“WALKING WITH SAINTS”
Years ago Calvin Miller published a poetic trilogy–The Singer, The Song, The Finale–which established him as one of America’s finest evangelical writers. After pastoring for 25 years, he now teaches communications and ministry studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and, in a recent book, invites readers to join him in Walking with Saints: Through the Best and Worst Times of Our Lives (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, c. 1995).
Evangelicals, Miller knows, skillfully call folks to respond in faith to Christ. They know how to “get folks saved.” They are less adept at helping believers grow in grace, to become fully saved, to live Christ-like lives. As a teacher, he writes, “I’m forever telling my students that grace is God’s gift to us and discipline is our gift to God” (p. 234). Many Evangelicals “confess” their faith and start well, but they often fail to take the second step of the spiritual journey: resignation to God’s will. Thus, Miller writes, “Throughout my thirty-five years of ministry, God has repeatedly taught me that the confessing life can only issue from the resigned life. Resignation to Christ is all that can set the word Lord singing in our lives” (p. xxv).
Allowing Christ to be Lord is the key to victorious Christian living. Doing so demands discipline, the self-denying apprenticeship which shapes disciples, a task which finds depth and direction in the stories of the saints of the Church. Thus this book blends careful attention to some great saints with corroborating personal anecdotes, for Miller uses insights from the spiritual giants to illuminate and add meaning to his own spir pilgrimage. More than a historical exercise, Walking With Saints is a meditation packed with insights and applications, a delightful application of wisdom derived from an attentive reading of the past.
“Beginning the Journey” draws on St Augustine of Hippo to illuminate Miller’s own conversion, which took place in Enid, Oklahoma, when he was nine years old. He attended a Pentecostal tent revival and there was “born again.” In his words: “I had gone to that revival as a very needy child. I joyfully laid aside my insecurity to allow God to come into my life.” Miller’s father had abandoned the family, and young Calvin had “lived through a child’s dark night. But when I went to the revival, I knew the brightness of his [God’s] coming. Then the worst day of my life became the best day of my life” (p. 4).
Though he refuses to elevate his conversion to the level of St Augustine’s, he does find distinct parallels which enable him to understand the beauty of that experience and develops it in terms of “seven footsteps of Christ’s coming into our lives.” First one recognizes God as a “fountain of mercies.” Next one must repent of sin. “We dare not forget that salvation has two components: repentance and faith. Repentance is that overwhelming sense of godly sorrow for the sin of our lives. If there is any fault among modern church folk, it is the dangerous notion that salvation is the accepting of Christ into our lives as they are. So many are ‘coming to Christ’ without any notion that they are sinners. They suppose themselves ‘born again,’ but in truth they are only the illegitimate children of an I’m OK–you’re OK confession. Psychology has gutted repentance” (p. 7). But true repentance, followed by faith in Christ’s atonement, brings (even to a nine year old boy) joyous deliverance: “It is not possible to receive Christ and not to receive his joy. For his joy is joy! It is the delirious music of those who have been delivered” (p. 17).
Brother Lawrence, a Carmelite layman who washed pots and pans in a monastery and learned to “practice the presence of God” in the midst of his labor, gives guidance to “finding purpose in life.” As an adolescent, Miller struggled with the perennial question most of us faced: “What do you want to be when you grow up.” After years of public ministry, which early on seemed his “calling,” he concludes Brother Lawrence had it right: we find our true calling when we enter into a lasting fellowship with God which makes us godly. We’re called, above all, to be Christlike.
This means, as USC professor Dallas Willard says, we follow “‘him in the overall style of life he chose for himself. If we have faith in Christ, we must believe that he knew how to live. We can, through faith and grace, become like Christ by practicing the types of activities he engaged in, by arranging our whole lives around the activities he himself practiced in order to remain constantly at home in the fellowship of his Father'” (p. 49).
