Pilgrim people seeking permanence

pilgrims-on-a-pilgrimage-1867

Cain

Augustine observes that it was Cain (the first murderer) who built the first city, “while Abel, as though he were merely a pilgrim on earth, built none.”

Augustine uses that example to talk about the people of God as a wandering people–– “as on a pilgrimage through time looking for the Kingdom of eternity.”

Babel

The next case of city-building in Scripture is no better. In it, the people say, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” We know that tower as the Tower of Babel.

What’s wrong with this picture? “Let’s make a name for ourselves” is an easy clue. Beyond that, the people are doing their best to avoid scattering “over the face of the whole earth.” That’s a problem when God has already twice told them to fill the earth.

So God confuses the people’s language, ends their building, and scatters them “over the face of the whole earth.” God accomplishes his will, regardless. Sadly, it happens in spite of the people, rather than in cooperation with them.

Abraham

By contrast, look at how the book of Hebrews describes Abraham:

“By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”1

Cain built a city. Those at Babel tried to build a city. But Abraham lived in tents. Now look at the concluding statement, with references to life on earth and the city of God:

“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”2

Pilgrim people, Pilgrim church

Augustine says that we’re a pilgrim people, even a pilgrim church. But our flesh lusts after safety, security, and permanence.

The Israelites in the desert longed to go back to Egypt. They created romantic ideals in their heads about those great times in Egypt, where they sat around pots of meat and ate all the food they wanted.3 Why the false romantic notions? Because a trek through the desert is neither safe, nor secure, nor comfortable. At least there’s comfort and some security in the known––even if it involves slavery in Egypt.

This is the constant tension we face as the people of God. We live in this world as foreigners and exiles, pilgrims on a journey, never fully settled here because this world and its desires pass away.

We can’t build any new city where we will be fully comfortable. No cloistered community will suffice. The utopian paradise––where we make our own rules and everything works––is a dangerous mirage. The city we seek is the city of God, and it comes only when God’s new creation comes. We can have tastes of it now–– “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come!”4––but these are only tastes. For now, we remain pilgrims.

What does it mean for Christians to live as pilgrim people? What does it mean for the Church to live as a pilgrim Church? It at least means living with less comfort than we would prefer.

We follow a Messiah who said, “the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”5 One scholar comments on that line: “The nature of his mission kept him on the move and would keep his followers on the move.”6 We follow the teachings of a man named Paul who traveled across the Roman Empire, often in peril, to preach the gospel and help establish churches. In my tradition, we follow in the more recent footsteps of circuit riding preachers who traveled the country by horseback––again at great risk to life and health––for the sake of proclaiming the gospel.

In our own desires, we seek safety, security and permanence. Those can seduce us away from the hard, but better, road of pilgrims. We can settle for what’s comfortable and safe. We can try to stop and build our own secure cities and become comfortable in this world, because the pilgrim life is too daunting.

If we ever find ourselves fully comfortable and content––safe, secure, and at ease––might we wonder if we’ve settled too soon, camped out at a way station along the trail as if it were the final destination?

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  1. Heb 11:9-10
  2. Heb 11:13-16
  3. Exod 16:3
  4. 2 Cor 5:17
  5. Matt 8:20
  6. D. A. Carson, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew

A pastor’s reading plan

Since I began posting the books I’m reading, and my best 8 books of the year*, several people have asked about my plan for reading, or how I choose what to read. In an email last week, someone just finishing seminary asked:

“There are so many categories and so much I have saved, it is overwhelming. How do you categorize, organize, decide (whatever it is) what to read after seminary and in ministry?”

I thought an answer to this question might be helpful/interesting for several of you…

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So many books to read, so little time...

So many books to read, so little time…

That’s a great question!

Seminary was a good introduction to theological study for me. It gave me some critical tools for reading well and a great bibliography to work on. That has made post-seminary study a lot of fun. We do better when we think of seminary as the beginning of our theological education rather than the end of it.

