Note to Readers: My historical fiction novel Prester John and the Brigand King is once again available to read in full. Just click on the novel's title in the "Full Series" menu on the sidebar.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Three Collects for Worship

Father God,

Who watches all our ways,

Guard our steps to holiness

And our thoughts to pure reflection

That we may see and know You,

The Holy God,

Who watches all our ways.

Amen.


Eternal God,

Ineffable Mystery,

Enlighten our understandings

And quicken our hearts toward You,

That we may see You as You are,

And see ourselves in You.

Reveal Yourself,

O Unending Light,

And shine on Your children today.

For the sake of Christ

And in his name,

Amen.


O God our Healer,

Who takes our broken spirits

And lifts them up,

Who takes our wounded bodies

And restores them with shouts of joy:

Meet us here in our brokenness,

See our pain and heal us,

Bind our wounds and restore us,

So that we may be whole in spirit,

Whole in body,

And wholly Yours.

You are the Wonder of our hearts,

The Balm of Gilead,

And in You we place our trust.

Come and meet us here,

For the sake of Your glorious Name,

Through Jesus Christ our Lord,

Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Lessons from the Life of William Wilberforce

Recently I've begun picking up biographies again. Reading biographies has been one of the most formative parts of my spiritual life over the years, but until this summer I hadn't read any for a long while. The great benefit of Christian biographies is that they give the pleasant diversion of immersing oneself in another's story (without the omnipresent vapidity of television stories), and all the while directing the reader's attention toward virtue and truth. There is a powerful inspiration that comes from knowing that the Christian life can be lived well, that heights of faith are not merely for the select few, and that God can do wonders through the smallest of people.
The stories of J. Hudson Taylor, Brother Andrew, George Mueller, and St. Francis of Assisi, among others, have powerfully enriched my life. The most recent story to come to my attention, however, is that of William Wilberforce, the great orator and Member of Parliament who spearheaded the drive to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire. (A movie of his life, Amazing Grace, was released earlier this year to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Parliamentary vote that halted the British slave trade. To understand current attempts to continue the Wilberforce legacy in fighting the global slave trade in our day, see the most recent issue of Mission Frontiers: http://www.missionfrontiers.org/2007/04/200704.htm).
This particular biography was Hero for Humanity by Kevin Belmonte (a fellow Mainer), and I quite enjoyed it. I kept a list of "lessons" from Wilberforce's story, a habit I plan to continue for future biography-readings. So here's my list, emphasizing a few details that particularly delighted me, such as Wilberforce's love for birds and his exemplification of neomonasticism with his Clapham friends. It's certainly not a fair substitute for an in-depth reading of the life of this spiritual giant, but I hope it's of benefit to you.

Never give up. (WW’s fight to end the slave trade went on for nearly 20 years, and it would be nearly another twenty before slavery itself was abolished).

What is morally right is always worth pursuing, no matter what the cost or the consequences. (WW was bitterly attacked for his stand, both personally and politically; but he persevered, submitting his bills every year, even through bouts of illness that nearly killed him).

True religion fills every part of one’s life.

Religion deserves every power of our rational attention.

There is nothing so life-changing and transformative as the Word of God.

'Moral' ends are only moral when reached by moral means.

Take the duty of your role in life seriously. (WW attended every meeting of Parliament he was able to, even in an age when it was common for MPs to skip sessions in order to attend frivolous social events).

Look for the good in every person’s character, even in your detractors. (One of WW’s great gifts was in bringing his political opponents, like Charles Fox, to join him closely in the fight against slavery. WW always seemed to have something good to say about nearly every one of his colleagues).

The reformation of society by turning people’s hearts toward virtue is an attainable goal, and worthy of every effort we can give it. (The second great goal of WW’s life was ‘the reformation of manners,’ that is, the restoration of a moral center to society. His aim was to make goodness fashionable again, and through a variety of means he did, astonishingly, accomplish this end. He is seen as perhaps the most influential shaper of the moral revolution in England that ushered in the Victorian Age.)

Society will most readily become virtuous if the leading, culture-shaping classes become virtuous.

