Coronavirus: What the Church Can Learn from the Black Death Pandemic

In the mid-1300s there was a pandemic so virulent that it killed 75-200 million people in Asia and Europe. Called the Black Death, an estimated 40-50% of Europe’s population died from it during a four-year period. In certain countries the death toll was closer to 75-80% of the population. It took centuries for the population in some countries to return to pre-plague numbers

Not only was the disease itself lethal, but the discipline of science had not yet been developed to guide leadership decisions. Priests were the most educated leaders in the community, and people turned to them for advice on everything, not just on spiritual matters. People believed ministers were God’s spokespersons for truth, both sacred and material, so they relied on the priests for guidance about the terrible disease running rampant around the world.

Priests cared for the sick, administered last rites, and did the best they could with the knowledge they had at the time. Some priests fled their posts, but many continued ministering, baptizing, marrying, burying, and attending to the sick and dying. An estimated 40% of priests died from the Black Death. Their dedication serves as an example for ministers today.

However, because people relied so heavily on the priests to be their authority for all truth, the Church lost its influence when priests did not have answers for the pandemic crisis. The priests failed to offer meaningful help for the world’s suffering. Nothing they said or did made any significant difference, and sometimes their words and actions were harmful. Simply put, the priests did not know what to do.

There is nothing to be gained from second-guessing the actions of ministers and the Church during the Black Death. If I had lived during that time, more than likely I would have responded the same way, and I am not passing judgment. But we can learn from that time in history and apply those principles today. Here are my gleanings.

  1. Ministers are not superhuman and being a Christian doesn’t protect you from illness. Before and during the Black Death, the vast majority of Christians believed that if you followed the teachings of the Church, God would protect you. Devotion to the institutional church was thought to confer immunity from sickness. Further, priests acquired a touch of the superhuman when they were ordained, and parishioners believed priests had a special link with God. During the plague, the laity discovered that ministers were just as vulnerable to the disease as they were. Because priests didn’t practice social distancing as they visited the sick and administered the sacraments, they were highly susceptible to the disease and passed on the illness to others. When the prayers of religious leaders were unable to save people from the onslaught of the disease, they didn’t leave God, but they no longer turned to the institutional church for answers. They were spiritual, but not religious.

As they did during the time of the Black Death, many people today look to ministers for help. They trust them to speak truth. Yet when ministers speak of things outside their sphere of knowledge, they can damage their ministry and the name of Christ, as well as potentially cause harm to their followers. In our current crisis, stories are emerging of pastors who denied the seriousness of the coronavirus and called it a political ploy. Some pastors proclaimed that God would honor the faithful who attended church services, even after government officials warned of the danger and barred groups from gathering. Unfortunately, not only did those pastors put their flocks in danger, some of the pastors themselves fell victim. The underlying cause of this denial is mistrust. Some ministers mistrust anyone, even a verified expert, who has a different opinion from theirs. The Bible’s term for this is pride and arrogance. We need humility from our spiritual leaders.

  1. Don’t play the blame game. Europeans blamed Jews for the Black Death. Rumors circulated that Jews poisoned the water wells. Today, some people blame China for the coronavirus. Asians have been attacked and shunned. Others blame the president, the Republicans, the Democrats, and government leaders. It is a human trait to blame others for the wrongs in the world. Dualism is our mode of operation: us against them. Christ, however, called us to oneness with God and others.

Pope Clement VI, the pope at the time of the plague, condemned people who blamed the Jews for the suffering. He wrote, “It cannot be true that the Jews, by such a heinous crime, are the cause or occasion of the plague, because through many parts of the world the same plague, by the hidden judgment of God, has afflicted and afflicts the Jews themselves and many other races who have never lived alongside them.” There will be plenty of time after the coronavirus pandemic to examine our preparations and decisions. Let’s extend grace and mercy and work with others to solve the problem.

  1. Address theological questions without resorting to simplistic answers.

One erroneous message we hear is that this catastrophic event is God’s punishment for our sin. This message was also rampant during the Black Death, and 1300 years earlier, Jesus addressed that misconception as well (John 9:2). We hear this every time there is a hurricane, wildfire, or epidemic disease. But pandemics affect everyone–godly people suffer and die right along with those we might consider unrighteous. Innocent children die. Does God punish his good children because of the bad behavior of sisters and brothers? If parents do this, we call it abuse.

