015 Some Spiritual Sustenance

Enduring institutions draw inspiration from their founding fathers. A new publication, Thank God and Take Courage: How the Holy Spirit Worked in My Life, by Lewis T. Corlett, edited and annotated by Frank G. Carver (San Diego: Point Loma Press, c. 1992), leaves us an important legacy from one of the significant early leaders in the Church of the Nazarene. This book fuses Corlett’s autobiographical memories with theological meditations. Equally important: it is bolstered by the meticulous, extensive, and illuminating footnotes provided by Frank Carver.

The book grew out of a “Panoramic Vision” given Corlett which prodded him to write his life story. As he describes it, sitting in his recliner after an evening spent talking with his brother, Shelby, “I sensed the moving of the Spirit in my mind. As I listened I noted that the Holy Spirit was giving me a Panoramic Review of His dealings with me from early youth to that day” (pp. ix-x).

Impressed to share it with others, he began writing with hopes of memorializing his insights in print. Subsequently he submitted the manuscript to the Nazarene Publishing House Book Committee, which did not wish to publish autobiographical works. His good friend, Frank Carver, thought it needed to be published and devoted part of his recent sabbatical to getting it prepared for this publication. On January 1, 1992, Corlett died, at the age of 95, while this book was going to print–comforted by the knowledge that his vision would be shared.

Reared in a devout home in Pennsylvania, Corlett early attended a Methodist church. But his parents, hungry for clear holiness preaching, joined the Church of the Nazarene in 1910. As a youngster he responded to revivalistic invitations and tried to live a Christian life, but it was not until 1915 that Corlett discovered God’s “Establishing Grace” in a local church revival. “In a few seconds,” he says, “I sensed an inner cleansing of my motives and a deep consciousness of a peace and calmness I had never felt before which has continued to this day. I realized I was enjoying what John Wesley spoke of as being ‘sanctified wholly'” (p. 3).

In addition to this clear testimony to the sanctifying grace instantly experienced in his youth, throughout the book Corlett explains how the Spirit enabled him to grow in grace, to become a more Christ-like person. Early on “The Spirit enabled me to make an honest evaluation of myself. My heart was pure in motives but my mind was warped regarding my mental powers, my actions, and reactions” (p. 16).

Consequently he still tended to be critical, blunt, undisciplined, and cynical. Then “The Spirit showed me that these attitudes or moods were not only hindering me in spiritual progress, they also often blocked His efforts to use me in His Kingdom” (p. 17). So he discovered the need for self-discipline, for an on-going consecration, for learning even in the “dark night of the soul” difficult times, so as to allow the Spirit to refine him more perfectly.

In time he felt called to the ministry, attended several colleges (meeting his wife at Arkansas Holiness College) and associated with some of the great leaders of the young denomination. One of them, J.B. Chapman, whom he met during his senior year at Penial College, “was the most balanced Christian I had ever met, a clear Bible expositor, a wise administrator and effective preacher” (p. 7).

Following brief pastorates in California, Montana, New Jersey, and Texas, Corlett was called to teach at Bethany-Penial College. Here he began an educational career of 32 years which led him, in time, to the presidencies of Northwest Nazarene College and Nazarene Theological Seminary.

Those of us associated with Nazarene colleges can identify with much in the chapters devoted to these years, for Corlett honestly describes the tough times as well as the triumphs he experienced. In the midst of one of his darkest hours, while heading NTS, he found strength in a phrase of the Apostle Paul’s, “Thank God and take courage” (Acts 28:15), which serves as the subtitle of this book.

Amazingly, one of the most fruitful phases of Corlett’s ministry began when he and his wife moved into Royal Oaks Manor, a retirement complex. Here they supported the established religious activities, and in time he became something of a pastor to that community of senior citizens, counseling, praying, teaching and caring for them.

In addition to his autobiographical chapters, Corlett discusses the Holy Spirit’s help in counseling, leadership, and guidance. While short and succinct, these sections compress a lifetime’s learning into wise words to digest and exemplify. Then, in a final chapter, “Development in Sensitivity to the Holy Spirit,” he sums up what he learned in a lifetime, confessing that “all that I have become and accomplished in over sixty years of service for God and His Kingdom was done through the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit as I gave wholehearted obedience to His wisdom, power, and grace” (p. 80).

We who seek to follow Corlett’s Lord can learn much from what he learned, listening as he did to the Spirit. This fine book can be purchased for $6.00 from Point Loma’s bookstore or the Point Loma Press, 3900 Lomaland, San Diego, CA, 92106.

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Across the centuries the Christian Church has been blessed by masters of the spiritual life–the contemplatives, the mystics and mystical theologians, the men and women of prayer–who encourage us to cultivate our souls so as to facilitate the growth of divine grace within us. Thomas Dubay’s Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel–on Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, c. 1989) carves out for us a contemporary window on two 16th century Spanish contemplatives, Sts. Teresa and John, two of the finest spiritual pilgrims and guides in Church history.

