Shepherds within the Braces of Life CT pastors
I am annoyed at the demands that are placed on me to write and that arrive unannounced from here, there and everywhere. They interrupt and hold up all the other things that we have neatly arranged in a row. They never seem to stop and cannot be put aside.
– Augustine of Hippo, from a letter to Possidius
AAround the middle of my second seminar year, I was in the middle of a major research project. I don't remember exactly what the paper was about, but I'm sure it was a question of great exegetical and theological importance. At that time, I was also heavily involved in pastoral work at our local church, so it came as no surprise when I received an urgent call asking for my help.
A young husband (let's call him Jack) wanted me to intervene after a tense confrontation between him and his new wife (we call her Kate). This conflict had been boiling for some time. It included challenges related to mental health and suicidal tendencies that I was not comfortable with or that I could not cope with.
When the call came I was ashamed to say my gut response was: No, not now! It wasn't that I didn't want to take care of the needs, nor that I couldn't save a few minutes. Rather, it was because I knew the crisis would last much more than a few minutes – it would ruin my plans for the day.
Despite my frustration, I agreed to come over. When I went into her apartment, I saw food that had been thrown angrily against the wall during her fight. Jack was sitting alone on the couch with no sign of Kate. Compassion and adrenaline came instantly. I did the only wise thing I could do: I took a towel, started cleaning the walls, and listened to Jack explain what had happened.
Many phone calls followed – to our church's chaplains, to friends who may know Kate's whereabouts, and to the local authorities. Finally we found them through the goodness and care of the Lord. We met with her and persuaded her and Jack to seek further help. At the end of the evening – or was it early the next day? – I was in the psychiatric area of the local hospital and talked to nurses and doctors. After I made an appointment with the hospital staff, I slumped down in the waiting room to see the end of Ratatouille on cable television. My seminar paper was no closer to completion than when Jack called.
As I've been thinking about this episode in the past few years, one thing that has repeatedly troubled my conscience is my initial heart reaction: No, not now! Without trying to attribute any kind of sinfulness or selfishness to my immediate reaction, I now see that there were a number of foolish impulses back then that I wanted to grow out of prayerfully. But an encounter with Augustine von Hippo was necessary to recognize these impulses for what they were and to articulate their disordered nature.
Lessons from Augustine
In the afterword to the second edition of Augustine of Hippo (2000), Peter Brown discusses primary source material from Augustine's life that was discovered after Brown published his biography of the Church Father in 1967. When Brown first wrote, there was limited evidence about Augustine's later life that led Brown to characterize him as a tired old man – burned out, rigid, and gruff.
In the 1970s and 1980s, when 29 of Augustine's personal letters from the last decade of his life were discovered and published, a new light was shed on the venerable African theologian that allowed us to put his other writings from that period into a correct one transform context. According to Brown
(Augustines) Letters are characterized by an inspired excitement and a heroic lack of measure when it comes to caring for vulnerable souls. Nothing is "burned out" in the seventy-year-old man that would spend the time interviewing a young girl who was terrorized by slave traders and who would make every effort (as part of efforts to encourage her father to accept Christian baptism) to ask about the school exercises. . . of a teenager. The letters make it clear that old Augustine was ready to pay tireless attention to any problem that could trouble believers, no matter how busy he was, no matter how trivial or how bad the problem seemed, and no matter how distant from Hippo or how eccentric his supporters were.
These newly discovered letters reveal a man who, Brown said, "was characterized by constant quiet acts of self-sacrifice when Augustine repeatedly lent his pen to defend the Church, at the expense of intellectual projects that concerned him more deeply."
I first read Brown's biography about a decade ago, a few years after the seminar and just before I took my first full-time pastoral position in a local church. The book was a gift of divine providence that prepared me for my calling and helped me understand the meaning of my tendency to no, not now! Augustine, as revealed in these late letters, challenged and inspired my pastoral work. With God's help, I hope that my ministry is similar to Augustine's in three important ways.
Global importance, local priorities
First, Augustine asks me to anchor my priorities in the local church. Before reading Brown's biography, I viewed Augustine primarily as a theological giant whose writings were the most important aspect of his service to the Church. However, the letters from Augustine's later life show that his writings were only one element of a much broader dedication to the Church. Although he was busy with other projects, it was his habit in the later years to draw his attention quickly, especially to the interruptions of worldly and local needs, even if he approached them with "a constant sigh of resignation," as Brown writes.
The encounter with this Augustine was decisive for my pastoral imagination. Here was a theologically incisive leader of the global church who also took care of the ordinary needs of a particular time and place. He did his best not to criticize his writing for the general public, for example to help a young woman in his community who was molested by slave traders. In fact, it seems to be his top priority to pay attention to immediate and concrete needs. Augustine apparently took to heart the warning of Proverbs 17:24: "The eyes of a fool travel to the ends of the earth." Augustine's eyes remained focused on the people and needs in front of him, and for that reason, he probably had something worth telling them in different places and at different times.