Consider seriously your present position as the position where Providence as placed you, and use it toward ministry here and now. (Despite thoughts about leaving Parliament for the clergy after his conversion, he stayed where he was and used his seat to fight for righteous ends.)

It is always worth one’s time to read the great thoughts of both ages past and the present day. (WW was astonishingly well-read, especially in the classics (Homer, Virgil, Cicero, Horace, etc.) and in writers more contemporary to his own day (Milton, Locke, Newton, etc.)).

Study the criticisms of those who criticize you; they may make you better.

Relationships are utterly important. Spend time developing them, both for the enrichment of your own life and strength, the potential to minister to them, and the hope of accomplishing great things together.

Do not be afraid to confront your friends when they are in the wrong, but never let bitterness uproot the love you have for them. Be quick to reconciliation. (At least twice, WW stood against his dear friend William Pitt on important matters of state. He took his position on moral principle, though it wounded their friendship for a time).

Do everything you can to fight for the cessation of suffering, both of those around you and those at the ends of the earth. (WW was involved not only in fighting slavery in Britain’s domains, but also advocated for its ending in America and continental Europe. He seemed to have a genuine concern for the internal good of Africa. He also gave his time, efforts, and wealth to hundreds of other philanthropic concerns throughout his life).

Use the gifts God has given you to their greatest extent in the path of doing good.

The pursuit of happiness is good, but the pursuit of other people’s happiness as a civic way of life will produce a better society, and, in the end, more happiness for all.

Spend yourself in hospitality; you will be richer for it in the end. (WW’s house was famous for its hospitality; he was seldom without guests).

Do not let your youth hold you back from accomplishing great things. (WW became a Member of Parliament when he was 21. His close friend William Pitt, one of the greatest political leaders Britain has ever known, became Prime Minister at 24.)

Busyness is no excuse not to keep the Sabbath. The busier you are, the more you will have need of a Sabbath, and the more you will be able to manage your busyness by practicing it. (WW, despite being laden with affairs of state, the entertaining of guests, answering personally the letters he received, and his rigorous academic study, took a Sabbatical hour each day and one full day a week).

Cultivate a love of nature. (One of WW’s favorite places was the Lake District in northwest England).

Take long walks.

Learning and appreciating the varieties of birds is a splendid and admirable way to spend one’s time. (WW’s favorite bird, it seems, was the nightingale. He passed on his love of birds (and of animals in general) to his son Samuel, later the Bishop of Oxford and chaplain to Queen Victoria).

Your ministry to the outer world, whatever it may be, ought not to trump your ministry to your own family. (In 1812 he gave up his powerful seat representing Yorkshire country in order to spend more time with his family; he then switched to a much less demanding seat in Parliament).

Cultivate habits of eloquence and substantive thought, even in everyday conversation. (WW was one of the most famous conversationalists of his day. Guests would come to his house primarily to hear him talk).

Do not give in to the pressures of fashion or class. (WW resisted buying or being given a peerage of nobility all his life, though it was common for wealthy MPs to do so).

Gather a community of thoughtful, loving, believing friends around you, and work together toward common ends. (WW lived in the little village of Clapham for fifteen years with a small group of close Christian friends, among whom was Hannah More, the great reformer of education).

Practice daily times of family worship.

Stay informed and be in prayer about the missionary progress of the kingdom of God. (WW was a personal friend of the pioneer missionary and translator Henry Martyn, and every Sunday evening he spent his time reading missionary updates and biographies).

Live generously. (WW gave away the equivalent of millions of dollars over the course of his life. Not only did he fund the education of hundreds of promising young students (including all three Bronte sisters and their father) and create numerous philanthropic initiatives, he also paid off the debts of hundreds of men who came to him with personal pleas for help).


To take for truth what cannot be but true…

And bind the task assign’d thee to thine heart:

Happy the man there seeking and there found,

Happy the nation where such men abound.