Surely we need expert guides! As Dubay points out toward the end of the book, we insist on competent doctors, lawyers, professors. If we’re to entrust our bodies, our possessions, our minds, to someone, we’d like to know they know what they’re doing. How incongruous that we so easily entrust our very souls to rank amateurs! Let a person get converted, especially if he or she is an athlete or successful businessman, and they’re soon placed on a podium and expected to give hearers spiritual guidance!

St. Teresa, largely self-educated herself, “insisted that she and her nuns be guided only by ‘learned men’. By this she meant those well versed in Scripture, theology and the practice of advanced prayer” (p. 290). She emphasized: “My opinion has always been that every Christian strive to speak if he can with someone who has gone through studies; and the more learned the person the better. Those who walk the path of prayer have a greater need for this counsel; and the more spiritual they are, the greater their need” (p. 300).

It’s marvelous when we find such learned teachers nearby, but often we most easily find them, via books, in the past. For when we seek help for the inner journey, help to become persons of prayer, we certainly need trusted, tested guides. And Fire Within brings us in contact with two of the best.

Yet the book deals with more than these two influential monastic reformers, for its “main thesis” contends “that the teachings of Sts. Teresa and John are nothing other than the Christic message proclaimed in the New Testament” (p. 108). This means that it’s possible, by the Grace of God, to be freed from sin and sanctified holy–to be Christ-like and Spirit-filled. Indeed, “No serious theologian doubts the universal call to holiness” (p. 199).

What the Church needs, in every generation, is saints! Indeed, Dubay asserts: “The proven incapacity of committees and clubs, speeches and surveys, electronics and entertainment profoundly and permanently to change vast numbers of people for the better has to be conceded. As the experience of the centuries attests, true transformations in the world and in the Church continue to come about only through the interventions of men and women on fire–that is, through saints” (p. 1).

What the saints uniquely radiate, what many of us sorely need, is joy! It’s the “fire within” which ignites contagious fires without, keeping alive the true Church. Thus this book. For “a book on advanced prayer is a book on advanced joy. It is a love story, a book about being loved, and loving, totally. It is a book on holiness, the heights of holiness to which the Gospel invites everyone” (p. 5). Sts. Teresa and John, Dubay believes, fully incarnate and winsomely illustrate such qualities.

After providing some biographical material concerning the two Carmelites, Dubay explains some of the main themes which dominate their discussions. Simply stated they fall into two categories: 1) things we do to prepare ourselves; 2) things God does to perfect His will in us.

We prepare ourselves through time-tested spiritual disciplines such as solitude, detachment–or the traditional evangelical counsels, poverty, chastity, obedience. If we care to know God we must care enough to discipline ourselves.

Solitude does not mean being alone in the vast unknown with the great Alone! Basically, it “is a healthy turning toward one’s beloved” (p. 122). It’s turning away from the world of business and busyness, the largely artificial world, to immerse one’s soul in Love, the eternal reality wherein we truly live. In Dubay’s opinion, St. Teresa today would urge us to watch less TV, expose ourselves less to the decibels of stereos and radios, and find some solitary places for quiet times, times when we’re re-sensitized to the reality of Love.

To love God truly, we must grow detached from all that is other-than-God. All earthly pleasures, all earthly goods, must be reduced in value in order to singularly value God. “It is the pure heart that sees God, the singleminded person who seeks the things above, not those on earth. This heart is sensitized to the Holy Spirit, His enlightenments, movements and enkindlings” (p. 140).

None of us has enough energy to engage in all activities, however worthy. Our spiritual strength, like the strength of an Olympic wrestler, must be carefully guarded, focused on what’s truly valuable, thus detached from all that’s not. Thus we’re to “despise” the world. Here Dubay makes a telling commend: “Despise comes from the Latin despicere, which means literally to look away from, and the intent is that we are to look away from ourselves and from the world and turn our gaze on the Source of all goodness and beauty. In this sense a gourmet despises, looks away from a lowly hot dog, if he can dine on steak and lobster instead. since nothing can compare to God we are to turn away from all else, that is, seeking it for itself, and turn our seeking to the divine alone” (p. 143).

If we rightly prepare ourselves, God responds by purifying us and uniting us to Himself. Purification often comes, as the Scriptures make plain, through suffering and testing. One of St. John’s finest works, The Dark Night of the Soul, provides a phrase to describe the difficult times experienced by some of God’s finest followers, who at times must walk by faith through a dark night when God seems utterly still and absent. But those who persevere, trusting not in their own feelings but in His Grace, will discover the good and godly results of the purifying presence of God.

Importantly, what one discovers in the “dark night” of suffering and cleansing, is that, as St. John insisted, “No matter how much an individual does through his own efforts, eh cannot actively purify himself enough to be disposed in the least degree for the divine union of the perfection of love. God must take over and purge him in that fire that is dark for him” (p. 161). We’re sanctified, quite simply, not by our own works nor by our own faith, but by the working of God within us. “The divine policy is clear. God sets straight in us what we cannot set aright ourselves. Moreover, the process is a purifying one” (p. 174).

