Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Susanna Wesley: Spiritual Guide Par Excellence, Part III

Susanna Wesley: Spiritual Guide Par Excellence, Part III

We know of Susanna Wesley (1669-1742) because of her famous sons, John and Charles. Yet she is a spiritual guide in her own right.

Soul Care in Life and in Death: On the Borders of Eternity

We would be mistaken to assume that Susanna Wesley provided spiritual direction without commensurate soul care. True, in her humility and honesty, she felt at times unfit to offer sustaining and healing counsel. John Wesley wrote his mother concerning affliction and the best method of profiting from it. On July 26, 1727, she responds, “It is certainly true that I have had large experience of what the world calls adverse fortune. But I have not made those improvements in piety and virtue, under the discipline of Providence, that I ought to have done; therefore I humbly conceive myself to be unfit for an assistant to another in affliction, since I have so ill performed my own duty.”
[i] Though perhaps overly self-depreciating, her words do remind us of the truth that the best
preparation for soul care is taking our own soul care issues to the great Soul Physicians.

That Susanna was overly deferential about her soul care abilities is easy to discern given the records we have of her care for hurting people. When an unnamed female friend was afflicted in body and depressed in spirit, Susanna describes to another female acquaintance how she empathized with her. “I heartily sympathize with the young lady in her affliction, and wish it was in my power to speak a word in season, that might alleviate the trouble of her mind, which has such an influence on the weakness of her body.”

Of course, Susanna realizes that human comfort only carries so much weight. So she points this sufferer to her caring Savior. “It is with relation to our manifold wants and weaknesses, and the discouragements and despondencies consequent thereupon, that the blessed Jesus hath undertaken to be our great high priest, physician, advocate, and Saviour. . . . His deep compassion supposes our misery; and his assistance, and the supplies of his grace, imply our wants, and the disadvantages we labor under.

After sustaining this hurting young women by helping her to see that her illness is normal and not due to her sin, Susanna then shares healing care by persuading her to see Christ goodness. “And here, madam, let me beseech you to join with me in admiring and adoring the infinite and incomprehensible love of God to fallen man, which he hath been pleased to manifest to us in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.”
[iv] Understanding that there are no spiritual quick fixes, including in spiritual conversations, she invites ongoing connection. “I shall be very glad to hear often from you.”[v] Given her many duties in the home and in her neighborhood ministry, it is remarkable what an open heart Susanna demonstrates.

To her son, Charles, who had been struggling with his faith, she writes empathetically on October 19, 1738, “It is with much pleasure I find your mind somewhat easier than formerly, and I heartily thank God for it. The spirit of man may sustain his infirmity,—but a wounded spirit who can bear? If this hath been your case, it has been sad indeed.”

Humble as she was, Susanna could receive soul care just as easily as she dispensed it. Writing to Charles on December 27, 1739, she shares about a recent visit from his brother, John. “You cannot more desire to see me, than I do to see you. You brother . . . has just been with me, and much revived my spirit. Indeed, I have often found that he never speaks in my hearing without my receiving some spiritual benefit.”
[vii] She increases her vulnerable openness when she admits, “But, my dear Charles, still I want either him or you; for indeed, in the most literal sense, I am become a little child, and want continual succor. ‘As iron sharpeneth iron, so doth the countenance of a man his friend.’ I feel much comfort and support form religious conversation when I can obtain it.”[viii]

She could equally accept care from non-family members. “I have been prevented from finishing my letter. I complained I had none to converse with me on spiritual things; but for these several days I have had the conversation of many good Christians, who have refreshed in some measure my fainting spirits.”

Perhaps there is no life event where soul care is more necessary than the end of life. John gives the following account of his mother’s last moments as she began her ascent to heaven. “I left Bristol on the evening of Sunday, July 18, 1742, and on Tuesday came to London. I found my mother on the borders of eternity; but she had no doubts nor fear, nor any desire but as soon as God should call, ‘to depart and be with Christ.’”
[x] How we live on the borders of eternity says much about how we have lived up to that point. It also speaks either comfort or despair to our loved ones.

On Sunday, August 1, 1742, John writes of his mother’s funeral and shares Susanna’s grave inscription.

Here lies the body of Mrs. Susannah Wesley,
the youngest and last surviving daughter of Dr. Samuel Annesley.

In sure and steadfast hope to rise
And claim her mansion in the skies,
A Christian here her flesh laid down
The cross exchanging for a crown.

True daughter of affliction, she,
Inured to pain and misery,
Mourn’d a long night of griefs and fears,
A legal night of seventy years:

The Father then reveal’d his Son,
Him in the broken bread made known;
She knew and felt her sins forgiven,
And found the earnest of her heaven.

Meet for the fellowship above,
She heard the call, ‘Arise, my love,’
‘I come,’ her dying looks replied,
And lamblike, as her Lord, she died.

