“When God asks us to do anything … we need to know that there is a God in heaven and that He is a God who is mighty active upon the earth.”
These were the words of my childhood pastor, Gordon Keddie, to me a year ago today. He shared them, not in a private setting, but in his pastoral charge to me on the night of my ordination as associate pastor of Second Reformed Presbyterian Church (Indianapolis).
I recall that evening with joy. What a night it was. My father, newly ordained as a ruling elder, read me my ordination vows. My seminary pastor preached a phenomenal sermon on Mark 5. Dozens of men laid hands on me and ordained me to the ministry. I pronounced the benediction for the first time.
But as I’ve reflected on my ordination this week, those words of Pastor Keddie have stuck with me. What did I need to know then? What do I need to know now? What does any Christian seeking to serve Jesus in His church need to know when God asks them to do anything?
That there is a God in heaven and that He is a God who is mighty active upon the earth.
There is a God in heaven
My very first public teaching exercise as a pastor was to begin a Sunday School class on the Apostles’ Creed, with a focus on the Trinity. Through this class, my pastoral ministry began by addressing the question, “Who is our God in heaven?” Indeed, one God in heaven, blessed forever, Father, Son, and Spirit is the heart of the proclamation of the church.
And yet it is startling to realize how even the pastor must labor to constantly keep in view this transcendent, glorious God in heaven. I’ve been reading Alan Noble’s Disruptive Witness, in which he discusses Charles Taylor’s concept of the “immanent frame”. In the immanent frame, even for those who believe in the God in heaven, life is merely understood through mechanical, naturally-explained, technologically-constructed explanations of activities.
Smartphone apps that count the hours of my sleep, Keurig machines that give me exactly 8.0 ounces of coffee every morning, and a refrigerator that constantly has my my milk at 35.30 F can reduce the sense of the transcendence, wonder, and mystery of life - and our God - by the time the sun rises. As we constantly find human explanations and calculations for events, life loses its sense of the transcendent God in heaven.
For the pastor – and in many ways, all Christians – life stuck in the immanent frame can look like this:
- Sermons are reduced to productions of a manufacturing-line cadence of events (commentary study, language study, etc.).
- Worship services become merely a series of calculated steps intended to optimally move through the planned series of steps outlined for the pastor in the bulletin.
- Daily pastoral ministry becomes simply the execution of a task list, a sort of honey-do-list for pastors.
Of course, faithfulness in task management is part of pastoral duty, and all Christian duty. But I’m realizing, that mere task management lives in the immanent frame. It forgets that “there is a God in heaven”. It forgets that pastoral life – really, the Christian life – is about worshiping, knowing, experiencing the glory of the mystery and transcendence of God.
Pastoral ministry must have a component of the constant “beholding of the glory of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18) and of leading a congregation to do likewise. My daily activities, my counseling of others, my leading in worship, my preaching must be a constant pointer to the transcendent God who indeed dwells in heaven.
God is Mighty Active Upon the Earth
Life in Christ must not simply realize that God is transcendent and glorious in heaven. It must also know that this transcendent God is mightily active in our midst.
In Isaiah 40, Israel seems to question whether God is active among them (v27). After all, God “sits above the circle of the earth (v22) and none can be compared to Him (v25). Is He mighty active among them?
God's answer to this question: God’s transcendent glory in heaven is the foundation of belief that He is active on the earth. “The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (v27) and thus, “he gives power to the faint and to him who has no might he increases strength” (v29).
Why must we know this truth? Because the grind of Christian ministry necessitates belief in the activity of God among us. We can be too confident in our own work, believing that the happenings of the church are merely the products of our own ingenuity, wisdom, or skill. Or, we can doubt altogether that God is working. In the daily grind of life, we forget to see and observe where God is actively moving in the lives of people and families.
Prayerlessness is perhaps the greatest symptom of a weakened belief in the activity of God among us.Why pray if there’s little reason to expect God to move and work?
But the Christian who believes that God is active is the Christian on their knees in prayer. And from our knees in prayer we put our hands to work, knowing that our greatest hope is the work of our transcendent God among us.
One year into the pastorate, I praise God that I can indeed declare that “there is a God in heaven and that He is a God who is mighty active upon the earth." I recognize my own need for a greater sense of His transcendent glory. I need to pray more with the fervency of one who knows He is indeed mightily active.
Wherever God has placed you in the church, I hope you, as well, will live strongly on His glory and present activity. And year by year, we will see the God in heaven at work among us.
Alan Noble, Disruptive Witness: Speaking Truth in a Distracted Age (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 2018). He introduces the discussion of the immanent frame on pages 55-58.
See Noble, Disruptive Witness, 141 for a discussion on the role of prayer to avoid only living life in the "immanent frame".