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Dogs, Heaven and Ministry

August 22, 2017 — 4 Comments

divine dog

My pastor’s sermon last Sunday was entitled “Do Dogs Go to Heaven?” I was really looking forward to hearing the message, but I received a request to preach at another church on the other side of the Cascade Mountain range, and I couldn’t be there to learn the answer to the question.

I wanted to hear his sermon for several reasons. First, orthodox Lutherans are not given to faddish subject matter for their sermons, so I was eager to see his approach. Second, this is a question that pastors are asked surprisingly often, so I enjoy hearing others respond to the question, especially when they appeal to the Bible in doing so.

A third reason is because I love dogs. All dogs. Even “bad” ones, who are only aggressive or ill-behaved because the humans they’ve had the misfortune of encountering in this world have done poorly by them.

I’ve had many dogs as members of my family through the years, and they were treasures, even though I took them for granted in my youth.

I’m not going to offer my take on the question posed by the sermon title. I’ve already written about that in the past. The thoughts are developed more fully here.

Nor am I going to discuss the important place of dogs in the life of C.S. Lewis, since I have written about that before, as well.

The Upshot of the Sermon

When we were leaving church the previous Sunday, our pastor was discussing his impending pronouncement on the subject of animal redemption. I laughed and offered a comment that proved a little disconcerting to him.

I told him that not long ago I read a passage in Martin Luther’s writings where he said just that. Luther, the preeminent figure in the Reformation, suggested the possibility that animals just might be resurrected by God. It became obvious that wasn’t where he was going with his homily, and in looking at the Gospel text for the message I realized why.

The fifteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel includes this grace-filled story about Jesus’ mercy.

And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. (Matthew 15:22-28).

The Jews of Jesus’ day sometimes referred to Gentiles as “dogs.” In this passage he is not insulting her, but (1) clarifying the priority of his ministry to fulfill the promise to the house of Israel and (2) to invite her to press the issue, just as she does.

The Luther quotations to which I referred were:

“Be thou comforted, little dog. Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail.”

“The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.”

I doubt he incorporated either into his sermon.

Dogs in Ministry

Recently I read an excerpt from an interesting new book entitled The Grace of Dogs: A Boy, A Black Lab, and a Father’s Search for the Canine Soul.

It reinforced something that all of us who love dogs already know—they possess a profound ability to sense and minister to our emotional needs.

You can read the excerpt in Christianity Today here, although they have retitled it for the online edition. I prefer the title that appeared in the print edition, “God’s Canine Counselors.” I’ll close here with a brief excerpt from the excerpt.

A child sits down on the floor next to a dog and reads aloud from a book. There is something magical about it. After lying next to Pepper, a slightly overweight border collie, and reading him a book, seven-year-old Jessicah, who has always hated reading, says to the volunteer, “[He] loves when I tell him stories. I think he likes stories about turtles best, and so do I. He’s the coolest dog in the whole world.”

I can vividly imagine what it would be like to be the child in that situation. To read to a dog whose big eyes took me in with simple pleasure, who laid her head on my lap with absolute ease to listen to my voice, would have made for an entirely different experience.

The dog would have exuded patience, unconditional acceptance, and peace. The words I botched terribly [as a child] would have captivated the dog every bit as much as the ones read perfectly. In that one-on-one relationship, the anxiety, self-doubt, and panic I used to feel about not being able to do something would have faded.

Thank you, Lord, for creating dogs.

C.S. Lewis’ Wedding

July 6, 2016 — 1 Comment

jack & joyC.S. Lewis put his priest in an awkward position, relying on him to perform a wedding ceremony that was contrary to church rules—for at least two reasons. (More on this below.)

I performed a wedding this past weekend. Clergy commonly say “I married so-and-so,” but that phrase sometimes leads to confusion, and occasionally elicits snickers.

At any rate, I’m marrying fewer couples now that I’m semi-retired. Serving as a military chaplain, with a youngish population, I sometimes got weighed down by the number of requests to conduct wedding ceremonies. That’s no longer the case, although ironically both bride and groom in this case are on active duty in the United States armed forces (the Air Force and Army respectively).

The reason I allude to weddings being a bit of a burden, is that—for the conscientious pastor, which I strive, imperfectly, to be—they involve far more than the ceremony itself.