People are asking deep existential questions. Why is there pain and suffering? Why do good people die? Why is this happening? What is the purpose of life in general, and of my life specifically? One of the answers I hear often from my Christian friends is “God is in control.” While you and I agree with that assertion, this answer isn’t satisfactory to those who have sick or dying loved ones. It doesn’t alleviate the fear of people who are anxious about their next paycheck and their job security. Those struggling with their faith ask, “If God is in control why doesn’t he end this suffering? Would a loving God allow this?” Those questions demand more than simplistic answers.

During a crisis, Christian leaders need, as Henri Nouwen wrote, “the discipline of strenuous theological reflection [which] will allow us to discern critically where we are being led.” We need to think with the mind of Christ and connect with the Spirit of God. We need to humbly acknowledge that our opinions are not infallible. We need to think deeply about how our teaching honors God’s character.

  1. Don’t use fear to further the cause of Christ and the Church.

Fear was rampant during the Black Death. People feared the transition from the world of the living to the afterlife. Confession, last rites, and funeral services were important to mental and psychological health. Religious rituals helped restore mental and social equilibria.

A theological theme heard in the Black Death and in our pandemic today is “Don’t fear, have faith.” This message is on target. Of all people, those who are connected with God should turn from fear to faith. We should always extend the invitation to follow Jesus. But some leaders have used fear of the disease to manipulate others to ask Jesus into their heart. Decisions made through manipulation usually don’t last long. Manipulation is never love.

During the coronavirus pandemic, we can teach people how to reject the false narratives of fear and anxiety and how to connect with the Creator of the universe. Instead of emphasizing the correct beliefs about faith and crises, we can demonstrate how to experience God’s presence. We can teach people HOW to pray. Contemplative prayer is the most significant thing the Church should be doing right now.

  1. Don’t use the circumstance to ask for money just for your church.

During the Black Death, priests charged extra for their ministry. Call it hazard pay. Church leaders became rich by serving private family chapels where wealthy patrons paid great amounts for private masses. New stress was put on indulgences: “Pay us and you will escape eternal damnation.” As a result, the Church became wealthy on the backs of the suffering. One of the motivations for the Reformation and the emergence of the Protestant Church was the sale of indulgences. Priests became greedy. Laymen expected priests to be selfless and benevolent, exemplars of the Christian life. Greedy, immoral, and self-indulgent Christian leaders led people to lose trust in the institutional church.

While a few Christian leaders might use the crisis to their financial advantage, the overwhelming majority of today’s churches will not gouge their parishioners for money. Unlike some priests during the Black Death, ministers are not going to become rich because of the coronavirus. However, if church leaders want to be an influence in their community, they need to be careful about how they address financial needs.

Churches today, just like businesses, will suffer financially in the current pandemic. But rather than calling on laymen to keep the church afloat, churches could revamp their budget and ask people to contribute to help people in the community, providing direction on how they can help. Much of our time and money is spent on weekend services. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide online worship services–we need inspiration during this time. But many people are not going to give to simply keep a church solvent. Community members, even those who are not members of your congregation, will give to alleviate the suffering in their community.

  1. Prepare to train pastors and support small churches.

Many churches during and after the Black Plague closed their doors and never reopened. This was particularly prevalent in small towns. The reasons for church closings were a shortage of trained ministers and the economic downturn that accompanied the Black Death. The hardest hit churches were those in rural areas composed of the working class.

Rural churches in America are already struggling to find competent, educated pastors to shepherd churches. Many small churches are already on the financial bubble, with little to no margin to operate. Denominational leaders predict language churches, those whose primary language is not English, will be the first to close their doors. Small churches composed of members with lower socioeconomic status will be the hardest hit.

Denominations, church networks, larger churches, and seminaries can begin now to address this growing need. Large urban churches should consider partnering with churches in rural areas. More bivocational pastors will be needed. Retired ministers could be redeployed for service in small towns. The Church needs to hear sermons that call people to the pastorate. Churches can assist in the training of ministers by financially supporting their members to attend seminaries.

