Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Serious Call to A Devout and Holy Life

What is the real issue confronting the churches today?

Most of us in the Anglican trenches of North America are probably going to focus on sexuality, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians might do the same, while other traditions are going to focus on different things. However, I am not sure that any of us are right. Sexuality for my money is only one presenting issue of a much deeper set of malaises.

Regular readers to Toward2015 are aware that I consider the sexuality battle to be merely an unpleasant and ferocious conflict in what will be the 21st Century's great war -- and that is over what it means to be human? I say again, that this is going to be an intellectual and moral challenge that will test us to the uttermost, and could well overwhelm us. The tragedy for me is that there are those in the churches, whose views are shaped by their own desires and wants, and so they are setting a path away from a revealed understanding of the nature of our humanity.

Neither do I think that the issue of the authority of Scripture is the greatest issue facing us today, although, God knows, there are strong forces at work within the churches that want to apportion the written Word in their own terms and not at its own face value and plain meaning within the continuum of catholic believing. Indeed, I listened to a leading Episcopalian recently trot out that tired old postmodern stalking horse that each generation should read the text through their own grid of presuppositions. Interestingly, he was far less willing to approach the interpretation of other ecclesiastical documents in the same lax manner.

No, I believe the major issue before us today is individual and corporate holiness. Indeed, the Windsor Report talks about the "radical holiness to which all Christ's people are called, and thus rooted in the Trinitarian life and purposes of God" (paragraph 3). Holy living is at the root of faithful following of Jesus Christ, and holy living rather than aping the fallen world in which we live should be a witness to that fallen world that there is a much better way of living, being, struggling with sin, and ultimately being in communion with God. Unholiness is at the heart of the problems we have in the churches in the West right now. Indeed, in my darker moments I wonder sometimes whether we thumb our noses at the notion of holiness and opt for a vapid godlessness.

Every era expresses human fallenness in its own particular way, and it is easy to exaggerate the declining moral state of any era when compared to another. However, with the drift of our culture away from even a modicum of pretence of rootedness in Judeo-Christian revelation, we do seem to be eager to plumb new depths. And at precisely the moment when the Christian church should be using Gospel values to engage this dark cloud that hovers over our world and the way it thinks, we are more inclined than ever to join the world's noisy procession.

I am not just talking about sex, although our fixation with sexual sinfulness is symbolic of what is wrong in our culture; I am talking about arrogance, blatant materialism, the seven deadly sins coming in every shape and form, and the attitude of the builders of Babel that we know best, as if God should shut up and listen to our cleverness! Baptists and Pentecostals have, perhaps, a different set of of banalities and shallowness than Episcopalians, Catholics, and Prebyterians, but as I look at churches (and at my own life) we all fall so far short that the angels must weep daily over us as we dig deeper trenches.

Yet it is at times like these in the history of the church that movements of renewed zeal and holiness are born. From the Desert Fathers shaking the dust of the Egyptian churches from their feet and following St. Anthony into the wilderness onward, holiness has become a major quest of what becomes an influential in the church at times of moral torpor and ethical dreadfulness.

The Reformation was a renewal movement that tore the church apart, but on both sides of the Protestant divide there was a questing for holiness that bore considerable fruit -- whether in the richness of proclamation by John Calvin, or the call to spiritual arms that came from Ignatius Loyola. While the Borgias were dragging the papacy into the pit of unbelievable nastiness, seeds of renewal had been planted that flowered and bore much fruit.

There was a rich moral fervor in the lives of the Puritans, but following the Restoration of the monarchy, the Great Ejection of 1662, and in the philandering of Charles II, the so-called Merry Monarch, we see a weariness with the earnestness of those men and women of God. Yet even in that smutty period something new was stirring as people like the anonymous Country Parson with his Advice to his Parisioners set forth a standard of Christian living that burst into flame a couple of generations later, helping kindle the extraordinary Great Awakening of the 18th Century.

The Wesley brother, George Whitefield, and others, banded themselves together and formed the Holy Club at Oxford that sought to assert serious Christian living in the midst of the lassitude of latitudinarianism that seemed to prevail as the Enlightenment's roots dug deep. The renewing work of the Spirit that was the Great Awakening came upon the lives of individuals desperate to reflect the glory of God. These are a handful of examples that come to mind, I am sure we could come up with dozens of others if we all set our minds to it!

This search for holiness is not something that begins either in high places in the church, or in prominent settings. Those who sought after God's holiness in their lives in Christian history were often outcasts and mercilessly ridiculed. I suspect there was what my old seminary Principal called "piosity" in the lives of these men and women so that they set themselves up for opposition, but beyond that there was a genuine yearning that their hearts would beat in time with the heart of God -- and it attracted those weary with worldliness.

I see inklings that something like this might be happening. Just taking the Anglican scene for the moment, in conversation and correspondence with those at all points on the spectrum I see few people who are proud of, or happy with the state of the church. Indeed, I would say there is a profound discomfort with where we are and what we are doing to each other in the name of Christ.

The answer to this is not going to be found in the actions of canon-wielding bishops throwing the book at what they perceive to be malcontents, nor in the ferociousness with which some conservatives make their case. It is ultimately going to come to fruition in the lives of those who take biblical holiness seriously, and who determine that they are willing to be part of the minority when it comes to living a devout and faithful life, even if it means being cold-shouldered, ridiculed, and even persecuted.

There will perhaps be pockets of resistance to the way things are, and a willingness to surrender all to Christ in fresh ways, that we might be made holy by the one who surrendered his all for us and our redemption. I pray to the Lord that this will happen, because if it does not, then we will disappear into the quagmire of cultural rottenness that is around us. I am not sure there are any formulas for what God requires of us, except to throw ourselves weeping over our sinfulness into his arms, asking him to take us forward to where he wants us to be.

"Francis," God spoke to the saint in Assisi, "Build my church." Francis was lying in the rubble of St. Damian's church on the edge of his home town. Thinking that God was saying literally put one stone upon another, this former playboy got up and started rebuilding the ruins. That was the first step in a movement that led to a wonderful renewal of medieval Christianity.

I don't know how God makes his call upon us, and with what words, but I have a strange hunch that somewhere, or more likely, in pockets in all sorts of places, there are men and women who are turning their backs on the world's values, even the way the world's values have blown apart the church, and are listening for that voice which Francis of Assisi heard.

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