Thus Brother Lawrence’s classic, The Practice of the Presence of God, opens the door to Christlikeness. As Miller discovered, this comes not through “trying harder” or learning to preach better in the pulpit or counsel more compassionately in the hospital. The gilded trappings of “success” in today’s evangelical circles–big churches, TV exposure, convention appearances–have little ultimate worth, for “Christians are not called to be spotlight people” (p. 57).
That’s tough talk for us in an entertainment era, who are constantly tempted to confuse “air time” with action. But by simply surrendering to God, by yielding all our aspirations and abilities to His control, we conform to His nature. Thus “The glory of life in Christ lies not in the quality of our present performance but in his nearness as we move ever more certainly toward his great ‘Well done!'” (p. 56). Living a pure life, focused on God, filled with praise for His goodness, makes for the good life.
With Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Carmelite reformer, Miller learns ways of “healing depression.” To one degree or another, everyone goes through periods of emotional dryness and psychological depression. Martin Luther, William Cowper, Charles Spurgeon, among others, all confessed to debilitating bouts with the darkness of desolation and discouragement. Teresa shows us that only humility, contrition, abandoning all pretenses of pride and glory, focusing on God rather than self, dissolves the fog of depression.
Such contrition hardly registers with today’s multitudes who apparently have little consciousness of sin. Miller laments: “I believe that the heart of God must be grieved that so little personal repentance has survived the psychologized morality of our times. In our march toward the Nirvana of self-esteem, we jettisoned every thing that god in our way.” Consequently, “Neither Christians nor non-Christians are seriously concerned with contrition. Those who wept their way to church altars in the ’50’s and ’60’s not sit in the pew smiling. They await those ‘practical’ sermons that tell them now to get ahead in the world without anything so medieval as repentance” (p. 99). Miller’s lament, easily confirmed by those of us who’ve watched the passing of five decades pass, deserves prayerful attention. We do, in fact, seem to hear much about mercy and grace but little about “repentance.” Yet without it, since it’s a necessary act, there’s little chance to find union with God.
If we’re to bond with God, we’d do well to find assistance in the anonymous l4th century Medieval classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, which “seeks to answer one question: How does one go about loving God?” (p. 135). Prior to this, of course, we must believe God loves us. Few of us doubt this! A Gallup Poll shows that nine out of ten Americans feel loved by God. But few of them seem to love God in ways that alter their lifestyle! “What strikes me as strange,” Miller writes, “is that many are content to receive God’s love and remain unchanged. They are loved but never become curious about their Lover. Their contented ignorance leaves them always unhappy. Their misery is all-engulfing. This misery results from an odd, double love: They are loved by God and yet they love only themselves” (p. 135).
But only God will satisfy us! Just as being with a person we love satisfies us in ways mere information concerning him cannot, so being with God, not knowing things about Him, satisfy us. Many of us, Miller believes, are called to a contemplative life, a life like Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, praying and loving and just being with Him. Though practical Marthas are always valuable, while compassionate ministries binding up the wounds of mankind are forever needed, the Marys, who quietly love God with all their heart, most profoundly experience the joys of His kingdom.
Bernard of Clairvaux, the 12th century Cistercian reformer, gives us guidance in the difficult task of “conquering pride,” the most deeply rooted of all sins. Pride guides us to live as if God were not, to act without considering His will, to do whatever we want to do at the moment. Yet, Miller notes, “Great disciples become great because they have never done their own thing. ‘God’s thing’ is ‘their thing.’ They have no desire to be ‘free spirits,’ yet oddly they find personal freedom by surrendering compulsive individualism” (p. 163).
From every boom box and TV screen, in schools and boardrooms, we’re urged to pursue prideful behavior. The pattern seems well-worn, so Bernard’s list of 12 deadly slips, a chronicle of pride’s “descent into decadence,” is instructive. It’s obvious that we easily slide down this slope of prideful displays: curiosity; light-mindedness; merriment; boastfulness; trying to be different; arrogance; presumption; self-justification; insincere confession; rebellion; freedom to sin; habitual sin. “Nike has sold a lot of tennis shoes by saying, ‘Just do it.’ America has become the world’s largest gathering of the indulgent. From many billboards comes the grand doctrine of ‘feel good.’ Its popular proverb is, ‘If it feels good do it'” (p. 163).
