Archives For Spiritual Growth

stfrancisMy brother, sister and I have nearly finished the somber task of going through my father’s possessions. We distributed many items to various family members, but the local charities have probably benefited most, as we cleared out the three bedroom home.

Sadly, my mother died nearly twenty years ago. My sister inherited her cedar chest, but had left it in our father’s house. As she prepared to take it home, we discovered some interesting items, including forty pictures my father had sent home during his 1967-68 tour in Vietnam.

We also found a Bible my mother had used when she attended studies. She was born in the generation which would never dare to highlight passages or scribble in the margins. Thus, the Bible bears no evidence it ever belonged to her . . . aside from some inspiring bookmarks, and a few newspaper clippings she had found meaningful.

One of the quotations that I too found particularly edifying, came from the pen of a Roman Catholic priest named Francis de Sales:

Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering or he will give you the unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations.

Francis was a post-Reformation Bishop of Geneva who was noted for his gentle approach toward religious divisions—in an era when such moderation was extremely rare. He is known for writings on spiritual growth (in Roman Catholic parlance, “spiritual formation”).

Although I have not read it, his book Introduction to the Devout Life comes highly recommended, and is available for free download here. I suspect even agnostics could enjoy it for its historical value.

By all accounts, Francis led a chaste and humble life, much like his namesake, Francis of Assisi. (Both men were canonized by their Church.)

Speaking of the first St. Francis, I have always wondered why no Pope ever honored his legacy by assuming his name. I suppose this is because his most prominent characteristics are not those most Popes seek to emulate. The assumption of Francis’ name by the new Pope, I believe, bodes well for his papacy. If he follows in the footsteps of Francis of Assisi, he cannot stray too far afield.

C.S. Lewis appreciated the thirteenth-century saint who began life as a self-indulged soldier and ended it living under a strict vow of poverty. Francis’ celebrated affection for animals—he is considered their “patron saint”—could not help but endear the monk to the creator of Narnia. Each year, many Christians participate in Roman Catholic and Anglican ceremonies for the blessing of animals on Saint Francis’ feast day.

In The Four Loves, Lewis discusses the nature of our physical body. He notes that there are several competing perspectives about our corporeal constitution, with the extremes either demeaning or glorifying humanity’s material nature. Lewis suggests that a metaphor created by Saint Francis provides a more biblical view.

Man has held three views of his body. First there is that of those ascetic Pagans who called it the prison or the “tomb” of the soul, and of Christians like Fisher to whom it was a “sack of dung,” food for worms, filthy, shameful, a source of nothing but temptation to bad men and humiliation to good ones. Then there are the Neo-Pagans (they seldom know Greek), the nudists and the sufferers from Dark Gods, to whom the body is glorious.

But thirdly we have the view which St. Francis expressed by calling his body “Brother Ass.” All three may be—I am not sure—defensible; but give me St. Francis for my money. Ass is exquisitely right because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, lazy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now the stick and now a carrot; both pathetically and absurdly beautiful. So the body. There’s no living with it till we recognise that one of its functions in our lives is to play the part of buffoon.

Yes, I have to live for a while yet in this donkey of a shell, which illustrates daily the wisdom of the Apostle Paul who wrote that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak . . . and short-sighted . . . and lazy . . . and stubborn . . .

This body, my flesh, argues that I should spend my day worrying about tomorrow. But the Holy Spirit speaks a more hopeful word. A promise. As God inspired Francis de Sales to eloquently proclaim: “Do not look forward to what might happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day.”

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.