Friday, May 25, 2012

Book Review - Freedom for Ministry

Ok, so the alumni book checkout limit is 25 books.  Yesterday I checked out 24.  I'm looking forward to a summer like the summers of my youth - laying around reading endless books.  Of course, I'm no longer checking out "Choose Your Own Adventure" books or the occasional "Babysitters Club" that I don't yet own - no, this summer it's N.T. Wright's commentary on Colossians (yeah, I'm going to read it straight through because I'm a geek) and John C. Knapp's How the Church Fails Businesspeople.  Nevertheless, I've got lots of reading planned, and I'm super-excited about it.

Depending on how much the books move me, I may or may not put reviews of them up here - it's hardly like most of them are brand-new and need this kind of review from a no-name blogger, but because I like to write about the things that are important to me, if I love them, I'll probably write about them.  Besides, mostly I like writing, and it's helpful when I have a topic that isn't my own emotionally overwrought internal drama.  :)

So, first up: Freedom for Ministry, by Richard John Neuhaus. 

This book has been on my shelf, unread, for a couple years now.  I just really haven't had time to get to it, plus I've been engaged in much self-denial about what I'm actually called to - and this is definitely a book directed at the clergy. (Although I think it could be a good read for laity, especially lay leadership, to help them understand the common mission that belongs to the priesthood of all believers, vocationally ordered though that priesthood might be.)  It's fairly old - the first edition is from 1979, and I have the revised 1992 edition.  It first came out the year that Fr. Neuhaus left Lutheranism to go "home to Rome", and the 2nd edition claims to be "revised, not rewritten." 

All that said, this book is awesome.  It is pretty much a summary of my entire final semester of seminary - so I'm not sure if that means my professors did an awesome job, or going to class was a waste of time since I could have just read this book...  Nevertheless...  The book is really just about how to be a great pastor - it lays the groundwork by defining the Church and finding a model for understanding it, then delineating the role and authority of the pastor, and giving specific advice on how to preach and "pursue holiness".  In the Introduction, Neuhaus notes that had he chosen to rewrite, rather than revise, he might have subtitled the work "A Guide for the Perplexed Who Are Called to Serve." It turns out that this is an extremely apt description of the book. 

Having only just graduated from seminary, so admittedly, I know hardly anything, it seems that this book will have something to convict and something to comfort just about any minister, at any point in his or her career.  Neuhaus is marvelously ecumenical - he rarely if ever succumbs to the exaggerated denominational apologetics one often finds in new converts.  Rather, without going so far as to state that the fractured nature of the Church today is a good thing, he acknowledges that this is what it is and it's unlikely to change anytime soon - therefore we all need to get to working with what we've got - which is varying polities and practices, traditions and prejudices. 

He defends the Church as it is, warts and all:
"I do not think we should regret it if this Church is institutionally strong.  For the millions of people who support and participate in the churches, it is likely a good thing.  To be sure, we all deplore the superficiality, the cheep grace, the caricature of Christian discipleship that marks some of the most successful peddling of the Gospel in our time....all this is repugnant on many scores.  And yet, and yet: through all this, millions of people are receiving a more adequate and truthful view of the world than they might otherwise have.  They are introduced at least to the rudiments of the Christian worldview...No matter how bastardized we may think the form of the gospel is, they are at least brought within the circle of Christian discourse where the understanding of the gospel can be deepened and fulfilled in Christian discipleship."
And yet, the Church and those who make it up have a long ways to go: "Our restless discontent should not be over the distance between ourselves and the first-century Church but over the distance between ourselves and the Kingdom of God, to which the Church, then and now, is the witness."

