Ancient Wisdom

I’m a Doctor!

I’m thrilled to share my past four years of doctoral studies in New Testament context has resulted in a thesis that has been approved. You can call me Dr. J if you insist. :)

If you’re out of the loop, I have been researching sages & students in the ancient world, and having the time of my life with my Northern Seminary cohort studying under renowned New Testament scholar and all-around great guy, Scot McKnight. My thesis can be summed up as follows:

In our digital age of distance learning, disembodied teaching, and impersonal sermons mediated through a screen, there is a need for teachers and pastors to return to more personal and embodied forms of wisdom for forming souls. Many churches today value relevance over wisdom, mere information over holistic formation. We are nurturing cultures of consumerism and convenience in the church, and there is a need to make the church a Wisdom Culture once again. This thesis explores the interpersonal dynamics between sage and student in the ancient world. In particular, I examine Jesus among the Jewish rabbis, and Paul among the Greco-Roman philosophers. After building a case for embodied wisdom in education and formation today, and the need for pastors to reclaim the roles of sage, shepherd, and spiritual fathers/mothers, I offer one preeminent pedagogical practice from the ancient world—letter writing—as a dynamic way for pastors to more personally engage and shepherd souls in church ministry today.

This hasn’t been merely an academic escape from reality, but a project deeply rooted in my own vocational journey flowing out of my personal aspirations and struggles, convictions and frustrations as an introverted contemplative pastor trying to survive in a “entertain me or else!” church context.

My project led to a year of writing heart-felt pastoral letters to individuals in my church, “soul-to-soul sermons” to encourage weary hearts in a very trying time. As it happened, a global pandemic conspired with my thesis topic to generate the horribly ideal circumstances for me to test my theory. Suddenly, almost overnight, nearly every church and pastor moved their ministry in an even more impersonal and disembodied direction. Anxious and weary souls, quarantined inside their own homes, were invited to tune in to an online service on a screen. Many people “tuned out” these attempts after awhile (and I don’t blame them). While I also have done my fair share of videos this past year, I tried to seize the moment and use the more personal medium of pastoral letters to stay connected to my own Church in Quarantine.

Aside from my 300 page thesis Sage, Shepherd & Letter Writing Pastor, my project yielded second 317 page volume of Pastoral Letters that are the pride of my past 15 years of pastoral ministry. It was amazing to compare the impact of a typical sermon (the obsession of the contemporary church) with the impact of a personal pastoral letter. More on that another day!

My thesis was well received and I was humbled by the praise of Dr. McKnight who said, “An exceptional thesis…utterly splendid. Fantastic and a true work of pastoral art form. I believe with some editorial moves by a publisher’s editor, the whole thing could be published.” Even more flattering is that he sensed the heart and influence of my pastoral hero, Eugene Peterson, in what I wrote. “I’ve just completed reading the new biography about Eugene Peterson. Many times in reading Jeremy’s thesis I thought of him and his ideas in terms of Peterson. That’s not said lightly.” I don’t receive that lightly, either!

In the coming days I will share some excerpts from my thesis — the personal non-academic parts at least. For now, I just want to express my gratitude for this opportunity of a lifetime, and all who have supported me in this journey. I’ll just share my acknowledgements from the opening page of my thesis:

I wish to gratefully acknowledge some individuals who stand behind this project. First and foremost, my wife Kjerstin and our kids, Peter, Isaak and Abigail, who have made countless sacrifices for me to pursue my studies. The irony is not lost on me how they have endured my bodily absence in order for me to write about embodied presence. I am so lucky to have them.

I wish to acknowledge the pastors and professors who first brought the Bible alive for me: Pastor David Johnson (Church of the Open Door), Dr. Michael Holmes, Dr. Paul Eddy, and Dr. Greg Boyd. I also dedicate this project to the spiritual fathers God has brought into my life—the very embodiment of this project’s vision: Pastor Mike Fox, Dr. Keith Meyer, and Rev. Bill Johnson. I am grateful for my small but resilient faith family at MainStreet Covenant Church who have always allowed me to be on my own spiritual and vocational journey as a pastor and have encouraged me in my continuing studies and growth.

Dr. Scot McKnight has been an academic inspiration and wise sage through his writings for many years, and it is an honor to be counted among his students. My colleagues in our DMin cohort have become a second family and a wise company of sages I can call upon for wisdom and support as I continue living out my calling. For the past four years, Northern Seminary has been for me, to quote an early rabbi, “a gathering place for sages” and we have not failed to “wallow in the dust of their feet; and drink in their words with gusto” (mAbot. 1.4).

What’s next for me?

One of the worst questions you can ask me about my studies is, “What does that degree now get you?” That betrays the hopelessly pragmatic mindset of this age that my entire project sought to confront and expose as hollow and misguided. I didn’t do this degree to “get” a title, a salary increase, career advancement, etc. I went back to school for the joy of learning and to ‘get’ wisdom and deeper insight into the pastoral craft and to broaden my thinking around the most effective means of forming souls today and down through the ages. And I got the priceless gift of new friends who share my passion for Biblical knowledge and my love for Christ’s church. Oh, and our cohort published a book together, Wise Church: Forming a Wisdom Culture in Your Local Church, each of us contributing a chapter, that will be released by graduation!

Moving ahead, I hope to continue being a pastor committed to shepherding souls in more personal and transformative ways. I want to try to live up to my ideal vision of a pastor as wise sage, caring shepherd, and letter-writing pastor. I want to continue leading our church away the shallow consumeristic model of church, and in the direction of being a wisdom-seeking community of intentional discipleship and deeper soul formation. I want to devote more time to Bible teaching at MainStreet and in the classroom, doing more 1-on-1 pastoral counseling and spiritual direction, launching a podcast in the near future, and, especially, pursuing more writing projects and getting them published!

What a ride! Graduation will be June 12, 2021.

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