Wednesday, April 27, 2016

letters to a young calvinist

'An emphasis in the teacher easily becomes an extreme in the student.'

This dictum comes to mind with the Reformed movement. While it is enjoying a global resurgence, there are a lot of 'students' running around out there, narrowing it all down to election and predestination with their 'full of truth, empty of grace' attitude. They are poor ambassadors for what they believe. The movement needs wise 'teachers' to demonstrate a wider vision and a more gracious tone.

In Jamie Smith's Letters to a Young Calvinist (Brazos, 2010) we find 'an invitation to the Reformed tradition' which accomplishes this very task. It is a small and short book, comprising 23 chatty letters to a young person drawn into some of these 'extremes' (a bit of an alias for the author's younger self, nurtured as it was in a Pentecostal church).

This genre in the hands of a witty writer makes it such fun to read. Keep reading until you reach the letter about his wife, in the late evening hour early in their marriage, 'draping' herself in all 3 volumes of WGT Shedd's Dogmatic Theology in order to secure the attention of her husband. He writes, 'I've never looked at those books the same way since'...

I am fully aware that the people who should read this book probably will not do so, but I write in the hope that there might be an exception or two...

Because I don't want to lose them myself, how about ten of the wise and/or witty comments which I've appreciated most?

1. On the the pride that often afflicts the younger Calvinist?
The reality is that 'battling other Christians should not be a very high priority ... polemical religious pride (is a) genetic defect in the Reformed tradition' (8).  While 'pride can swell in isolation' (12), good friends are like 'sacraments - means of grace given to us as indices of God's presence and conduits for our salvation' (13).
If Calvinism is just a system that gives us pride in denouncing the supposed simplicity and ignorance of our sisters and brothers in Christ, then you can keep it. I have no interest in flying under a banner that is just a cover for haughty theological speculation at the expense of charity (92).
2. On the Reformed tradition in a nutshell?
'Everything depends on God ... grace goes all the way down' (14-15). This grace commences with his initiative to create, at the very beginning - not just later on, in his response to the Fall. 'God didn't have to do it. It is a gift. God owes us nothing' (17).

3. On a reason why I keep being drawn back to the Reformed perspective?
'Contemporary evangelicalism, dominated by a kind of Arminian consensus, has become so thoroughly anthropocentric that it ends up making God into a servant responsible for taking care of our wants and needs' (24). This is so true! 'But Calvinism offers a radically different worldview and requires a paradigm shift in our thinking, from our wants and needs to a focus on God's glory' (24).

4. On one of the great enduring misconceptions?
'"Reformed theology" was not invented in the sixteenth century. It was a recovery and rearticulation of a basically Augustinian worldview, which was itself first and foremost an unpacking of Paul's vision of what it meant that Christ is risen' (39).

5. On the way Pentecostal, Baptist and Brethren traditions are given to 'leapfrogging'?
'... leaping over the gifts of teachers like Augustine and Ambrose, as if we are somehow better equipped to read the Scriptures on our own' (47). It is another variant on the CS Lewis 'chronological snobbery' theme and a contributor to the way these traditions, sadly, tend to be anti-creedal and anti-confessional.
I have to confess that when I discovered the Heidelberg Catechism, it was like discovering a nourishing oasis compared to the arid desert (of the Westminster Catechism) ... the God of the Heidelberg Catechism is not just Sovereign Lord of the Universe, not merely the impartial Judge ... the God of the Heidelberg Catechism keeps showing up as Father. For example, when expounding the first article of the Apostles' Creed ("I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth"), the Heidelberg Catechism discusses all the ways that God upholds the universe by his hand, but also affirms that this sovereign Creator attends to me, a speck in that universe. And it concludes the answer to question 26 by summarizing: "He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father". (55, emphasis mine)
6. On the implications of the 'you' in Scripture being so often plural?
'God - who, as Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit, is already a kind of community of love - doesn't create the world in order to produce a collection of solitary individuals that are self-enclosed, utterly distinct, and thus 'privately' related to God in vertical silos. Right from creation, God creates a people ... I think there is an entire theology packed into the the pronouns of Scripture ... It is not me, but we. So it's not primarily that I am a chosen individual. Instead the gospel announces that we are a chosen people ... the merciful grace of God condescends to save a people, and thus God binds himself to an "us"' (66, 68, 72). This where the Reformed focus on covenants originates.