You’ve opened up a pretty deep rabbit hole here. I’ll take you part of the way down…

Categories

I read in nine categories. I use Library of Congress classifications for those (you can find these at catalog.loc.gov and usually on the book’s copyright page). No category system is perfect, but I’m content with this one. It provides quick, broad categories. I asked myself what a well-rounded reading plan would be for my needs as a pastor, and these were the nine categories I chose… 

  • BR books, as classified by Library of Congress. This includes some general Christian works and especially focuses on Christian history. It’s where you’ll find most of the writings from the first 1500 years of Christian history. The last thing I read in this category was a book of Augustine’s sermons. The next one I plan to read is a history of the development of Christianity in 18th and 19th century America.
  • BS – Books about the Bible. I’ll occasionally read a commentary front to back, but I usually read broader BS books. I just finished a book of essays on the Psalms. I’m working through N. T. Wright’s monumental series, one volume per year.
  • BT – Doctrinal theology. This is where you’ll find systematic theologies and most specialized works in theology or the history of Christian doctrine. I’m about to start Pelikan’s big series on the Christian Tradition.
  • BV – Practical theology. This includes most any book you read on the practice of ministry and most spiritual formation books. This can be the natural area for post-seminary pastors to spend all of their time. It’s the practical tools that immediately apply. Most of the other categories are slower to application. (How do you apply a history of Christian thought to your ministry this week?) My reading in those other areas is important, but not urgent. It shapes me in ways that affect everything over time, but not much immediately. Our catechesis groups were born, in large part, out of my reading from early Christian history and Martin Luther’s works.

    So this system keeps me from reading only practical theology when I might be tempted to always go to urgent needs. To be clear, these books have been great for me, and they’re more than 1/9th of what I actually read because almost every book I read with ministry or pastoral teams is a BV book.

  • BX – Denominational works. Most of my reading here is within the Wesleyan tradition, but this gives me some occasion to read books on Baptist history, Presbyterian polity, or Roman Catholic theology. Reading in the Wesleyan tradition has helped me understand the nuances of our particular faith expression. Reading in the other traditions has given me a greater appreciation for them and a helpful, different perspective. 
  • B-BQ – These are any other works that begin with B. They get you into philosophy, psychology, ethics, and other religions. Right now, I’m reading Malcolm X’s autobiography (filed under BP for Islamic studies). Next I think I’ll be reading The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis (under BJ for ethics). It’s a broad category!
  • Special Focus category – This year it’s social sciences––any works categorized under H. I wanted to give some extra time to works on leadership, management, and global social issues. I’ll probably change this category next year (considering a focus on biographies or devotional classics). 
  • Other – If it doesn’t fit any category above, it’s “other.” These books keep me reading something outside of my typical “pet categories.” I’m planning to start a 3-volume biography of Teddy Roosevelt soon.
  • Wild Card – My ninth category isn’t really a category, but freedom to spend extra time somewhere. I use this to fill my most immediate needs or interests.

I keep these all in three rotations. 

Rotation 1: BT, BV, BX

Rotation 2: BR, BS, Other B-

Rotation 3: Special Focus, Other, Wild Card

So I have three books that I’m reading at any time. One from each rotation.

This doesn’t include fiction. I have a separate reading schedule for that. It also doesn’t account for any Bible/prayer book/devotional reading

All of this is for systematic broad reading. I get into deeper, more specific research through sermon preparation, writing, and other issues as they present themselves. That research tends to be article-length reading, not book-length, and comes as questions demand rather than systematically.

Selection

I compile my bibliography from a variety of sources. If a source I trust recommends a book, or if I see a book referenced enough times, I put it on my bibliography. If I then see any of those books available for cheap, I buy them. (ereaderiq.com is great for this with Kindle books.) The bibliography can be overwhelming. Mine makes me sad because I know I’ll never make it to all of these books––2,558 at present.

So which book to actually read? My plan here isn’t very systematic. When each category comes up in the rotation, I choose what most fills a current need or interest. Or I choose that book I know I should have read by now. The one systematic aspect to it is a few multi-volume series that I’m reading, one volume per year (Wright, Pelikan, the Roosevelt biographies, and Wesley’s Works). So one book per year in each of those categories is pre-determined.