  1. Think outside the box on how to help the suffering.

Because so many priests died from the Black Death, there were not enough priests to hear confessions and administer the sacraments. Pope Clement VI went against tradition and granted remission of sins to all who had died from the Black Death. He also went against social practice and allowed members to confess their sins to male laity and, in the absence of a man, to a woman. In doing this he gave comfort to the dying and their families.

I am impressed with the creative ways churches are responding to the needs of the people in their community during the current pandemic. Churches are providing virtual marital counseling, care response teams, food distribution, medication delivery, and help for the elderly. Small groups are using Zoom to study the Bible and pray for others. Churches are contacting every member by personal texting and phone. This is God visible.

Conclusion

Due to some priests’ actions during the Black Death, the Church lost influence. For many people, their view of the world changed dramatically, and they never returned to the Church. Today, the Church has an opportunity to bring help and hope to the world. Let’s learn from the past and embrace Ephesians 5:16 to “make the most of every opportunity in these evil days.”

An abundance of . . .

Churches are being advised to provide hand sanitizer for all visitors during the coronavirus crisis, yet no hand sanitizer can be found.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.  One of my friends, who is a Baptist pastor, found a recipe for making your own sanitizer.  Only one problem: It required 190 proof vodka and you can’t buy that in a grocery store.  Many churches have written or unwritten codes against drinking, selling, or buying alcohol.  If a deacon or pastor was sighted walking into a liquor store, even if the purpose was righteous, it could be a cause for dismissal.  Some cite 1 Thes. 5:22 as if it were the eleventh commandment: “Abstain from all appearance of evil.”

What are teetotaling pastors and church leaders to do?  Solution: Make friends with Catholics, Episcopalians, non-denominational church leaders, or friends who may have no prohibitions on alcohol.  Call on others to buy the booze and you can buy the aloe vera gel.  Meet at an undisclosed location and make the sanitizer together for your congregations.  When there is a closed door, God opens a window.  Maybe in this process we could discover that people of other faith tribes love Jesus too, and sometimes breaking religious laws is the right thing to do.

Enter Jesus.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them.  When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”

He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry?  He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.  Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent?  I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.  If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”  (Matthew 12:1-8, NIV)

Eating the grain was possibly not the only religious crime the disciples committed.  Faithful Jews interpreted the law to not work on the sabbath to mean they could not walk more than two-thirds of a mile.  There is a good chance that if the disciples were walking through the fields to go to the synagogue, they had also violated the walking mitzvot.  Religious leaders wrote other laws to side-skirt this walking rule. Today, Christians view this as silly and think such religious practices were taking things to the extreme.  Could we be guilty of doing the same? Following religious rules is complicated.

Jesus pointed out the glaring fault of all of us.  We judge.  We like to expose the unrighteousness of others while we continue in our own sin.  Jesus countered the religious leaders by teaching that God desires mercy, not man’s ideas of sacrifice.

During this recent crisis, I lost count of how many communiques from companies and churches used the phrase, “an abundance of caution.”  In addition to being abundantly cautious, what we need during this crisis is an abundance of mercy.  We need an abundance of generous love for our neighbors, assisting them during this time of need.  We need an abundance of mercy for our leaders, who have and will make some decisions that are flawed and poorly implemented.  We need to lavishly pour out sacrificial compassion for those who will lose jobs, for restaurants and small companies that will go out of business, and for healthcare workers who will contract the disease and possibly die, all through no fault of their own.  Pour out mercy for the elderly and those living alone who are now socially isolated.  Opportunities for mercy are in abundance.  May God’s character of mercy be demonstrated in all of us, especially now.

Practice Safe Church

COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis we’ve not seen in our generation.  Churches and ministries are faced with some tough decisions in the coming days.  How do you continue ministry in times such as this? How is the Church to respond?  Below are some examples of things churches can do beyond providing hand sanitizers in your hallways and not shaking hands.  These suggestions are also applicable to other disruptions to ministries, such as weather events.

1.  Encourage your people to stay home by going online. Medical experts say the major way to contain this virus is through social distancing.  They are encouraging people, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health issues, to stay away from public gatherings.  

This week, Lakewood Church, a non-denominational megachurch with over 50,000-weekend attenders, announced it is canceling all Sunday services over coronavirus. Instead, Lakewood Church said services will be broadcast “exclusively online” on Facebook Live, YouTube, Roku, AppleTV, Pastor Osteen’s and Lakewood Church’s websites, as well as SiriusXM channel 128.  Take Lakewood’s example and provide digital broadcasts to your church and community. Even small churches can broadcast using Facebook Live.

