I have been preaching through the Sermon on the Mount at church, and soon I will be getting to one of those veses that some people use as a weapon, and others act like it is not there. Some people seem to think that the verse supports a sort of radical “let it be” perspective. On the other side, some seem to have become so skilled at “explaining” the verse that it seems like they have explained it into non-existence.
As always, I try to find a middle position between two untenable extremes, but that hardly answers things. Two obvious (I think) points are:
Judging can be hypocritical, since we often are tempted to judge while pretending that we are above being judged.
Judging can commonly be wrong since we tend to be incompetent to judge well. We can see the beautiful whitewash on the sepulchre, but see nothing beneath the thin layer of color.
Recently, however, I noticed another issue. My wife and I like to watch crime dramas and reality crime shows (judges us at your own peril). There were two recent cases that were shown on reality crime that got me thinking. The first was a wife and mother in Texas (I believe). She was a church-going woman, and noted as a fine upstanding Christian and fervent in her Bible reading. Oh sure there were quirks that made one wonder about her integrity, but overall, highly regarded. She was eventually charged and convicted of poisoning several people who were close to her.
The other was a pastor from Pennsylvania. He was a popular preacher and expositor of the word. Yet he was a chronic womanizer, and killed two of his wives.
What was perhaps most problematic was they were able to kill multiple times because they were seen as such unlikely killers.
This got me thinking. We often think of judging as an activity of condemnation. But in these two cases, the problem was that they were judged favorable for having the trappings of being “good Christians.” It seems to me that if this form of judging is just as wrong as the other. And since Jesus went out of His way to point out that we often fail to see the evil or emptiness in people’s hearts because of an external piety (whited sepulchres again), I think it is fair to say that Jesus was at least as concerned with this second form of judging as the first.
So while I still struggle with how best to live a life of “judging not,” I am pretty sure that avoiding the temptation to judge unfavorably is no worse than to judge favorably.
Now one named Quintus, a Phrygian, who was but lately come from Phrygia, when he saw the wild beasts, became afraid. This was the man who forced himself and some others to come forward voluntarily [for trial]. Him the proconsul, after many entreaties, persuaded to swear and to offer sacrifice. Wherefore, brethren, we do not commend those who give themselves up [to suffering], seeing the Gospel does not teach so to do.
Chapter 5. The departure and vision of Polycarp
But the most admirable Polycarp, when he first heard [that he was sought for], was in no measure disturbed, but resolved to stay in the city. However, in deference to the wish of many, he was persuaded to leave it. He departed, therefore, to a country house not far distant from the city. There he stayed with a few [friends], engaged in nothing else night and day than praying for all men, and for the Churches throughout the world, according to his usual custom. And while he was praying, a vision presented itself to him three days before he was taken; and, behold, the pillow under his head seemed to him on fire. Upon this, turning to those that were with him, he said to them prophetically, I must be burnt alive.
Chapter 6. Polycarp is betrayed by a servant
And when those who sought for him were at hand, he departed to another dwelling, whither his pursuers immediately came after him. And when they found him not, they seized upon two youths [that were there], one of whom, being subjected to torture, confessed. It was thus impossible that he should stay hidden, since those that betrayed him were of his own household. The Irenarch then (whose office is the same as that of the Cleronomus ), by name Herod, hastened to bring him into the stadium. [This all happened] that he might fulfil his special lot, being made a partaker of Christ, and that they who betrayed him might undergo the punishment of Judas himself.
Chapter 7. Polycarp is found by his pursuers
His pursuers then, along with horsemen, and taking the youth with them, went forth at supper-time on the day of the preparation with their usual weapons, as if going out against a robber. And having come about evening [to the place where he was], they found him lying down in the upper room of a certain little house, from which he might have escaped into another place; but he refused, saying, The will of God be done. So when he heard that they had come, he went down and spoke with them.
“The Martyrdom of Polycarp” was a story of comfort for Christians and an encouragement to be faithful until the end. Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was executed around 155AD. His story was passed on to others soon after. But the document also gave info on how one should behave in a world that is hostile and where persecution and death for one’s faith was a very real possibility.
