The Shaping of Our Hearts

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Hey Friends,

For the next few months I have a challenge for you.

It has to do with your heart.

Your heart plays a bigger role in your life than you may realize. Its rhythms are essential. If it is a strong or a weak muscle, either way it will impact everything else you do. And your heart stops working if the blood it pumps has problems. But there’s more to it than this.

The state of your heart also controls impulses, desires and the content of your character. If your heart is sad or hard or cold or callous, you cannot live with the relative poise you need to do life well.

I am interested in helping you maintain your heart.

The ancients knew that there was something more to our hearts than anatomy. They knew that our passions and desires flowed freely from our chest. And they knew that if left unchecked our hearts would seek to control us. Our hearts need to be rooted and grounded.

Homer put it this way, “Ever unstable are the hearts of the young; but whatever an old man takes part in, he looks both before and after, so that the issue may be far the best for either side” (Iliad 3.108-110).

The great Apostle Paul wrote letters to the earliest Christians. In his letter to Christians living in what is now Turkey, Paul shares how he prays for them: “I pray that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together, with all the Lord’s saints, to grasp how wide and long and deep is the love of Christ” (Ephesians 3.17-18).

Our hearts have the capacity to ruin our lives in moments of unwieldy desire. And yet our hearts can root us deep into the soil of the Creator’s love. We cannot get rid of our hearts. We shouldn’t want to. But we can learn what it is to have our hearts shaped.

I plan on illustrating this in the next few months at Grassroots Church. Part of my goal in this time is to help you learn some heart-maintaining practices.

Over the next few months, pick a few of these and try to incorporate them into your life. See if you can take one small step towards any one of them.  They will help shape your heart for good:

  1. Read the scriptures. Ten minutes of reflective reading a day.
  2. Read the spiritual masters. Ten minutes of reflective reading a day.
  3. Take a walk in creation and note what it teaches you about God.
  4. Become part of a web of faith. Engage in a local faith community by attending small groups of people of faith or volunteer with people of faith.
  5. Learn to pray.  Read a book on prayer and take a few minutes to practice a day.
  6. Find a good book on Jesus’s resurrection and take notes on why resurrection is so central to the Christian faith.
  7. Find a place to serve in your local community.
  8. If your situations at work or home are not fracturing you as a human being, stay in them. Try to redeem hard situations rather than escape from them. Journal through this experience. What did you learn about God, yourself, others?
  9. Journal.  If you are suffering. Keep a journal. Give words to your suffering. Ask God to be with you in them.
  10. Journal. Pay attention to when you are not loving (see 1 Cor 13 to help learn what love is and what unlove is). Ask God to help you see how He might be making your love more pure.

I’d love to hear how things are going. Feel free to email me (keith.j@grassroots.church) or leave some comments below and let me know.

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Initial Thoughts on Being a Pastor NT Scholar

on_map_63203It may be news to some that I am about to move to Canada to answer a call to ministry. I will be “Lead and Teaching Pastor” at Grassroots Church, in Thunder Bay, Ontario. God appears to be calling me–after having earning a PhD in New Testament from an Ancient Scottish University–into the local church.

Unfortunately, in the world that we live in, this is not the most intuitive of steps forward. But I believe that it is the right one for my family. As far as I can tell, this was not a step made out of desperation. I am confident that after some steadfastness, I could have eventually landed a teaching post. This is also not me forsaking of a privilege, I do not think. While my new station will likely complicate my future research and writing ambitions, I plan to continue engaging in the scholarly discussion of the New Testament, from my pastoral context.

There are many aspects of life made uncertain by this path. And there is risk involved with that.  But I believe that the future of a robust Christian faith in the West will depend on pastors who have undergone intensive (decades-long) training, having learned to read the scriptures faithfully and touch workaday hearts (in local congregations) with the story of God. This may be exactly the type of thing that God has in mind for me.

This is not to say that pastors, who have not been trained for ten years, have no role in the future of Christianity. And this is not to say that trained Christian men and women, who are working in academic institutions, have no role either. Each has their important place in the economy of God’s kingdom. But it seems to me that, in the situation in which we find ourselves in the West, we will need men and women who can both chart the way forward for Christianity, through the many secular worldviews vying powerfully for Christian devotion as well as minister to the hearts of the best and brightest Christian scholars of our day. Workaday Christians are exposed to powerful alternative worldviews in our day. And Christians in the academy are exposed to powerful demands (on their souls) to produce and specialize.  Each needs care and shepherding, which (incidentally) one particular station of ministry can offer: the pastor theologian.

Most of what I read about pastor theologians have to do with these ministers having a world-wide task of safeguarding doctrine. This is probably my own ignorant half-reading of the conversation. But if so, I hope that there is a more expansive vision for the pastor theologian. From my vantage point, the pastor New Testament Scholar has six important tasks:

  1. Learn biblical languages, content, and history to the best of one’s ability,
  2. Become as much of an expert on the human condition as possible,
  3. Learn to be a good spiritual director and community developer,
  4. Become as effective of a communicator and write as much as possible,
  5. Develop a deeply human biblical theology of formation, and finally
  6. Surround oneself with the best executive pastors and competent ministry directors as possible.

