Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Country Parson's Advice To His Parishioner

A few years ago my old friend, George Koch, a priest in West Chicago, Illinois, gave me a copy of a book that had been written and published anonymously during the reign of Charles II. A Country Parson's Advice had never been reprinted or republished until George re-edited it to make it accessible to contemporary people, but it seems to have been an influential book in the development of English-speaking Christianity.

Samuel Wesley, father of John and Charles used it in his ministry, as did his illustrious sons, who made sure that their younger contemporary, George Whitefield, thoroughly digested the volume. Its teaching on small groups was clearly seminal to the whole Methodist movement, as well as being to cell group ministry in congregations today.

George Koch writes in his introduction to the book, "I first came across a reference to this book during research I was doing on evangelicals in the Anglican and Episcopal Church. Early attempts to locate a copy of it proved fruitless, and only after several worldwide book searches was a microfilmed copy found" (page 21). These words should be a warning to any author who thinks he/she has written something significant that will have a long shelf life!

This book had sat unread on my shelves for several years until I had some time to kill while manning the church for evacuees from Hurricane Katrina who live across the street to come and go if they wanted. The earliest pages fed straight into some thoughts I had been having about the post-Christian lifestyle, the rampant secularity of Europe, and the impact this has had upon my own family. My ponderings about Europe are largely true of the scene in North America, as well.

In some ways the opening chapter of A Country Parson's Advice To His Parishioners is a 300-year-old prologue for The Purpose Driven Life! The opening sentence is a difficult one (and Koch has simplified it), but sets the tone of the rest of the book. "Foreasmuch as you know that you are God's creature, and received being and life from him, and subsist altogether in him, you must necessarily acknowledge that you are and ought to be at his disposal, and to live and act according to his intention, and the end for which you were made" (page 31). In a long-winded way he is saying roughly what the Westminster Confession has said, that a human's purpose is to worship God and enjoy him forever.

That is the Christian presupposition for life. A couple of paragraphs later he asks, "Can you think, when you consider your own faculties and capacities, that you were made merely to get a little money by burdening and caring, by toiling and sweating, by plotting and contriving? A poor business surely for such an excellent creature! And you debase yourself extremely, and reproach your maker, if you imagine it. But you know that money is not a thing desirable for itself, but for its usefulness as it procures necessities, and pleasing to appetites and desires. Therefore, you must enquire further, whether you were made only to eat and drink, and having made provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof" (page 32).

When I read these words they tuned into precisely what I had been thinking about our extended clan. I am deeply attached to my family, being something of a patriarch of the brood these days, and I look at my relatives who are financially so much more successful than me living what they believe to be the good life. They are on a treadmill of getting and gaining so that they might go a-pleasuring. I see huge sums of money being shelled out on nice cars, fancy hotels, rich dinners, lovely homes, trips to the opposite side of Europe just to go to the theatre, and so forth.

As I listen to them talking what I hear is men and women whose entire raison d'etre is literally to eat, drink, and be merry, and therefore they are in the marketplace enduring rather than enjoying their work in order that they may have more leisure time to indulge. What comes after this life is over? Well, nothing, of course, so let's make the best of what we have in the here and now. The older the members of our tribe are, the more they seem to be into this lifestyle, desperately seeking to eke out their remaining years according to the "pleasure principle."

Ours truly is what Christopher Lasch described it to be three decades ago, a culture of narcissism, and as I have treated myself to a tour of the Internet in the last weeks I have found this being reinforced again and again. The Country Parson writes, "Here is your end, and this is your work, a work worthy of so excellent a creature: to serve God" (page 33). With every thoughtful believer I say "Amen to that."

But then the Country Parson restates this even more strongly, "We were made in the image of God, not to live like beasts, no, nor to please ourselves in any way; but to serve and please and glorify God here, and to possess and enjoy him for the hereafter" (page 34).

During the last years we have heard a lot from our political leaders about defending and preserving what they describe as 'our way of life.' After the London bombings in July, this seemed to become Tony Blair's mantra, and we have heard the same song being sung by everyone from George W. Bush to John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia. But the question should be what is the way of life that we are supposed to be defending from attacks? Certainly, there are freedoms that we cherish, but what are we free for... to cram every moment with pleasure, living in fear that it might be our last?

Hurricane Katrina has been nature's way of jolting us, challenging the triviality of our culture. Yet the other morning I almost choked on my coffee when I heard a report that suggested the most important thing to do in Biloxi was to get the gambling boats functioning again because they are such a source of income for the state of Mississippi. Is this the best lesson we learned from the storm?

What was it that the Rich Fool said? "Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry." And what was God's reply to the Fool: "Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?" (Luke 12:20-21).

While there are components of our culture that I am most passionate to preserve, there is much about our way of life that I think should be challenged. It is obvious that we are called to be counter-culture people, rather than allowing the prevailing culture to squeeze us into its image. Indeed, I think I would assert that if we are to live holy lives then they will be counter-culture lives.

One of the reasons I am at such odds with the denomination to which I belong is that it has like a puppy dog with its tongue hanging out, followed every twist and turn of the sensuous narcissistic culture to which we belong. A little later on in his book, the Country Parson writes, "Ity was the sayings of a devout man many years ago, 'That it had been better for us never to have been, than to dwell in ourselves and to our selves" (page 39). This, I fear, is exactly what we have done, shaping the faith to suit the culture, rather than challenging the values of the culture with the essence of the revealed Gospel.

I haven't finished with the Country Parson yet, and I am even a little frightened what the implications will be when he has finished with me.


(If you want to buy a copy of A Country Parson's Advice to his Parishioners, then go to The book was first published in 1680 and George Koch's edition of it was republished by Monarch in London in 1998)

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