Based on this section, the following guidelines can be given:
Don’t voluntarily turn yourelf over to the persecutors. Quintus did exactly that and the writer is not surprised that he apostated under torture. The writer notes that turning oneself over voluntarily is not in line with the Gospel record. It is true that Jesus hid from His enemies on at least two occasions in the Gospels… and Matthew 10:23 suggests that this may have happened quite regularly. There are, clearly, limits to “turning the other cheek.”
Submit to the will of God, but don’t be too quick to determine what His will is. Polycarp believed prophetically that he would be executed and yet still sought to extend his life. Eventually, he decided it was time to stop hiding, but only after his hiding led to some being tortured.
Don’t live in fear, but live prudently. Don’t fear death, but don’t seek it out either. Act wisely and cautiously to live and serve.
It is fine to surrender oneself to the enemy… but not to surrender another. Again, this is in line with the Passion story, where Jesus is seen as surrendering Himself at the appropriate time to the enemy, but this is not seen as excusing the betrayal of Judas.
Once escape is not an option, use the opportunity to be a witness in both word and action.
These may seem actually pretty reasonable. But they are worth thinking about. Historically, and even today, there are those who seem to think that faithfulness involves intentionally placing oneself in harm’s way. St. Ignatius of Antioch a few decades earlier than Polycarp appeared to be rather excited about the idea of being executed/martyred. However, by this time there seems to be a different view. The view in this story is much in line with the George S. Patton guidance to his men that the goal of a soldier is NOT to die for his country. (After all, a country can’t really do much with dead soldiers.)
Additionally, some have sought to take a radical obedience stance based on their interpretation of Romans 13 such that if one is summoned by the government, one must comply… it’s the law after all. But obeying an evil law is still… ultimately being complicit with that evil (regardless of what “umbrella” theorists suggest). Others take the Muslim idea that one can morally deny one’s faith to “the unfaithful” to preserve one’s life. While this is certainly pragmatic, but is ultimately unchristian. (However, refusing to forgive those who did deny is also unchristian.)
It is sad that today there is as much danger in being faithful to God in some places as there has ever been. Voluntary religion and freedom of conscience are things that we struggle with— even in places open-mindedness is allegedly promoted. But in such places, the goal is not to live in fear… but caution and prudence are good. When there is no other option to avoid the enemy, remain faithful.
How is that lived out day to day— I don’t know. For example, John Chow recognized the strong possiblity that he would die going to North Sentinel Island. Was this an act of courage or foolishness. I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t know about St. Paul either, who ignored the prophecies of church leaders, and boldly headed off to be arrested, imprisoned for 5 years, and eventually executed. Was this the right decision? I have no idea, but it seemed like a bad idea (and Luke sounds pretty ambivalent about the whole situation as well).
I asked a number of my students a few months back what they would do if they were being sought out by the government because of their faith. (Several of them come from countries where that is actually a possibility.) Most of them said that they did not know what they would do. Personally, I think that is a good answer. As much as it sounds impressive to say for sure what we would do, most of us don’t really know. In this story, there were several different responses.
Quintas voluntarily submitted to governmental summons, and then publically rejected his faith under threat.
Two servants betrayed Polycarp under torture.
Polycarp was turtured and executed without rejecting his faith.
The author of this story, presumably, successfully hid from persecuors and was then able to share this story with the world.
But all of these people were probably sure they would be faithful to God to the end. It is wise to pray that that faith never be tested to the limit.
Theology formulates the questions implied in human existence, and theology formulates the answers implied in divine self-manifestation under the guidance of the questions implied in human existence. This is a circle which drives man to a point where question and answer are not separated.
Paul Tillich, “Systematic Theology,” 1951, pg. 61
In other words, Theology seeks to answer the questions brought up from human existence, and asks the questions that must be explored in that same existence. This is an iterative process with no end-point.
Pastoral Care serves as an activity in ministry of human existence that drives this sort of theological reflection or correlation. Howard Stone describes this process:
For authentic correlation to occur, the pastor must return over and over again to the primary texts that shape the faith. An ethics course back in seminary…. [for example] … may not sufficiently alert pastors to the dangers of an increasingly emotional involvement with and dependency on a counselee of the opposite sex. So, for correlation to occur, the pastor must repeatedly return to the sources of the faith, read widely in theology and ethics, and have a continuing dialogue with the competing value and belief systems present in our culture.
