A Special Spiritual Memoir

              

Ever since Augustine’s Confessions people have recognised the value of spiritual memoirs –that is, the value of personal accounts of a life lived with or in search of God. Recently I re-read Lew Smedes’ little spiritual memoir, My God and I (Eerdmans, 2003, 178pp) and found it as engaging and heart-warming as I did the first time.

Lew Smedes was a much loved teacher, preacher and author who taught for many years at Fuller Theological Seminary primarily in the area of ethics. This book, completed shortly before he died in 2002, is not written for academic theologians, but for ordinary people who wrestle with the idea or the experience of God. It is warmly personal, wonderfully honest and very readable. 51085POa8iL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

Smedes was born to Dutch immigrant parents and grew up on struggle street in Muskegon,  Michigan, his father having died when he was two months old, leaving his mother, who had no job skills and very little English, to bring up five young children on her own. He writes of her: “She never asked why she should have been stuck in a strange land with no husband, no money, and with five unreasonable kids; the question of “Why me?” never seemed to enter her head. She seemed convinced that whatever her lot, it was what had to be and that her job was simply to do as well as she could with what little she was given, never doubting that God has a tender spot in his heart for widows.”

Having grown up in a rather austere Calvinist setting where “God seldom wore a happy face”, he found God unexpectedly – in an English class at Calvin College. There his lecturer introduced him to a God the likes of whom he had never even heard about – “a God who liked elegant sentences and was offended by dangling modifiers.”  He writes:

Once you believe this, where can you stop? If the Maker of the Universe admired     words well put together, think of how he must love sound thought well put together; and if he loved sound thinking, how he must love a Bach concerto; and if he loved a Bach concerto, think of how he prized any human effort to bring a foretaste, be it ever so small, of his Kingdom of justice and peace and happiness to the victimised people of the world. In short, I met the Maker of the Universe, who loved the world he had made and was dedicated to its redemption. I found the joy of the Lord, not at a prayer meeting, but in English Composition 101.

The book is not a detailed autobiography; it is a pared-down memoir which could be read in a couple of evenings. It highlights key episodes in his life and his on-going wrestling with faith. Some of the things that intrigued or fascinated me:

  • Common Grace or Selective Grace?

One of the most intriguing things is seeing a Dutch Calvinist wrestling with Calvinism. Despite all that is good in the theology of John Calvin, at its heart is the dark doctrine of double predestination – i.e. the belief that God, before the creation of the world, choose some people to be saved and rejected the rest. Smedes asks the obvious question: “How can [some] Christians believe that God would do such a horrible thing as damn people before they had a chance to earn their damnation?” The Calvinist answer is that God created the world primarily for his glory, and that his power and glory are displayed in the fate of both the elect and the reprobate. To which Smedes responds: “It seems to me that we make God out to be a complete narcissist – someone who loves only himself – when we say that his main motive for creating the world was to get honour and glory for himself. It simply must be that he created us in order to love us, all of us, and all of us with the same love.”

This leads to the question – will everyone, then, be saved? As a young man doing his doctoral research, Lew Smedes was privileged to meet the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Conservative evangelicals were concerned that Barth inclined to the belief that all people would be saved, so he pushed him on this question. Here is what happened:

The folksy theologian fairly sizzled, put his face a few inches from mine, and crackled, Ich bin kein universalist (“I am no universalist”)! But he was not finished with me. He poked his finger into my chest and said to me: “You believe the Bible? Fine, then believe this verse too,” and he quoted St Paul, who said that Christ had died “not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world.” “If you are so worried about universalism,” Barth continued, “you had better begin worrying about the Bible.”

Although he is not prepared to be dogmatic, Smedes does admit to what is a bold hope given his background. He knows that none of us is “good enough to buy a seat in heaven with the small coins of our virtue” and that, while God is merciful, he is also the judge. Yet he holds the hope that all people will be saved. “In fact,” he writes, “I cannot not hope for it. My hope is a spirit’s wish, a mind’s dream, and a heart’s faith that it never pays to underestimate the mercy of God.”