2.  Provide family curriculum. Recently, our daughter’s family stayed home because one of the kids was sick.  So, they had their own worship service and everyone had a contribution. The home service became one of their most memorable events of the year.  This crisis could provide an opportunity for families to worship together, but they will need help in knowing what to do. Put together a team that includes children and youth ministry specialists to design curriculum for the home worship experience.  Or, purchase curriculum materials through Christian publishers. It doesn’t have to be detailed or lengthy. The simpler and shorter the better.

3.  Use a variety of means to stay in contact with members. Small groups can stay connected through video or phone conferencing.  Use prayer chains, email, messaging, texting, and so on to stay connected.  Practice fixed hours of prayer by identifying times your church will focus its attention on praying about this crisis.  Knowing your church is praying at 10:00 a.m., 2:00 p.m., and 8:00 p.m. encourages members as they realize that spiritual forces are being called on to assist in this time of need.

4. Self-quarantines provide opportunities for ministry.  As people self-quarantine and hospitals can no longer accept patients, the church can assist infected families by dropping off boxes of food and other provisions.  The boxes can be left on the doorstep, so your volunteers will not become exposed to the virus. Ministry goes on.

5.  Provide opportunities to give digitally.  Unfortunately, some church leaders will keep the doors of their church open because of the impact on giving.  Pastors know all too well that finances suffer when church services are called off. Don’t be bashful to tell church members of the church’s financial needs.  Provide opportunities for members to give online or through giving text apps. Share with them how their giving will be used to help others during this time of crisis.

Families in your community will experience financial difficulties as a result of this medical crisis.  Your people will give sacrificially when they know their money is going to meet this crisis.

Practicing safe church is the right thing to do.  View this crisis as an opportunity to minister to your entire community.  Guide your people in turning fear into faith.

Certification in Recovery Ministry

Rockbridge now offers a certificate in Recovery Ministry, both at the undergraduate level and at the graduate level.   Participants will develop valuable leadership skills for ministering to those struggling with hurts, hang-ups, and habits. Students who complete these five courses will receive a Certificate in Recovery Ministry.

  • Developing the Focused Life (Touchstone) Required 1st
  • Recovery Ministry
  • Personal Counseling Skills
  • Lead Like Jesus
  • Building an Effective Ministry Team

Individuals interested in these courses must qualify for admission at the degree level for which the courses are offered but are not required to complete that degree. Students receive course credit that may be applicable to other programs or seminaries.

This is an excellent path for those serving in such ministries as Celebrate Recovery who want quality training in this specific area of ministry. For more information contact admissions@rockbridge.edu and download this brochure.

Reflections of a Church Closing

Reflections of a Church Closing, by Corey Tabor (MML 2016)

Last year, my wife April and I shared with the small group of partners remaining in Full Life Community Church, that we were closing the church. Our youngest daughter Charis was less than one month old and April was still on maternity leave. After nine years of planting Full Life Community Church, collectively reaching over 400 people but never amassing more than 60 people in one season, we discovered that God had a unique purpose for our church and it had been fulfilled. Full Life Community Church became a safe place for people to heal from however they’d been hurt. Some came to the church having been hurt by previous church leaders in their former church. Some came to the church having been hurt by their former spouse or significant other. Some came to the church having been hurt by their parents or extended family. In retrospect, we were the safe place for hurting people.

The reality of being an emergency room, hospital, or rehabilitation center; however you may want to phrase it is, hurting people struggle to invest in others because they are in crisis mode fighting for their lives. We would never expect a person in emergency surgery for a lacerated liver to get off the operating table and assist in a surgery in the next operating room. In retrospect, those who came hurting, struggled to give as much of themselves to assist in ministry as they would had they been healthy.

God in his sovereignty, gave us the gift of hurting people knowing we would know how to love them through hurt. God in his wisdom, allowed us to steward hurting people because he knew when they healed, they would be more impactful in the kingdom. For professional and personal courtesy, I will not mention the names of former members who are doing amazing work in the city, state, and nation. I’ll just say thank you for the gift of your presence, your belief in the vision, and entrusting your spiritual care to us in the season you were there.