On trying to recover "the Acts 2 Church":
"...the false consciousness by which we project ourselves into the role of original members of the disciple band also distorts our understanding of Jesus the Lord.  Because we are in fact products of the modern world, such false consciousness requires that we fashion for ourselves a Jesus with whom we can sympathetically identify.  Thus Jesus becomes the Guerilla Fighter, or the Greatest Jock of Them All, or the Master Psychologist, or the Premier Organizer, or Broadway's superstar of the counterculture.  A lord whom we fashion in our own image is no lord at all."
"If in our presentation of Jesus the Lord we are to move from a personality cult based on a myth to faith in the gospel promise, we must be prepared to help people understand the great cultural and historical gulf fixed between ourselves and the first century.  This is contrary to our immediate pastoral instinct, which is to close that gulf, to demonstrate the immediacy and relevance of Jesus.  But we should not be embarrassed by the fact that, were the first-century Jesus of Nazareth to show up among us today, we would have a very hard time communicating with him, and he with us.  And if we were able to communicate, we might not like him very much at all."
"The purpose of the New Testament, as of our ministries, is to assert the good news that in this Jesus, who remains emphatically distanced from us by two thousand years, God was fully present and acting on our behalf in victory over his enemies and ours....The resurrection is the nexus between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith.  It is the good news that he is the Christ that has "carried" the Jesus of history through history, making him the contemporary of all peoples of all times.  That contemporaneity is based not upon a constant updating of the person who was Jesus but upon the proclamation of God's decisive presence and action in him."
"The intimacy of communion between the believer and the believer's Lord requires concepts of similarity that make "identification" with the Lord possible.  But our presentation of Jesus the Christ must always resist the "let's pretend" syndrome."
 "The Spirit does not beckon us back to some prior time of his mighty works.  He is mightily working now.  The Spirit graciously lures us from guild to freedom; he convinces us that this Church nad this ministry, in all their inauthenticity, are authentic because, in the precise meaning of authentikos, they are the work of his own hand.  And thus are we, the men and women of the Church's ministry, the stewards of the mysteries, freed to declare our time a new day in the two thousand years of apostolic witness."
On not letting the priesthood of all believers devalue the role of the pastor:
"[In a moment of crisis]...Why is it so urgently, so pathetically, important that the pastor be there?  Because he is the palpable sign of the supportive community and the community's Lord.  Of course Christ has preceded the pastor.  Of course Christ's presence is abidingly immediate to each believer.  Of course, of course.  But in such times of crisis these commonplaces are frighteningly distant and abstract.  It is the personal character of The Presence in the person of the pastor that is believable and consoling."
On the Church as "activist": "If what we are doing is not the Church's business to do, then we ought not to be doing it.  If, however, what we are doing is responsive to human need in articulated relationship to the gospel of Jesus Christ, then it is the Church's business.

On a pastor's sense of call: "I dare say that in every pastor's life there are times when the inner call seems frighteningly uncertain and one just muddles through for a while on the strength of the community's assertion that one is indeed called to the ministry."

On a pastor's authority: "There are many justifications for ministry in which we can find dignity, worth, and satisfaction, but finally the justification for Christian ministry is derived from him who forbids us to seek our authority from any existent reality short of the reality of his Kingdom come."

On allowing psychology to norm pastoral care: "...the psychological notions of 'normal' and 'deviant' are frequently veiled value judgments designed to conform to the desires of the 'principalities and powers'". 

On self-actualization:
"But the discovery of our real selves is not through internal probings but external promise; becoming our true selves is not a therapeutic project but a vocation.  Character is fidelity to that vocation.  The ministry of reconciliation is to help reorder the characteristics of life into the character of a life....That we are new beings in Christ is God's sheer gift; the construction of character is the actualization of that gift.  It is a painstaking process of becoming who, in Christ, we already are....In pastoral care and preaching we must rehabilitate the concept of the good and honorable person, always remembering that the worth involved is derived exclusively from the sheer gift of the calling to which we have been called."
 On pastoral care:
"Not infrequently people want a judgment about whether they did right or wrong, and that is not necessarily wrong....These good people came for informed counsel, not simply to be thrown back upon their own confusion....If they cannot count on the Church for some kind of binding or normative ethic, and if the Christian faith does not help tie together the disparate pieces of a confused universe, they will begin to wonder what is the point of it all."
 On sacramentality: "The angels over the fields of Bethlehem did not call the shepherds to the task of peacemaking or peacekeeping; they declared the gift of peace."

On conflict resolution: "...some evils are not to be worked out and some conflicts are not to be managed - they are simply not to be admitted into the community's life at all.  Does this drive conflicts underground?  Perhaps so, but some things must be suppressed.  The answer to many of the evils that arise in the life of the Church is not resolution but repentance, and, short of repentance, restraint."

Quoting Bonhoeffer on evangelism, "In true Christian love, one speaks more to Christ about the beloved than to the beloved about Christ."

On whether worship should "meet our needs": "In the liturgy, the celebrant invites, 'Lift up your hearts!'  And the people respond, 'We lift them to the Lord!'  Nothing is said about the state of hearts so lifted, only that they be offered to God.  Our doubts and resentments, our tears and confusions, these are offered together with our ecstasies and our gratitude for the amazing grace that makes whole our fragmented souls."

On "flaunting irrelevance": "The apparent irrelevance of worship should not be denied but should be flaunted.  In prayer, in intercession, in the water of baptism and the bread and wine of eucharist, in lifting our hearts in praise, we are dealing with the most real of real worlds.  If we do not believe that, it is to be feared that we are not Christians at all."

On preaching: "Our purpose in preaching is not to create the Church; our Lord has already attended to that.  Our purpose is to help the Church recognize and actualize what God has already declared it to be." 

"Preaching that applies for a license from unbelievers is no preaching at all." 

"God's truth is strong enough to survive its passage through you and me."

Okay, I have to stop.  I could seriously quote the whole book.  It is just fantastic.  I did all my highlighting in green, because I'm sure I'll come back to it again and again, and it will be fun to read and highlight in a different color, and see what hits me then.  Aack, seriously - just go read this book.  If you're a pastor, follow his advice.  If you're not - hold your pastor accountable! 

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My Comments Policy: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law." Galatians 5:22-23