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A while ago one of the admissions guys from our denominational seminary was in town and stopped by. We talked for awhile. A short time later a book arrived in the mail. It was The Imperfect Pastor by Zack Eswine. As a result I read it while on study leave.

I am reminded of the story of Elisha hounding Elijah because he knew it was time for Elijah to “go home”. He asked for a double portion (the firstborn son’s inheritance). As I read this book I got the impression that he is the new Eugene Peterson. This is about the man in ministry and how he goes about ministry. It is not ivory tower theory, but born of the intersection of theology and life.

I am also reminded of the great men in Scripture who thought they would be great on their own terms, and then God humbled them and they became more useful. Zack is not the hero of this story, and neither are we. This is an honest book about the hard lessons he learned.

This is not a “perfect book”, and that is perfectly fine. There is plenty here to encourage, humble and re-direct. He breaks the book into 4 sections: Calling, Temptations, Reshaping the Inner Life and Reshaping the Work. There is an element of who the reader is that impacts how any book is perceived. For me the lag was in the 3rd section. In some ways though I suspect he could make a cottage industry of this with the Imperfect Husband, the Imperfect Father ….. precisely because this material does apply to all of these callings.

“My pastoral desires had become tainted, and I did not realize it. A lot of us don’t. We and our congregations suffer for it.”

The main part I took away from the first section on calling is the intersection of God’s calling and our past. Our history is important because we don’t just shake it off. It comes with us into our calling, and makes our fulfilling that calling more difficult. Our history shapes who we are (grace does too), often in ways we cannot or do not perceive. The more we ignore our history, the more it will impact how we do ministry.

The temptations pastors face, and are sometimes thrust upon them as demands, are important. In this section he has something of a mantra: “You and I were never meant to repent for not ___________. You and I are meant to repent because we tried to be.” His issue is our attempt to be like God, not in terms of His communicable attributes but in terms of His incommunicable attributes. We want to be everywhere (and at the right time), able to fix everything, knowing everything and that everything can happen NOW. Here he quotes Eugene Peterson:

“I think the besetting sin of pastors, maybe especially evangelical pastors, is impatience.”

luke-face-dark-side-caveThese temptations are part of the context of fulfilling our calling. We cannot avoid these temptations, but must face them much like Luke Skywalker has to face the temptations of the dark side. Except this doesn’t happen in a cave, but in the course of ministry.

“When Jesus begins to rescue us from trying to fix it all, know it all, be everywhere for all as fast and as famously as possible, we find ourselves in a hard spot.”

The 3rd section sounds like it has been greatly influenced by The Contemplative Pastor. He encourages speaking less and listening more (James 1:19). There will be a time to speak, but first we must listen. This is made even more difficult in the social media/sound bite world we live in. He offers three thoughts for other pastors for us to ponder in our “detox”.

  1. The boundaries of your calling reveal God’s pastoral care for you. He knows our limitations and capacities, precisely because He gave them to you. He doesn’t expect you to go beyond those limitations. Respect them.
  2. In trying so hard not to miss out, you actually create the thing you fear. Too many pastors are so busy going to conferences that they miss out on their actual calling. I’m not called to go to conferences, but to shepherd people.
  3. Smaller is always better than larger unless, and only if, God extrudes us. I’ve only been a small church pastor. I see some larger church pastors struggling to actually shepherd. They are teachers (and there are times I wish I was primarily a teaching/preaching “pastor”). God does put some people in these larger contexts, but we have to resist the selfish ambition that claws for them, always looking for the next, better & bigger position instead of shepherding the people where you are.

“When the three-fold omni-temptation to be like God takes hold of us with speed, we gradually turn to the Bible as a tool kit to make our programs work or our sermons applaudable rather than as the words of our Beloved meant to help anyone anywhere find the way home.”

The last two chapters, Local Knowledge and Leadership, are among the high points of the book. Ministry does not happen in a vacuum, but in a real place which is different from other real places. So he talks about how to grow in knowledge of your place (made more difficult with the internet which helps us know about every other place). Leadership takes a slower pace, more intentional and contemplative, including training. I’ve done some of this in training- the idea of shadowing and attending meetings to see how the guy fits in and approaches things. I can do more.

So, the bottom line is that I highly recommend this book to pastors and elders. The pastor cannot change the local culture and expectations alone. He needs the help of those in leadership with him. As they embrace the things Zack talks about, the healthier their leadership and churches will become.

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Session meetings are not often the highlight of a week. I enjoy being with the men, and I enjoy talking about church life and how we can be more faithful. The problem is that our meetings end late and some of us have a hard time the next day at work. I need time to decompress from a meeting, and even if they are held in my home, I don’t go to bed right away.

We have two options: have more but shorter meetings, or have more efficient meetings.

These are men who are already too busy so the first option really doesn’t seem to be an option. A few books were recommended to me. One of them was Meetings that Work by Alexander Strauch. One reason I bought it was that it was specifically about elders’ meetings. I had already read Strauch’s book Biblical Eldership. The third reason was it wasn’t very long. It was accessible for very busy men (I bought one for each elder too).

Our issues are not about character (though he mentions that), which seemed to be the thrust of some of the other recommendations. We have good men, who want to do a good job who just need help doing it quicker.

One thing is evident to me as I read this book: his gifting is kingly. He is all about efficiency, order etc. My gifting is prophetic and priestly, so I could use a bit more organization. But it didn’t make for an enjoyable read. It was informative. It was helpful. I’m not sure how to make this subject interesting. I, however, did not need interesting.

Another thing that became clear to me was how thankful I should be that I am in a confessional church. He often talks about discussing doctrinal issues. In over 15 years in ministry, I have not given very much time to doctrinal discussions in meetings. I am a doctrinally oriented person and read lots of theology. But the Westminster Confession of Faith means that we don’t have to spend time hammering out very many doctrinal issues.