Besides a continual return to the sources, reflection on present experience also is required. The pastor must reflect not only on former learnings, but also on recent events, indeed upon the care that is currently being given. …. It is easy for one’s theological beliefs to become separated from the material world in which one works. A calm review of experience as it relates to the sources of faith, the people who are being cared for, and one’s day-to-day relationship with God is essential if there is to be any ongoing encounter between theology and pastoral care.
Howard W. Stone, “The Word of God and Pastoral Care,” Abingdon Press, pp. 35-36
Correlation again goes back to two poles— experience and reflection. However, with Stone, there are actually three aspects. Experience is seen in serving and interacting in a pastoral care setting. Reflection, however, involves two aspects. One is readings (including Scripture and wisdom from one’s faith tradition in terms of theology and ethics). The other is one’s personal relationship with God.
Ultimately, pastoral theology cannot be divorced from ministerial experience. Neither can it be divorced from one’s personal relationship with God, nor from the wisdom of one’s faith.
But Stone goes on to add another factor to the reflection.
Reflection is insufficient, however, if it is done in isolation outside a communal context.
Ibid., pg. 36
Stone goes on to consider the different forms such communal context takes place. It can involve formal supervision, or a peer group setting or more. The point is, however, that theological reflection is never to be done in a vaccuum. Experience is in the community, and reflection is in a community as well.
Experience is tied to community. Reflection is tied to community, personal relationship with God, and one’s reading and reflection on God’s word, and works of theology and ethics of one’s faith.
I have decided to create a new blog titled “Adventures in Pastoral Theology.” I have noticed that my posts on Munson Missions Musings have become more and more tied to pastoral theology, pastoral care, pastoral counseling, spiritual direction, theological reflection, and the like. Therefore, to avoid the website becoming les and less on missions, I have divided the site.
For awhile, I will probably be putting some of my better PC articles from this site or our Bukal Life Care website. I will gradually start adding new content.
And that is okay. Oh, I know you might say that Jesus is returning any day and will take the redeemed meeting with them that had not “slept” in the clouds. Statistically speaking, however, history is decidedly on the side of “it is appointed unto man once to die” for your fate and mine. And nothing is wrong with that. If we are comforted that Christ will come… why would it be any less comforting that we are a couple of heartbeats away from eternity?
But that seems to be the thing about being human. Death bothers us. Maybe it shouldn’t… but it does. It does a lot. It does so much that many Christian leaders fail to plan for their death. Erik Erikson notes that near the end of life one must deal with integrity versus despair— struggling with the impending threat of non-being. In ministry, people can struggle with this or more confusedly, act as if one will never die and not train up a replacement.
I recall a former pastor who claimed to be referencing Jerry Fallwell when he expressed the belief that organizations rise and fall by their leaders. Within the context of his point, the pastor was actually saying that one should hardly bother to train up a replacement because things are going to fail anyway once that visionary leader is gone. I can’t help but think that was simply a justification of laziness and hubris, rather than doubts about his mortality. Curiously, Jerry Fallwell died, and our former pastor was pushed out of the church… without such collapse. Go figure.
But organizations and groups die as well. So do churches. So do websites. Times change and structures that were important at one time lose their purpose for being.
I am mentioning this because I am considering bringing this blog to the end.
Why? Am I nearing death? It is certainly possible, but I have no reason to assume that. But I am changing. For much of my time in the Philippines, my focus has been on Missions. It is my topic and passion. However, starting in 2009, I became administrator of a counseling center… and then registrar of a chaplaincy certifier. And then an instructor in a number of pastoral care topics. I find that much of my research in recent years has been in terms of pastoral care topics. My missions research has been growing stale. And those areas that I have been continuing to take seriously have been those areas of missions that overlap with other fields. These include:
Contextual Theology (Missions Contextualization and Systematic Theology)
Missionary Member Care (Missions and Pastoral Care)
Interreligious Dialogue (Missions and Pastoral Counseling)
Additionally, I have been doing more in terms of Pastoral Theology (Pastoral Care and Practical Theology) and the somewhat related topic of Theological Reflection.
As such, I find less and less new to say on missions that I have not already shared in my over 1000 previous posts.
So does that mean that this is my last post. Probably not. But I will probably start a new blog that is more in the area of my newer focuses.
Should I stop now completely? I am getting more views per day on average than I have ever gotten in my 8.5 years of doing this blog. It seems like that would be ending well. End with strength and transition.