Following purification comes transformation, the joyous consummation of the salvation process. To “be filled with all the fullness of God” who “can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine” is the true end of human existence. “‘To be reborn in the Holy Spirit during this life’, says John, ‘is to become most like God in purity, without any mixture of imperfection'” (p. 177). To illustrate, St, John imagines a “ray of sunlight shining upon a smudged window. To the extent that the glass is stained, it cannot be fully illuminated and transformed by the sunlight. Hence, ‘the cleaner the window is, the brighter will be its illumination. . . . If the window is totally clean and pure,’ adds the saint, ‘the sunlight will so transform and illumine it that to all appearances the window will be identical with the ray of sunlight and shine just as the sun’s ray. . . . The window is the ray or light of the sun by participation.’ It would be difficult to improve upon this example” (ibid.).

Indeed it would! But when God’s sanctifying grace transforms a person, he or see finds it possible to love God and others and fulfill the Great Commandment–something simply impossible to do without divine aid. For “Every good and perfect gift–without exception–comes from the Father of lights. No being, no action can possibly exist aside from the universal Fountain of all that is. Even our acceptance of a grace requires a grace. As St. Thomas pointed out, the only thing we can do entirely by ourselves is to say no to God” (p. 182). By saying an absolute and eternal yes to God, however, we enter into the fullness of His transforming Love. To this calling, St. John pleads, let us be true!

This is a fine study of an invaluable subject. Professor Peter Kreeft, of Boston College, calls it “A practical and exciting book that can change your life. If one hundred Christians put this book into practice, we would have a worldwide revolution, for there is no more revolutionary power than prayer and sanctity.” Amen!

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Lesslie Newbigin, whose The Gospel in a Pluralist Society I reviewed in an earlier “Reedings,” has recently published Truth to Tell: The Gospel as Public Truth (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1991). It’s a slim volume, making public three lectures delivered at Western Theological Seminary. The lectures are tied together by their concern for truth, because of Newbigin’s concern for “the gospel as truth–public truth” (p. 1).

We need, to follow Jesus, a change of mind as well as heart. “The problem of making sense of the gospel is that it calls for a change of mind which is as radical as is the action of God in becoming man and dying on a cross” (p. 10). Like the disciples on the Emmaus road, we need our minds changed by the reality of the resurrected Lord!

Thus, in his first lecture, Newbigin deals with “Believing and Knowing the Truth.” Just as the Classical World lost confidence in truth, so today intellectuals of various sorts discount the possibility of actually knowing anything for sure. Despite our technological prowess, a multitude of philosophical and literary symptoms point to an inner “skepticism, nihilism, and despair. Life has no point. Nothing is sacred. Reverence is an unworthy relic of past times. Everything is a potential target for mockery. There are no honored models to shape behavior. The individual is alone and there are no route maps. Young people ask that question which in a stable society never comes to mind: ‘Who am I?’ And if there is no answer, the simplest way out is to assert the reality of the self by mindless violence, or to submerge the self with drugs” (p. 19).

But just as in the Classical World provided a framework for an emergent Christianity, so too our day provides the possibility for Christians to reach a world which inwardly hungers for what Augustine long ago called the food of the soul, Truth. Church Fathers rooted their proclamation in the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures. They knew what they believed because it was revealed by God.

In our day, “We have to do is what the Church Fathers and Augustine [did] . . . when classical culture had lost its nerve and was disintegrating. We must offer a new starting point for thought. That starting point is God’s revelation of his being and purpose in those events which form the substance of the Scriptures and which have their center and determining focus in the events concerning Jesus” (p. 28).

That means we must abandon the misleading distinction between faith and knowledge so easily embraced by many thinkers who define faith, as did John Locke, as “a persuasion of our own minds, short of knowledge.” Rather, with Augustine, we must follow Augustine’s admonition: credo ut intelligam–I believe in order to understand. That’s the way most scientists operate, Newbigin argues, and that approach to knowing the truth will suffice in theology as well.

In the second lecture, “Affirming the Truth in the Church,” Newbigin urges us to read and proclaim the Bible. He thinks the “liberal/fundamentalist” wars would cease of both groups learned to rightly read and obey the Scripture, heeding it not as isolated individuals but as the body of Christ, communally hearing its clear message. The Word of God, fully incarnate in Jesus, imbedded in the inspired Scriptures, must come alive in us as we hear and obey it–then it can be effectively shared with a needy world.

Finally, in “Speaking the Truth to Caesar,” Newbigin suggests that in the USSR it was the patient celebration of the divine liturgy in Orthodox Churches, in East Germany it was the faithful preaching of the word in Lutheran Churches, which most effectively challenged the legitimacy of Caesar. Never underestimate the power of the patient proclamation of the living Word of God!

What we must confront, in the “free world,” he thinks, is a false “ideology of freedom,” a “conception of freedom” which frees “each individual to do as he or she wishes. We have to set against it the Trinitarian faith which sees all reality in terms of relatedness” (p. 75).

To speak the truth to our liberty-loving society demands a great deal of courage. It demands a deep-level assurance that it’s the truth we speak. To find that assurance, to know that truth, makes Newbigin a valuable ally.

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