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Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Prayers are always appreciated

Short entry this time...that is because sometimes someone says it far better than I ever could. Actually, that is probably always the case I'm just simultaneously naive and egotistical. All of that this article and please always remember me in your prayers.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Pastoral Theology I: The Biggest Loser

When I created this blog one of my main intentions was to write regularly on my findings about pastoral theology. I'm new to ministry (consider I have not even been a pastor for 7 months) so I am learning as I go. For me, one of the best ways I can learn is to be reflective and that reflection usually takes the form of writing. This will be the first, of hopefully, many entries on what I'm learning. Points I make in the future may be different or even at odds with earlier ones: but that is to be expected when you are learning and (hopefully) growing.

This past Monday night I had trouble sleeping and as I lay there my mind turned towards Bob Harper, the Biggest Loser, and Pastoral Theology. So that is what I will talk about today.

Our move to Pennsylvania was a difficult transition for me. I grew up very close to my parents and very close to friends (some of whom I've known since I was 9!) and never really lived for an extended period of time far from home. I grew up in a city where I was used to side walks and large stores close by. Obviously, this is different from my current living situation. I'm not complaining, far from it, just setting the context for my move.

Add with that the fact that for the very first two weeks, and then six more weeks a month later, my wife lived in Columbus so I was living here on my own, while I struggled to learn how to be a minister, on my own. Ministry is a lonely call, I've known that all along, so that too was not a surprise nor a complaint.

To throw one more ingredient into the mix is my firm belief that a pastor can never be friends with members of his congregation. He can be friendly towards them, certainly should be loving at all times, but friends is another matter altogether. Friendship can get in the way of successful ministry. Dr. Jaco Hamman really drove that point home for me during seminary. I agree with him, and it is something I have carried with me into my first call. Yes, it heightens the feeling of isolation at times but since I expected that from the beginning I was prepared.

While my wife was away during those many weeks I watched a lot more TV than I am accustomed too. (There is only so much one can read in the evening after a lot of mentally taxing work during the day). One of the shows I started to watch was The Biggest Loser. The premise of the Biggest Loser is that overweight contestants compete to lose the most weight. They are divided into teams and each team is led by a professional trainer. By far, the most popular trainer is Bob Harper.

Bob Harper is known for being tough and for having contestants who produce results. One evening while watching the show, Bob told a contestant (paraphrased): "I'm not your friend and I'm not interested in being your friend. I'm interested in helping you lose weight so that you can be healthy and live." Immediately I thought, "What a great definition for a pastor."

Pastor's aren't in ministry to make friends with their parishioners, they are in ministry to see their parishioner believe in Jesus and successfully follow Jesus so that they can be "healthy" and live.

When the Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Galatia he wrote what is arguably his most passionate letter. At the outset, presumably because he knew the things he was about to say would be harsh, Paul set the Galatians straight on something very important: he was not trying to please them or make them happy. After expressing his "astonishment" that they have turned their back on the gospel to believe, what is in essence, nothing at all Paul says, "Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ." (Galatians 1.10 NIV)

Pastoral theology insight #1: Pastor's are not people pleasers. Our call is not to make people happy. Our call is to proclaim the gospel of Christ (1st Timothy 1.3-7). Being a people pleaser is not synonymous with making friends, but it is closely related in that you want your friends to be happy. I want people to be happy, but I don't care if they are not. I do care if they know Christ and the power of his resurrection and share in his sufferings so that they are, ever more and ever more, becoming like him in his death and somehow attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Phil 3.10-11). That is what I care about. And that really is not very different from the attitude Bob Harper has about the contestants on the biggest loser--only the consequences for the training sessions I lead are related to eternal life and not a happy retirement.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Repeat After Me: Repetition is Useful

If I was a historian of the church, I may be able to give a detailed account of how we have come to the place where we currently are with worship in the church, but alas, I am not. I know that sometime during the last 5 decades worship has moved into the “contemporary” realm.

Now, in many ways, it is misleading to paint a picture of contemporary being something new. Worship has always been evolving and changing, across culture, across generations. I daresay when Isaac Watt’s hymns became popular it was probably seen as a radical shift from singing the psalms acapella.

