Diatessaron has a long and faithful legacy of use by the church, I've opted to make it my model "Gospel harmony" on which to base my narrative poem.

- Why is it written in rhyme instead of free verse? - It's traditional for epic poetry in English to be written in the form known as "heroic meter," which is comprised of rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter. 

- Why are the sections numbered as they are? - The section numbers follow the text of the Diatessaron (I'm using the enumeration provided by the 1895 Hogg translation). If, at the end of the project, my Evangeliad proves worthy to stand on its own in some sort of published form, I will probably introduce a more standard poetic enumeration. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Photo of the Week

Praise ye the Lord! 'Tis good to raise
Your hearts and voices in His praise:
His nature and His works invite
To make this duty our delight.

- Verse 1 of the hymn "Praise Ye the Lord," by Isaac Watts

Monday, April 24, 2017

Quote of the Week

"This is why God allows such things to happen: He has ordained, in his goodness, to make us higher with him in his joy; and for this pain that we suffer here, we shall have a high, endless knowing in God, which we could never have had without that pain."

- Julian of Norwich, English 14th-century anchoress, from her book Revelations of Divine Love

(Painting: "The Children of Bethel Mourned by Their Mothers," by Laurent de La Hyre, 1653) 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Saturday Synaxis

Let us not seek out of you what we can only find in you, O Lord. Peace and rest, and joy and bliss, which abide only in your abiding joy. Lift up our souls above the weary round of harassing thoughts to your eternal presence. Light up our minds to the pure, bright, serene atmosphere of your presence, that we may breathe freely, there repose in love, there be at rest from ourselves and from all things that weary us: And thence return, arrayed in your peace, to do and to bear whatsoever shall best please you, O blessed Lord.

- Edward Bouverie Pusey

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Caring When You Just Don’t Care: Pastoral Ministry and Compassion Fatigue

* Note to my parishioners: I really do care about all of you, and feel well cared for by all of you. The column below is more an indication of my natural human limitations, and those of all pastors, and does not really have much about our particular church in view. It describes a particular experience in pastoral ministry, which, although it thankfully constitutes the vast minority of my professional experience, is a very real state of mind that is common, at one time or another, to most pastors. The piece below is written to an intended audience of fellow ministers and Christian caregivers, as a theological encouragement to hold on to the perseverance of hope in each one of our ministries.

"The First and Last Communion," by Cristobal Rojas

I’m a pastor, and pastors have a very odd job in a lot of respects. It tends to be a strange mixture of the very public and very private—most people see the out-in-public part, when I’m preaching, leading services, teaching Bible studies, and doing hospital visitations. But there’s a lot of pastoral ministry that most people never see: hours of study and sermon preparation, ministries of intercessory prayer, and the one-on-one interactions that usually remain confidential, such as pastoral counseling and pastoral care in crisis situations. In most weeks, a pastor’s time will be largely taken up by the more private ministries, and there are many seasons in ministry when a pastor will be juggling several pastoral care situations at the same time. A church’s elders/deacons are there to assist in many of these situations, but even in those cases, simply because of the nature of the office, the pastor usually ends up doing the lion’s share of the pastoral work. There is often no one except the pastor’s spouse who knows just how many different situations a pastor is actually having to manage at any given time, ranging from basic pastoral counseling to crisis care to putting out the fires of small conflicts in the church. In most of these situations, the pastor is simply a caregiver, whose work, although largely unknown to the wider church, is still appreciated by those to whom he’s ministering; but there are a few situations in which a pastor will be trying to help someone who, whether consciously or unconsciously, happens to be one of those needy people who takes ready advantage of others’ goodwill; and there are even a few times when the pastor will find that his acts of caregiving are misinterpreted, judged, and censured, sometimes by the very people he is trying to help. Thankfully, the latter cases are rare, but I’ve taken the time to run through this list of pastoral care commitments in order to make the point that there are seasons in every pastor’s life where they will feel worn out—and often for good reason. It can sometimes feel like one’s public ministry is encouraged, applauded, and valued, while one’s private ministry—the larger share of their work—can be a very thankless job.

"The Greek Priest," by Francois-Andre Vincent
I’ve had a few seasons like that in pastoral ministry—not a lot, but a few. And when I’m in a season like that, it often feels hard to care about other people’s lives anymore. This may be a bit shocking to anyone who holds a sacralized view of their ministers, but it’s not uncommon in pastoral families, when talking about pastoral care situations, for someone to grunt in frustration: “Just figure your own problems out, people!” Now, it’s entirely possible that I may be on the far end of the spectrum of pastoral personalities in this regard: I’m very much an introvert, and so, while the internal world of spiritual reflection comes naturally for me, the external world of caring about the various mixed-up situations that people get themselves into is rather more of a stretch. And while I do care quite deeply about my people, particularly when they are in the midst of tragedies and dangers, I’ve found that the majority of pastoral care situations (excluding medical issues) have to do with crises provoked by people’s own bad habits, foolish choices, and poor communication skills. I still faithfully offer my help to them, but I don’t always feel like I can sympathize with them, particularly if I’m in a place of pastoral care exhaustion or (as psychologists call the full-blown form) “compassion fatigue.”

But it’s not like I can actually start turning people away, saying, “Sorry, I don’t care; figure out your own problems!” It’s not an avenue that’s open to me, nor one that I would really want to take if it were. So what do I do, when I’m called to care for situations that I just don’t care much about? Compassion fatigue can easily turn into burnout if a pastor can’t find the motivation to keep going about his appointed labors, so the need for finding a motivation beyond simply “caring” is an important quest.

"St Francis Xavier Preaching and Healing," by Peter Paul Rubens
I was thinking about this the other day, and was suddenly reminded of a research project I did back in seminary, about the motivations behind the missionary impulse in early church history. (Weird, I know, but that’s actually how my mind works.) The surprising thing I found in that research was that the motivations that are attributed to early missionary efforts are not the primary ones that are assumed in our own missionary work nowadays. Today, missionaries are often recruited and inspired with a deep sense of concern for the spiritual well-being of people who have never heard the Gospel before. And that’s a good and powerful motivator: we should be concerned about those people! But the interesting thing about missions in the early church is that, with only a few exceptions, that kind of concern simply wasn’t the number one reason that people assumed as a motivator for spreading the faith. Rather, the primary motivation for missions was the fact that Jesus Christ had conquered all the powers of sin, death, and hell, and Christians were the ambassadors of his new reign that was breaking into the world. We had to go and tell the nations about Christ because it was our job, our duty, and our privilege, to make manifest in the world the actual reality of Christ’s triumph. Pagan nations had to be won to the faith, not because of some emotionally-based, individualized urge in my own soul, but because it would be for the greater glory of Christ. People had to come to know Christ as Lord, not because I “loved” them (if it even means anything at all to talk about loving people that one has never met), but because Christ loved them and had already broken the powers of darkness that kept them enslaved.

Seeing this different perspective from the early church reminded me that, far too often, we turn our ministries and our Christian lives into individualized and emotionalized spheres. We tend to assume that we should feel some sort of deep, inward sense of concern for everybody else’s personal messes, and if we don’t, well then we’re terrible at being a pastor. But I’ve looked long and hard at the parts of the Bible that speak about pastoral ministry, and they say very little about the levels of emotional sympathy that we’re supposed to be feeling. Quite the opposite: they put their stress on the faithful execution of our duties, not because we feel like doing them, but because the church is the Bride of Christ, the flock of the Great Shepherd himself. It is for his glory, and at his pleasure, that we serve. It doesn’t matter so much how much I care about a particular pastoral care situation; what matters is that Jesus cares about it, and he cares about it far more deeply and fully and beautifully than I ever could. I am not called to be Jesus (and for good reason; I make a pretty poor substitute), but I am called to minister the reality of his presence and his care to the situations in which I’m asked to serve. The real question for pastors is not how much emotional sympathy we’re feeling for the worn and beleaguered sheep of the church’s flock; rather, it’s how well we are loving and serving Christ in our ministry. Like those early-church missionaries, we serve these people not primarily because we love them (although we probably do, and should), but primarily because Jesus loves them, and we love Jesus. We serve, first and foremost, unto Christ; and we serve our flocks because they are his flock.

When Jesus reinstated and commissioned Peter, the proto-typical New Testament pastor, he did not ask, “Peter, do you love my sheep?” Rather, he asked, “Peter, do you love me?” And the command, “Feed my sheep,” came after that pledge, not before it. So when we pastors feel worn out and tired of serving people in the thankless corners of our job that nobody sees but us, let’s remember that we’re not really here to serve them in the first place. We are here to serve Christ in the first place, to love and honor him, and it is because of our love for Christ that we feed his sheep. Our strength to carry on can come from no other source than that, or else it is a well that will surely run dry.