7. On 'wide-angle Calvinism'?
This is the bit I really, really like. 'It's less a foundational doctrine and more a comprehensive vision ... a "world- and life- view"' (97). He mentions the classic quote of Abraham Kuyper: 'There is not a single square inch of creation concerning which Christ does not say, 'Mine!'' (quoted on p99).
This is just another way of saying that Christ is not only Lord of our souls, but Lord of bodies, Lord of our families, Lord of our commerce and recreation and education. He is the Lord of science and art, dance and dipthongs, eating and drinking. There's no corner of creation that is immune from his lordship, no 'secular' sphere of life that is neutral with respect to the Creator's sovereignty (99).
If you find yourself saying 'Amen' to this, you owe more to the Reformed tradition than you might realise.

8. On the 'rampant gnosticism' in the church today, elevating soul over body, eternal above temporal?
'The scope of God's redemptive work is bigger and wider than the rescue of individual souls. Christ's redemption is cosmic ... God's salvation is as big as his creation ... (quoting Kuyper) 'cosmic life has regained its worth not at the expense of things eternal, but by virtue of its capacity as God's handiwork and as a revelation of God's attributes' ... In my own pilgrimage, this has been the signal prophetic contribution of the Reformed tradition in the contemporary American church: to remind us that God himself announced that creation is "very good"' (emphasis mine, 102, 103).

9. On the purpose of our salvation?
'God places us in creation ... as his co-labourers, entrusting to us the task of unfolding all the potential that is packed into creation ... (and that) is going to take work - and that work is the labour of "culture", of cultivation, of unpacking ... So when God creates the world, he doesn't imagine its end to be a people just devoted to singing praise songs eternally. God's glory is most multiplied and expanded when all of the rich potential of his creation is unfolded and unpacked into the life-giving institutions that contribute to its flourishing. In a way, you could say that God has commissioned us to be his image bearers in order to help him show off his glory in what he has made. The creational work of culture - unpacking the stores of potential latent in creation 'to the praise of his glory' - is what we're made for. And since redemption is precisely the renewal and restoration of creation, then good culture-making is also what we're saved for' (108-109).

10. On 'we are what we love' (the title of his latest book, by the way)?
'For Augustine, we are what we love. In fact, we can't stop loving: even fallen, sinful humanity is still propelled to love; but as sinners, we love the wrong things in the wrong way. We end up, in the words of a great old Waylon Jennings song, "lookin' for love in all the wrong places." (In fact, if you look at the lyrics of that song, it almost reads like an Augustinian praise chorus). We can't stop looking for love (U2's entire discography is a meditation on this Augustinian point). But only by God's grace can that impulsion to love be rightly ordered, rightly directed to God himself. By the grace of God, our love can find the end point it was created for: God himself' (122).
And for Augustine, what I love and what I "enjoy" are synonymous. In fact, if I want to know what you ultimately love, I just have to look at what you ultimately enjoy - and makes you happy (122).
'Take up and read' (Augustine).

nice chatting


Sunday, April 24, 2016

leaving it lonely for a little longer

I travel a lot in my work. On those occasions when there is time to be a tourist for a day here and there, usually when Barby is with me, an odd pattern has developed. I find that books like Lonely Planet are more meaningful after I have visited a place, rather than before the visit. I don't think it is meant to be that way...

We've been living in India for almost three years and made multiple visits to places like Fort Kochi (Kerala) and Ooty in the Nilgiri Hills. Love them, more and more. But when I knew nothing about these places, Lonely Planet was kinda boring and full of detail that I could neither understand nor imagine. But after that first visit, I raced back to the travel books, to wikipedia and its footnote trail - in order to align my fresh experiences and observations with their deepening facts and background.

In recent months there have been first visits to Istanbul, Accra and Cairo.  Same thing every time. Just yesterday it was the Pyramids of Giza and the King Tutankhamun exhibition in Cairo.

It was a day for the ages. Once it was over, where do I go? I couldn't get online quickly enough - poring through wikipedia. Later today, passing through the airport, I'll be in a bookshop lost in the Lonely Planet guide to Egypt. Adding context to my observation, knowledge to my experience. Complicated names, obscure dates, and ancient events have suddenly come alive.

Goodness deary me, that King Tut exhibition is 'the greatest discovery in the history of archaeology'. I am standing there staring at his glove, his sandals, his fan and his camping bed ... from 3500 years ago and in pretty good nick, as well. It is scarcely believable. I find myself becoming fascinated by this guy's life (who lived for 19 years, 3500 years ago. Go figure).