Yesterday, I cleared the last of what has been four different storage units since 2009.

The bible says in Malachi 3:10, ‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.’

Honestly from early on in our church life, we were given items that needed to be stored including high level executive desks and military grade bookshelves. We were constantly looking for ways to give things away because God had kept his promise of pouring blessings we could not completely store.

The final storage unit number was 2020 which happens to be this year but is also the measurement used to validate perfect vision. As I packed up contact cards, offering envelopes, Discover Full Life Partnership Manuals, children’s toys, sound equipment, music stands, HDMI cables, and computer monitors; my mind start flashing back to Sunday morning finishing a sermon (because I was bi-vocationally pastoring), loading equipment in our two family cars, driving to the meeting location, unloading equipment, leading prayer for our leaders, setting up, leading worship, preaching a message, and then breaking it all down, loading it all up and bringing it all home to do it again the next week.

As I cleared storage unit #2020, I treasured the many memories that are now stored in my heart of marriages that were restored, children that accepted Jesus, businesses that were built, and babies that were dedicated. 

On February 21, 2014, Anaia Naomi Tabor was born to us our first child, after having had a miscarriage in 2011 and finding out we were pregnant on June 6, 2013, our 10th wedding anniversary. The next day, February 22, 2014, was the first Sunday we were hosting our services in a newly leased spaced. God used gifted leaders to support us in our time of transitioning into parenthood.

A little over a month later on March 30, 2014, we dedicated the worship space and we dedicated our daughter back to God. I had no idea that this would be one of the last times I would worship with my mother who transitioned to heaven on April 4, 2015 or that it would be the place where I would complete my Master of Ministry Leadership degree in 2016.

I also cherished the challenging seasons of trying to monthly pay rent as it increased and annually. I cherished the seasons of depression and disappointment. I treasured the seasons of movement and transition of those who were there in the beginning, the middle and ultimately the end. As I reflected, all I could say was, “Thank you Jesus for 9 years of meaningful ministry. Thank you for the ways to challenged me to trust you when I could not trace you. Thank you for the ways you taught me to repent when I made mistakes and the ways you challenged me to love my wife as Christ loved the church and laid down his life for her. Thank you for entrusting this flock to me for this season. Thank you that I know you’re pleased and are saying well done good and faithful servant, not because I was a perfect pastor but because I was willing to do what he asked me to do. Obedience was and is my standard of success. In Genesis 6:22, the Bible says, “Noah did everything God commanded him.” 

I did not pastor perfectly, but no one can say I did not pastor passionately, persistently, and purposefully. I know with all my heart, I did my best and God was honored. 

Today, as members of Celebration Central Austin, we will dedicate our youngest daughter Charis Dawn who was our grace baby. She’s the gift that God brought out of losing my mother-in-law and father-in-law to cancer within 6 months in 2017. She’s the gift of my wife completing her second master’s degree in school administration and become an assistant principal. She the gift that reminds me, we cannot nor do we need to earn God’s love.

I always encouraged our members to mark milestones in their lives like weddings and wedding anniversaries, births and birthdays, graduations and home sales. Because as we mark milestones, we build virtual Ebenezer milestones or reminders of who God is, what he has said, and what he has done. He has been faithful in the past to complete what he began and he will do the same in this season.

So, now as I transition into ministering as a primarily speaker, author, and coach to schools, nonprofits and churches, I am looking through the windshield of amazing opportunities while glancing in my rearview mirror to remember that God can do it and he will do it again!  For more about Corey’s journey go to this link.

Church Planting Course Begins, March 3, 2020

How do you start a new church? What is a church? What is a healthy church? What is a church planter? What are the stages of a church plant? The course will investigate the biblical and theological basis for church plants, as well as the practical aspects of starting a new work. This course is designed for students who are interested in church planting or sense a call to plant a church. It is also perfect for those who have recently started a church plant or who are working to help a church become healthy.  This is a great overview of how to lead a healthy church.  The course is taught by Dr. Tom Bartlett and Dr. Lendell Nolan.  Dr. Bartlett is an experienced church planter and has started numerous churches around the world.  Dr. Nolan is currently planting a church in Bixby, OK.  Please share this with a minister who would like to gain new skills.  You still have time to enroll is this great courses.  Contact admissions@rockbridge.edu.