The majority of pastors I know require premarital counseling . . . and that requires time. It may come as a shock to some, but pastors don’t schedule those counseling sessions for their own benefit. Pastors provide them (and even require them) for the benefit of the couple. It’s called “pastoral care,” and decently done, it can only enhance the chances for a marriage’s success.

This was one of those wonderful weddings where I am quite confident the couple will live happily ever after. I really don’t mean to be trite, but they have the qualifications that strongly influence marital success, e.g. emotional maturity and a shared faith in Christ (who will be the cornerstone of their union, just as he is of the Church).

They understand, insofar as our finite minds are capable, that God truly has accomplished the miracle of making of the two of them a single flesh. And now they are living out that adventure.

So, as I write this post my thoughts are not about Independence Day (although it is the fourth day of July). Instead I’ve been rereading the story of C.S. Lewis’ two weddings with Joy Davidman. Their initial union was a sham, in the sense that it was a legal act conducted for ulterior reasons (circumventing immigration laws).

And this fact, that they were not married with the intention of truly being husband and wife, is one reason to validly question the validity of the very act.

If you’ve never read about Joy, or at least viewed the film Shadowlands, you are missing out on a fascinating story . . . and you lack familiarity with one of the most important elements of C.S. Lewis’ life. I’ve briefly discussed Lewis and Joy at Mere Inkling in the past, including “Dating Like an Inkling” and “C.S. Lewis and Women.”

When the two of them married, it was in a purely civil ceremony, on 23 April 1945, in Oxford. Naturally, they continued to live separately.

Only after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer did Lewis realize he had fallen in love. He accordingly sought to make of their fiction a true marriage. This meant, for Lewis and Joy, marrying “in the church.”

Unfortunately, the Church of England would not sanction the marriage, since Joy was divorced. (The fact that her husband, William Gresham was a serial adulterer did not excuse that fact.)

And thus we arrive at the focus of my reflection.

Since the church could not officially bless his marriage, Lewis turned to an Anglican priest who was a former student and a personal friend. His name was Peter Bide.

Pastoral Flexibility

I suspected that the Reverend Bide needed to give the request some prayerful consideration. After all, a pastor does not “bend” the practices of the church (and faith) he represents without serious reflection. Still, Christian ministers do possess what is referred to as pastoral discretion.

The concept is already developed in early Christian theology. In the Orthodox churches, it is referred to as pastoral economy (οἰκονομία, oikonomia). It relates to the pastoral principle of following the spirit, rather than the strictest letter of the law.*

Joy’s death was thought to be imminent when Bide joined them in marriage at her hospital bedside. Yet, they were blessed with a three year remission of the cancer, and enjoyed some precious time together before its grim return. Bide had initially been asked by Lewis simply to come and pray for her.

In a fascinating letter to Dorothy Sayers, written on the 25th of June, Lewis alludes to this concept while relating his special news.

I ought to tell you my own news. On examination it turned out that Joy’s previous marriage, made in her pre-Christian days, was no marriage: the man had a wife still living. The Bishop of Oxford said it was not the present policy to approve re-marriage in such cases, but that his view did not bind the conscience of any individual priest.

Then dear Father Bide (do you know him?) who had come to lay his hands on Joy—for he has on his record what looks very like one miracle—without being asked and merely on being told the situation at once said he would marry us. So we had a bedside marriage with a nuptial Mass.

It is interesting that Lewis uses the words “without being asked.”

That’s not quite how Bide recalls it.

Fortunately, Bide provided an account of this event, published under the title “Marrying C.S. Lewis.” (The title provides a prime example of what I said earlier about how pastors talk about weddings.) It appears in C.S. Lewis and His Circle: Essays and Memoirs from the Oxford C.S. Lewis Society

When I got there, up to the quarry where he lived, Jack said, ‘Peter, what I’m going to ask you isn’t fair. Do you think you could marry us? I’ve asked the Bishop, I’ve asked all my friends at the faculty here, and none of them will.’ He said, ‘It doesn’t seem to me to be fair. They won’t marry us because Joy was divorced, but the man she married in the first place was a divorced man, so in the eyes of the church, surely there isn’t any marriage anyway. What are they making all this fuss about?’

