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First Saturday of Advent – 14.12.06

Preparing our souls for the coming of Jesus. How do we do it?

help_2467310bWe live amidst a swirl of self-help philosophies. Visit any bookstore, surf through some TV infomercials, or just sift through your junk mail, and you’ll find that there are countless people out there who think you should live differently – according to their plans and ideas. They claim to want you to have a better life (though, most often, what they really want is your cash for their product).

stjeromeMan has always known that he can, and should, be better. Therefore we have always devised schemes improve ourselves. In Martin Luther’s day, one of the most common self-help pursuits was the ascetic life – being a monk or nun. But Luther points out that “there has been much preaching on chastity, and many books written on the subject, in which they said, we should fast for a certain time, we should not eat flesh, we should
not drink wine, etc., that we may be free from temptations. These things…have not been enough.”
He then cites the example of Jerome, the great 4th Century monk and Doctor of the Church. “St. Jerome writes of himself that he had mortified his body to such an extent that he had become like an African; still it was of no avail, and he dreamed of being in Rome at a party with harlots!” Luther’s point: Rigid external practices don’t suffice to subdue lusts.

So, what works? Whatever it is, it should be our advent practice.

Peter tells us that, “Since you have been born again, purify your souls by your obedience to the truth.” (1 Pet. 1:22-23).

Luther’s take on this is fantastic! He states that what can truly change you “must proceed from within outward, not from without inward.” What can subdue the flesh from within? “The wine of the gospel subdues it and makes the heart chaste … if this enters our hearts, evil inclinations quickly leave. Let whoever will try it, he shall find it true, and whoever tries it, knows it well.”

retreatI’ve always loved retreats. Many times I have gotten away, usually with a church group, usually to a place where we can enjoy the beauty of nature. We spend time in the scriptures, we worship together, we enjoy and are sharpened by each other’s company. When the sacred weekend is over, I find myself heading home thinking, “I love God and His Word so much…I never want to sin again!”

This is why God calls us to worship. He is present in the praise, present in the fellowship, present in His Word, present in the bread and wine. We remember, reenact, proclaim and “eat” the gospel! Luther: “Though the Word is a small thing, there is immense power in it!” As the writer of Hebrews says, “The Word of God is living and active…piercing to the division of soul and of spirit…and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). That is the internal antidote we need to “purify our souls by obedience to the truth.”

So – as we continue through Advent (and beyond), be filled with the Word! Attend Advent services. Read it. Pray over it. Listen to it in the best holy-day songs. And don’t forget to share it with others! This will prepare you for His coming.

E     *     O

 
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Posted by on December 6, 2014 in Advent 2014

 

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Lutherans, Pastors, Authority

Hosanna LutheranI worshiped with the local Lutherans today (LCMS). It was a very nice morning. The liturgy was rich, the hymnody stimulating, the preaching thoughtful, and the people seemingly very friendly. Though I don’t know it well, I was blessed to share the morning with this part of my family tree.

As a career pastor, I was struck by the wardrobe adorned by the leadership. The white robes, green sashes, crosses around the neck – it was clear who the consecrated ministers were. And there were several men adorned this way…which made me wonder about how leadership is chosen in this tradition.

what about pastorsSo, as I headed out, I picked up a publication in the foyer entitled “What About…Pastors.” In it, an explanation is given for what pastors are, what they do, how they are ordained, and how they should be treated. That’s when I stumbled on this quote from Luther’s Small Catechism:

Book-MartinLuthersCatechism-1868-Fair“When the called ministers of Christ deal with us by His divine command…this is just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.”

Wow.

I’ve been a leader in the church for a quarter century. Not only have I never been treated like this by the people I’ve led, but I have never expected this kind of response. Rather, I have always thought that no right-minded person would have the audacity to equate the validity of his or her leadership to being as valid as Christ’s. To do so would be an over-reach of one’s appropriate role, correct?

In this month’s edition of Christianity Today (Oct. 2013), there is a thoughtful article by Andy Crouch about the role of power in the church. In speaking about “power distance,” he juxtaposes those who create distance between themselves and those they lead through visible expressions of power (high distance), and those who try to look less powerful than they really are (low distance). He then remarks that, “America, today, is about as low power distance as it has ever been – and so is the American Church.”

pastor authorityI get this, and feel it. I remember from the days of my youth the bumper stickers on many hippie-driven cars and microbuses in Southern California that called us to “Question Authority.” That cultural ethos, coupled with some colossal leadership failures in the public world (Nixon, Bakker, Swaggert, Clinton, Edwards, Haggard, Weiner), have left us with little honor for, and therefore little allegiance to, our leaders. So, we’re uneasy when any leaders claim or flaunt their authority. (As an example…the image to the left is the first one that appears when I did an internet search for “pastor authority.” I think it represents our stereotypes well.)

Still, the Bible tells us that authority is both God-given, and very important. Peter tells us to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.” This is for our protection, and our advantage, because they are sent by God “to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:13-14). But not only do we miss a blessing if we are out from under authority, we are also in incredible danger. Peter tells us elsewhere that “the Lord knows how…to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgement, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority” (2 Peter 2:9-10). Despising authority is an especially grievous offence to God – and it is standard practice in our 21st century western culture.