So by contemporary I mean much more than just music, but rather the overall structure of the worship service: namely, the move away from structured liturgy. Now, all worship services have a liturgy. That is to say, that all churches follow an agreed upon principle for how the worship should be conducted. Whether or not this includes responsive readings at set times and corporate prayers is besides the point, every church has a liturgy that they follow.

So of course, I must narrow my definition. When I say liturgy, I mean what is commonly understood as the more “traditional” approach to worship: the use of call to worship, votums, reading of psalms, corporate prayers and of course, the Lord’s Prayer.

I understand the arguments in favor of contemporary worship. Throughout the history of the church the body of Christ has found ways to redeem the current music for the greater glory of God. Even the tune for “A Mighty Fortress” is reputedly taken from a tavern drinking song. The music is appropriated for worship because it resonates with the people more easily, thus allowing them to “connect” with God during the act of worship.

It is also popular to move in the direction of a contemporary worship service because it is seen as an evangelical method of bringing in the un-churched or those who have been burned by the church in the past. If the worship service doesn’t resemble church the way people either remember it or have assumed it to be, then they will feel more comfortable and more likely to come again.

Then of course there is the appeal of removing formal liturgies, like a call to worship or the Lord’s Prayer. Stuffy traditions are not popular in a culture that values progressive ideas and always wants the latest, greatest thing. When a nation’s cultural identity is found in a revolution (rebellion from the British perspective) it is only natural that we should, generation after generation, desire to throw off the oppressive shackles of tradition and make it our own.

The desire to create a comfortable environment free of supposed obstacles is admirable. There is much I appreciate about contemporary worship but there are a few components of contemporary worship that I fear are doing a great disservice to future generations of Christians.

“Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ And he said to them, ‘When you pray say…’” (Luke 11.1-2A)

Thus begins the introduction to the Lord’s Prayer in Luke’s account of the life and death of Jesus the Messiah. Several things to draw out of this passage: the disciples saw Jesus praying and desired to develop the same type of intimacy they had seen Jesus, John and John’s disciples have with God. The disciples understood that intimacy with God is born out of a healthy prayer life and so they asked to be instructed how to pray.

The result? The Lord’s Prayer. Surely the greatest prayer ever bestowed upon the church. Amazingly, I know that there are contemporary services around the country that do not teach the Lord’s Prayer and do not, if ever, pray it during the worship service.

One of the most common arguments against saying the Lord’s Prayer (or other such liturgical elements) Sunday after Sunday is that it is repetitious to the point of not requiring thought. But therein lies the beauty of repetition! When we are encouraged to make a statement of faith or say the same prayer, Sunday after Sunday, there comes a time when we it seeps into the very fabric of who we are. That it may be stated or prayed without thought is the problem of the individual engaged in the act and not the problem of the church.

I find that I spend a lot of my day time hours in hospital rooms and nursing homes. In the process I have discovered the amazing power of repetition. I can be visiting with an elderly person who does not know what decade it is, where they are or even who I am but when I say, “Let’s pray the Lord’s Prayer together” the words come forth without thought. In a moment, we are praying together the rich words that our Lord imparted to his disciples. Words that generation after generation of saints before us have said in good times and in bad. It is a powerful moment for me, and I trust it is a powerful moment for others as well. To see confusion turned into clarity by the power of prayer is something beautiful. I have also watched an elderly person in a bad state break down into tears as I spoke the old, formal, words of institution over the bread and wine and utter the words, “I love God.”

These moments that are so meaningful for them, would have been meaningless, had it not been for years of repetition in church, Sunday after Sunday. What will pastors have to offer to parishioners 50 years from now when they are visiting them in a nursing home and their memories are fading? The lyrics to a song by Matt Redman or something infinitely richer, like the words of Scripture?

We are faced with a generation who want intimacy with God. They want to “connect” with their Lord through worship. They are looking for someone to teach them to have that same intimate relationship with God the Father that God the Son had. Let’s not deprive them of that but instead let’s teach them to pray, and reinforce that lesson by praying together the Lord’s Prayer on a regular basis.