  • Learning from Great Novelists

While a post-graduate student at Oxford Smedes did a lot of his research at the Bodleian library. No books could be taken from the library and it closed at five, so he used his evenings to read the novels of Dostoyevsky which, he says, “were to be more important to my life with God than any single theological work that I have since read; no theological system could expose the complications and contradictions of the human spirit so vividly or demonstrate the mercy of God so powerfully as did the greatest of all Russian novelists.”

  • Knowing God in Tragedy

After a decade of visiting fertility clinics, Lew Smedes and his wife finally conceived – only to have their baby die within twenty four hours of birth. Smedes had been “intellectually excited” by what he calls “John Calvin’s tough-minded belief” that all things – the good and the horrible – happen just as God decreed them to happen and that they happen for his glory. After the death of their child, he could no longer believe “such hard-boiled theology” and his understanding of God changed. Yet in the midst of their suffering, he experienced the reality of God with them:

Doris and I cried a lot and we knew in our tears that God was with us, paying attention to us, shedding ten thousand tears for every one of ours. Neither of us had a moment’s inclination to give up on God, to quit believing in him or to quit trusting him. In fact, he never seemed more real to either of us.

Lew Smedes memoir could be read as one man’s wrestling with and humanising of hard-line Calvinism. But it’s wider and richer than that. It’s full of lively anecdotes and diverse experience as a humble, lovable, gifted man journeys through life, always seeking to live his life in relationship with the God he has met in Jesus:

I put all my eggs in God’s basket for one reason: Jesus died and came back to life again. Then he became the life-giving Spirit to give us, be it in driblets, a sampling of the good world we are waiting for. This is where the trolley stops. If it could be proved beyond doubt that Jesus did not come alive after he was murdered, we have lost our one and only reason for hoping that there can be a good future for the world. Without Jesus we are stuck with two options: utopian illusion or deadly despair. I scorn illusion. I dread despair. So I put all my money on Jesus.

In 1999 I had the privilege of attending a Leadership Summit at Willow Creek Church in Chicago. The best part of the conference for me was a preaching seminar led by John Ortberg. In one session he played a number of clips from well-known preachers. I’ll never forget the short clip of 80 year-old Lew Smedes preaching with great gusto on the incarnation. He mentioned the TV drama “Upstairs and Downstairs” and recounted his experience of that when a post-grad student at Oxford. His wife and he lived upstairs and their landlady, Mrs Harris, lived in the basement below – and she got upset if he broke the distinction of being the “gentleman” and tried to do chores for her. Then, building on this analogy, he declared in ringing tones, “God was in the Penthouse on the 1000th floor and we were in the basement. But Jesus came all the way down, he came down and he brought his toothbrush and his pyjamas, and he came to stay. He came to stay!”

 

Transformed Lives

Where can we find the power to change our lives? Many of us are “stuck” – trapped in negative outlooks, destructive habits, and unhappy relationships. Where can we find the transformation that we long for when this is the case?

In the last week, I’ve come across two remarkable stories of the difference that coming to committed faith makes in people’s lives. These are stories of the transforming power of encounter with the living God.

The first story I heard at a wedding. The parents of the groom grew up without any faith. I’ll call them Mike and Chris, though those are not their names. When their children were still young, their marriage was in such difficulty that they resolved to end it. They decided that the following Thursday night Mike would move out and they would go their separate ways.

On the Thursday morning they received a phone call from friends who had heard about their decision. The friends said, “We know what you’re planning to do, but we’ve got something we need to tell you. Please don’t do it; we’ll be around tonight to say what we need to say to you.” Mike and Chris agreed to delay their separation and to meet with them that night.

The friends arrived and explained that just a few days ago they had come to faith in Christ and they wanted to share with Mike and Chris the difference this had made in their lives. Mike and Chris listened, and that evening they also committed their lives to Christ.

Since then their lives and their marriage have flourished. They are a wonderful couple and the quality of their family life is obviously special.