Francis ObedienceMy ancient and medieval brothers and sisters had an understanding of the value of obedience to authorities. The standard vow made by vocational monks and nuns was always to lives of poverty, chastity, and obedienceFrom the day they were received into the monastery, it was expected that they would give unquestioned obedience to their abbot or abbess – as a sign of their consecration to God Himself. We see that as strange today, don’t we? Do you think they would see our aversion of authority as even more troubling?

So…as I try to reconnect myself to the fullness of my Christian lineage, I do find myself longing to be under Biblcial, God-ordained authorities. I know there is blessing for me there. But where do I find it? Who truly has it, and might even expect it? Who exercises it well? And, if they do, whose expression of “power distance” is high enough that I can recognize it?

Lord, forgive me for despising authority. Teach me godly submission. May your church experience your provision of authority in increasingly healthy ways. For your honor’s sake, and for the blessings that are promised.

-EO

 
 

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Don’t Make Me Lead the Church?

As I look into the annals of our church family, I stumbled upon this obvious, yet profound, theme.

downloadPachomius (d. 348), after being discharged from the military, found his way to a life of solitude in the desert. He and his followers were committed to never holding church office.

St. Anthony of the Desert (d. 356) committed himself to a life of solitude and prayer. He avoided church leadership issues, but his fame led to gossip about his doctrinal beliefs. His only involvement in local church life in the city ended up being him having to clear his name.

Athanasius (d. 373) was a church bishop, but chose to order his life by the rhythms of the monastery. Whenever he was in trouble in church politics, he would run to the desert for spiritual and relational peace. 

Basil the Great (d. 379) was ordained an elder against his will! Conflict drove him back to the monastic life. But then he was elected bishop, which was followed by direct conflict with the Roman Emperor. As a bishop, he championed (you guessed it) the monastic life of solitude!

st-gregory-nazBasil’s friend Gregory of Nazianzus (d. 390) was forced to become a bishop by Basil. He didn’t want the job – he preferred a life of contemplation. Gregory was so sad being a pastor that he left his local church. But, he was such a great thinker that his influence became known in the high places of power in the Empire. He was then called by Theodosius to become bishop of Constantinople. He didn’t want that job, either…and, sure enough, as soon as he assumed that role other church leaders started hammering him on some policy and procedure issues. So, he resigned yet again, and went back to little Naziansus to be a song-writer at his original local church.

Gregory of Nyssa (d. 394), Basil’s younger brother, was an introvert. He enjoyed anonymity and solitude. His big brother Basil forced him against his will to become a bishop (why do these guys keep doing that?). But major conflicts ensued, so he went into hiding. Emperor Theodosius found him, read his amazing theological writings, and obliged him to travel all over the empire teaching doctrine. Gregory always felt this was a huge distraction to what he really wanted – a life of solitude.

Martin of Tours (d. 397) was also a military man. After he was released from the army, he, too, settled into the monastic life. When Tours needed a bishop, the people elected Martin to the post. But even though he took the position, he chose to live his life like a monk, not like a prestigious church leader. He eventually felt the need to move out of the city.

Ambrose (d. 397) didn’t want to be a bishop, but one night the crowd in Milan demanded that he take the job! He tried hard to dissuade the people. He then tried to escape. Finally, the Emperor himself let it be known that Ambrose would be bishop, like it or not. So, begrudgingly, he accepted the role – all this before he was even baptized!

John Chrysostum (d. 407) was a lawyer-turned-monk who happened to be a great preacher. He was so good that people couldn’t accept the fact that he wanted to live in simple solitude. He was preaching in Antioch when he was kidnapped and taken to Constantinople, because the Emperor wanted him as the bishop there. As a monk committed to poverty, the glitz of the Roman capital turned his stomach…and he preached about it. More conflict! From there he was turned on by other bishops, banished from the city, and even exiled, where he died from failing health.

Jerome (d. 420) was a monk, who then became a church leader. He did incredible work as a Bible translator and theologian. But his work in the church drove him to depression. He made a lot of theological enemies, and spent the last 10 years of this life lonely, in a lot of pain, and surrounded by controversy.

Augustine (d. 430), from the time he became a Christian, wanted a life of solitude. He was on that path when he was ordained in the church of Hippo against his will.

Obvious, isn’t it? Everyone craved solitude! The great leaders of the Imperial church all realized something: Following Jesus is the one thing to be desired above all else … and being a leader in the local church is huge distraction to that simple pursuit! And their experience was that church leadership worked against that desire, not for it.

I’ve been a Christian now for 39 years. I went to Christian college and graduate school. I’ve been pastoring for over two decades. In my lifetime, I have never met another man or woman who shares this ancient conviction. “I would much rather live a life of solitude than be a leader in the church.” No, what I experience instead is an almost insatiable desire to be in the throes of church life, preferably as the senior leader of the church.

I’ve also experienced in my ministry career that local church life is fraught with peril, especially for the pastors. When church conflict is at its peaks, rich community life and shared spirituality ebb. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.

I truly believe that, if I could get all these “great uncles” together in my living room, they would tell me, “Bill, don’t let life in the church keep you from the main thing of knowing Jesus deeply. Leave ministry leadership if you have to. Don’t lose it! Because it’s the best.”

I wish I could have heard from you guys sooner.

 
 

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