But I understand the other side. One doesn’t want to let go. Like many ministry leaders… it feels strange to give up on one’s pet work or project. It always seems worthwhile to keep things going past their usefulness.
Maybe this blog will not end well…. just slowly peter out. Or maybe I will get a new fire in my belly and have more things to say.
I was reading a dissertation I happen to like (“Pastoral Variables In Psychotherapy:
Aa Instrument For Assessment” by David C. Stancil), I found some research he had done on the issue of despair and the related issue of hopelessness. I want to hit on a few things from that work.
Stancil refers to Irving Yalom who describes how despair relates to three temporal dimensions (past, present, and future).
Despair affecting the Past: Isolation
Despair affecting the Present: Meaninglessness
Despair affecting the Future: Death
Despair relates to the Past in terms of Isolation. The following is a quote from Stancil’s dissertation on Isolation:
Yalom suggested that, even from birth, “our existence begins with a solitary, lonely cry, anxiously awaiting a response,” a cry which is far deeper than that of a startle response or of hunger. This cry is one of isolation, which is met by what Yalom calls the silence of “cosmic indifference.” Human isolation, which begins at birth and remains a constant companion throughout life, has the three-fold qualities of being interpersonal (loneliness), intrapersonal (dissociation), and transpersonal (existential). This isolation is the same as that lamented by Sartre and Camus, and has the same result: meaninglessness. <Dissertation. Chapter 3, page 12>
Despair relates to the Present in terms of Meaninglessness. We cannot survive without some form of meaning. It seems (quite literally perhaps) to be “part of our DNA.” We need purpose and meaning in our lives. We want to know “Why am I here?” The answer that “I am an accident that converts complex organic substances into other complex organic substances in a Universe headed inexhorably toward thermal death” is not very satisfying, to say the least. We thirst for something more.
Despair relates to the Future in terms of Death. Of course, death is our allotted future— every one of us. However, in a state of despair, death moves into the present and haunts and posons the mind. Death is the ultimate fear— non-existence? the void? the great unknown? Death levels the playing field bringing king and slave together… and making anything that we do potentially seem futile. It may be quite healthy to recognize our own mortality. But in despair, death compounds isolation and meaninglessness. Quoting Lily Tomlin, “We are all in this alone.” But death seems to bring us to that ultimate meaningless isolation from all that could bring purpose and connection.
Considering these aspects of Despair, in Christian ministry/missions we need to deal, at the very least, with all of these dimensions.
Death. In missions, this is the one that we deal with most directly. Salvation is often presented (marketed?) in terms of freedom from death. It is a “get out of jail” free card from ultimate destruction. This is a very important aspect for addressing despair. But do Christians who have assurance of salvation still struggle with despair? Absolutely. So we need to consider the other two.
Meaninglessness. Salvation must be more than simply a victory over death. It must also give meaning. It should do more than suggest that “we as Christians have a purpose.” It should go further to “I have a reason for which I have been created, and in fulfiling that reason, given by God, I have meaning.” If meaning is grounded in God, then part of purpose in ministry is to connect people to God in terms of this purpose and pilgrimmage. But can Christians recognize victory over death, and have a sense of purpose, still feel despair? I believe so. There is one more dimension.
Isolation. Salvation must always be tied to relationship. Part of that relationship is with God. We can now consider God as our (very good) Father, Christ as our loving shepherd, and the Spirit as our Comforter. But God created us as a social species. We need human connections as well. The church is meant to be a family, augmenting the biological family. It is meant to create a community of faith that also has purpose as a group and as individual members within the group.
I would argue that any presentation of Christian salvation that focuses only on Death (or perhaps Death and Suffering) is woefully sub-Biblical.
I think it would be worthwhile to also list Pastoral Theologian Andrew Lester‟s Characteristics and Dynamics of Hope and Hopelessness. These provide another way to look at Despair (or hopelessness) and how the Christian message must address these different aspects. <One could also add Jones’ Theological Worlds as giving guidance on five dimensions that must be addressed, but I will not address this here.
Future Oriented Past Oriented or Present Bound
Personal Power Helplessness/Powerlessness
Positive God-Images Negative God Image
(Stancil’s Dissertation, Chapter 3, page 7.)
If you want to read this dissertation, it is available online.