Some of the issues require some wisdom and balance. In my first pastorate, EVERY conversation seemed to prompt an historical dissertation that bogged us down. A church’s history does matter. It does need to be discussed, but it cannot dominate the conversation or bog it down. I took his comments to almost exclude them. A wise moderator will begin to develop a sense of when it is helpful and when it isn’t.

There were, however, a number of very helpful ideas to help make meetings happen more efficiently. This brief book accomplished its purpose. This week we will discuss some of the ideas that we want to implement. Strauch’s book is well worth the investment of your time.

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If you are like me your experience with and knowledge of Eastern Orthodoxy is limited. I grew up Catholic so I understand Roman Catholicism. To many Protestants the Eastern Church is quite mysterious. Rare are the books by Protestants about Eastern Orthodoxy. Robert Letham has written a good book to help people like me understand our brothers and sisters from the East. In this day, with increased persecution in places like Iraq and Syria we hear more about Eastern Orthodoxy. The vast majority of them are not Protestant but either Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.

Letham’s book, Through Western Eyes, is not a polemical book. His purpose is not to expose the errors of Eastern Orthodoxy. He does compare and contrast its teaching on various doctrines with both Roman Catholicism and Reformed Theology. Why just Reformed Theology (and a bit of Luthernism)? Like Roman Catholicism it is a confessional faith. Much of evangelicalism shuns creeds and confessions therefore exhibiting a wide variety of beliefs. Letham himself also comes from a Reformed perspective and therefore compares it to what he knows and loves best.

Letham structures the book in 3 sections: history, theology and evaluation. The third section is not very long. In it he seeks to point out areas where we could learn from them, where they could learn from us, gross misunderstanding and divergence.

The section on theology spends much of its pages dealing with the ecumenical councils. How they do theology is quite different than how we have done theology. Since the Scholastics and particularly since the Enlightenment theology in the West has been done in the universities, and not necessarily in the church. There have been numerous confessions and catechisms to lay out theology as well as many systematic theology books. Theology in the Eastern Church is grounded on the Councils (which we also affirm for the most part), communicated in their liturgy and is done mostly by church men: pastors and bishops. Their dependence on the creeds reflect their understanding of polity: there is no hierarchical structure. The Patriarchs do not function like archbishops or the Pope. How their theology developed is interesting, at least to me.

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In my second year of seminary, John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God became required reading in the first year. Oh, well. It has only taken me about 20 years to read the book.  I began to read it 2 years ago, I think, while I was home “watching” the kids while CavWife taught a group exercise class on Monday afternoons. Last year I spent that time studying and developing a curriculum for the Book of Revelation. Though I no longer watch the kids on Monday afternoons, I resumed reading the book this Fall as time permitted. It was worth the work.

The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (an interesting title) is the first in Frame’s A Theology of Lordship series, of which I have already read The Doctrine of God (Salvation Belongs to the Lord is a shorter version that is quite readable). The title of this book suggests the main concern of the book- how can we know God. This is a book about epistomology, the study of how we know. We often take this for granted and never think through it. Those presuppositions drive many of the debates and arguments we have with people. We often fall into bad argumentation (logical fallacies for instance).

“Our criteria, methods, and goals in knowing will depend on what we seek to know.”

Frame wants to examine our presuppositions, and argue for a presupposition understanding of how we know what we know and what we can know.  He starts with knowing God, as Calvin did in The Institutes of the Christian Religion. But he starts with God as Covenant Lord. As Covenant Lord, He made us to think and understand as receivers of revelation. As Covenant Lord, he determines what is revealed to us.

“We do not come to know God, or anything else, in a vacuum. … Still, one has to start somewhere; he cannot relate everything to everything else at once, for otherwise he would be God.”

He touches on subjects like transcendence (God as head of the covenant) and immanence (God’s nearness or involvement with creation), authority,  control and presence, knowability and incomprehensibility etc. He moves out of the theoretical at times to show how these tensions reveal themselves in theological debate, particularly the disagreement between Van Til and Clark. In other words, he examines many of the implications of the Creator-creature distinction.

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I’ve enjoyed sports and history as long as I can remember.  As a kid I would read lots of sports biographies- including some of the dreaded Yankees.  My dislike for the Yankees didn’t keep me from appreciating the skill of some of their players.  Of course most of the ones I appreciated were from eras when the Red Sox were essentially uncompetitive.

Sometimes books come along that allow me to revisit sports and history.  Sean Deveney’s The Original Curse is one of those books.  Deveney puts the 1918 World Series into its historical context, and that context is vital to his main thesis.  His thesis, which he admits cannot prove, is that the Cubs threw the 1918 World Series.  This is particularly intriguing as a result of the futility that plagued both teams since that World Series.  The Red Sox’ futility has only recently ended, but the Cubs’ continues.  Such utter inability to win championships is astounding to say the least- particularly since they were both so successful before that time.  This was the 5th World Series victory for the Red Sox.

“Prosperity tends to provide a pretty big blind spot.”

Deveney focuses on a few things outside of baseball.  World War I wrecked havoc on the world economy.  While ball players were well paid, inflation in the few years leading up to the 1918 World Series was about 55%.  Their good paychecks did not go as far as they used to go.

World War I put pressure on the players themselves as well as the game.  Some of the players were drafted during the season.  There was controversy as to whether or not to end the season.  Players were viewed as slackers because they were not directly assisting the war effort.  The War Department had underestimated what it would take to get fully involved in the conflict.  They put off requests from baseball for clarification repeatedly.  Some players left the pros to work in the shipyards which often had ball teams.  Many of these guys didn’t work but just played ball.

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