- William Cowper

Monday, August 06, 2007

The Silence in Your Soul

Be constant, my son.
The world moves with reckless haste,
But you and I need none of it.
Laugh if you are full of laughter,
But never let the world steal
The silence in your soul.
It matters not if you are slow
Of tongue and dancing speech,
For I see wisdom in your eyes,
And no wit nor words
Can ever measure that.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Greatest Story Ever Told

After my reflections on writing in the post I just put up earlier today, I thought I would share with you a piece I wrote about a year ago. It's a fairly simple exposition of my understanding of the Christian faith as it relates to story-telling. I don't know that it has any particular literary merit (by my own categories in the last post, it has little originality, but at least it's faithful), but it's probably worth reading. It's called, rather un-originally, "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

I love a good story. A good story will turn a mass of jumbled events and characters into a wonderful adventure, a rising drama that cuts a brilliant course toward a single purpose. It will take all of the beautiful, painful chaos of life and give it rhythm and rhyme, a sensible pattern against the cold, vacuous chasm of despair. Stories bring about resolution, a satisfying finality that all things have come full circle at last.
At times they seem artificial, trite and contrived against the apparent meaninglessness of everyday life. And yet there is something within us that yearns for story, something that cries out for a sense of meaning and purpose, an understandable direction to follow. It seems to me that this impulse, apparently common to all human beings, cannot be a mere blip of sentient evolution. Our common passions and urges direct us toward reality. A child feels hungry, and there is such a thing as food to be hungry for. People feel sexual attraction, and there is such a thing as sex. Similarly, we yearn for a coherent story to give meaning to our lives, and I believe that there is such a thing as that story.
The ageless questions assault us in all the silent moments: Who am I? Where did I come from? Where, ultimately, am I going? These are all story questions, issues of character and plot. Some cultures will ask the questions in different ways, but all cultures ask them. Throughout all of recorded time, from every corner of the globe, men and women have sought to make sense of their own existence. And the answer to it all is a story. The name of that story is Christianity.
At its heart, Christianity is a story. Some people will tell you that it is first and foremost a personal relationship with God, and it certainly is that. But to stop there is dangerous. It puts us at the center of the picture: Christianity is about my relationship with God. Aided by our natural pride, it easily degenerates into a self-centered religion. Our relationship with God becomes primarily viewed in terms of our spiritual fulfillment rather than his glory.
It would be better to say that Christianity is all about God’s personal relationship with us. This puts God at the center of the picture again. Who is this God? Why does he seek relationship with us? How does he communicate with us? It is these questions that the Scriptures slowly answer for us by telling us a story—the story of his relationship with ordinary people.
It has been called the greatest story ever told, and rightly so. Here is the tale of an unbelievably magnificent God, fully and completely glorious, who creates and loves and redeems a people in his own image. It is a story of his endless glory and of the unparalleled wonder of his grace—the undeserved love which we find ourselves receiving, delighted and amazed. And at the center of this unrivalled epic is an astonishing figure, a man who turned the world upside-down from beneath the shadow of an empire. Here the God of the universe stepped fully into his own story, turning it into a tragedy and a comedy and a triumph beyond reckoning. Here is the Christ, Jesus the Nazarene, an extraordinary character who truly and completely saved the world.
No story on earth has ever before imagined a character like him, and no other ever will. He is the scandal of untiring uniqueness, the delightful explosion of Truth into a sin-darkened world. No other man has ever done such wonders out of an unending well of love and claimed all the while to be God. No one else has ever been at once so astonishingly meek and yet so completely fixed on winning glory for the Father with whom he was one. No one else could claim to be humble and claim to be God and be convincing in both. Yet this Jesus, this Galilean peasant-preacher, has consistently won admiration and devotion from men and women all over the world, Christians and non-Christians alike. The words that echo from his mouth are absolutely unbelievable, and yet because they are from his mouth they are believed.
And though his words are wild and without equal, it is his deeds that give life and breath to the story. This is the tale of a miracle-worker, a simple man who overturned the world without ever seizing power for himself. This is the story of a healer, pouring himself out in love for the outcasts and the despised. And this is the story of the everlasting Christ, the immortal Son of God who sealed the resolution of history by offering up his own life as a ransom.
But not even death could hold down this hero. The cold night of despair could not restrain the golden dawn, and Jesus rose from the dead. We hear it so often that we begin to forget what it means. We no longer tremble with joy when the Easter-cry rings out over the earth: He is risen indeed! Here is the glory of our wonderful God, the crown of all our hopes. Jesus Christ has defeated death itself.
The indescribable wonder of the Christian life is not merely that we can know about this wildly unique hero, modeling our lives on his example and philosophy. It is that we can know him in person. More than that—it is that his very life, the overflow of his eternal joy, can spill into our hearts and transform us into reflections of him, into everything we were meant to be. We can be heroes in the greatest story ever told, men and women of action and truth who march beneath the banner of the incomparable Christ.
Though we have seen the central act and know already a few tantalizing hints of the ending, this story is still in motion. God is still at work, calling people all over the world into relationship with him. The power of the risen Christ is flooding through the earth, and already uncounted millions have been transformed in the radiance of his glory.
We have before us the unspeakable treasure of this truth: God loves us so much that he not only suffered and died for us; he has also chosen and appointed us as the instruments of his mission. We are the heroes of his story now, you and I. We have a purpose and a meaning that is infinitely beyond anything we have ever dreamed. This story defines and shapes and gives purpose to everything we do. There are no unimportant moments anymore. The glory of God is the golden thread that weaves through the tattered epic of human history, and we are a part of its triumph.
I love a good story.

