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Archive for October, 2013

Wright“Sophisicated Christians will quickly say [about the claim that Jesus ascended into heaven] that all that sort of language is simply metaphorical.  It doesn’t mean that Jesus has literally gone to some place in the solar system millions of miles away.  But an awful lot of people on the edge of the Church, and outside looking in, still imagine that Christians are committed to believing something like that, and they of course find it incredible…

‘Heaven’ is, in fact, one of the misused religious words around today, with the possible exception of ‘God’ itself.  The biblical notion of heaven is not of a place far away ‘way beyond the blue.’  Nor is it simply, as some have said in reaction to that older notion, a state of mind or heart which some people can attain here and now.  Heaven is God’s space, which intersects with our space but transcends it.  It is, if you like, a further dimension of our world, not a place far removed at one extreme of our world…The Christian hope is not, then, despite popular impressions, that we will simply ‘go to heaven when we die.’  As far as it goes, that statement is all right; after death those who love God will be with him, will be in his dimension.  But the final Christian hope is that the two dimensions, heaven and earth, at present separated by a veil of invisibility caused by human rebellion, will be united together, so that there will be new heavens and a new earth…

The ascension of Jesus, then, is his going, not way beyond the stars, but into this space, this dimension.  Notice what this does to our notion of heaven.  The Jesus who has gone there is the human Jesus.  People sometimes talk as if Jesus started off just being divine, then stopped being divine and became human, then stopped being human and went back to being divine again.  That is precisely what the ascension rules out.  The Jesus who has gone, now, into God’s dimension, until the time when the veil is lifted and God’s multidimensional reality is brought in all its glory, is the human Jesus.  He bears human flesh, and the marks of the man-made nails and spear, to this day, as he lives within God’s dimension, not far away but as near to us as breath itself.

This means, contrary to what some might suppose, that a doctrine of heaven focused on the ascension can never be used as a way of oppressing people, or of diminishing the value of their humanness.  On the contrary, it affirms the true and lasting value of being human.  The risen Jesus was more human, not less, than he was before: his risen humanness is the affirmation of his previous humanness, only now without the frailty and the dying which before then he shared with the rest of us.  His resurrection is thus God’s way of saying that there is such a thing as genuine humanness, that human life is not a Sartrean sick joke, promising everything and giving nothing.

But, if this is so, the ascension is the affirmation that God has taken that fully human, deeply and richly human being Jesus, and has embraced him to himself within his own dimension, his own space, making him indeed Lord of the world.  God always intended that his human creatures should inherit the world, the created order, to rule over it with wisdom and gentleness, to bring it order and to enhance its beauty.  In the ascended human Jesus that vision is in principle realized.  There is always a risk that by talking of Jesus ‘going to heaven’ we allow a false picture of heaven to color the image we now have of Jesus.  What I am suggesting is that, instead, the true image of the human Jesus, the very Jesus we are called to follow, should subvert our false pictures of heaven, and should become the center of the true picture instead.” (N. T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship, pp. 99-102)

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Fake Pastors

peterson“I don’t know of any other profession in which it is quite as easy to fake it as in ours [i.e. pastors].  By adopting a reverential demeanor, cultivating a stained-glass voice…we are trusted, without any questions asked…Even when in occasional fits of humility or honesty we disclaim sanctity, we are not believed.  People have a need to be reassured that someone is in touch with the ultimate things.  Their own interior lives are a muddle of shopping lists and good intentions, guilty adulteries (whether fantasized or actual) and episodes of heroic virtue, desires for holiness mixed with greed for self-satisfaction.  They hope to do better someday beginning maybe tomorrow or at the latest next week.  Meanwhile, they need someone around who can stand in for them, on whom they can project their wishes for a life pleasing to God.  If we provide a bare-bones outline of pretence, they take it as the real thing and run with it, imputing to us clean hands and pure hearts.  The less personal and more public aspects of our lives are just as easy to fake…