Susanna Wesley could die “lamblike” and could die granting comfort to her mourning children because she believes that God is our supreme good. Seven years before her death, on November 27, 1735, a few months after her husband’s death, she shares that experiential truth with John. “God is Being itself! The I AM! And therefore must necessarily be the supreme Good. He is so infinitely blessed, that every perception of his blissful presence imparts a vital gladness to the heart. Every degree of approach toward him is, in the same proportion, a degree of happiness.”
[xii] In this last letter she ever penned, she offers spiritual consolation based upon spiritual communion with God. Truly this was a fitting legacy to her life.

[i]Ibid., 337.
[ii]Ibid., 397.
[iii]Ibid., 397-398.
[iv]Ibid., 398.
[v]Ibid., 399.
[vi]Ibid., 406.
[vii]Ibid., 409.
[viii]Ibid., 408.
[ix]Ibid., 409.
[x]Ibid., 413.
[xi]Ibid., 414.
[xii]Ibid., 341-342.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Susanna Wesley: Spiritual Guide Par Excellence, Part II

Susanna Wesley: Spiritual Guide Par Excellence, Part II

We know of Susanna Wesley (1669-1742) because of her famous sons, John and Charles. Yet she is a spiritual guide in her own right.

Feminine Spiritual Direction: Doing Something More

When they hear of Susanna’s ministry to her children, some may say, “So, from Susanna Wesley we learn that a women’s place is in the home?” She is not a good source for that bromide. The preeminent biographer of the Wesley family, Adam Clarke, explains that, “When Mr. Wesley was from home, Mrs. Wesley felt it her duty to keep up the worship of God in her house. She not only prayed for, but with her family. At such times she took the spiritual direction and care of the children and servants on herself; and sometimes even the neighbors shared the benefit of her instructions.”

Clarke provides a lengthier original account as transcribed in a letter by a Dr. Whitehead. “During her husband’s absence, Mrs. Wesley felt it her duty to pay more particular attention to her children, especially on the Lord’s day . . . She read prays to them, and also a sermon, and conversed with them on religious and devotional subjects. Some neighbors happening to come in during these exercises, being permitted to stay, were so pleased and profited as to desire permission to come again. This was granted; a good report of the meeting became general; many requested leave to attend, and the house was soon filled more than two hundred at last attending; and many were obliged to go away for want of room.”

Now, lest we think Susanna faced no opposition, it is important to note that when she told her husband, he approved of “her zeal and good sense,” but objected to the continuance of the meetings because it would look “peculiar,” because of her gender, and because of his position as pastor.
[iii] She responded in a letter dated February 6, 1712.

To the objection that it looked peculiar, she responds that is only “because in our corrupt age the utmost care and diligence have been used to banish all discourse of god or spiritual concerns out of society, as if religion were never to appear out of the closet, and we were to be ashamed of nothing so much as professing ourselves to be Christians.”
[iv] Susanna further notes that the problem is that people only want to hear from the pulpit and not in “common conversation” anything that is “serious, or that may any way advance the glory of God or the salvation of souls.” How easily this could have been written in the 21st Century!

To the objection of her gender, she replies, “That as I am a woman, so I am also mistress of a large family. And though the superior charge of the souls contained in it lies upon you, as head of the family, and as their minister, yet in your absence I cannot but look upon every soul you leave under my care as a talent committed to me, under a trust, by the great Lord of all the families of haven and earth.”
[v] While her thinking may not satisfy combatants on either side of the modern dispute about the “role of women in ministry,” her wisdom in navigating the culture of the day is commendable. Susanna understood that ultimately she was answerable to God. “And if I am unfaithful to him, or to you, in neglecting to improve these talents, how shall I answer unto him when he shall commend me to render an account of my stewardship?”[vi]

Susanna continues in her letter by explaining to her husband that she had recently read a book about missionaries that inspired her zeal so that she prayed that “I might do something more than I do.”
[vii] This prayer surely resonates with many of the women studied in Sacred Friendships. Out of their enforced voicelessness due to societal norms, they, like many women today, longed to do “something more than I do.” Susanna further clarifies that she then resolved to start “doing more” with her family. “I take such a proportion of time as I can best spare every night to discourse with each child by itself, on something that relates to its principal concerns. On Monday I talk with Molly; on Tuesday with Hetty; Wednesday with Nancy; Thursday with Jacky; Friday with Patty’ Saturday with Charles; and with Emily and Sukey together, on Sunday.”[viii]

Then, “something more” mushroomed. “With those few neighbors who then came to me I discoursed more freely and affectionately than before. I chose the best and most awakening sermons we had, and I spent more times with them in such exercises. Since this our company has increased every night, for I dare deny none that ask admittance. Last Sunday, I believe we had above two hundred, and yet many went away for want of room.”
[ix] The explosive results were exceedingly, abundantly above all that Susanna could ask or imagine. ““But I never durst positively presume to hope that God would make use of me as an instrument in doing good; the furthest I durst go was, It may be: who can tell? With God all things are possible.”[x]

As to his third objection that her ministry reflected poorly on him, she responds, “Therefore, why any should reflect upon you . . . because your wife endeavors to draw people to the church, and to restrain them, by reading and other persuasions, from their profanation of God’s most holy day, I cannot conceive. But if any should be so mad as to do it, I wish you would not regard it. For my part, I value no censure on this account. I have long since shook hands with the world, and I heartily wish I had never given them more reason to speak against me.”
[xi] We see in her words a mild rebuke for her husband’s fear of what people think.

