Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Ask for the Ancient Paths

Ask for the Ancient Paths
Living in a generation without answers, facing abuse from every direction, pending destruction crouching around the corner, Israel desperately needed to heed God’s counsel. “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for yours souls” (Jeremiah 6:16a, emphasis added). God pictures His people as lost travelers on a life-and-death journey. Confronting a fork in the road, they are to stop to ask directions because the ancient markers are overgrown and need to be searched again.

But who should they consult? Their fellow travelers find themselves just as blinded by their corrupt culture. Reminiscent of the words of Moses, they are to “remember the days of old; consider the generation long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you” (Deuteronomy 32:7).

If they are humble enough to seek wisdom from the former generations and discover what their ancestors learned, then they will find rest for their souls—soul care and spiritual direction. Unfortunately, in their arrogance they say, “We will not walk in it” (Jeremiah 6:16b).

A Forgotten Art: Reclaiming Our Historic Mantle of Mutual Ministry

Are we so different? In swiftly changing times, as we desperately search every which way for spiritual solutions, we seem to lack respect for traditional time-tested ways in which past Christian cultures have dealt with personal problems. We prefer the latest trends and newest fads.[i]

All the while we could be drinking deeply from the rivers of historic Christianity. Specifically, we could be feasting from the root system of African American Christianity. Given the anchorless times that they endured, given the endless abuses that they survived and over which they thrived, who has history better equipped to direct us to the ancient paths of soul rest?

After years of saturating ourselves in their life stories, we’re convinced that the history of African American soul care and spiritual direction provides a spiritual root system deep enough to withstand high winds and parching draught so that our souls can be nourished and our spiritual lives can flourish.[ii] It’s our job to convince you. Beyond the Suffering calls for a reclaiming of the ancient gifts of soul care and spiritual direction, a restoration of the forgotten arts of sustaining, healing, reconciling, and guiding, and a reformation in how we practice ministry.

We’re joining our voices to a chorus summoning Christians back to their roots. The singers in this chorus suggest that we probe historic models of spiritual care for their implications for ministry today. They recommend that we examine how Christians dealt with spiritual and emotional issues before the advent of modern secular psychology.

Thomas Oden explains that too often Christians conceptualize personal ministry models without the aid of the historic voices of the Church. According to Oden, some Christians are only willing to listen to their own voice or the voice of contemporaries in the dialogue. “Christians have usually been losers when they have neglected the consensual writers of their own history and tradition.”[iii]

Wayne Oates notes that Christians “tend to start over from scratch every three or four generations.” Therefore, we do not adequately consolidate the communal wisdom of the centuries because of our “antipathy for tradition.” As a result, we “have accrued less capital” in the form of proverbs, manuals of mutual ministry, and a theology of body life.[iv]

William Clebsch and Charles Jaekle present a convincing explanation for our lack of contact with the history of Christian mutual care. “Faced with the urgency for some system by which to conceptualize the human condition and to deal with the modern grandeurs and terrors of the human spirit, theoreticians of the cure of souls have too readily adopted the leading academic psychologies. Having no pastoral theology to inform our psychology or even to identify the cure of souls as a mode of human helping, we have allowed psychoanalytic thought, for example, to dominate the vocabulary of the spirit.[v]

In other words, today’s crying needs drown out yesterday’s relevant answers. Why? Because we lack a sufficient awareness of the victorious ways in which people faced life issues in bygone centuries.

We sometimes overhear students entering our course on The History of Soul Care and Spiritual Direction bemoaning their presence. “Why in the world is this course required in our preparation for spiritual friendship?” Fortunately, we always hear students completing our course applauding their experience. “Wow! I never realized how vital past practice is for current ministry. I love history now!” Keep reading because we want to birth in you a deepening love for African American history by demonstrating its relevance for contemporary ministry.

[i] Pedersen, A Handbook for Developing Multicultural Awareness, p. 43.
[ii] Altschul, An Unbroken Circle, p. xiii.
[iii] Oden, Whatever Happened to History?, p. 7.
[iv] Oates, Protestant Pastoral Counseling, p. 11.
[v] Clebsch and Jaekle, Pastoral Care in Historical Perspective, p. xii.