 

Spiritual Formation as Journey – Part 6 of 6

On the journey you become aware of your vulnerability

Some years ago, I hiked the Na Pali coast on the island of Kauai with my wife and young adult children. From previous hikes, we knew a rainstorm on the mountains can cause hypothermia.  Failure to drink plenty of water leads to dehydration.  Each day on the journey you are made aware of just how fragile and vulnerable you are.

On the first day of our journey in Hawaii, before beginning our trek, our daughter caught her foot on a lava rock on the beach.  Her big toenail was completely ripped off.  We questioned whether we should continue on the journey because of the seriousness of her injury.  Unable to get the foot into her boot, she traded the boots in for sandals.  We reduced the load in her pack and supported her commitment to go forward.

The Kalalau Trail was one of the toughest trails I had ever experienced.  While it did not climb to extreme heights, the trail was treacherous, with drops of 800-1000 feet.  On several occasions one of us would have fallen to our death if the person following behind had not grabbed us.

I like to think of myself as a strong athlete.  I work out.  I try to stay in shape.  But in the wilderness, I discover my fear of heights and how vulnerable I am to the natural elements.  Like anyone else, I need the encouragement and ministry of others.

Often spiritual leaders fail to experience the full measure of God’s love, because they are not willing to become vulnerable.  In order to minister effectively, we must allow others to minister to us.

We are not the healers, we are not the reconcilers, we are not the givers of life.  We are sinful, vulnerable people who need as much care as anyone we care for.  The mystery of ministry is that we have been chosen to make our own limited and very conditional love the gateway for the unlimited and unconditional love of God.  Therefore, true ministry must be mutual.  When the members of a community of faith cannot truly know and love their shepherd, shepherding quickly becomes a subtle way of exercising power over others and begins to show authoritarian and dictatorial traits . . .  It is servant leadership—to use Robert Greenleaf’s term–in which the leader is a vulnerable servant who needs the people as much as they need him or her. (Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, pp. 44-45)

At Rockbridge, staff, faculty, and students are encouraged to be transparent and vulnerable.  In our discussion forums and course updates, faculty members are encouraged to not only share their successes in ministry, but also their failures.  We also expect our learning community to be a safe place where what we share is valued and treasured.  Vulnerability takes humility and courage. Who are you allowing to minister to you?

As we minister, we should pray the words of Henri Nouwen, “may the same Lord who binds us together in love also reveal himself to us and others as we walk together on the road.”

Spiritual Formation as Journey – Part 5

The Journey Invites Reflection

What I enjoy most about hiking and camping is the opportunity to reflect upon my life.  The pilgrimage provides quiet moments for introspection. Reflection is an important spiritual practice in theology as Nouwen encourages:

I propose here the discipline of strenuous theological reflection.  Just as prayer keeps us connected with the first love and just as confession and forgiveness keep our ministry communal and mutual, so strenuous theological reflection will allow us to discern critically where we are being led. (Henri Nouwen.  In the Name of Jesus.  p. 65.)

Reflection through journaling is often missing in seminary curriculum and yet is so helpful for spiritual growth, both for ourselves and others.  Elisabeth Elliott, in Through Gates of Splendor, writes about five missionaries, including her husband, who were killed while attempting to reach the fierce Auca Indians.  Throughout the story she refers constantly to the journals these men kept.  Sometimes they were writing on tiny scraps of paper, whatever was available to them in their frontier situation, but always they were praying and writing down their thoughts and experiences as a spiritual discipline.  Pages found on their bodies after their deaths told the world part of the story of what happened to them on their last jungle journey.  Their journals lifted the faith of millions of people who were able to read about their reflections and the things God was teaching them in this difficult time.

Because the trail is unpredictable and each turn provides challenges and new opportunities, we must carefully evaluate what God is up to in each situation. Difficult circumstances and tragic events become part of God’s curriculum for our students as they are challenged to reflect theologically while the outside world asked such questions as “Why did this happen?”  Life events are lab experiences we can share with fellow students, church members, and a watching world the reassurance of God’s presence, grace and love.   Nouwen writes,

The Christian leader of the future have to be theologians, persons who know the heart of God and are trained—through prayer, study, and careful analysis—to manifest the divine event of God’s saving work in the midst of the many seemingly random events of their time.