Mr. Wesley “felt the power and wisdom by which she spoke, and cordially gave his approbation to her conduct.”
[xii] Though he gave his blessing for her to continue, others complained to him. He then wrote again to Susanna desiring her to discontinue the meetings. On February 25, 1712, she wrote back. She now replaces her previously gentle admonishment with more forceful words. “I shall not inquire how it was possible that you should be prevailed on by the senseless clamors of two or three of the worst of your parish, to condemn what you so lately approved.”[xiii]

She then outlines the illogic, the mistaken theology, the false guilt by false association, the jealousy, and the false labeling behind the few objectors, while also noting that the vast majority in the congregation not only approved, but benefited from the meetings. In summary, she says to her husband, “Now, I beseech you, weigh all these things in an impartial balance: on the one side, the honor of almighty God, the doing much good to many souls, and the friendship of the best among whom we live; on the other, (if folly, impiety, and vanity may abide in the scale against so ponderous a weight,) the senseless objections of a few scandalous persons, laughing at us, and censuring us as precise and hypocritical; and when you have duly considered all things, let m have your positive determination.”

Humbly bold to the end, she concludes with this forceful request. “If you do, after all, think fit to dissolve this assembly, do not tell me that you desire me to do it, for that will not satisfy my conscience; but send me your positive command, in such full and express terms as may absolve me from all guilt and punishment, for neglecting this opportunity of doing good, when you and I shall appear before the great and awful tribunal of our LORD JESUS Christ.”

Dr. Whitehead summarizes with these words. “Though I find no further record of these transactions, yet I take it for granted that this letter was decisive, and Mrs. Wesley’s meetings continued till her husband returned to Epworth.”

As Richard Baxter praised his wife as a skilled soul physician, so Adam Clarke in his biography, acclaimed Susanna Wesley as an expert spiritual director. “The good sense, piety, observation, and experience of Mrs. Wesley, qualified her to be a wise counselor in almost every affair in life, and a sound spiritual director in most things that concerned the salvation of the soul. Her sons, while at Oxford, continued to profit by her advice and counsel, as they had done while more immediately under her care.”

[i]Clarke, 385.
[ii]Ibid., 386.
[iii]Ibid., 387.
[vii]Ibid., 388.
[ix]Ibid., 389.
[xii]Ibid., 390.
[xiii]Ibid., 391.
[xiv]Ibid., 392.
[xv]Ibid., 393.
[xvii]Ibid., 394.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Susanna Wesley: Spiritual Guide Par Excellence, Part I

Susanna Wesley: Spiritual Guide Par Excellence, Part I

We know of Susanna Wesley (1669-1742) because of her famous sons, John and Charles. Yet she is a spiritual guide in her own right. Susanna was the youngest daughter of twenty-five children of Dr. Samuel Annesley. A minister living in London, he trained his daughter in biblical and classical languages as well as other arts and sciences. A man ahead of his times, he notes that, “I have often thought it as one of the most barbarous of customs in the world, considering us a civilized and Christian Country, that we deny the advantages of learning to women.[i]

Susanna married Samuel Wesley, a minister in the Church of England, and moved to his rural parish at Epworth. She bore nineteen children, only nine of whom lived to adulthood. Her husband was known to be difficult to get along with because he ruled with an iron hand. As a result, parishioners and townspeople alike disliked the family. At one point he was sent to prison for failure to pay a debt owed to one of his parishioners.

Of her marriage, Susanna ruefully records, “Since I’m willing to let him quietly enjoy his opinions, he ought not to deprive me of my little liberty of conscience. . . . I think we are not likely to live happily together. . . . It is a misfortune peculiar to our family that he and I seldom think alike”

Motherly Spiritual Direction: Theological Depth and Relational Focus

Like many such marriages, their distance resulted in her focusing her feminine gifts on her children. John Wesley requested, in adulthood, a letter from his mother detailing her methodical system of child rearing. On July 24, 1732, she penned such a letter. In it she describes not only her method, but her theology behind her practice. “As self-will is the root of all sin and misery, so whatever cherishes this in children insures their after wretchedness and irreligion; whatever checks and modifies it promotes their future happiness and piety.”

Therefore, “in order to form the minds of children, the first thing to do is to conquer their will, and bring them to an obedient temper. To inform the understanding is a work of time, and must with children proceed by slow degrees, as they are able to bear it; but the subjecting the will is a thing which must be done at once, and the sooner the better; for by neglecting timely correction, they will contract a stubbornness and obstinacy which are hardly ever after conquered, and never without using such severity as would be as painful to me as to the child.”[v] According to Susanna, parental spiritual discipline eschews the world’s esteem which they grant for indulgence. To her, it is only the cruelest parents who permit their children to develop habits they know must be afterward broken.