I go back to my hotel. With Boltian speed I am on wikipedia and youtube, adding knowledge to my experience - and finding that knowledge to be so exhilarating, even though 24hrs earlier it might have put me to sleep.

How I wish people, particularly preachers, followed this pattern with the Bible.

Read it aloud. Read it in large chunks. Read it again. Learn simple principles of observation and use them. Let the imagination go. Get inside the text. Rub shoulders with the first readers. Make it a trans-sensory experience. Use legit methods of meditation. Enjoy The Message for what it is.
I stop, drop and stare. I stop thinking about what preachers usually think about first. I drop to my knees and pray for God’s help. I stare at the text. I look. I look again. The more we stop, drop and stare, the more we will see.  (O’Donnell, Beginning and End of Wisdom, 145).

Then go to the Lonely Planets and the wikipedias, otherwise known as (the best) commentaries. Don't rush to them too soon. Leave them lonely for a little longer! Let them fill the mind once the heart is aglow - 'adding context to observation, knowledge to experience' - oftentimes finding both to be surprisingly exhilarating.

nice chatting


Sunday, April 17, 2016

lyrics for living 8 (not what these hands)

There are a host of hymns that I have only ever sung in public worship when I have selected them. And that was mostly when I was a young pastor all those years ago.

Horatius Bonar (1808 - 1889)
When I found my heart growing cold - or even drifting a bit - I had a couple of default spiritual practices which coaxed confession from me. One was to read the book of Hebrews aloud, all in one go. The other was to head for my hymnbook and sing #434 and #450, one after the other, to myself. Same author (Horatius Bonar). Same meter, with a simple tune, and so even a non-musician like me could manage it. Then, every now and then I'd slip one of these hymns into public worship. The two of them became like precious friends.

I have sung neither of these hymns publically in the intervening twenty-seven years. Baptists in New Zealand aren't great at public confession and so it is not that surprising. Nor are we that flash at singing anything before our own time (NB: CS Lewis called this chronological snobbery, by the way - it sounds bad and it is bad) and so the chances of either of them appearing in public worship were somewhere between nil and zero.

So imagine my surprise and joy when I walked into St Andrews Presbyterian Church in Hollywood (Florida) last Sunday - and saw the first hymn?! Yes, for sookie me the eyes moistened as I lapped up every phrase (sung to a newer Aaron Keyes 2009 arrangement). It was like embracing an ol' friend after a long absence.

Barby and I found a simple version on youtube this morning, with only 12 views (!) when we watched and listened. Here it is:

The simple honesty in the lyrics gives me the words I need. The simple theology reminds me of the load I carry with my sin, while also reassuring me of the capacity Christ has to lift that load and 'set my spirit free' from the 'dark unrest'. The chorus, added by Keyes, picks up the Pauline clothing imagery of taking off our sin, 'filthy rags' in the song - and putting on, or 'wearing Your righteousness' in the song. Then there is that line he adds: 'we are broken and we are yours'. It is beautiful.

Truth be told, last Sunday we sang a variant of this version on youtube. This is because there is a surplus of verses in #434 and #450 (and if I went scurrying around google I could probably find even more verses). But can I conclude with the original words from the hymnbook that I have loved for so long? That is a rhetorical question because I am going to include them anyway, regardless of how you might respond :).

Baptist Hymnbook 434
I bless the Christ of God; I rest on love divine;
And with unfaltering lip and heart, I call the Saviour mine.

His cross dispels each doubt; I bury in His tomb
Each thought of unbelief and fear, each lingering shade of gloom.

I praise the God of grace; I trust His truth and might;
He calls me His, I call Him mine, My God, my Joy, my Light.

In Him is only good, in me is only ill;
My ill but draws His goodness forth, and me He loveth still.

'Tis He who saveth me, and freely pardon gives;
I love because He loveth me, I live because He lives.

My life with Him is hid, my death has passed away,
My clouds have melted into light, my midnight into day.

Baptist Hymnbook  450
Not what these hands have done can save this guilty soul;
Not what this toiling flesh has borne can make my spirit whole.

Not what I feel or do can give me peace with God;
Not all my prayers, and sighs, and tears can bear my heavy load.

Thy work alone, O Christ, can ease this weight of sin;
Thy blood alone, O Lamb of God, can give me peace within.

