With Dr. Bruce Hartung
Q: Over the years of teaching [for several decades at the elementary level in the LCMS system], I have noticed that my own faith life is not what it was at one time. … I just do not feel the same passion that I once felt in my faith. That worries me. It affects my ministry. … I have two questions. Is this unique to my pastor and myself? What should I do to recapture the closeness that I once felt?
A: This month’s “question” is an abbreviated restatement of the more lengthy question addressed in last month’s column, for which I asked readers to “chime in” with their responses. And they most certainly have, in significant numbers. I would have a difficult time communicating the deep insights many of them show. So, I am including several of those readers’ responses. However, I will attempt to summarize a couple of themes as I encourage more conversation about this obviously very critical topic – one that has resonated with many readers.
Reader response (R): Keeping the fire burning is not our personal task. The Holy Spirit, through the means of Word and Sacrament, through His body the church (uniting us together) does provide for this. The Lord does not (usually) ask us to move mountains, but He does ask us to be faithful. He does not leave us to do this by our own reason, will, or strength, [but] He gives us the means, the gifts, to accomplish this very task! The answer is found in leaning on Him and walking in His ways.
In a variety of ways, many readers commented that part of the spiritual journey is coming to terms with the reality that, in the end, we only rest securely in Jesus, and that we do so whether or not we feel close to him. As one reader put it, “The inheritance of my baptism is still mine, even if I do not feel it.”
R: We are far better at academics than we are [at] spiritual life. I guess that is just the nature of man. “The dark night of the soul” is something every devoted Christian experiences. It appears many times in books written by the saints of the church throughout the years. … A word of caution: If you are a pastor or teacher, do not change congregations or schools. Wherever you are in God’s call on your life, do not jump for change. … A word of encouragement: There is a wonderful moment coming, [so] wait on the Lord.
As a number of writers pointed out, the experience of spiritual dryness is a necessary experience of spiritual growth. In our dryness, we understand again that it is not us and our work that brings spiritual excitement. Rather, it is God’s work in us. We turn to the cross, because there is no place left in ourselves to turn. In short, the dryness will teach us and help us mature spiritually. I repeat the reader’s caution not to deal with this — at least at first — by a change of location. Such externals are generally not the issue.
R: I don’t think it is so much burnout as it is discouragement. A lot of times, we pastors and teachers don’t see the results of the way we are leading people in their faith journey. But then along comes a magical moment when a parishioner tells you how much that sermon meant to them, because it answered some problems they were having. … It doesn’t happen often enough — those magical moments. But when it does, it magically restores our blessed work for the Lord and seems to put a new spring in our step.
Many readers pointed to the nourishment that comes from supportive relationships in the body of Christ. The next column will address the value of such positive and appreciative relationships. So, the conversation related to this topic will continue. And there will be at least one more column that includes specific suggestions from readers. Please keep these responses coming.
Rev. Bruce M. Hartung, Ph.D., is dean of Ministerial Formation at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Re-posted Sept. 8, 2009