Though strong in disciplining the will, Susanna equally offers forgiveness and encouragement. “If they amended, they should never be upbraided with it afterward. . . . Every single act of obedience . . . should always be commended, and frequently rewarded. . . . That if ever any child performed an act of obedience, or did anything with an intention to please, though the performance was not well, yet the obedience and intention should be kindly accepted, and the child with sweetness directed how to do better for the future.”

Additionally, her focus on the will in no way suggests that Susanna’s parental spiritual guidance minimized the life of the mind. She, rare in her era, taught all of her children to read by age five. More than that, in a letter to her daughter, Susan, Susanna produced a lengthy treatise on parental spiritual instruction. “My tenderest regard is for your immortal soul, and for its spiritual happiness; which regard I cannot better express, than by endeavoring to instill into your mind those principles of knowledge and virtue that are absolutely necessary in order to your leading a good life here, which is the only thing that can infallibly secure your happiness hereafter.”

For Susanna, we should never derive these principles from some amalgamation of self-help tenets. Instead, for her we base all spiritual training on the chief articles of the Christian faith, taking for her ground-work, the Apostles Creed. Having introduced the necessity of laying a solid theological foundation, Susanna then exegetes each phrase of the Creed. Page after page with theological precision, she models the depth of theological training, biblical teaching, and spiritual direction that every Christian mother ought to pass on to her children.
[viii] When Christians today question the relevance of theological depth, they need to ask and answer the question, “What factors produced the two great church leaders John and Charles Wesley?”

While the first factor was theologically precise teaching, this should not cause us to think that Susanna was content with “head knowledge.” She taught her children that the Creed “briefly comprehended your duty to God, yourself, and your neighbor.”
[ix] The purpose of biblical truth is to provide us with a renewed mind that leads to loving God and loving others. As a minister, John wrote to his mother about the definition of love. On May 14, 1727, she responds. “Suffer now a word of advice. However curious you may be in searching into the nature, or in distinguishing the properties, of the passions or virtues of human kind, for your own private satisfaction, be very cautious in giving nice distinctions in public assemblies; for it does not answer the true end of preaching, which is to mend men’s lives, and not fill their heads with unprofitable speculations.”[x] Clearly, we need truth—theological truth, but never truth for truth’s sake, but truth for love’s sake.

The first two factors that produced the two great church leaders John and Charles Wesley are theologically precise teaching and truth related to daily life relationships. To these, Susanna models two more parental discipleship methods: spiritual conversations and spiritual narratives. After a fire destroyed their home and dispersed the family until a new home could be found, Susanna wrote to her daughter Sukey on January 13, 1710. “Since our misfortunes have separated us from each other, and we can no longer enjoy the opportunities we once had of conversing together, I can no other way discharge the duty of a parent, or comply with my inclination of doing you all the good I can, but by writing. You know very well how I love you.”
[xi] What is the duty of a mother? To do all the good for a child she can. How does a mother fulfill her duty? By lovingly conversing about life in light of God’s Word (the content of the rest of her letter).

To spiritual conversations Susanna adds spiritual narratives. On October 11, 1709, she wrote to her son Samuel, saying, “There is nothing I now desire to live for but to do some small service to my children; that as I have brought them into the world, I may, if it please God, be an instrument of doing good to their souls.” And how would she provide her soul care ministry? “I had been several years collecting from my little reading, but chiefly from my own observation and experience, some things which I hoped might be useful to you all. I had begun to collect and form all into a little manual, wherein I designed you should have seen what were the particular reasons which prevailed on me to believe the being of a God, and the grounds of natural religion, together with the motives that induced me to embrace the faith of Jesus Christ, under which was comprehended my own private reasons for the truth of revealed religion.”

What if every mother did the same? What if every mother maintained Susanna’s high view of her high calling? A mother can make a great difference if her confidence in God’s work in her life leads her to “dare” to produce for her family her “faith history,” her “spiritual narrative.”

[i]Wallace, “Susanna Wesley’s Spirituality,” 163.
[ii]Tucker, Private Lives of Pastors’ Wives, 53.
[iii]Peterson, 25 Surprising Marriages, 253.
[iv]Clarke, Memoirs of the Wesley Family, 327.
[v]Ibid., 326.
[vi]Ibid., 329.
[vii]Ibid., 347.
[viii]Ibid., 347-376
[ix]Ibid., 347.
[x]Ibid., 337.
[xi]Ibid., 347.
[xii]Ibid., 343.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Margaret Baxter: An Artful Soul Physician, Part III

Margaret Baxter: An Artful Soul Physician, Part III

We know the name Richard Baxter, the Puritan pastor and author, but we are much less familiar with the spiritual writings of his wife, Margaret Baxter. Yet, when we uncover the rich buried treasure of her soul care and spiritual direction ministry, we have to wonder why in the world the world has not told her amazing stories sooner.