Friends. Other pastor theologians? What am I missing? What do you see as the need and task of pastor-Biblical scholars?

Check out some of these other online articles about the role and the task of a pastor theologian:

Humility For Our To-Do Lists

This morning I was driving, on my way to work, when I saw my daughter unexpectedly at her day care. Guarded faithfully by her teachers and the school’s playground fencing, she was in lost in wonder among a group of children, swarming in controlled chaos. She was oblivious to my passing by. As I pulled to the side of the road and lingered for a spectator’s moment, it struck me that, in this present circumstance, she had no agenda. One moment, she was in a stream of kids running over to the spring-loaded dinosaur horse. The next moment she had turned her attention to the girl at the playground who had called out her name. Beckoned, she ran back upstream and found herself now immersed in play with her lonely friend. The only thing that this resembles in my life is how frantically I race back and forth between cnn.com and facebook when I’m fatigued with work. This is an adulterated version of living in the present moment. My girl was living in the moment, and life seemed totally integrated for her. My shadow version of this playground experience, laced with technology, fragments me. It made me wonder about the difference between living in the present moment and being fragmented by it.

Bonhoeffer, the modern sage, discovered something about living in the present moment as a capacity fueled by humility. “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God”, he teaches us, “will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks, as the priest passed by the man who had fallen among thieves, perhaps—reading the Bible. When we do that we pass by the visible sign of the Cross raised above our path to show us that, not our way, but God’s way must be done… Continue reading

Equipping Lydia

I wanted to invite you to check out this video from the founder of Equipping Lydia, Rev. Laura Beach.  Here Laura describes the work of spiritual direction and creating space for men and women to experience the touch of God’s love for them and the world they inhabit.  Currently, I offer spiritual direction through EL for men and lead a men’s formation group for those who have been traumatized by life.

You can check out EL’s website here:  http://www.equippinglydia.org

 

Baptismal Spirituality

imageThe Christian life makes more sense when we understand our baptism. When we are frustrated that our dreams are taking longer than we want to come true, when life takes its detours, and when we disappoint others and ourselves, it will help us to remember that we are in the middle of a long baptismal cycle.

I have always loved the water. As a boy on family vacation, you could find me riding the waves of the ocean surf or splashing around the swimming pool. I remember distinctly one hotel pool where I discovered I could hold my breath for longer than I knew possible. I dove directly into the deep-end and, grabbing ahold of the ladder, I walked myself down to the depths of that abyss. With my feet touching the bottom tiles and my hands pressing upright against the lowest metal rung, I began to count (figuring I could last at least 2 minutes). When I counted up to 5 my lungs started to quiver. At 15, my brain began to panic. But I resisted the urge to let go and swim up. At the count of 25 I started seeing stars. I reduced my goal to 30 seconds. 28, 29, 30 and UP!!!! Up I surged like a bullet. At the surface I gasped after the salty air and replenished my body with oxygen.

It’s not for no reason why Jesus chose baptism as the initiation rite into his movement. If anything, baptism is the lifelong drowning of our sins. The German theologian Martin Luther said that baptism is a plunge beneath the purifying waters. Symbolically, we enter in and, yes, we come right back up. But really, says Luther, we won’t surface from those waters again until we are resurrected. In the meanwhile we stay beneath the flood and suffocate our pride, envy, lust, sloth, avarice, greed, and gluttony. For Luther, it was permissible to come up and take a breath, as long as you stayed in those waters. Don’t get out of the pool. And if you can, stay under until you see stars.

I wonder what it would have been like to be Jesus’s disciples when he walked resolutely to Jerusalem. “Can you be baptized with the baptism that I will be baptized with”, he asked. He was talking about his death. In Romans 6, Paul picks up this imagery and tells us pretty much the same: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Baptism is never only about God’s endorsement, or becoming part of God’s family. It is joining Jesus as he plunged beneath the earth and finding that in the tomb we are slowly changed into reflections of God’s love in the world. We become beloved lovers in the great baptismal process.

What does this mystery look like in practice? We can get at this by asking, along with the gospel writer Luke, what a beloved lover does:

  • What excess goods do you have to give away (Luke 3.11)? Give them.
  • In what ways are you temped by greed (Luke 3.12)? Be content.
  • Are you content with their pay (Luke 3.13)? Be content.
  • Do you resist the urge to justify yourself (Luke 4.3)? Don’t give in.
  • Can you stay devoted to God in the face of the temptation to take power (Luke 4.7), and
  • Have you learned not to test God (Luke 4.9)? Resist.