For a long time I have been convinced that I could take a person with a high school education, give him or her a six-month trade school training, and provide a pastor who would be satisfactory to any discriminating American congregation.  The curriculum would consist of four courses.  Course I: Creative Plagiarism.  I would put you in touch with a wide range of excellent and inspirational talks, show you how to alter them just enough to obscure their origins, and get you a reputation for wit and wisdom.  Course II: Voice Control for Prayer and Counseling.  We would develop your own distinct style of Holy Joe intonation, acquiring the skill in resonance and modulation that conveys an unmistakable aura of sanctity.  Course III: Efficient Office Management.  There is nothing that parishioners admire more in their pastors than the capacity to run a tight ship administratively.  If we return all telephone calls within twenty-four hours, answer all letters within a week, distributing enough carbons to key people so that they know we are on top of things, and have just the right amount of clutter on our desks–not too much or we appear inefficient, not too little or we appear underemployed–we quickly get the reputation for efficiency that is far more important than anything that we actually do.  Course IV: Image Projection.  Here we would master the half-dozen well-known and easily implemented devices that create the impression that we are terrifically busy and widely sought after for counsel by influential people in the community.  A one-week refresher course each year would introduce new phrases that would convince our parishioners that we are bold innovators on the cutting edge of the megatrends and at the same time solidly rooted in all the traditional values of our sainted ancestors.

(I have been laughing for several years over this trade school training for pastors with which I plan to make my fortune.  Recently, though, the joke has backfired on me.  I keep seeing advertisements for institutes and workshops all over the country that invite pastors to sign up for this exact curriculum.  The advertised course offerings are not quite as honestly labeled as mine, but the content appears to be identical–a curriculum that trains pastors to satisfy the current consumer tastes in religion.  I’m not laughing anymore.) (Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, pp. 6-8)

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peterson“American pastors are abandoning their posts, left and right, and at an alarming rate.  They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs.  Congregations still pay their salaries.  Their names remain on the church stationery and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays.  But they are abandoning their posts, their calling.  They have gone whoring after other gods.  What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have done for most of twenty centuries…

The pastors of American have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches.  They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns–how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.  Some of them are very good shopkeepers.  They attract a lot of customers, pull in great sums of money, develop splendid reputations.  Yet it is still shopkeeping; religious shopkeeping, to be sure, but shopkeeping all the same.  The marketing strategies of the fast-food franchise occupy the waking minds of these entrepeneurs; while asleep they dream of the kind of success that will get the attention of journalists…[But] the pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.  It is this responsibility that is being abandoned in spades…

Three pastoral acts are so basic, so critical, that they determine the shape of everything else.  The acts are praying, reading Scripture, and giving spiritual direction.  Besides being basic, these three acts are quiet.  They do not call attention to themselves and so are often not attended to.  In the clamorous world of pastoral work nobody yells at us to engage in these acts.  It is possible to do pastoral work to the satisfaction of the people who judge our competence and pay our salaries without being either diligent or skilled in them.  Since almost never does anyone notice whether we do these things or not, and only occasionally does someone ask that we do them, these three acts of ministry suffer widespread neglect.

The three areas constitute acts of attention: prayer is an act in which I bring myself to attention before God; reading Scripture is an act of attending to God in his speech and action across two millennia in Israel and Christ; spiritual direction is an act of giving attention to what God is doing in the person who happens to be before me at any given moment.

Always it is God to whom we are paying, or trying to pay, attention.  The contexts, though, vary: in prayer the context is myself; in Scripture it is the community of faith in history; in spiritual direction it is the person before me.  God is the one to whom we are being primarily attentive in these contexts, but it is never God-in-himself; rather, it is God-in-relationship–with me, with his people, with this person.

None of these acts is public, which means that no one knows for sure whether or not we are doing any of them.  People hear us pray in worship, they listen to us preach and teach from the Scriptures, they notice when we are listening to them in a conversation, but they can never know if we are attending to God in any of this.  It doesn’t take many years in this business to realize that we can conduct a fairly respectable pastoral ministry without giving much more than ceremonial attention to God.  Since we can omit these acts of attention without anybody noticing, and because each of the acts involves a great deal of rigor, it is easy and common to slight them.  This is not entirely our fault.  Great crowds of people have entered into a grand conspiracy to eliminate prayer, Scripture, and spiritual direction from our lives.  They are concerned with our image and standing, with what they can measure, with what produces successful church-building programs and impressive attendance charts, with sociological impact and economic viability.  They do their best to fill our schedules with meetings and appointments so that there is time for neither solitude nor leisure to be before God, to ponder Scripture, to be unhurried with another person.  We get both ecclesiastical and community support in conducting a ministry that is inattentive to God and therefore without foundations.” (Eugene H. Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, pp. 1-4)

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