Well, I must admit that I had always thought that the Church of England’s attitude to marriage was untenable. They rested everything upon the promises given in the marriage service, and said that they couldn’t possibly be repeated elsewhere. However, there was one exception. If the man turned out not to be able to consummate the marriage, then a Decree of Nullity would go through the courts and be recognized by the church. This made the whole thing collapse in my view. I mean, if you promise for better or worse, and non-consummation isn’t for worse, I don’t know what is.

On the other hand, I went to a minor public school, and a public school is a terrible place not least because it gives you a lasting fear of authority. ‘The headmaster wants to see you.’ And that lasts all through life—I’ve never got rid of it totally. And so the fact that there were church laws by the dozen which forbade me to do anything of the sort really worried me. I mean it worried me because it wasn’t something that I just thought was a superficial thing, something I could just push to one side. I wasn’t in my own parish, I wasn’t in my own diocese. What right had I to go charging into a situation like this which everybody else had refused to have anything to do with?

Well, I know you’ll probably find this a rather corny thing, but after long cogitations—and it took me the best part of an hour—I said to myself, ‘What would He [Jesus] have done?’ and then there wasn’t any further answer at all. Of course He would have married them, wouldn’t He? Would He have regarded the law and everything else above the expression of love which this woman had made both towards the church and Himself and to her future husband? And so I married them in the hospital, with Warnie and the ward sister as witnesses.

Bide continues, expressing his frustration at how differing versions of the story have proliferated, while the truth of the matter has been left unexplored.

I don’t understand this, I never have . . . but that is the story, and what you see in Shadowlands has little or nothing to do with it. It made me very cross that there have been about six different treatments of this episode in the course of the last ten years and nobody has ever come and asked me what happened. It strikes me as absolutely extraordinary.

A.N. Wilson went all the way to America to talk to somebody who had talked to me: an expensive journey, when he could have walked down the road and found me himself. It’s a very odd thing, but now you know what the truth is.

Reverend Bide died in 2003, and his obituary includes some fascinating facts. I had not realized that, like Joy, in his early and foolishly idealistic years he too became a communist!

The article in The Telegraph describes his reprimand by the Bishop of Oxford, and the gentler correction offered by his own bishop. And it uses a word rarely seen in the United States to describe the episode.

A year at Wells Theological College was followed by ordination at Chichester in 1949 and appointment to a curacy at Portslade with Hangleton, near Hove. His dynamic ministry there led to the creation of a separate Hangleton parish, with himself as its first vicar since the Middle Ages. Then came the contretemps over the Lewis/Davidman marriage and his move to Goring-by-Sea in 1957.

It is interesting to note that Bide was no child when he chose to conduct the marriage ceremony. Although he had only been ordained for eight years, he was a veteran of WWII and MI6 before attending seminary.

A Sad Postscript

Lewis and Bide shared the pain of losing their wives the same year. Immediately after learning about Bide’s wife’s death, Lewis wrote the following letter. It provides a fitting conclusion to our reflections on the subject of the contretemps of Lewis’ wedding.

The Kilns, Headington Quarry, Oxford 20 Sept 1960

My dear Peter I have just come in from saying my morning prayers in the wood, including as always one for ‘Peter and Margy and Joy and me,’ and found your letter. I hope they are allowed to meet and help one another. You and I at any rate can. I shall be here on Wed. next. If you could let me have a card mentioning the probable time of your arrival, all the better. If not, I shall just ‘stand by’. Yes–at first one is sort of concussed and ‘life has no taste and no direction.’ One soon discovers, however, that grief is not a state but a process–like a walk in a winding valley with a new prospect at every bend God bless all four of us.

Yours Jack

_____

* Several New Testament passages refer to the “letter of the law,” including Romans 7:6-7 and 2 Corinthians 3:5-6.

The photograph above was created by combining images of the real couple with a transparent image of the couple as portrayed in Shadowlands by Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

csl glassWhen C.S. Lewis was contacted for permission to publish a recent sermon in a distinguished collection, he confessed an “impious” hope.

Lewis, of course, was not a pastor. He was instead a highly regarded professor. Nevertheless, due to his mastery of public speaking, and his unapologetic faith, he was invited to preach on a number of occasions.

This particular sermon had been delivered at St Mary the Virgin in Oxford, on 22 October 1939. The Student Christian Movement had already published it in pamphlet format with the title The Christian in Danger.*

Lewis ends a lengthy 1940 letter to his brother Warnie by mentioning the request, almost as an afterthought.