Two days later I heard the second story. Matt was interviewed at a church service, and he shared some more of his story with me afterwards. Matt had grown up in a troubled home and had got into drugs and other destructive behaviour. In his late teens he was invited to a Christian youth camp, but had not the slightest inclination to go –  until he heard there would be a rugby game at the camp. He was a pretty angry young man and said part of the attraction of the game was that it gave him a chance to “smash some Christians! ”

However, that night at the camp he had an overwhelming experience of God’s reality and love – an experience that began to revolutionize his life. His addictions to drugs, alcohol and violence fell away; his motivation and relationships were renewed. He’d been well-mentored, had done some study, and gone on to become a youth worker having a significant ministry in his city, and was happily married.

What made his story even more special was the flow-on effect in his birth family. His parents and siblings had come to faith as well and their lives and attitudes had been renewed.

Just thinking about these two stories puts a smile in my heart. And I’m reminded of the words of Jesus: “Look. I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:5)

Valuing our Wilderness

 

Recently I headed off on my own for a day hike up Bealey Spur near Arthur’s Pass.  A big anti-cyclone straddled the country and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The slightly more mellow autumn light gave a golden glow to the ridges and valleys. There was a wonderful freshness about the morning, and, as I gained height, the spur provided  grandstand views over the wide, braided Waimakariri valley to the peaks of the main divide.

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From the little cluster of batches at its base, the spur leads through beech forest, followed by Manuka and Kanuka scrub, then out into open parkland covered in tussock and hebes and dotted with tarns. The view grows grander as you climb higher. After a couple of hours, the track enters more bush and then, in a clearing, appears the charming old musterers’ hut, built in the 1920s when sheep were grazed high up on the ridge, and now owned by DOC. I met three young Brits who’d spent the night in the hut and found it a little hard to sleep with a smoky fireplace and mice scampering over their bunks in the night.

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Above the hut is a prominent small peak at 1544m which gives 360 degree views of mountains, valleys, rivers, bush and scree. From there you can look down the full length of the spur past the hut and across to a large tarn on Lagoon Saddle (part of the popular two-day Cass-Lagoon Saddle tramp.) To the north one’s gaze is captured by Mt Rolleston and the dazzling light of the Crow glacier and to the west by the big glaciated peaks at the head of the Waimakariri. It’s very easy to burst out into “How Great Thou Art” up there – especially the lines about looking down from “lofty mountain grandeur.”

But life is also about people, and I didn’t have this mountain world to myself. In the course of the day I met a succession of young people – from Britain, Italy, France, Belgium, Israel, Germany, and the US. (If you want a cosmopolitan experience without the cost of air travel, just go tramping in the South Island back country.) In total, I met 21 people on the track, and only one of those was a Kiwi.

It raised a question or two in my mind. Admittedly, it was a week day when most Kiwis are working and it was a prime month for overseas tourists. But might it be that, while the rest of the world is appreciating our national parks as never before, New Zealanders are taking them for granted? As we become more urban, are we losing sight of the amazing natural world which beckons beyond the city?

And does our Government value our natural world sufficiently? Towards the end of the day, I met an older American couple who told me they were on their third visit to NZ. It was their last full day before flying back to the States and they’d come up from Christchurch especially to spend their final day in our high country. The husband said to me, “You should be charging us a wilderness tax for this.” I said, “I think our Government is afraid that if it did it would lose tourist dollars.” His response was: “This would be cheap at almost any price!”

Meanwhile two Government ministers, Paula Bennett and Stephen Joyce, have recently ruled out a tourist tax to support infrastructure and conservation. This seems bizarre when many tourists would obviously be only too willing to contribute to our national parks and when the Department of Conservation is chronically underfunded.

 

Two Friends, Two Lives

On successive days last week Liz and I attended the funeral/memorial services of two very special friends – Jeremy Clark and Tim Pidsley, aged 50 and 53. The sense of loss was heightened not only by their relatively early deaths (and in Tim’s case by its shocking suddenness) but also by the sheer quality of their lives.

Jeremy grew up in Christchurch, came to faith in early adulthood, and entered the Anglican ministry.  After a curacy at St Stephen’s, Shirley, in Christchurch, he and his wife Catherine moved to England to be closer to her family. He ministered in parishes in the Wirral and Devon until a little over two years ago.