Theological reflection is reflecting on the painful and joyful realities of every day with the mind of Jesus and thereby raising human consciousness to the knowledge of God’s gentle guidance.

To be such a leader it is essential to be able to discern from moment to moment how God acts in human history and how the personal, communal, national and international events that occur during our lives can make us more and more sensitive to the ways in which we are led to the cross and through the cross to the resurrection.

The task of future Christian leaders is not to make a little contribution to the solution of the pains and tribulations of their time, but to identify and announce the ways in which Jesus is leading God’s people out of slavery, through the desert to a new land of freedom. (Nouwen, p. 68.)

What recent event or tragic circumstance caused you to ask, “Why did this happen?”  What did you learn about yourself and God through your reflection?

 

 

 

 

Spiritual Formation as Journey – Part 4

Telling the Story of the Journey

Whether it is told sitting around the campfire, or explained with pictures to friends back home, each hiking experience has a story.  Stories are the means by which we communicate the truths we learned about ourselves and others.  Cole writes, “their story, yours, mine—it’s what we all carry with us on this trip we take, and we owe it to each other to respect our stories and learn from them.” (R. Coles. The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination. p. 30).

People need opportunities to make the connection of their faith story to His story.  “Human beings become faithful by living in a community of faith and by discovering what it means to claim its stories and values as their own.” (Vogel, p. 85.)

Evangelism, sharing the faith story, is a vital element in spiritual formation.  How can we expect believers to share the story of Jesus Christ to a skeptical, hostile world, when they feel uncomfortable in sharing their faith story to the Family of God?  The journey of spiritual formation must include opportunities for participants to share their faith stories and hear the faith stories of others.  This is crucial to our task as theological educators.  Vogel writes,

Those preparing for ministry today . . . may or may not come out of faith communities.  But if they do not embody their faith family’s stories and rituals and lifestyles, how are they to nurture others in the ways of their faith family?  (Vogel, p. 85.)

I am continually reminded of how little we know about one another.  What are the significant spiritual events of my colleagues?  What is God doing in and through those that I worship with?  Spiritual formation groups should encourage the telling of faith stories. These stories not only build up our fellow pilgrims—the telling of our story strengthens our own faith as well.

In every Rockbridge course, students share their faith experiences with one another. They also engage in spiritual practices together.  In their discussion forums, students share their of faith stories. Student evaluations consistently say that “interaction with other students” is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the course.

 

Upcoming Class in 2020-T2:  Theology and Practice of Fellowship

This is a study of God’s purpose for fellowship and the doctrine of the Church.  Students develop a biblical understanding of the church and how the church has expressed the purpose of fellowship throughout history.  In addition, learners will identify select functions and forms of fellowship and examine various organizational systems for promoting the purpose of fellowship. Registration begins February 3.  For more information contact admissions@rockbridge.edu.

 

Spiritual Journey as Formation, Part 3

The Journey is an Experience, Not a Spectator Sport

Part 3 of a 6-Part Series

Some years ago I hiked the Na Pali coast on the island of Kauai with my wife and young adult children.  We did not learn to hike the Na Pali Coast by attending a class at our nearest mountain equipment store, nor by reading books on hiking.  We learned to hike by walking the Kalalau Trail.  We did read books on Hawaii and pored over maps.  On the trail, however, we learned that some of the streams drawn on the maps were dried up and discovered that some markers were no longer visible.  The terrain changes constantly, and the weather can become violent at a moment’s notice.  So it is with spiritual formation.  The best classes on spiritual formation are no substitute for experiencing spiritual formation.   Students need to learn about techniques on prayer, but they learn best by praying with one another.

Along the Kalalau Trail we experienced new sensations.  We smelled sweet ocean breezes, swam underneath cold waterfalls, ate passion fruit picked fresh off trees, and slept underneath bright stars undimmed by city lights.  On the trail we had no cable television, pizza delivery, hot showers, or Internet.  When we arrived at our halfway point, my tired wife tried to use her cell phone to call a helicopter to take us back to civilization.  The cell phone was useless along the Na Pali cliffs.  It was just another item to weigh us down.  For a few days we experienced a different way of life.  This is the call to spiritual formation.  Linda Vogel writes,

Abraham and Sarah embarked in faith on a long journey to a far away and unknown place (Gen. 12-25:11).  Their journey was not only to new surroundings and a new way of life; it was to a different way of understanding who they were and who God intended them to be; it was a journey that involved letting go of old ways of thinking and acting and of trusting untried ways of relating to God and others.  (Linda Vogel.  Teaching and Learning in Communities of Faith.  San Francisco:  Josey-Bass Publishers, 1991, p. 4.)