Did I tell you that someone wants to include that St Mary’s sermon of mine in a collection of (save the mark**) Famous Sermons?

Famous English Sermons would be published by Thomas Nelson in London later that year. The anthology was edited by Ashley Sampson, who had asked Lewis to write his volume The Problem of Pain.

Lewis’ modest “impiety” was revealed in the rest of his announcement to his brother. He confesses to that common human fear of being upstaged by the other works in the collection.

I am divided between gratification and a fear that I shall be merely made a fool of by appearing in the same book as Bede, Latimer, Donne, Taylor etc. However, let’s hope that I shall be divided from them by some good 19th century duds!—but I grow impious.

How easy it is to relate to Lewis’ concern. As I moved from assignment to assignment during my military career, I subconsciously hoped I was relieving someone who had left room for me to excel . . . and, simultaneously, that as I left my recent assignment my performance would not be outshined by my successor.

Better, in my mind, to be proceeded and followed by 20th century duds. (Forgive me, Lord.)

I doubt C.S. Lewis and I are the only people to have shared that impious thought.

Still, recognizing the impiety is the beginning of purging it. I tried to make it a practice to pray for those who followed in my ministry wake. That they would be successful, and that the men and women entrusted to our spiritual care would be blessed by their ministries.

I must confess, though, that when my literary work has been placed in direct juxtaposition to that of others, I have not been so eager for theirs to be better received than my own contributions. Not that I wish upon anyone that they would be a dud, but merely that their eloquence not put my own humble efforts to shame.

_____

* The sermon is found in The Weight of Glory with the title “Learning in War-Time.”

** “Save the mark” is an exclamation that connotes a sense something is unbelievable. It can even be dismissive, but that would not be the sense in which Lewis uses it here, since it is obvious he regards the request as a humbling honor.

Rescuing Orphans

April 14, 2014 — 14 Comments

orphansWar is a terrible thing. It should be avoided at (nearly) all costs. As C.S. Lewis wrote during Hitler’s atrocities, “If war is ever lawful, then peace is sometimes sinful” (“The Conditions for a Just War”).

I was writing this weekend about one of the sad consequences of war—the creation of orphans. As an adopted child of God, I possess deep compassion for children without parents in this world. Over a decade ago I was privileged to represent the United States Air Force at the dedication of the Korean War Children’s Memorial.

When I contacted the coordinator of that event, Dr. George Drake, he provided me with the photograph above, which shows the speakers that day. Drake appears to the left, and yours truly is in uniform, to the right. The primary speaker was Chaplain Russell Blaisdell, center, who saved the lives of at least a thousand Korean orphans during the war, delivering them from almost certain death as Seoul fell to the Communists. (My next post will reflect on his heroism and humility.)

The war in Korea was horrific. The frontlines swept across the peninsula, leaving desolation and tragedy in their wake. The number of orphans created by the violence was legion. In the cruel ebb and flow of the conflict, many perished. Still, even in the crimson terror there were expressions of mercy and grace.

Chaplains often led the way in reaching out to the children, but their efforts would have accomplished little if the compassion of the common Soldier, Marine, Sailor and Airman had not moved them as well to make sacrifices to care for the children.

Chaplains who serve in Korea today have maintained the strong bonds of support for orphanages that was so vital to the wartime chaplains represented by Blaisdell.

During my year in Taegu (Daegu), I coordinated the ministry of the airmen at Taegu Air Base in partnership with Love and Hope Orphanage. Love and Hope has a unique role, caring for the least of the least . . . children with serious physical and/or mental handicaps. There is little room for them in most societies, and Korea is no exception.

Orphans are made not by war alone, of course, but by a variety of tragic confluences of suffering. Some lose parents to accident or disease. Today, we find the greatest number of orphaned children in various parts of Africa where AIDS has devastated local adult populations. Similarly, following natural disasters such as major earthquakes and tsunamis, many orphans are left alone in the rubble or receding waters.

Some children flee abusive homes, or are rescued from dangerous environments; in one sense these were orphans even before their legal bonds with cruel predators were severed.

Many causes account for the existence of orphans. And, as long as we live in this fallen world, orphans will be among us. This is why we must never forget that, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27, ESV).