After illustrating how such attitudes have subtly infiltrated churches as well as society, Miller turns to Bernard’s prescription for pride’s perversities: humility. In Bernard’s words, “‘Humility is the virtue by which a man recognizes his own unworthiness because he really knows himself'” (p. 167). If we simply admit we are creatures, that we did not make ourselves, that we owe our very being to God, we become humble. In this posture, we truly worship God, giving Him the recognition and reverence He deserves–we love Him. This leads, naturally, to loving service, doing whatever He asks.
Finally, Miller finds help in Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, one of the most widely-read devotional classics of all time. Miller shares the struggles he went through when, after 25 years of pastoral ministry, he decided to devote the rest of his life to seminary teaching. After twice interviewing with the administration and faculty of one of he most prestigious seminaries in the nation, he envisioned taking his place in that renowned West Coast institution. His interviews went well, and he was thrilled by his prospects! Instead, he was rejected! The faculty vetoed his appointment. Humiliated, he later found consolation in the words of Thomas a Kempis: “‘Be not solicitous for the shadow of a great name, or for the familiar friendship of many, or for the private affection of individuals, for such things distract the heart'” (p. 212).
Subsequently, in God’s good time, he received an appointment at another fine seminary, where he now teaches. But he now knows that “No school is ‘lucky to have me.'” What matters is finding and accepting the place where God wants us, for He alone makes “the ‘slots’ where our individual lives are to be used” (p. 213). Unfortunately, even in the church “sins of arrogance are widespread. Ambition often sits at the top of ‘Christian’ enterprises.” With Thomas a Kempis, we must learn that “‘It is a great thing to live in obedience,” for “we are too much ruled by our own passions” (p. 214).
Miller painfully discovered this profound truth in his first year of pastoring. Leaving seminary with a head packed with Hebrew and Greek, Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, he launched his “ministry.” He expounded from the pulpit, and saw his congregation “grow” from 34 to 23 members! Amazingly, when he had a home-spun evangelist preach in the church, the people came gladly and responded easily. “Many, who under my preaching had only come to know Barth, under his preaching came to know Christ.”
This experience forced Miller to his knees where God dealt with him. In a symbolic gesture, he removed the ornate diplomas mounted on the walls of his study. He found that only in total submission to God, only in humbly doing His will, can the work of the church prevail. As Thomas a Kempis said: “‘ Learn now to die to the world, that thou mayest then begin to live with Christ. Learn now to despise all earthly things, that thou mayest freely live with Christ'” (p. 217). In truth, the Christlike life is characterized by submission, not ambition.
Though Miller rarely uses the word “holiness,” he in fact proclaims its necessity! The saints’ stories show that, subsequent to conversion, a deep-level submission to the Spirit of God, a necessary crucifixion to sin and self-will, transformed them into the kinds of people God can use. Walking with Saints is a fine treatise! It shows how Church tradition, rightly used, enriches and strengthens all who choose to follow Christ.
Another Baptist seminary professor, Bruce Shelley, teaches church history at Denver Seminary, where he’s “discovered how miserably little today’s candidates for Christian ministry knew about the saints” (p. 9). Historians, of course, ever seek to rectify such wrongs! (Shelley’s written fine popular books such as Church History in Plain Language which I’ve used and appreciated in classes I’ve taught.) In All the Saints Adore Thee: Insight from Christian Classics, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1994), he sets forth 52 brief readings (appropriately designed to be read on each Lord’s Day for a year) which both alert us to significant classics in historic periods and add to our understanding of God’s ways with His people. Let me simply duplicate some samples of the quotations Shelley culls from various epochs of the past.
In Part One, “Saints in the Early Church,” we encounter men such as Diognetus, Polycarp, Origen, and Gregory of Nyssa. Striking a note which resounded throughout the first five centuries, Diognetus (in the second century) described Christians thusly: “what the soul is to the body, that Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body but does not belong to the body, and Christians dwell in the world, but do not belong to the world” (p. 32).