Under the Power of Melting Grief: Telling the Truth about Tears

We learn not only from Margaret’s life, but also from her death. Most of what we know of her we glean from her husband’s memorial to her, written one month after her death. Baxter published it as A Breviate of the Life of Margaret, The Daughter of Francis Charlton, and Wife of Richard Baxter. Later, John T. Wilkinson reprinted it with the beautiful title Richard Baxter and Margaret Charlton: A Puritan Love Story.

Baxter prefaces his memorializing with the candid admission that it was, “. . . written, I confess, under the power of melting grief.”
[i] Knowing the likely criticism for such openness, Baxter continues, “. . . and therefore perhaps with the less prudent judgment; but not with the less, but the more truth; for passionate weakness poureth out all, which greater prudence may conceal.”[ii] According to Baxter, Christians, of all people, should be the most honest about pain. In our grieving, we should not conceal the truth of tears this side of heaven.

It was not simply the shock and nearness of Margaret’s death that left her husband so frank. Years later in his autobiography, Baxter expresses how his wife’s death left him “in depth of grief.”
[iii] Interestingly, the original editor of Baxter’s autobiography suppressed this phrase. Fortunately, truer historians have uncovered it—for the benefit of all who dare speak the truth about sorrow.[iv]

Richard Baxter understood the truth that it’s normal to hurt—even for “full-time Christian workers.” His entire biography of dear Margaret is a tear-stained tribute to the affection they shared and the sadness he endured.

Of course, Baxter also understood the truth that it’s possible to hope—for all Christians. Listen to his mingled hurt and hope. “She is gone after many of my choice friends, who within this one year are gone to Christ, and I am following even at the door. Had I been to enjoy them only here, it would have been but a short comfort, mixed with the many troubles which all our failings and sins, and some degree of unsuitableness between the nearest and dearest, cause. But I am going after them to that blessed society where life, light, and love, and therefore, harmony, concord, and joy, are perfect and everlasting.

Perhaps one reason why we practice denial is our fear that entering our grief might so consume us that we will be overwhelmed with worldly sorrow. Baxter’s Christian experience reminds us that this doesn’t have to be the case. We can look fallen life squarely in the eyes, admit the truth that it is a quagmire of pain and problems, and still live hopefully now if we also look toward life in our heavenly world to come.

In the last paragraph of his tribute to Margaret, Baxter succinctly combines these two realities. “Therefore in our greatest straits and sufferings, let us comfort one another with these words: That we shall for ever be with the Lord.”
[vi] Shakespeare’s Romeo said, “He jests at scars, that never felt a wound.” Baxter might have added, “He fears facing scars who never embraces the truth that by Christ’s wounds we are healed.”

[i]Ibid., p. 56.
[iii]Ibid., 13
[iv]Ibid., p. 197.
[v]Ibid., p. 57.
[vi]Ibid., p. 149.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Margaret Baxter: An Artful Soul Physician, Part II

Margaret Baxter: An Artful Soul Physician, Part II

We know the name Richard Baxter, the Puritan pastor and author, but we are much less familiar with the spiritual writings of his wife, Margaret Baxter. Yet, when we uncover the rich buried treasure of her soul care and spiritual direction ministry, we have to wonder why in the world the world has not told her amazing stories sooner.

Confrontation for My Sinning: The Freshness of God’s Goodness and Grace

Having received God’s healing physically, Margaret cooperates with God’s Spirit in finding ongoing spiritual healing (forgiveness) and growth. Consider this covenant with God that she wrote upon her healing. “. . . I here now renew my covenant with almighty God and resolve by his grace to endeavor to get and keep a fresh sense of his mercy on my soul, and a greater sense yet of my sin; I resolve to set myself against my sin with all my might, and not to take its part or extenuate it or keep the devil’s counsel, as I have done, to the wronging of God and the wounding of my own soul.”
[i] Margaret perceives the horrors of her sins—they wrong God and wound her soul. She also recognizes the wonders of God’s grace—it is her fresh sense of goodness that motivates her to eschew evil.

Margaret is a master in the art of Devil craft. “Though the tempter be busy to make me think diminutively of this great mercy, yet I must not, but must acknowledge the greatness of it”
[ii] What a concise, precise account of the Devil’s grand scheme—to con us into thinking diminutively of God’s colossal grace.

To her self-reconciling, Margaret adds self-guiding. She applies her theological understanding of her personal relationship to the Trinity to the issue of progressive sanctification. “. . . I am already engaged by the baptismal covenant to God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and to the Father as my God and chief good and only happiness; and to the Son as my Redeemer, Head, and Husband; and to the Holy Ghost as my Sanctifier and Comforter . . .”

