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Monday, November 24, 2014

Three Books and a Few Thoughts on Reading

Three of the books I recently finished reading are:
1. With by Skye Jethani
2. Ordinary by Michael Horton 
3. After you Believe by N.T. Wright

I selected each of these books independently of the others, but they ended reinforcing similar enough principles I thought it wise to cover them in one post.

First, each book comes from a different perspective and tradition on the Christian faith. With comes from an evangelical, Ordinary is by a Reformed theologian, and NT Wright composes as an Anglican.   Despite these differences, each of the authors ends up addressing what Christian faith looks like in the long haul.   For this reason, I believe these books are best suited for someone who is ready to move on from the basics of Christianity to a longer path of obedience. 

Next, each book does a good job of making a unique contribution to discipleship literature.  In Ordinary, a case is made for the regular practice of Christian community.  Instead of seeking new methods as our identity, the local church must be committed to the original and simple institutions of the early church - i.e. communion, prayer, fellowship, and scripture.  When we realize the radical message of Christianity must be dependent on Christ alone, we give up trying to define ourselves in terms of our radical works. 

In this respect, With assisted me in thinking about the actual working out of personal discipleship.   The purpose of Skye's book is to help us give up life under, over, for, or from God and instead hold to a life of discipleship where we are in constant communion with God. Ultimately, this is about heart change. Being with God changes our perspective on the ordinary because it is here we find our satisfaction rather than in our attempts to control.

Wright is one of my favorite writers, and this book was no exception.  Although his slightly pedantic style can wear on me at times, in this book he winsomely crafts a middle road for the Christian life between legalism and antinomianism. Christian virtue becomes not an end in itself, but the product of a life lived regularly with God.  I think the common thread should be obvious between the three books at this point. 

In conclusion, none of these books on its own would have been a stand out classic. They are all good books, but they have their faults.   However, together these three together reinforced the importance of integrated discipleship. The flaws of individual perspectives can be crippling and distracting when I read.  While reading these books in tandem, the flaws were heavily outweighed by the complementary nature of the books. So, here are some things I've learned through the process, in addition to the things I'm thinking about long-term discipleship.

1. No one tradition has all the answers to a well-formed Christian principle, whether it by discipleship or any other important aspect of the Christian life. 
2. Reading more than one book at the same time can have benefits.
3. Particularly, reading with an awareness of the concepts, applications, and practical perspectives which may complement each other helps gives a deeper appreciation and useful of each individual book. The sum of the whole is greater than the distinct parts.
4. The Holy Spirit can work in ways I may consider mundane, such as my book choices. It is important to submit even those things in prayer to God.
5. My reading should be a regular and simple practice which benefits God's church. 

Overall, thinking about what I have learned has given me new perspective on Philippians 2:3-4, 
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (NIV)

When I read and study in the future, I want it to be even more for the glory of God, in service to His church. God continues to teach me excellent things and I must continue the process by living out in humility what I learn. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Ministry Cave

If you've ever read the Harry Potter series you know how terrible and lonely caves can be.  The main antagonist in the story arc, Lord Voldemort, used a cave to hide some of his darkest secrets. It was there he tortured other children as a child. It was there he hid many of the dead bodies of people he had murdered, and he used their undead corpses as protection for a part of his evil soul.

In Plato's Republic we are greeted by the Allegory of the Cave. The cave is the place where ignorant men remain ignorant about the true nature of the world.  The cave really isn't a good place, as the Good is something outside of the cave.  Much more could be said about this little parable.

Suffice it to say we don't want to live in caves. They are dark. They are lonely. They isolate us from the warmth and clarity of the sun.

Being in vocational ministry is an isolating place. It can often feel like being in a cave.

It may not be the most isolating vocation, but it has to be one of them. I'm sure being a doctor, psychotherapist, or mortician may all be equally demanding emotionally and spiritually. However, I only know my experiences related to professional ministry.

Sometimes you have weeks that seem like they aren't going to end. The apparent setbacks pile on top of each other as if they have a personality and are eager to bury you.  At times like this, ministry can feel like a dank, dark cave on an island in some forgotten, arctic sea. Every time you feel like you deal with the next gust of chill wind, another one comes to knock you down.

So, how do I deal with it?

1. Christ alone.

If I value myself, my work, or my relationship to any of it by the outside factors (i.e. the setbacks) then I'm stuck in the cave and I'm never getting out.  Every time one of these things hits me, I realize it's time to pray. One of the simple prayers that brings me back into the presence of Christ is St. Patrick's shield or breastplate prayer:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I also pray for mercy based upon the sinner's plea in Luke 18:13. This leads me to my next point.

2. Perspective.

I'm a sinner saved by God's grace. God didn't need to love me, but He chose to because of His nature.  This changes everything.  "My" ministry isn't mine because even my life isn't mine anymore. I am Christ's- redeemed by Him and for Him. 

3. Reinvigorated clarity.  

When setbacks inevitably occur in ministry, it helps me to clear away the cobwebs of distractions and ambiguous purpose.   I am in ministry to help equip believers grow in Christ and introduce others to Christ.  Anything that hasn't helped with this dual purpose is not worth pursuing.  

4. Talking it out. 

Finally, I spend time with other believers who I can share my struggles with in a healthy way.  Staying positive and staying away from gossip are two of the marks of healthiness within these relationships. It doesn't mean I pretend everything is OK. It does mean we communicate clearly, assertively, and with grace. 

Of course, there are things I will never be able to share as far as details or names of those things getting me down within ministry. This would be a breach of trust.  However, I can and should share how I am doing and whether I am trusting Christ. This type of mutual confession is good for the soul and good for the church. 

This post helps remind me of my own calling as a disciple and as a minister.  I guess I couldn't sum it up better than Paul as he reminded the Roman church to work out their interpersonal stuff with love. 

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 
(Rom. 12:2)

Time to let Christ drag me on out of this cave and into the sunlight.  Let's overcome some evil today.