Thy love to me, O God, not mine, O Lord, to Thee,
Can rid me of this dark unrest, and set my spirit free.

Thy grace alone, O God, to me can pardon speak;
Thy power alone, O Son of God, can this sore bondage break.

I bless the Christ of God, I rest on life divine
And with unfaltering lip and heart, I call this Saviour mine.

(Notice how the first verse of the first hymn and the last verse of the second hymn are exactly the same. Kinda like an inclusio, or a frame ... which is why I think I liked to keep them together].

nice chatting


Saturday, April 16, 2016

fire and sword

Sometimes a page is difficult to turn. Like this one. It lists most of the names of those who died in a massacre of 159 missionaries over a few weeks in the summer of 1900 in 'Shansi'. The right hand side contains the names of those who died from the China Inland Mission, known today as OMF.

Barby had discovered the book on the shelves of the SAIACS library here in Bangalore where we live. I had just awoken from my first sleep after a lengthy trip away when she showed it to me. I couldn't put it down, skimming through the entire book over a couple of hours that same afternoon.

My eye was drawn to the brief 'Introductory Note' by Alexander MacLaren, a name I knew. MacLaren was a famous Baptist minister whose biography and commentaries I read as a young pastor. He was a peer of CH Spurgeon, based in the Union Baptist Chapel in Manchester for 45 years. 'The prince of expository preachers'.

[Of MacLaren, one biographer wrote: 'a man who reads one of MacLaren's sermons must either take his outline or take another text'. In other words, his stuff was so good it was impossible not to steal it. He goes on to say, 'MacLaren touched every text with a silver hammer and it broke into three natural and memorable divisions.'  I do hope that those divisions did not each start with 'P'...!]

I digress. Back to Fire and Sword in Shansi and MacLaren's Introductory Note:
The page which these martyrdoms has added to the Book of Martyrs is of a piece with all the preceding pages - the same Christ-sustained heroism displayed by tender women, mothers, maidens and children; the same meek forgiveness, the same unalterable constancy. Stephen need not be ashamed of his last successors. Nor were the Chinese converts a whit behind in their devotion.
The cynical belittlers of Missions, both of the missionaries and the 'rice Christians', as they call the converts, would be silenced, if they have any fairness or sense of shame, by the unshrinking fidelity of these dimly-seeing but deeply-loving Chinese Christians. They could not argue for Him, but they could and did die for Him ... 
The Church at home has not sufficiently realised the sad, glorious story told in the succeeding pages, and some of us have wondered and sorrowed that so little impression has been produced by it ... These English men and women, these Chinese converts, gladly died for their Lord. Surely their example will point the sharp arrow of questioning to some of us, whether we really believe that a Christian life is a daily dying, and that, whether martyrs or not, we are scarcely Christians, unless we continually yield life, self, and all to Jesus Christ.
Ahh, 'the church at home'...

There is some recalibrating which 'the church at home' needs to do if it wishes to be a force for the kingdom of God. Three areas immediately come to mind. One is to replace relevance with resistance as the primary mode of engagement with the surrounding culture. Two is to shed this compulsive anthropocentrism in matters of spirituality, embracing a radical theocentrism in its place. Three is to repent of the fascination with successful celebrities, Christian or otherwise, in order to become fixed on true heroes - with martyrs like these ones heading the list. There have been more Christian martyrs since this massacre than there were in all those centuries before this massacre - and so we are without excuse. Let them be the inspiration. Even more than that, let them be the aspiration.
They triumphed (over him) by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death (Rev 12.11).
nice chatting


PS: I have Alexander McLaren's personal Bible. Seriously. He gave it to a missionary from his church who went to work in India. When that missionary retired he gave it to his pastor in India, my father-in-law ... who then gave it to me. Every second page is blank so that he could write his own notes. Here are the twin pages from the start of Ephesians.

Skeptical?! Don't believe me?!  I can prove it. In The Company of Preachers, David Larsen (the man who taught me preaching, by the way) mentions one of MacLaren's most loved sermons. From Genesis 32, entitled 'Mahanaim: Two Camps'. Here is the outline:
1. The angels of God meet us on the dusty road of common life
2. The angels of God meet us punctually at the hour of need
3. The angels of God come in the shape we need

You can guess what I did next, can't you?
I went to Genesis 32 in MacLaren's Bible and I found this - the outline above in his own hand-writing: