Time for a Lenten break

Every year, during Lent, I give up blogging and reading blogs.
I was going to post my reasons for doing so, but David Keen has pretty well summed them all up for me here.
If you’re not giving up blogging for Lent, I recommend you keep your eye on Felix Hominum where Joe will be blogging through Dante’s Purgatorio.
Have a good Lent, everyone.

A very fine book about being a pastor

I have just finished my second reading of Dave Hansen’s very fine book ‘The Art of Pastoring: Ministry Without All the Answers’ (IVP, 1994). I think this is the very best book I have ever read on being a pastor.
We pastors nowadays are being inundated with books, workshops, courses, resources, and movements, all of them offering ‘the answer’ for making our ministries a success. Whether it’s purpose-driven ministry, or Natural Church Development, or the church growth movement, or mission action planning, or mission-shaped ministry, or – well, name your own popular trend here – our bookshelves are groaning under the weight of the books (or, more likely, DVDs and three-ring binders) that will finally solve The Problem for us. You know The Problem I mean – the fact that our churches aren’t experiencing numerical growth, or aren’t experiencing every member ministry, or aren’t meeting their budgets, or aren’t impacting the neighbourhood etc. etc.
Dave Hansen’s book is a refreshing contrast to all of these. He doesn’t offer us a program, a movement, or a fad. He starts by offering us an image: the pastor is a parable of Jesus Christ. A parable moves from the known to the unknown; the known casts fresh light on the unknown. He says: ‘The thesis of this book is that people meet Jesus in our lives because when we follow Jesus, we are parables of Jesus Christ to the people we meet’. In other words, our role is a simple one: we live our lives in such a way as to remind people of Jesus Christ and to cast fresh light on him. And this requires us to walk the Way of the Cross, as Jesus did.
Did I give the impression that this is an easy book? Sorry about that – it’s not. And yet, in one sense it is easy: it’s not hard to read or understand. Hansen is a great storyteller and offers us many of his own experiences as resources to help us grasp the simple concepts he teaches. But it’s not an easy book, because it challenges us to live holy, Christlike lives and to love people. It’s a lot easier to follow the latest church growth program: that doesn’t require me to repent of my sins and take up my cross and follow Jesus.
I’ve spent my ministry as a small-church pastor; so has Hansen. He wrote this book in the mid-1990s just after finishing his first (nine-year) pastorate in a two-point rural parish in Montana, working in congregations of the Presbyterian and American Baptist traditions. As a child he was an Episcopalian but his parents later became mainline Baptists, and that is the denomination of his ordination. But he has never pastored a megachurch. He knows where I live.
It’s tempting to fill yards of column space with quotes from this book. Here are a few of my favourites:
‘Task-driven ministry always gives way to a time-management ministry as opposed to a Spirit-led ministry. The pastor’s day is divided into hours and tasks rather than opportunities to do God’s will. The problem is that when I fine-tune my week, tweaking it like a piano-tuner to a perfect A440, I am out of harmony with the kingdom of God. I experience fewer of those serendipitous, perfect opportunities to talk to people about Christ. You know what I mean: the evangelism you never plan, which works better than the evangelism you do plan’.
‘The Holy Spirit functions in the pastor’s life as in Jesus’ life. Because we are followers of Jesus Christ, the love of the Father is poured into our hearts. This love is the active, building power of the Holy Spirit. When we live our lives directed and empowered by the Holy Spirit, as Jesus did, we are like Jesus. Even though our ability to follow the Spirit’s leading cannot come close to Jesus’ ability, we are parables of Jesus Christ’.
‘I’ve never heard a pastor tell me that he or she was too busy praying to do other things. I’ve only heard pastors say they were too busy doing things like counselling, organizing worship extravaganzas and managing church affairs to spend much time in prayer. Need we enquire further why the devil wants us busy, pandering to our people’s desire for shortcuts?’
‘I suppose the existence of God is the only real issue of the pastoral ministry. Not whether God exists, but where God is and what God is. Both questions are answered in the friendship of God experienced in prayer. The pastor’s life of prayer answers the questions of the existence of God on the deepest experiential level. These questions are answered in the pastor’s personal life of prayer, and the pastor answers the questions for others through prayer for them’.
‘Pastoral calling whose motivation is church growth – visiting to ‘sell’ the church – isn’t friendship. It’s peddling… Instead of working, I get paid to go fishing. Most men in our church love to fish. It’s tough floating down a crystalline river past deer, mink and herons, casting to three-pound wild trout. But as an evangelist I get more mileage sitting in a river boat talking to a man about Christ than I do by sitting in his front room with his wife hanging over us hoping I can make her husband come to church. I don’t consider that to be an evangelistic atmosphere’.
‘Can pastors call friendship “work?” I doubt that we can. I tell people that I read the Bible, pray, and visit with friends. That’s all I do. It’s not work. It’s tiring at times. But we shouldn’t expect people to cal what we do “work”‘.
There are many more fine passages in this book. But if you’d like to get a flavour of the sort of pastoral ministry Dave Hansen is describing, you can find a very good interview with him online here. If you are a pastor, I’d encourage you to read this interview, and then to go out and buy this book. For myself, I can only say that at the moment this is the book the Lord is using to save the soul of my ministry. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