Two centuries later, Gregory of Nyssa would praise “health” in both body and soul, concluding that, ultimately “the Lord does not say that it is blessed to know something about God, but rather to possess God in oneself: Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God (Matt. 5:8)” (p. 48). Still more, Gregory said: “For, when God made you, He at once endowed your nature with this perfection: upon the structure of your nature He imprinted an imitation of the perfections of His own nature, just as one would impress upon wax the outline of an emblem. But the wickedness that has been poured all over this divine engraving has made you perfection useless and hidden it with a vicious coating. You must then wash away, by a life of virtue, the dirt that has come to cling to your heart like plaster, and then your divine beauty will once again shine forth” (p. 49).
Following the first five centuries, with the collapse of the Roman Empire, we enter the Medieval World, with its plethora of monastic saints, including Benedict of Nursia, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Francis of Assisi. The exemplary life of St Francis was the outgrowth of the spirit which inspired his final words to Brother Leo. “Above all the graces and the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to His friends,” he said, “is that of conquering oneself and willingly enduring sufferings, insults, humiliations, and hardships for the love of Christ. For we cannot glory in all those other marvelous gifts of God, as they are not ours but God’s, as the Apostle says: ‘What have you that you have not received?'” (p. 76).
Though not a widely heralded, there were “saints” (both Protestant and Catholic) in the Reformation era too. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Teresa of Avila, Francis de Sales, Lancelot Andrew, all gain entrance to Shelley’s collection. Note the poetic passion of Calvin:
“What then? We must surely have this end
Before our eyes to which every act
Is aimed: to strive toward the perfection
The Lord requires of us” (p. 103).
Rooted in Reformation theology, saints in the Puritan Period include Blaise Pascal, Jeremy Taylor, John Bunyan, and Brother Lawrence. Less well-known is Henry Scougal, a brilliant Aberdeen professor, who died at the age of 28. His Life of God in the Soul of Man, Shelley thinks, “may be the finest devotional classic to come out of Scotland.” Quotes such as the following move one to mentally note and anticipate reading Scougal’s classic: “True religion is a union of the soul with God, a real participation of the divine nature, the very image of God drawn upon the soul, or in the apostles’s phrase, it is Christ formed within us. . . . The root of the divine life is faith; the chief branches are love to God, charity to man, purity, and humility” (p. 145).
Moving into the 18th and 19th centuries, we find “saints in the age of revivals,” noted examples of piety such as Philipp Jacob Spener, Francois Fenelon, Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Hannah More and Phoebe Palmer. The theological brilliance of Edwards was complemented by his deep devotion, evident in his longing: “The heaven I desired was a heaven of holiness; to be with God, and to spend my eternity in divine love, and holy communion with Christ” (p. 189).
Finally, even today there are exemplary Christians! “Saints in Modern Times” include Andrew Murray, Oswald Chambers, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, W.E. Sangster, C.S. Lewis, and A.W. Tozer. Chambers’ devotional writings have blessed millions with insights such as this: “”We do not need the grace of God to stand crisis, human nature and pride are sufficient, we can face the strain magnificently; but it does require the supernatural grace of God to live twenty-four hours in every day as a saint, to go through the drudgery as a disciple, to live an ordinary, unobserved, ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. It is inbred in us that we have to do exceptional things for God; but we have not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things, to be holy in mean streets, among mean people, and this is not learned in five minutes” (p. 239). Then C.S. Lewis (in The Screwtape Letters) weighs in with words placed in the mouth of Screwtape, the demon who notifies his nephew that God “really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself– creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His” (p. 268).
Shelley introduces each selection with helpful historical data, and his quotations, in my judgment, accurately reflect the character and thought of the persons quoted. To read four pages a week, getting acquainted with 52 of the finest figures in the Christian tradition, would both encourage and challenge readers. Indeed, one hopes, some of the selections might awaken a thirst for more and lead to a reading of some of the classics cited. As a good historian, of course, Shelley provides helpful bibliographical information concerning each source.