C.S. Lewis was well acquainted with the sorrow of wartime violence and the shattering of families. A veteran of World War I, he saw many friends perish just as they were embarking on adulthood. After World War II, one of his many correspondents was Don Giovanni Calabria, who operated an orphanage in devastated Italy

In 1951, Lewis sent his friend a newly translated copy of the first book in his Chronicles of Narnia. He invited the priest (who would be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church less than fifty years later) to pass the book on to one of the orphans in his care.

I am sending you my tale recently translated into Italian in which, frankly, I have rather played than worked. I have given my imagination free rein yet not, I hope, without regard for edification—for building up both my neighbour and myself. I do not know whether you will like this kind of trifle. But if you do not, perhaps some boy or girl will like it from among your “good children.”

While I imagine the volume remained close to the future “saint,” I trust that Lewis’ powerful tale delighted many of the young children in his care.

As Chaplain Blaisdell says about caring for innocent children, the act itself provides more than sufficient reward. Formal recognition is not required, and may in fact detract from the intrinsic satisfaction that accompanies the giving of oneself in service. Ninety-nine percent of those who sacrifice for the widow and orphan remain essentially anonymous to all but God, and this is just fine. (You can read more about the Kiddy Car Airlift and who received credit for it here.)

Boot Camp Religion

September 23, 2013 — 20 Comments

drill instructorShould pastors be more like cheerleaders, or drill instructors? That’s an interesting question recently posed by the president of World Vision United States.

While flying to Saint Louis, I brought along several magazines I hadn’t had an opportunity to read. (The opportunity to read for an extended period is about the only thing I still enjoy about long distance travel.)

One of the magazines included a review of Unfinished: Believing is Only the Beginning by Richard Stearns.

It included an interesting comparison which intrigued both as a pastor and a military chaplain.

The great commandments of Scripture have now become just great suggestions, offered like fortune cookies, to take with us or leave behind in the pews. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). If churches are going to lead a revolution to change the world, then our pastors need to act and speak less like spiritual cheerleaders and more like drill sergeants.

It’s a valid question. But, the truth is that we are talking about a spectrum, not an either/or dichotomy. A pastor should never be a mere cheerleader. Nor should a minister ever be a simple drill sergeant.

Being a pastor is much more complex than either of those labels. Far better to use the metaphor of shepherd.

The author’s point is well made though. In our current “feel good” age, with its divinization of the notion of self esteem, many clergy seem to think their primary role is to “encourage” the saints. They forget that we should be encouraging them to do something. Something, perhaps, like running a race.*

That’s actually the theme of the book—Christian discipleship. Following Christ more closely each day, as we correspondingly come to more and more resemble our Father.

Disciples are not expected to just “talk the talk” of obedience; they are to “walk the walk.” Studying the blueprint in Scripture means that we follow its instructions. It requires that we obey what Scripture teaches. Anyone seeking to truly know God’s calling on his or her life must be serious about obedience. Do we really think that God is going to give a critical kingdom assignment to someone who hasn’t been faithful in day-to-day obedience to his commands?

There’s even a passing C.S. Lewis reference in Unfinished, albeit not a particularly flattering one. The author doesn’t actually speak ill of the Oxford don, but he does criticize the way that some preachers tend to “proof text” their message with pertinent quotations. (I avoid taking personal umbrage at the criticism, since the point Stearns is making is quite valid.)

Far too many Sunday sermons bat around theological ideas like badminton birdies for half an hour. They quote a few verses of Scripture, tell a few stories, throw in a line or two from C.S. Lewis or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but never challenge the congregation to change anything in their lives.

The sermon is offered like a piece of gum for congregants to chew on for half an hour, but as soon as they get to the parking lot, most will spit it out. The job of the church is not merely to explain the truth but, rather, to use the truth to bring about life change.

I’ve never been accused of preaching chewing gum sermons myself, but I know exactly what he is alluding to.

Unfinished doesn’t actually object to quoting Lewis, just to a shallow, formulaic approach to sermon preparation. The book, in fact, includes several Lewisian citations of its own, referencing no fewer than four of his works.

As a fellow writer and theologian who loves quoting C.S. Lewis, I’ll forgo pointing out the irony.

_____

* The role of the coach, as in training athletes for their competition, is a useful image. Note 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”

Also, Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

Theological Training

October 31, 2012 — 20 Comments

I’m proud I graduated from a well-respected seminary. And I’m proud of following that Master of Divinity degree with an advanced Master of Theology degree in Patristics. And that’s precisely the problem . . . I’m proud.