Jeremy Clark

Liz and I were in England in September 2014 visiting family. We hoped to catch up with Jeremy and Catherine during that time, but it didn’t work out with our travel plans and his. He e-mailed me to say, “Don’t worry. I’m coming back to Christchurch in November. I’ll see you then.” We returned to New Zealand in early October, and the day after we returned Jeremy was diagnosed with terminal melanoma. He e-mailed me: “Won’t now see you in November. It will be at a later date, or in a greater light.”

Jeremy has now entered into that greater light, but during these last two years he has had an extraordinary ministry through his blog, Tracing the Rainbow through the Rain. The blog is remarkable – and it has had over 170,000 hits. It is movingly human and honest about the fears and struggles of terminal illness; and it is simply inspiring in showing the difference faith in Christ makes when facing the greatest challenges. (Within a few months of his own diagnosis, Jeremy had to also face the loss of his 23 year old son, Ben, who caught a rare virus and died after suffering repeated brain seizures.)

The trajectory of Tim Pidsley’s life was the exact reverse of Jeremy’s. He grew up in Devon, did a degree and worked in the UK, then came to Christchurch to live and work in the area of leadership and organisational development. As a director of Tricordant and Leadership Lab, his clients included NZ District Health Boards, The National Library, Shell, and the National Health System, UK.

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Tim became a very involved and hugely loved member of the church I pastored in Sumner-Redcliffs. He had a great appetite for outdoor adventure and was an expert climber, skier, sailor, kayaker, and cyclist. It wasn’t long before he completed the Coast to Coast, the classic race from one coast of the South Island to the other. It was an enormous shock to everyone who knew him when he was found dead in his bed after completing the BDO Cycle Race from Wellington to Auckland in February.

Tim had a remarkable gift of friendship. Although single, he related to a whole range of couples and families with whom he was a great hit. He had a penetrating, thoughtful mind and was a stimulating person to talk with. Despite his physical strength and intellectual ability, he was gentle and humble in manner and very considerate of others. Calm and positive in outlook, he was an excellent person to have around in a crisis.

Everyone who knew Tim well saw that his character qualities flowed from his faith. He embodied what he believed. A close friend said of him that “his faith was under-stated and over-lived.” Another friend said that “he gave us a master class in living.” He walked humbly with his God and lived a life of love.

With the loss of Jeremy and Tim, the world seems a poorer place. Yet the quality of their lives and the reality of their faith were such that I am convinced that death does not have the last word over them.  At Jeremy’s service, his father read the well-known passage from John 11 in which Jesus comes to Mary and Martha after their brother Lazarus has died and says: “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25). I’m a Christian because I believe that Christ, not death, has the final word over human destiny.

 

 

 Missing God and Fearing Death

Nothing To Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes (250 pp)

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“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him” is the striking opening sentence of the most intriguing book I read last year. Julian Barnes is one of Britain’s leading novelists – he won the Man Booker prize in 2011 and has had three other novels shortlisted for the award – but this is a personal memoir and meditation on the twin themes of God and mortality. And despite the seriousness of the subject, it is wonderfully entertaining.

I suspect that most of us push the awareness of death to the back of our consciousness, but for Julian Barnes it has been with him on a daily basis since he was a teenager. “Over the decades,” he writes, “my fear of death has become an essential part of me.” And he describes the acute attacks when, in the middle of the night, he finds himself “pitch-forked” into wakefulness, beating the pillow and “shouting ‘Oh no Oh No OH NO’ in an endless wail.”

Having rejected the “attenuated belief” of his family background, he is aware that, with no God and no Heaven, death is “on the agenda in quite a different way.” The heart of the issue for him is the fear of blank extinction. While his rationalistic older brother (an academic philosopher with whom he is in debate) is quite content with that prospect, Julian Barnes can imagine all sorts of things that would be better than “utter obliteration” – an eternal life talking to the great philosophers and novelists, for instance, or a second go at life in which you get the chance to correct the mistakes of the first. His brother says it would be irrational to fear extinction, to which Barnes responds:  “IRRATIONAL? It’s the most rational thing in the world – how can reason not detest and fear the end of reason?”