Twenty years from now I want to look back and say I’m not the same person I was.  I want to be able to say I have changed, evolved, grown.  I pray I will let go of my older way of thinking, acting, and trusting, so much so that I won’t recognize my former self.  Things I clung to will no longer be important.  My love for God and others will have deepened. No matter how far I’ve come, there are still new opportunities to experience change.  Paul expressed it this way:

Yet, my brothers, I do not consider myself to have “arrived”, spiritually, nor do I consider myself already perfect. But I keep going on, grasping ever more firmly that purpose for which Christ grasped me. My brothers, I do not consider myself to have fully grasped it even now. But I do concentrate on this: I leave the past behind and with hands outstretched to whatever lies ahead I go straight for the goal—my reward the honour of being called by God in Christ. (Phil 3:12-14, Phillips)

The reward for spiritual formation is not information or orthodoxy.  The reward of spiritual formation is an intimate experience with our Creator.  My prayer for our seminarians is to be on a lifelong spiritual quest and not merely satisfied spectators of spiritual things.

 

Spiritual Formation as Journey, Part 2

A Journey Requires a Guide

A walk in the park doesn’t require a guide. However, a trek in the wilderness, especially when you are going to a destination you have never been, requires a guide. In the Southwest, cowboys refer to the guide as the “front rider.” Guides come in many forms. On the trails in Hawaii, we came upon a grungy fellow dressed in old army fatigues, a pith helmet, and duct-taped scuba shoes, eating berries he had just picked. While we had a map, a compass, and the trail was well marked, we discovered we needed important information that he possessed, because he had traveled these trails over 300 times. This strange-looking individual saved our lives. He informed us that a storm was moving in and we did not want to get caught attempting to ford the streams in this valley. Even with a small rain, the rivers swell and it is impossible to cross the swiftly moving waters. He encouraged us to quickly leave the valley. We also learned about the fruit that he was eating and the remarkable plants we had previously failed to notice.

We all need guides for our journey, whether we are hiking across the Appalachian Mountains or maneuvering through our Christian life. Peter Lord writes,

Both at the beginning of our walk as Christians and all along the way, we need other people to help keep us on course—to fellowship with us, minister to and love us, and ease our trip. At various times in life we will need one or more spiritual directors.

Professors in theological schools report the lack of spiritual depth of entering students. While most students come to seminary with evidence of a call and a zeal for ministry, they are not spiritually prepared for the task before them. Few practice the disciplines of the Christian life. While they may have grown up in Sunday School, few incoming seminarians have received the nurturing of a discipleship group and a mentor. Theological students, especially Generation Xers, are hungry for what Peter Lord calls a spiritual director—“a tour guide, a spiritual companion, soul friend, shepherd, discipler. What is important is not the title, but the function.” At Rockbridge students are required to enlist a mentor/spiritual guide to assist them each term.  Faculty also serve as spiritual guides to provide tips and wisdoms about how to practice the spiritual disciplines.

What are the functions of a spiritual guide? Peter Lord identifies seven functions of those who choose to serve as a spiritual companion for this journey:

Developing Christ-Consciousness
Interpreting Life’s Events and Experiences
Hearing Confession/Granting God’s Forgiveness
Recognizing Danger
Encouraging
Instructing/Facilitating Change
Providing Friendship

We also discovered on our wilderness trek that each person at one time or another became a guide. At times our daughter led the group, at other times, our son. Unfortunately, there is a misconception in western evangelicalism that the pastor or a theologically-trained staff member are the only ones capable of interpreting the spiritual significance of life’s events.

What is needed in the 21st century is a new reformation that enables and empowers laity to minister alongside the clergy. Perhaps we can embrace a more Hebrew/Eastern concept that discipleship is a tribal or communal experience in which there are many mentors. I may learn to pray from an elderly woman in the church and learn to love God with all of my heart from a young adult who just a short time ago was on cocaine.