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  • Writer's picturesonnyholmes

Called to pastor? Put seminary on your to do list. Reason 5: Depth.

As I was entering seminary a business friend gave me a recently released book about the spiritual life. The Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth by Richard Foster (Harper and Row, New York: 1978) was the first book I read after announcing our decision to prepare for ministry. The very first sentence of chapter one still resonates strongly. Foster wrote, "Superficiality is the curse of our age...The desparate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people". Maybe I've been in a time warp of some kind. Now, thirty-seven years later, the land-scape hasn't changed all that much. Depth is still our greatest cultural need.

Seminary training and endless study doesn't automatically morph us from the shallows of life to the deep water. But, even after six years as a bank executive and hospital administrator, both careers in the real world, seminary study immediately jerked me into thinking and living at another level. Suddenly I was thrust beyond the cubicle universe of calculating amortization rates or scheduling 2,000 employees, to the world of theological reflection and critical thinking. The earliest stages of seminary study challenged my memorization skills---dates, people, events, places of redemptive and church history, time-lines, and a whole new dictionary of theological words and phrases, not to mention authors and theologians who had marked the trail for us. They were the constants of three rigorous years of reading, writing, and restlessness.

That real world wasn't ivy-covered walls all the time. Nor was it a perpetual revival meeting. A bunch of empty men and women, drained by the demands of graduate study and hectic family life, soon discovered the discipline part of Richard Foster's writing, The Society of Friends scholar who had first warned me about life in the kiddie pool. And, this thing about the depths came into focus one afternoon on campus, under the trees, when I had a few minutes with Dr. John Steely, professor of historical theology. He was playing his dulcimer. accompanied by his son. It was really nice mountain music and a couple of students were sitting in the grass enjoying the break. After a while Dr. Steely asked my name and how things were going in those first months of study. He must have seen the weariness and questions in my face. After a few minutes of small talk he introduced me to some new names---Elton Trueblood, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and other historical figures who had experienced and written about life in the spirit. Dr. Steely spoke quietly about the need for an inner life, a reservoir from which the resources demanded from us would flow. It was a formative encounter. I never took a course under Dr. Steely. But, that under the tree class remains important to me today.

Going deep isn't my normal habitat. By natural strength I'm basically up front, easy to read, not very deliberative, quick with an answer, fast on the draw, simple, you know, life on the surface. Usually when I'd take a standardized test I thought the winner was the one who finished first. Many seminary classes moved us, however, beyond the memory lists, past the recitations, into the arena of thought. We read and read and read. Then, wrote, and wrote, and wrote. In that middle year, though, things took a turn and we were challenged to think, and think, and think. To pray, and pray, and pray. To analyze, deliberate, discuss, debate, and probe. Discipline entered the picture, and we were challenged to explore the disciplines of Christ, and to make them our very own. All the dates and places and people and times and events were the peripheral learnings. The central piece was personal spiritual growth.

After thirty-five years and retirement my cohort and I have earned the right of critique. I can't speak for them, but can say with little equivocation that the greatest need today is for deep people, what Richard Foster wrote about thirty-seven years ago. This is especially true of those who lead, teach, and give spiritual training to the millions who are so hungry for meat. In our rush to answer his call many of us are unprepared to minister out there in the deep water because we're in the shallows so much ourselves. As a result, the modern church has caved to the whims of culture and provided no spiritual direction in the complex world of right now---matters about life, gender roles, truth, human nature, morality, education, human rights, the rule of law, and so many other critical issues of the times. Day by day and week by week these new spiritual voices give us Hallmark sentiment to deal with life crushing realities that just don't cut it.

This is going to sound judgmental and you can hate me if you like. My wife loves me, and Jesus does, so go ahead and mark me off your list. But, every day I read through Twitter and Facebook and other social media and see the tripe some highly visible men and women of God post about life. Some of them seem like they are walking through the greeting card section of the gift store or the self-help section of the book-store or posting Pinterest slogans. One guy posted that his favorite author was a famous positive-thinking guru. Good grief. It's comic book theology. No wonder we're still splashing around in the kiddie pool.

In all of this the Psalmist wrote, "Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls, all your breakers and your waves" (Psalm 42:7). Jesus told Peter, "Put out into the deep water..." (Luke 5:4), and further advised his followers to build their foundations deep (Luke 6:48). Paul wrote, "No eye has seen and no ear has heard, and what has never come into a man's heart, is what God has prepared for those who love him. Now God has revealed them to us by the Spirit, for the Spirit searches the deep things of God" (1 Corinthiana 2:9-10). This shallowness is just not what Scripture intended for those of us called to serve his kingdom assignment. Thin sliced theology didn't cut it in the first century and still doesn't now. It's time to grow up!

The world used to be defined by "big", that is, "vast". It's now "fast", and the speed pushes us into the fast lane sometimes before we're ready. Hey, kids. This is serious stuff. We must learn the disciplines of going deep. This depth can be accomplished through independent study in some instances. But, this guy needed the discipline of a structured environment, people along the way to push and shove me along, and a rich spiritual environment to even get a glimpse of it. So, today i usually advise others to take the time, do the study, go deep.

Deep calls to deep....

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