Having rejected the bland acceptance of mortality, he also rejects the so-called consolations atheists offer. He refers to Richard Dawkins’ view that we are the lucky ones because the vast majority of potential people never even get born – and finds this no consolation, rather a disconsolation, because it emphasizes our staggering uniqueness which makes it even harder to shrug our shoulders at mortality. To the argument that your children ‘carry you on’ after your death, he responds: “What happens when you reach the first generation born after you are dead, the one with no possible memory of you, and for whom you were mere folklore? Will you be carried on by them, and will they know that is what they are doing?”

Two of the appealing things about Julian Barnes are his candour and humility. He sees atheism as ‘aristocratic’ and Bertrand Russell as the embodiment of that sort of pride. Having called himself an atheist in his youth, he now sees himself as an agnostic because he has more awareness of human ignorance and asks, “How can we be sure that we know enough to know?”

He is very candid about missing God:

“The God I don’t believe in yet miss is naturally the Christian God of Western Europe and       non-fundamentalist America. I don’t miss Allah or Buddha, any more than I miss Odin       or Zeus. And I miss the New Testament God rather than the Old Testament one. I miss         the God that inspired Italian painting and French stained glass, German music and                 English chapter houses, and those tumble-down heaps of stone on Celtic headlands             which were once symbolic beacons in the darkness and storm.” (pp 117-118)

Why does he miss God? Part of it is aesthetic. There is a loss of wonder when confronted by the natural world: “If what is out there comes from nothing, if all is unrolling mechanically according to a programme laid down by nobody, and if our perceptions of it are mere moments of biochemical activity, the mere snap and crackle of a few synapses, then what does this sense of wonder amount to?” (p 71) He also realizes how much more great religious art and music would mean if he could see it as true. But that is only the beginning. Behind it is something deeper: “Religion used to offer consolation for the travails of life, and reward at the end of it for the faithful. But above and beyond these treats, it gave human life a sense of context, and therefore seriousness.” (p 57)

Yet sadly, despite the sense of loss, Barnes never seems to have seriously investigated faith or considered the evidence for God. Instead of engaging with the issue, he simply settles for a default position of agnosticism. And his few believing friends don’t seem to have served him well. At one point he mentions asking a Catholic friend why he believes and getting the response, ‘I believe because I want to believe’, which Julian Barnes understandably finds less than helpful.

Although seemingly unwilling to explore faith as a personal option, Julian Barnes has a sure sense of what it should be like. He writes: “Agnostics and atheists observing religion from the sideline tend to be unimpressed by milksop creeds. What’s the point of faith unless you and it are serious – seriously serious – unless your religion fills, directs, stains and sustains your life?” (p 81)

His attack on subjective re-inventions of faith is also very much to the point. To those who say something like, “I don’t go to church, but I have my own personal idea of God”, he responds: “You may have your own personal idea of God, but does God have His own personal idea of you? Because that’s what matters …. The notion of redefining the deity into something that works for you is grotesque.” (p 45)

Julian Barnes is dealing with two of the greatest questions of human existence – God and mortality – and, while the extent of his engagement with the first is disappointing, he leaves the reader with much to ponder about the second. Unlike a friend who said to him, “I know that everybody else is going to die, but I never think I am going to die”, Barnes lives deeply with the awareness of his mortality. And his book is an engaging, lively and human response to that reality. We live in a society that pushes away the awareness of death. (I’m frequently struck in pastoral situations by how often death takes people by surprise.) In its honesty and candour this book is (to use the author’s own phrase) a significant “wake-up call to mortality.”

Castle Hill Musings

 

My Book of the Year (2016)

Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years, Carl Sandburg (762 pp)abraham-lincoln

A biography of Lincoln has been on my “must read” list for some time, especially since seeing the superb movie Lincoln in which Daniel Day Lewis made the man live again for our generation. Carl Sandburg (1878-1967) was a renowned American poet and the only person who has won the Pulitzer Prize for both poetry and history. The latter was for his monumental six volume biography of Lincoln which he later distilled into this one volume version which I read last year. It is a wonderfully rich, fascinating and absorbing read.