What difference does this intimate relationship with the Trinity make as she battles besetting sins? “All creatures . . . had nothing that could satisfy my soul . . . which should teach me to keep my heart loose from the creature and not over-love anything on this side heaven. Why should my heart be fixed where my home is not? Heaven is my home, God in Christ is all my happiness, and where my treasure is, there my heart should be. Come away, O my heart, from vanity; mount heavenward, and be not dead or dull if you would be free from trouble, and taste of real joy and pleasure. . . . O my carnal heart! Retire to God, the only satisfying object. There may you love without all danger of excess!”
[iv] Here we see a sample of the enduring Puritan tradition of avoiding over-much-love of the creature by passionately pursuing ever-increasing-love for the Creator, our only Satisfier, and the Lover of our soul.

No wonder the master pastor, Richard Baxter, praised his wife as an artful soul physician. “Yes, I will say that . . . she was better at resolving a case of conscience than most divines that ever I knew in all my life. I often put cases to her which she suddenly resolved as to convince me of some degree of oversight in my own resolution. Insomuch that of late years, I confess, that I was used to put all, save secret cases, to her and hear what she could say. Abundance of difficulties were brought me, some about restitution, some about injuries, some about references, some about vows, some about marriage promises, and many such like; and she would lay all the circumstances presently together, compare them, and give me a more exact resolution than I could do”

[i]Ibid., 69.
[ii]Ibid., 70.
[iv]Ibid., 71-72.
[v]Ibid., 118-119.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Margaret Baxter: An Artful Soul Physician, Part I

Margaret Baxter: An Artful Soul Physician, Part I

We know the name Richard Baxter, the Puritan pastor and author, but we are much less familiar with the spiritual writings of his wife, Margaret Baxter. Yet, when we uncover the rich buried treasure of her soul care and spiritual direction ministry, we have to wonder why in the world the world has not told her amazing stories sooner.

Margaret Charlton Baxter’s (1631-1681) father, Francis, was a leading justice of the peace and a wealthy man. Growing up as part of England’s aristocracy, “Margaret was a frivolous, worldly minded teenager” when she arrived in Kidderminister to live with her godly widowed mother and to benefit from Richard Baxter’s ministry.
[i] A sermon series on conversion which Baxter preached in 1657 led her to a total commitment to Christ-centered worship and service. Richard, who was twenty years older than Margaret, was often in the home she shared with her mother and provided Margaret with ongoing spiritual direction.

Baxter omitted from his memoir of Margaret “the occasion and inducements of our marriage,” so we only know that they wed after her mother passed away on September 10, 1662.
[ii] There followed nineteen years of happy life together, till Margaret’s death.

Comfort in My Suffering: The Scourge of Scrupulosity and Melancholy

According to Richard, Margaret was obsessive about her physical and spiritual health, spending much of her adult life in fear of mental collapse, and starving herself for years for fear that overeating would precipitate cancer. While today we might “diagnose” her with various psychological maladies such as “anxiety disorder,” “eating disorder,” and/or “obsessive compulsive disorder,” Richard used the historically current category of “scrupulosity.” She was overly conscientious about her spiritual state.

As he puts it, “Her understanding was higher and clearer than other people’s, but, like the treble strings of a lute, strained up to the highest, sweet, but in continual danger.”
[iii] She “proved her sincerity by her costliest obedience. It cost her . . . somewhat of her trouble of body and mind; for her knife was too keen and cut the sheath. Her desires were more earnestly set on doing good than her tender mind and head could well bear.”[iv]

Baxter also uses the common term of the day, “melancholy” to further describe her emotional struggles, and to depict her victory over them. “When we were married, her sadness and melancholy vanished: counsel did something to it, and contentment something; and being taken up with our household affairs did somewhat. And we lived in inviolated love and mutual complacency sensible of the benefit of mutual help.”
[v] His prescription for overcoming “depression” is fascinating, especially given the trend today toward either/or thinking and one-size-fits-all therapy. Yes, counseling was part of her “treatment plan,” but so was the spiritual discipline of learning contentment, the ministry practice of serving God and others in day-to-day life, and the benefit of a marriage of mutual love and affection.

Margaret adds her own assessment of God’s healing powers. Speaking of her physical recovery from a serious illness and her commensurate spiritual peace, she explains, “And now I desire to acknowledge his mercy in delivering me from this death-threatening disease, and that in answer to prayers I am here now in competent health to speak of the goodness of the Lord.”
[vi] She then provides her biblical sufferology that defines how God in His goodness uses sickness. “I desire to acknowledge it a mercy that God should afflict me; and though I cannot with the Psalmist say, but now I keep thy statutes; I can say, Before I was afflicted I went astray. And how many great sins God has prevented by this affliction, I cannot tell; but I am sure that God has dealt very graciously with me; and I have had many comforts in my sufferings, which God has not given to many of his beloved ones.”[vii] Rather than grow bitter at God for her ongoing physical and emotional battles, she blesses God for using them to prune her so she could blossom for His glory.

But “sanctification today” does not alone summarize Margaret’s sufferology. She also includes in her healing narrative her future heavenly hope. “If I belong to God, though I suffer while I am in the body, they will be but light afflictions and but for a moment; but the everlasting Kingdom will be my inheritance. And when this life is ended, I shall reign with Christ; I shall be freed from sin and suffering and for ever rejoice with saints and angels.”
[viii] In this Margaret follows the grand church history tradition of remembering the future.