Developing theological ingenuity, addressing global needs, and striving to change the world are all high and sacred work. For this reason, these efforts can lead us to think that local and urgent needs are distractions from what is really important. I was initially blind to the true meaning of the local Jack and Kate crisis because I had to write an "important" paper. But the pastor's calling is always to first tell the truth in love to a particular brother or sister, to serve neighbors and neighborhoods, and to serve the good of a particular place.
Augustine's life was a guiding star in my vocation to be a faithful pastor theologian, even if it served as a rebuke if I accepted the lie that my local body's needs are distractions from the "real" theological preaching preparation, programmed catechesis , personal reading and research, conferences and writing.
Self-sacrifice and service
The second lesson I learned from Augustine's life has to do with self-sacrificing the call to guard God's Church. For Augustine theological reflection and writing were not isolated explorations of intellectual subtleties; They were expressions of love and service to the Church, troubled as so often. Since the universal church is always visible as local congregations, the needs of the hour of Augustine occasionally forced people to put aside personal writing projects and plans, many of which "occupied him more deeply".
A constant theme in the last third of Brown's biography is Augustine's writing of The City of God. As important as this book was for Augustine, he had to stop working on it to take care of other urgent needs. In a letter to a friend, Augustine showed his anger at the sacrifices he had to make: “I am annoyed at the demands that are made of me to write, and I arrive unannounced from here, there and everywhere. They interrupt and hold up all the other things that we have neatly arranged in a row. They never seem to stop and cannot be put aside. "
I can't help but giggle as I imagine Augustine annoyed with constant interruptions to the plans he "has put in such a good order". It's an oddly soothing thought because I can empathize! At best, my plans for a day (or a week or a season) are for the good of others and for the glory of Christ. Your disorder is not an easy thing. Likewise, Augustine doesn't have interruptions with a slick "No problem!" or a superficial appeal to Providence. He neither ignored the interruptions, cared for them half-heartedly, or minimized their importance in relation to his plans. In self-sacrificing love, he devoted all of his attention and energy to the needs of ministry when God put them before him.
That turns me over and challenges me. Part of my tendency to ignore interruptions – seeing them primarily as "interruptions" – is based on the implicit belief that the Church is serving my agenda rather than my calling serving the local church. whatever its specific needs may be.
Augustine's writing involved self-sacrifice. But he got his writing skills primarily because he was called to look after the herds entrusted to him and to use his gifts to serve and defend where he was needed. Therefore, he turned away from personal plans (which were certainly meant to serve God's people) to address immediate needs.
Fuel for theology
Love of self-sacrifice is not just a pastoral calling. It is pastoral and theological fuel. Our commitment to meeting the needs ahead can inspire Christian wisdom of lasting and universal value. This is the third lesson I learned from Augustine.
I doubt that Augustine's famous theological writings could exist without his secular local works. The only theological reflection worth paying attention to at all times and in all places is that which has proven valuable at a certain time and place. What if faithful service and genuine attention to our local church have a voice that we could have for the world church? If so, although Augustine felt prevented from writing the city of God by the many urgent needs of his flock, and although they seemed to be only interruptions at the time, they may actually have fueled much of his thoughts.
This has certainly proven to be correct in my own pastoral work. When the loans to Ratatouille started rolling in the hospital waiting room many years ago, two things dawned on me. First, that day I had learned a lot about society and pastoral practice (calling the local authorities, communicating with hospital staff), ecclesiology (collaboration of a pastoral leadership team), and shepherds in marriage conflicts. Second, I was encouraged to learn even more: to deal with mental health and spiritual education issues that I hadn't asked until then, to continue reading about the subject, and to receive more help from pastoral courses than I otherwise would searched.
As a pastor at college and at the age of 20, I found that engaging with young adults in my local church has generated as much theological reflection on the nature of technology and the challenge of technological culture as any seminar I have attended . In an hour of pre-marital counseling with a young couple, I asked more in-depth questions about the theology of marriage and sexuality and was asked when I discovered in days of pouring over theological texts.
None of this is meant to deny the value of the time spent reading, writing and learning. But for the pastor, alleged “distractions” from theological work, insofar as they are for the benefit of the local church, are no real distractions at all. Through her I have become a better listener, a better researcher, a better thinker, a better theologian, a better adviser, a better preacher and teacher – a better pastor. We may have to make some sacrifices for local church service, but God will more than pay them back for our good and for the good of the Church. This belief helped me, with the testimony of Augustine's life, willing to receive “interruptions” in service with humility and hope.
Daniel J. Brendsel is a pastor of college and 20s life and worship at DuPage's Grace Church in Warrenville, Illinois.
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