Perhaps something is not going “right” in your life today. If you are a Christian, I bet it is being affected, in some ways, by your baptism. In what ways might God be using your situation to transform your heart into love? What insights do you have about your baptismal spirituality? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

A Jigger Full of Jagger

I came across this, my first online ‘about’ page, from 2004. It is fun to read it again. Over a decade later, it still rings true:

-A Jigger Full of Jagger-

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Captivated by mythology, I tangle with reality
Quite content, a stranger here, not to be alone

Who am I?
I’ll tell you who I’m not
I’m not Dietrich Bonhoeffer,
nor a 40 ounce beef eater
I’m not an über menschen,
not a nice guy even
I’m not the King of Tyre,
or the King of kings
Not quite Aragorn to wage
the war of rings.

I’ve wanted lots of many things
To lead, to love, to judge,
to sing, to laugh, to live to grow,
so many things, I know.

I am an academic,
you’ll find a pencil in my ear
I am aggressive, passively,
I fight that year by year
I have a knack for calculating,
despite the call to faith
Nature is my sanctuary,
that wild and quiet place.

I’m somewhat optimistic
my intentions touch the sky
But when it comes to actuating
At least I say I try
Give me music, Mendelssohn,
it is healing to my soul
I even love the radio
but don’t put me in control.

I struggle with humanity,
with you, with them, with me
And this reconnection, this Christianity
We seem sometimes so messy,
we seem sometimes so good
<Who is this God of yes and no>
and what that cross of wood?

Beneath the clay clad structure,
beneath the Pharisee
Beneath the church’s whitewashed walls
is where I long to be.
Cause there I meet a warrior
There I find a man
There I find identity
there I find a plan.

So who am I?
The question, then, bids me an address
I’d like to be defined as me,
no more and yet no less
Not blown about by envy’s lies,
but simply diving in
With you and me and Calvary
and God enjoying this man.

-a cup of misshapen verse, of me, for you-

Hope is a Muscle

1390088403gge52Sometimes we experience wishful thinking and mistake it for hope. But hope is so much better than dreaming, even despite our culture’s claims to the contrary.

When I was in college, my stars were aligning. I wasn’t so popular in High School. But by the end of my freshman year of college, I had been voted prince of the homecoming court (you can’t be king until your senior year). I was prince sophomore year. And prince Junior year. I understood the feeling that, somehow, your time has finally come, in great way.

When my senior year had rolled around, I had expected to be voted on to the homecoming court again, and I was. I wanted to win. So when the moment arrived, we were waiting in the wings of the ceremonial stage. One by one they called the names of the others. They walked down into their spotlight. Now it was just me and the final candidate. I was wishing with all my heart for the victory. I had planned out how I would turn and place the king’s crown at the foot of the wooden cross, which they had mounted on the stage. My speech was tuned. And then, before my final competitor, they called me. It was bad news. I didn’t win. I came up short. If you had asked me then, I might have said that my hopes were dashed. But that’s not what had happened. My dreams were shattered. My hope was was challenged and getting a wakeup call.

Hope is not a dream or a wish, despite what the Disney song might lead you to believe. “A dream is a wish your heart makes…if you keep on believing, the dream that you wish will come true.” It’s awful advice. Hope is much better. Hope is a muscle you have. It can get stronger or weaker. When you have strong hope, you have steadfastness, immovability, trusting that whatever you do in God’s name is not in vain (1 Cor. 15.58). When your hope is week you are like a rudderless boat tossed about by the wind and the waves. My dreams of prestige were shattered, but that night began a tremendous journey of loss for me, which has since strengthened my heart. It was the beginning of me learning to put my hope in things that could sustain my steadfastness (In my experience the primary outlet worthy of your hope is God). I started the path towards being an immovable force for good in the lives of those around me. While I still have a lot of room to grow, and while sometimes my hope still fails me, it has now become a branch, on which the birds of the air can make their nests.

Hope is:

  • A muscle you have, that get grow stronger or get weaker.
  • Hope grows weak when when you misplace it in something that cannot sustain hope.
  • Hope grown strong when placed in something worthy of your hope.

Have you had any of your dreams shattered to find that your hope was misplaced? What kind of things do you see people putting their hope in that cannot sustain hope? What are some things worthy of your hope?

Gourmet Christianity

file4901246625099Christianity has long been associated with meals. Jesus hosted a symbolic meal on the eve of his death. Jews and Christians have long portrayed eternity as an everlasting banquet. And Christianity’s earliest distinctive was its insistence that all people could sit and share food together. But in our day, I am afraid that too many people have experienced a freeze-dried, hermetically sealed, reheated version of Christianity. We have tasted the generic and found this faith wanting. We have forgotten what gourmet Christianity tastes like.

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Compassion and Nehemiah 3

There is no more important posture needed for rebuilding broken things than compassion. It is “a willingness to suffer” with those who languish under the weight of ruins. Suffering with another person involves entering into the mess and, with a Christ-like reverence, being present with them as they rebuilt. As Thomas Merton said in The Sign of Jonas of God’s compassion: “I am noisy, fully of the racket of my imperfections and passions, and the wide open wounds left by my sins. Full of my own emptiness. Yet, ruined as my house is, You [God] live there!”

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