Yes, of course salvation has daily implications now. But this is not all there is. God finalizes the results of our salvation in a future day, in the future heaven. That hope allows us to face life realistically now, as Margaret does. “However it fareth with his children in this house (or howling wilderness), the time will come, and is at hand, when all the children shall be separate from rebels, and be called home to dwell with their Father, their Head and Husband; and the elect shall be gathered into one. Then farewell sorrow, farewell hard heart! Farewell tears and sad repentance!”
[ix] Some today tell us that highlighting salvation as heaven later is irrelevant to life today. Not only is that historically naïve, it is theologically and practically ignorant. As the Apostle Peter says after discussing our future rewards and judgments, “what kind of people ought you to be?”

[i]Packer, A Grief Sanctified, p. 21.
[ii]Ibid., 22.
[iii]Ibid., 47.
[v]Ibid., 101.
[vi]Ibid., 67.
[viii]Ibid., 70.
[ix]Ibid., 76.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A Voice for the Voiceless

A Voice for the Voiceless

Erin Haines (an African American reporter for the AP who has covered race and civil rights since 2005) published an intriguing article this Friday on Barack Obama and American culture. She accurately, I think, noted that, “Obama’s candidacy is about race and it isn’t. It has illuminated the fact that black and white America don’t really know each other all that well, and has forced both sides to rethink what they thought they knew about each other and themselves.”

Add to this the “near miss” that Hillary Clinton experienced in her run to be the first female nominee for President in a major American political party, and we all wonder whether racial and gender prejudices are finally crumbling in America.

You don’t have to be pro-Democrat, pro-Obama, or pro-Hillary-Clinton to be hesitantly excited about the prospects that Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech may becoming a reality. Is the day at last dawning when the color of our skin and our gender is no longer looked upon as something that makes us lesser-than?

Being a “voice for the voiceless” is in my DNA. That’s why, with Karole Edwards, I co-authored Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction. That’s why with Susan Ellis I am co-authoring Sacred Friendships: Listening to the Voices of Feminine Soul Care-Givers and Spiritual Directors.

African Americans have a treasure of Christian spiritual care to offer all Americans. Christian women throughout Church history have a treasure to offer all Christians.

Reading the incredible wisdom of African Americans and women throughout church history buoys my spirits. It reminds me that God grants great spiritual abilities to all people of all races and both genders.

And . . . he gives great leadership abilities to all people of all races and both genders. Again, whether one is pro-Obama, pro-Hillary, or not, is not the specific issue for me personally. I am pro-respect, value, voice-for-the-voiceless. And I would like to think, along with Erin Haines, that maybe, just maybe, we Americans are at long last coming to a point where prejudices are crumbling in the face of mutual respect.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Just Where Did the Emergent Idea of Salvation Emerge From?

Just Where Did the Emergent Idea of Salvation Emerge From?

Recently Moody Press released Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be. The “Emergent Church” (EC) is a name given to a loosely knit "group" of Christians who see the church emerging out of its tryst with modernism and emerging into and beyond the post-modern era. Because of its very post-modern way of thinking/being, definitions become nebulous. If you want to learn more, read the book. I highly recommend it.

Salvation and Eternal Life

My thoughts today relate to one aspect of emergent thinking: salvation and eternal life. As is true with much in the EC, they tend to throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

Listen to what one EC leader, Spencer Brooks, says about salvation. “I am discovering to my wonder, joy, and amazement that I have mistakenly placed the emphasis of the good news on the eternal. In the Gospels . . . people could become a part of the Kingdom of God . . . not a heavenly dwelling but the place where God is King.”

Let that quote percolate in your mind while we read what another EC leader, Brian McLaren, shares about the kingdom versus salvation. He claims that the stuff of our evangelistic tracts—“God’s grace, God’s forgiveness . . . the free gift of salvation”—is, at best, only a “footnote to a gospel that is much richer, grander, and more alive, a gospel that calls you to become a disciple and to disciple others, in authentic community, for the good of the world.”

Come Let Us Dialogue Together

I could dissect these quotes (excuse me, in the EC, people don’t dissect, they dialogue and converse—so I could converse about these quotes) from many perspectives. However, given my passion for church history and given the EC’s hatred for modernity, here’s the point. The EC would have us believe that the church’s focus on salvation as something you get in the future rather than as something you are now is a result of Enlightenment modernism.

I have news for them . . . long before the Enlightenment, Christians focused on both—salvation as a future gift and as a present reality. Again, I could share much more about this both/and focus. But since the EC denigrates the focus on salvation-equals-eternal life, and since they claim this is a thoroughly modern facet of Christianity (and, therefore, evil to its core—bad, really, really bad), dialogue with me as we briefly focus on their historical fallacy.