Because Lincoln’s Presidency coincided almost exactly with the American Civil War (1861-1865), which erupted a month after his inauguration and ended a week before his assassination, any biography of his life will be infused with the fascination and drama of that great conflict. Lincoln was the central figure in the most momentous events in nineteenth century America – the abolition of slavery and the struggle to hold the “United” States together as one nation. But what is here even more striking than the epoch-making events is the character of the man.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Leo Tolstoy expressed the view that in “moral power and greatness of character” he dwarfed all other national heroes and statesmen. A contemporary Supreme Court Justice said of him, “He grew wiser and broader and stronger as difficulties thickened and perils multiplied, till the end found him the wonder in our history.”

He came from humble beginnings (“Log cabin to Whitehouse”) and was mostly self-educated. He was marked by his humility and his empathy with ordinary people; his droll sense of humour and fund of folksy stories that were often used to clinch an argument or disarm an opponent; his ability to hold a group of competitive egos together and his uncommon wisdom in steering a political course in the most perilous of times; his moral vision and resolute commitment to both maintaining the Union and abolishing slavery. But, above all, I was struck by these qualities:

Generosity of spirit.  This stood out in Lincoln’s response to the extraordinary abuse and invective poured upon him by political enemies and critical journalists. He was called ape, gorilla, monster, tyrant and worse, yet never retaliated or showed any rancour. There was something truly Christ-like in his refusal to return evil for evil and in his readiness to advance the careers of some who had criticised him harshly. During the election campaign of 1864 Harper’s Weekly commented that “The personal character of the President is the rock upon which the Opposition is wrecked. It dashes against him, hissing and venomous, but falls back again baffled.”

His magnanimity shone in his refusal to adopt a punitive policy towards the South. Robert E. Lee, the Southern General, said that in surrendering his rebel forces he “kept in mind President Lincoln’s benignity, and surrendered as much to the latter’s goodness as to Grant’s artillery.” The famous words of his second inaugural address express the spirit of the man: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in: to bind up the nation’s wounds …”

Long-suffering and laughter.  Lincoln not only endured the enormous demands of the Presidency (including opening the White House to a daily stream of supplicants, office-seekers, and people in need). He was called to lead a bitterly divided nation, and was plunged almost immediately into the anguish of a civil war that lasted four years and claimed the lives of over 600,000 soldiers – more than the combined American losses in World War 1 and 2. It is no wonder that many observers commented on the deep sadness in his eyes. But they also noted the sudden transformations to lightness and mirth. He was deeply acquainted with grief, and yet Sandburg devotes half a chapter to Lincoln’s humour and concludes that no other President had come to be so identified “with a relish for the comic.” Several joke books of Lincoln’s stories were published giving the “impression of a plain neighbourly, somewhat droll man, nobody’s fool, at home to common folks.”

A man of faith.  In a number of ways Lincoln’s beliefs departed from Christian orthodoxy, but he was undoubtedly a man of genuine faith with a deep sense of dependence on God in all the crises of his time. He knew the Scriptures intimately and, although never formally belonging to a denomination, was a regular church attender. His Presidency was marked by his repeatedly calling the nation to thanksgiving or prayer for God’s aid in times of national need. He said, “I have felt His hand upon me in great trials and submitted to His guidance, and I trust that as He shall further open the way I will be ready to walk therein, relying on His help and trusting in His goodness and wisdom.” Sandburg detects “a distinct trend towards a deeper religious note, a piety more assured of itself” as Lincoln’s Presidency unfolded.

And Today? I’m writing this on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, and it’s painful to consider the gulf in character between these two men. How has the nation of Lincoln come to elect a man so singularly lacking in character? A key factor has to be that today the electorate doesn’t value personal character as highly as it once did. The magazine First Things recently reported that public polling in the States shows that white evangelicals “now regard personal character as less relevant for public leadership.” How can that be?

Clearly many Christians have become so issue-centred (around things like abortion and the make-up of the Supreme Court) that they have lost sight of this reality – when it comes to leadership, personal character is the number one issue.