Christian Writing

My apologies for the recent hiatus in blog posts; we lost our internet access here at the seminary when a lightning strike took down our server. Jumping off some thoughts from my last blog, though, I thought I’d share some of my musings on the definitive priorities of Christian writing. Though you might not get this impression from reading my blog, most of my writing is in the form of creative fiction novels, both historical fiction and fantasy. These reflections, then, were written mostly with storytelling genres in mind. But these are fairly broad theological points, and writing isn’t their only field of application. Any creative endeavor for Christians, whether painting or landscaping or parenting, follows the same rhythm and form.

The Christian perspective on writing (or at least my conception of it) is a bit of a twist when compared to the way society regards the craft. First of all, there’s the issue of weaving exclusive truth claims into writing in the midst of a culture that rejects such claims. It will always seem harsh to some, but I don’t think we’ll win people over by trying to pander to their desires for cheap grace. I believe it’s important for Christian writing to be bold, clear, and uncompromising, and that this can be done with grace and good humor. We will not win the world by weakening ourselves, but we can win it by helping people see the rampant joy that undergirds our unwavering strength.

Secondly, Christian writing aims for a high standard of the craft, just as the secular world does, but in a different way. The pursuit of excellence for a Christian writer is to bring glory and delight to God in honing and using the skills He has given. For a secular writer, I imagine that excellence in writing is seen as something meritorious in and of itself. A Christian writer would never assume that to be true, because it treads dangerously close to the sin of pride and exalts the gift rather than the Giver. But is it wrong to feel a bit of pleasure and satisfaction for our own accomplishments and hard work in developing our writing skills? No, not usually. But we must always keep in mind that this does not reflect any merit back to ourselves as the first cause. We can feel gratified by our accomplishments, but our eyes always look gratefully up to the One who made those accomplishments possible.

For my own part, writing is a delight, largely because I am the unworthy recipient of unmerited gifts in that area. I come from a long line of writers and poets, and in some ways it seems to be in my blood. I’ve also been nurtured in the craft, encouraged and urged ahead by many in my family and a number of my teachers. If my writing is worth anything, I can’t claim its worth as any merit of my own—it is merely the reflection of the grace I’ve received from the hand of the Lord and the fellowship of my family and friends.

I should also note that the Christian perspective significantly decreases the anxiety of writing—there is no rush or pressure to become the best; merely the patient and joyous marvel of using what we have, to the best of our abilities, to delight the Wonder of our souls. That is no less of a motive to aspire toward excellence in one’s writing; on the contrary, it’s a greater motive. We should aim to be the best writers we can be because we bring glory to God by being good stewards of His gifts.

Thirdly, Christian writing doesn’t share all of the secular world’s standards of what makes a literary work good. Some factors will be the same when seen from either side—beauty, flow, the incorporation of great ideas, and so on. Christians may differ from others as to what constitutes a ‘great idea,’ but the underlying precept of judging literature is basically the same on that mark. What is wildly different, however, is the Christian perspective on that one foundational mark which the world uses to judge literature: originality. If a writer comes up with a fresh perspective or mechanism in his work, he is lauded as a ‘creative genius.’