Actually Reading

I try to protect one hour of my daily schedule for reading. That’s not as much as I’d like, but it’s as much as I can manage, and sometimes I don’t get that. John Wesley scolded any  preachers who weren’t reading enough. He said they were starving their souls and would be “petty, superficial preachers.” I understand why he said that. If I’m not reading, I’m not getting the ongoing education and challenge I need to be a good pastor, preacher, teacher, or leader. 

So welcome to my neurotic rabbit-hole. I doubt this system could work, as it is, for anyone else. But I hope it provides some helpful insight for creating your own.

I’m glad you’re thinking about a post-seminary reading plan. Though the formal education may be over, it’s really just a nice jump-start to a life of learning for ministry.

“What are you passionate about?”

passion

“What are you passionate about?”

It’s a common question, at least in church world. And it’s a good question. You should do what you’re passionate about. (There are bounds to this, but we’ll leave them alone for now.)

But it’s also not the only question to ask… or perhaps it’s too narrow a question.

Some needs exceed the passion to fill them. For instance, chairs that need to be set up present a regular need, but rarely ignite a passion. Same for dishes that need to be cleaned. In most places, I’ve seen that the number of children who need to be cared for exceeds the number of adults passionate about caring for them. (That one is a sad reality to me. I get it––it’s taxing, and for many, intimidating. But I still hope for a day that our passion for kids exceeds any need.)

For some necessary things, we may need to supplement passion with sacrifice––people who do something not because they wake up excited to do it, but because it’s important and needs doing.

This is where we might broaden our questions about passion. Someone may not be passionate about washing dishes, but she’s passionate about community meals. And she’s willing to wash the dishes to make it happen. Someone may not be passionate about leading children’s ministry, but he’s passionate about children being ministered to, so he volunteers.

Whatever church community you’re a part of, let me urge you to do two things:

1 – Ask yourself what you’re passionate about. And be sure the leaders in your community know. Ask if there are ways for you to give in one of those areas.

(Also be aware that there are some areas where passion exceeds need. These tend to be the more visible roles. Don’t be disappointed if there’s not as much opportunity to serve in those areas of passion as you’d like.)

2 – Dedicate yourself to one thing that’s a need, even though it’s not a passion.

Look around and see what areas of need you can identify. If you can’t find them, ask the leaders in your community, “Where are the places you could really use more help? If you could have someone show up regularly and faithfully to do something, what would you ask for?” They’ll be able to answer those questions with ease.

Find one of these things and do it on a regular, scheduled, disciplined basis. When you do this, it’s not because you love doing it (though maybe a love could grow for it), it’s because you’re passionate about the larger mission of the church. And that small act of service is essential to the bigger mission.

Occasionally #1 and #2 go together. That’s the person who truly has a passion for setting up chairs (have I met you??) and does it faithfully. If that’s you, I hope you know how special you are to the community. Same to that children’s Sunday School teacher who has been doing it for 20 years and loves it.

“I don’t have time to do both,” you say. “Do I serve in the area of need, or passion?”

Let’s start with a question: Is the thing you’re passionate about something where passion exceeds need in your community (i.e. if you gave up your spot, people would rush to fill it)? If so, I’d recommend you stop doing the passion thing for a time and only fill the need.

Otherwise, you’re leading in a coveted role without demonstrating the servant leadership of also leading in a needed role. Also, when you stay away from that area of passion until your time frees up, you’re likely to find a way to free some time.

 

Every great movement is a mix of passion and sacrifice. People do things they love, and they’re excited to be part of a great cause. People also make sacrifices to do less-interesting things, because they know those things are part of the larger mission.

The church can and should be the greatest movement on earth––the greatest mixture of passion and sacrifice that our world sees.

To the many, many, many of you who already exemplify that––thank you! Those small things may not seem like much, but that chair you set up, or that diaper you change, is what makes it possible for the rest of this great mission to happen.

To any of you who wouldn’t yet be described as a model of passion and sacrifice in your community, there’s still time to sign up.