Historical Fallacy

As many of you know, I have studied church history for over a quarter century. The church fathers, the desert mothers, the medieval scholastics and the medieval mystics, the Reformers and the Counter-Reformers, men and women, black and white and brown all lived today in light of tomorrow. They all emphasized salvation as the future hope that sustains us now. Yes, the Kingdom had already broken in. Yes, they wanted to live differently now. But, they only survived and thrived because they remembered the future—salvation as their future, eternal hope.

Writing Sacred Friendships: Listening to the Voices of Feminine Soul Care-Givers and Spiritual Directors, my co-author, Susan Ellis, and I have over 1,000 pages of research notes. More than 1/3 of those pages highlight salvation as our future, eternal, heavenly hope. Now, it is possible, I suppose, that all of these godly women, living pre-Enlightenment, could have all gotten it wrong all the time. But that’s not really the point. The EC folks insist that salvation as eternal life later and not only or primarily as eternal life now, is modern. That is, it started in the 1700s with the Enlightenment.

Hmm. Someone should tell the female martyrs of the first and second centuries, like Perpetua, that they were impacted by a movement that did not start for another 1,500 years! Someone should tell the desert mothers of the second through fourth centuries that they were influenced by a movement that did not start for another 1,300 years! Someone should tell the women of the Reformation that they were infected by a movement that did not start for another 100 years!

Before we contextualize the nature of these women’s eternal hope, dialogue with me about another group of historical believers who also focused on salvation as eternal hope. Many of you know that I co-authored with my African American friend, Karole Edwards, Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction. Granted, some of these African American believers lived after the Enlightenment (though some lived before it). However, historically there is no evidence that enslaved African American Christians had any exposure to Enlightenment thinking. But guess what? These non-Enlightenment African American believers highlighted salvation as a future eternal hope.

Situational Pomposity

Now, let’s contextualize this motif of salvation as future eternal hope. In letter after letter, in journal entry after journal entry, in martyrdom report after report, in repeated conversion narratives, in repeated slave narratives—in other words—everywhere, suffering women and African Americans looked to their future eternal salvation as their only hope to survive and be sustained through the horrible abuse they were enduring.

Now, here’s the point. The leadership of the Emergent Church is predominantly lily white, upper class, affluent, well-to-do, country-club-like, and male. In terms of their experience of life, they have had it made in the shade. They have lived the good life. So, it is so easy for them to say, “Thinking about salvation as future eternal life is selfish, shallow, and modern!”

Well, historically it is hardly modern.

And personally, experientially—it is hardly shallow.

Instead, for the oppressed, the suffering, and the persecuted it is pre-modern and it is deep. It reaches from before the dawn of time into time to give all those who are currently oppressed a future hope so they can draw a line in the sand of retreat, so they can survive, and, yes, through Christ’s grace, so they can thrive.

Biblical Sanity

Eternal life for the great masses of persecuted and suffering Christians has always been both/and. It has always been salvation later and the strength to live for Christ now in light of the future hope.

Isn’t it fascinating that this emergent idea of salvation only as a now thing did not emerge from an oppressed people. It is easy for those living a life of ease to say that “the free gift of salvation” is only “a footnote to a gospel that is much richer.” Oh yeah? Take some time to read the plethora of primary sources where pre-modern, non-Enlightenment Christians clung to the biblical view of salvation as an eternal future that gives hope for today.

So perhaps when you mix one part life-of-ease and one part historical-inaccuracy (and one part diminishing-original-sin . . . but that's a blog for another day) you bake a fluffy cake that claims it is sinfully modern and shallow to emphasize the Gospel as focusing on eternal salvation later. But let the yeast of suffering and history infiltrate that mix, and your cake crumbles.

Applying Church History to Ministry

What has motivated my twenty-five-year study of church history? My passion for relating truth to life. I want to learn from that great cloud of witnesses how they applied God’s truth to human relationships.

Guess what? With suffering people 100% of the time soul physicians helped them to find healing hope by looking candidly at misery now in light of a future where there will be no more tears.

The EC in all things claims to want to be relevant. Relevance has been elevated by the EC to God-like status.

Okay, someone explain to me how in the world it is relevant to suffering people to jettison an other-worldly, future-worldly perspective?

The EC also claims that in all things they want to express concern for the least of these. In fact, they correctly define one aspect of kingdom living as active compassion on the least of these.

Okay, someone explain to me how in the world it is compassionate when the “most of these” (the affluent) jettison an other-worldly, future-worldly perspective that for 2,000 years has been the only perspective which has brought sustaining comfort and healing hope to “the least of these”?

Truth Really Does Matter

You see, truth really does matter. Historical truth matters. Biblical truth matters. I have no qualms with the EC folks reminding me that salvation ought to impact how I live today. I agree 100%.

But I have big problems with anyone telling me, and telling suffering Christians that our future salvation, our eternal life are the crumbs off the table. I’m sorry, but those “crumbs” have nourished hurting hearts and hungry souls since the Cross.

Take away “God’s grace, God’s forgiveness, and the free gift of salvation” and you rob and abuse every sinner who ever lived—which is every person who ever lived except our Savior—the one who promised us eternal life for now and for forever.