But Christian writers don’t (or shouldn’t) make the attainment of this sort of genius the test of their abilities. Certainly there are some Christian writing geniuses in both style and substance. And that’s a good thing, but not the best thing about their writing. The highest ideal of Christianity is not creation alone (for that is primarily God’s role, and only ours by extension), but imitation of the Creator. New perspectives can have a lot to teach us, but newness itself is not an inherent virtue.

To use an extended quotation from C. S. Lewis' thoughts on the subject: "In the New Testament the art of life itself is an art of imitation: can we, believing this, believe that literature, which must derive from real life, is to aim at being 'creative', 'original', and 'spontaneous'? 'Originality' in the New Testament is quite plainly the prerogative of God alone; even within the triune being of God it seems to be confined to the Father. The duty and happiness of every other being is placed in being derivative, like a mirrior....An author should never conceive of himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom....And always, of every idea and of every method he will ask not 'Is it mine?', but 'Is it good?'" ("Christianity and Literature," Christian Reflections).

Everything in Christian writing points back to the beautiful, powerful tradition in which we stand. As Christian writers, even if we are on the crest of the wave, we know that we do not stand alone. We may spin new ways of looking at the message, but it is still the same incomparable message that generations before us have faithfully delivered. The ultimate goal is not to portray life or humanity or anything else in a new way; the goal is to portray the great gospel message, whether in hinting themes or forthright exposition, in a faithful way.

I should add that this idea of writing as imitation is neither sterile nor closed. We are speaking of the imitation of God, and God has no boundaries. God has created galaxies that we are only now beginning to see, and we are imitators of that kind of creation. There are an infinite number of stories and angles and forms and means, stretching to boundless horizons that our few millennia of art have barely even begun to imagine. My point is not that originality of style is bad, but that it should not be our goal. Our first goal should always be faithfulness to the shape of the reality we know, based in the character and story of God, and if that faithfulness can be portrayed through insightfully original means, so much the better. But originality itself is not of unlimited artistic worth. Better a well-written story, faithful to the Christian worldview, that makes no attempt at shaping a new movement in literature, than a work in a brilliantly original style that denies or obfuscates our relationship with the Truth.

(I should also make clear that I’m not advocating preachy, “altar call” stories as the only kind of acceptable Christian writing. Those have their place, but I’ve found that the most powerful Christian fiction, at least in terms of its impact on non-believers, is that which faithfully turns the reader’s attention, little by little, to just a few truths or themes of the Christian worldview. Not only is this method faithful to the gospel, but it is gentle and gracious as well.)

Fourthly, Christians will always differ with the secular world as to the worth of a piece of writing. That is, Christians will always take a lighter view of writing—it is something that is certainly important (our faith, after all, is a literary-based faith)—but the worth of any piece of writing is insubstantial in comparison to the value of even one human being. Writing can be an incredible vehicle for powerful truths, a tool of enormous potential, but its greatest purpose does not lie within itself. The greatest end of any human creation is to bring glory to God. A complementary end is the salvation of souls. Whereas the secular world sees a great piece of writing as a beautiful thing in and of itself, Christians can see deeper and know it to be beautiful because it reflects the beauty of the Giver, the Muse. I believe that many of the truly beautiful things which men and women have made will last beyond this earthly age, but they will never be comparable to the people who created them, nor to the people who read them. All the wonders and beauties of civilization are nothing compared to the wonders and beauties of God and of His plan of salvation.

It’s worth noting that God Himself chose to carry out His plan and to reveal Himself not only in lists of precepts and systematic theologies (though these are certainly useful forms of the whole revelation). He showed Himself to us in story form, in the gradual awakenings and intimacies of a personal relationship with real people. Story is at the heart of the Christian worldview, because we are players in the most magnificent story ever composed. So even in this, Christian writers are imitators—we stand in a great tradition of employing storytelling in the conveyance of life-changing truth.

There’s a great deal more that can be said about writing or any Christian art form, but these things must be the foundation—the centrality of Truth and the glory of God.