The Really Ancient Christian Practices

A few months ago a couple of people asked me if I had heard about a new movement that was trying to recover ancient Christian practices that the contemporary Church has forgotten about. I asked what practices they were talking about, and was told that it was to do with things like silence, and meditation, and spiritual reading, and other quasi-monastic things (my phrase, not theirs).
To be honest, I hadn’t heard of the movement. I remember the previous time it came around (folks like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster led it, if I recall, and wrote some very fine books about it, including Celebration of Discipline and The Spirit of the Disciplines); one of the perils of growing older is that you begin to really experience the truth that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’.
I’ve got nothing to say against these ‘ancient Christian practices’ – last time around, Richard Foster’s books were a blessing to me and to many other people too – but I must admit that when my friends first mentioned this new movement, I was hoping that they were going to tell me it had to do with a different set of practices, an even more ancient set. I’m talking about the ones in the Sermon on the Mount.
To be honest, I don’t really see monasticism in the Sermon on the Mount. The practices I see there include the following:
  • Having an upside-down view of the world, which turns out to be the right-side-up view, since the world is the wrong way up to begin with (Matthew 5:1-12).
  • Being different from the world in order to bless it (5:13-16).
  • Turning away from anger and working on reconciliation instead (5:21-26).
  • Turning away from lust and living a life of sexual purity (5:27-30).
  • Turning away from divorce – staying in our marriages and working on them instead (5:31-32).
  • Telling the truth and being known as people of our word (5:33-37).
  • Blessing those who hurt us instead of retaliating against them (5:38-42).
  • Following the example of the God who loves his enemies by loving ours too (5:43-48), and forgiving those who sin against us (6:14-15).
  • Carrying out the traditional practices of giving to the poor, prayer, and fasting in such a way as to please God and not win brownie points for our spirituality from others (6:1-18).
  • Praying short and simple prayers together (6:7-13).
  • Living with very few possessions, serving the kingdom of God and not the kingdom of mammon (6:19-24), focussing on God’s will and trusting him to provide the necessities of life for us (6:25-34).
  • Not judging others (7:1-6).
  • Being bold in prayer, asking for what we need in the faith that God will hear us (7:7-11).
  • Treating others the way we would like to be treated (7:12).
  • Doing the will of the Father in heaven rather than just talking about it, and putting Jesus’ teaching into practice rather than just listening to it and then ignoring it in our daily lives (7:13-29).
I can’t claim that I practice all these ancient Christian disciplines. But I do know that in the long list of things I need to learn in my Christian life, these things ought to be my priority. I have no quarrel with St. Benedict, but I’m sure he would agree with me that the teaching of Jesus comes first.