As a Christian, I recognize that pride is one of the most destructive and insidious sins. As a pastor and chaplain, I have seen all too frequently how pride expressly targets members of the clergy. Our vulnerability to the temptation to be proud is one of the common chinks in the armor of the ordained.

C.S. Lewis recognized this fact. In A Severe Mercy, he wrote:

I think there is a great deal to be said for having one’s deepest spiritual interest distinct from one’s ordinary duty as a student or professional man. St. Paul’s job was tent-making. When the two coincide I shd. have thought there was a danger lest the natural interest in one’s job and the pleasures of gratified ambition might be mistaken for spiritual progress and spiritual consolation; and I think clergymen sometimes fall into this trap. . . .

In fact, the change [to a Christian ministry] might do good or harm. I’ve always been glad myself that Theology is not the thing I earn my living by. On the whole, I’d advise you to get on with your tent-making. The performance of a duty will probably teach you quite as much about God as academic Theology wd. do. Mind, I’m not certain: but that is the view I incline to.

Lewis understood that “advancement” in ecclesiastical contexts can mask the inner heart and be mistaken as a form of holiness when it is in actuality vanity. I was reminded of this weakness in clerical armor recently, when I read a tribute to a Chinese Christian whose name is little known beyond his homeland. Dr. Sun Yi-yin, known in America as “Freddie Sun,” died in August at the age of 76. A professor of Geology, he lost his faculty position for failing to deny Christ.

Like thousands of other Christians living under the atheist regime, he was imprisoned for his work in establishing churches and Bible schools. He raised the funds to start no fewer than 154 of these training centers, and was key to the equipping of approximately 60,000 underground pastors and teachers. The “underground” Church in China is distinguished from the government-controlled “Three-Self Patriotic Movement.”

For his labors, Sun endured a decade in a Chinese labor camp. (His wife, Dorothy Chang, was also imprisoned. Rather than reducing his faith, during his sojourn in the harshest of conditions, Sun experienced a personal revival and his zeal increased.

His story is amazing, but here is the aspect that hit the mark in the center of my conscience. In his autobiography, The Man in the Fiery Furnace, Sun described his imprisonment as his “seminary” experience: “Instead of learning homiletics, hermeneutics, Greek, and Hebrew, I was being taught the greater lessons of obedience, submission, forgiveness, love, endurance, and patience.”

Now, I am grateful that God has preserved me from the “fiery furnace,” but I do long to experience the fruit of the spirit that Sun so richly harvested in prison. While not dismissing the importance of the classical subjects of homiletics and hermeneutics, as the Apostle says, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” (I Corinthians 13:1-3, ESV).

In The Problem of Pain, Lewis’ treatise on suffering, he addresses how God can redeem terrible things such as unjust punishments. For those desiring to understand how an omnipotent God can allow evil to occur, Lewis’ presentation is quite helpful. And, the life example of Dr. Sun provides a superb example of its validity.

I advance six propositions necessary to complete our account of human suffering which do not arise out of one another and must therefore be given in an arbitrary order. 1. There is a paradox about tribulation in Christianity. Blessed are the poor, but by ‘judgement’ (i.e., social justice) and alms we are to remove poverty wherever possible. Blessed are we when persecuted, but we may avoid persecution by flying from city to city, and may pray to be spared it, as Our Lord prayed in Gethsemane.

But if suffering is good, ought it not to be pursued rather than avoided? I answer that suffering is not good in itself. What is good in any painful experience is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads. In the fallen and partially redeemed universe we may distinguish (1) the simple good descending from God, (2) the simple evil produced by rebellious creatures, and (3) the exploitation of that evil by God for His redemptive purpose, which produces (4) the complex good to which accepted suffering and repented sin contribute.

Now the fact that God can make complex good out of simple evil does not excuse—though by mercy it may save—those who do the simple evil. And this distinction is central. Offences must come, but woe to those by whom they come; sins do cause grace to abound, but we must not make that an excuse for continuing to sin. The crucifixion itself is the best, as well as the worst, of all historical events, but the role of Judas remains simply evil.

I thank God for the life and testimony of Sun. I pray God will reap an abundance of believers in China, and elsewhere, due to his faithfulness. And I thank God for using Sun’s words to cause me to stop in the midst of my busy activities and take the time to examine my own heart and motives.

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).