Archives For Calvin Miller

The Brevity of Life

August 22, 2012 — 12 Comments

O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Surely a man goes about as a shadow! (Psalm 39:4-6, ESV).

I was reminded this week of that terrible cloud that hangs over all humanity . . . the brevity of our lives.

The Psalmist David lived a long life. Yet, during it he experienced great trials, some of which he failed. In this Psalm, he describes the vast gap between God and his creation.

Even human beings, created in the Lord’s very image so that we might worship him and live in fellowship with him for all time . . . even we human beings, because of sin, are destined to perish. We all die.* It is one of very few certainties that exist; as Benjamin Franklin famously wrote: “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

The Bible can sound almost depressing when touching on the theme of life’s swift passage. But if we begin to despair, we have entirely missed the purpose of these verses. They are simply there to remind us of our utter dependence on God.

We must not trust in the pagan wishful thinking of the “immortality of the soul,” apart from its Creator. Nor should we deny God’s presence and surrender to the belief that there is no existence beyond this life. The latter is a particularly sad “religion,” or worldview. And like all beliefs, it requires “faith” (trust) to believe there is no afterlife. C.S. Lewis described that fact in a 1956 epistle included in Letters to Children.

People do find it hard to keep on feeling as if you believed in the next life: but then it is just as hard to keep on feeling as if you believed you were going to be nothing after death. I know this because in the old days before I was a Christian, I used to try.

The message of the Scriptures is not for us to bemoan the fact that we will die, and that our days in this world are brief. On the contrary, God’s word paints this picture vividly, with the sharp colors of reality (rather than numbing pastels of euphemisms) because it is vital that we understand how this life is merely a prelude to the life that follows.

I began this post by saying I’d recently been reminded of death’s immanence. Last year I had written a brief letter to Calvin Miller, the anointed author I quoted in my previous meditation. He graciously responded. Well, it dawned on me that he might enjoy reading my comments about The Philippian Fragment, so I wrote him again four days ago. I had not heard back, and eagerly awaited his reaction . . . only to learn yesterday that Dr. Miller had passed away two days after I wrote to him.

While I was saddened (on behalf of his family and fans) to hear of his death, I recognize that he is already experiencing a more abundant and true life this very moment, than any he could ever know here. Still, I wish I’d written to him just a few days earlier, since I’m curious what he might have thought about my modest words on the subject of compassionate ministry.

Since we began with a Psalm of David despairing about the brevity of human life, it is fitting to end with another song penned by the same royal composer. Once again he acknowledged the shortness of our lives. But here, he makes it very clear that due to God’s immeasurable love for his children, we have an “everlasting” destiny, which will never end. His children by faith, who have trusted in his only begotten Son, already possess the gift of eternal life. And we will experience it fully after the resurrection, when we have discarded this fallen shell and been clothed in our new body.

As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all. (Psalm 103:15-19, ESV).

* For theological clarification, it is possible for God to raise someone to heaven without dying (e.g. Elijah), and those who are still living when Christ returns in the Parousia, will not have to experience physical death.

Compassionate Care

August 11, 2012 — 17 Comments

In my last column I shared how I had been drafted into service as my wife’s nurse.

The duties are not onerous, in part because she’s become quite ambulatory with her crutches . . . but even more, due to the fact that I truly love her. To care for those you love is a natural thing, and it would be the opposite path—to ignore the suffering of those about whom you care—that would be contrary to human nature.

This is why we are also so deeply stunned when we see spouses doing harm to one another, or (far worse) injuring children in their care. These are inhuman acts contrary even to that universal Natural Law which governs even those who take no notice of religious codes.

But, returning to my nursing experience . . . I am not a total stranger to such matters. My first assignment as an Air Force chaplain was in a “Contingency Hospital” which was part of the Reserve. As part of my active duty tours I frequently included hospital visitation and service.

In fact, years ago during a five week Joint military exercise in Thailand, I served for a season as the chaplain of a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. (Yes, I was an honest to goodness M*A*S*H chaplain!)

Returning to my initial point, caring for my wife is not burdensome. I readily confess I would hardly bring the same enthusiasm and selflessness to caring for a stranger.

But that’s not the man, the disciple of Jesus, I desire to be. And so, I pray for greater compassion, exercise and “stretch” my concern for others, seek forgiveness for my failings . . . and repeat the cycle.

C.S. Lewis writes brilliantly about the great significance of each and every human life. In The Weight of Glory he reminds us that we have the potential to influence their lives either positively or negatively, and assisting them to follow the path to “glory” is central to our reason for being.

It is hardly possible for [us] to think too often or too deeply about [the future destiny] of [our] neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. . . .

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations [glorified resurrection in the presence of our Creator or eternal corruption apart from God].  It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.  But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.

One of my favorite books was written by Calvin Miller. He’s the author of numerous classics, and I most recently enjoyed his The Path of Celtic Prayer. However, because of my interest in the early church, and my affection for keenly wielded wit, it is The Philippian Fragment which ranks in my personal “top ten.” (And, great news, despite being out of print for some time, it’s now available in a Kindle edition!)

The following quotation is from one of the epistles gathered in pseudepigraphical Philippian Fragment. The letters are written by a pastor named Eusebius of Philippi to another shepherd, “Clement, pastor of Coos.” It illustrates precisely the spirit we should have within us. If we were all like Eusebius, this world would be a far more wonderful place.

I am not sure that I can survive the new hostility I have engendered by missing church merely to pray for a dying man. I was foolish to assume that the church would see the glory of my ministry to Publius and excuse the absence of my sermon. Through pain I have learned that it is still wrong to heal on the sabbath—at least during the eleventh hour. . . . Is the yet-paralyzed Publius worth the cancellation of my morning sermon? I have betrayed a tradition to furnish forth a single act of compassion. Oh, the institutional cankers that do fester when traditions are unserved! . . . It is time for the evening vigil now, and I have just received word that one of the lepers is at death’s door and has called for me to come. Shall I go to tend the dying, or shall I go to church and keep my place?

I had planned to talk tonight about how we must minister to our world before we seek each other’s consolations. I am still unforgiven by most for healing the paralytic. Now I must go to the leper and seal my fate. 26. Grief is seldom convenient to our scheduled worship.

I had a dear mentor, Constantinus, who was shepherd of the congregation in Antioch. His church’s meeting house was near a busy road. One day, five minutes before his well-packed service was to begin, a Roman chariot ran over a beggar and left him dying before the church house. How grieved was the pastor that most of his members stepped over the bleeding man to carry their prayer scrolls on into the sanctuary. Constantinus was a gentle pastor and full of the love of Christ. He scooped up the emaciated old man and carried him to his grieving widow.

In the process of his ministry to this victim of Roman traffic, his hands and togas were fouled with blood. There was no time to go home and change clothes, so he entered his pulpit besmirched by the gore of his own compassion. 31. Clement, many in that congregation never forgave Constantinus his bloody toga. Ministry must ever be willing to face tradition. Somewhere a leper is dying. Tonight I shall act out a sermon. I can preach next week when human suffering is more remote. (Calvin Miller, The Philippian Fragment).