Trusting in trials with the Puritan poet, Anne Bradstreet

Here are my notes from Garry Williams’ seminar at New Word Alive on the Puritan poem, Anne Bradstreet. There is a chapter on Anne Bradstreet in the homage to Puritan writings, The Devoted Life (IVP) purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US.

Anne Bradstreet was born as Anne Dudley in 1612 so she came of age when Charles 1 was attempting to move England away from Protestantism to more Roman Catholic approach. In her poetry, Anne protests against this:

Lets bring Baals vestments forth to make a fire,

Their Mystires, Surplices, and all their Tires,

Copes, Rotchets, Crossiers, and such empty trash;

And let their Names consume, but let the flash

Light Christedome, and all the world to see

We hate Romes whore, with all her trumpery.

Anne had a privileged and educated up-bringing, marrying Simon Bradstreet, the son of a non-conformist minister and a graduate of the Puritan Emmanuel College, Cambridge. In 1630 she sailed to America with her husband and parents. Several people died during the crossing and two hundred of the thousand people in the area that Anne settled died of starvation in the first winter (‘the starving time’ it was called). It was world of promise and freedom with the hope of new beginning for Puritans, but it was also a precarious world.

The Puritans had a conception of an ordered society in which everyone had their roles. They had the opportunity completely to restructure society. They were the radicals of their day. But they did not overturn all social patterns and norms. Anne shares this outlook as her epitaph to her mother reveals.

Here lies

A worthy matron of unspotted life,

A loving mother and obedient wife,

A friendly neighbor, pitiful to poor,

Whom oft she fed, and clothed with her store;

To servants wisely aweful, but yet kind,

And as they did, so they reward did find:

A true instructor of her family,

The which she ordered with dexterity,

The public meetings ever did frequent,

And in her closet constant hours she spent;

Religious in all her words and ways,

Preparing still for death, till end of days:

Of all her children, children lived to see,

Then dying, left a blessed memory.

Anne is known for pushing the boundaries. Writing poetry was considered a male occupation and some of her poems were published under a male pseudonym. Yet she extols the virtues of a loving and submissive wife. The Puritans pushed the social boundaries, but did so within the boundaries of Scripture. This meant the Puritans had a clear sense of identity in contrast to our confused times. People today are constantly redefining themselves. Without any boundaries from God’s word we are adrift.

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Feel the truth

We read from Ephesians 2 at our prayer meeting this morning. I was struck again by the language Paul uses.

But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead … So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus. (4-5, 7)

Paul doesn’t simply say: God is rich in mercy and he loved us. He says: ‘God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much …’ So rich. So much. Paul doesn’t just know the truth. He feels the truth.

And that’s what I want in my life and that’s what I want for our community. I want us to feel the truth. I want tears, excitement, wonder, awe. I want us to exclaim: ‘incredible’! Oh, the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us.’

Then I read this from Rhys Llwyd’s blog.

One rather elderly brother at Monday night’s meeting, David Hughes from Cross-hands, told me that he knew my great-Grandmother! David Hughes must have been in his 90s. He used to work with my Great-Uncle Alun, my Grandfathers brother, down the mines. He had a very special story about my great-Grandmother, Ester. Ester lost her husband, my great-Grandfather, at a young age to an accident at the coal mine. David Hughes told me that people had huge respect and admiration for Ester as she bought up three children on her own; she was a very Godly woman. David Hughes remembered Ester for her public praying at Church – he remembers her down on her knees, literally, in tears talking with her Saviour. This was very very powerful testimony as David Hughes recalled.

‘Down on her knees, literally, in tears talking with her Saviour.’

The joy of duty

This from John Piper:

But the hard truth is that most Christians don’t pray very much. They pray at meals-unless they’re still stuck in the adolescent stage of calling good habits legalism. They whisper prayers before tough meetings. They say something brief as they crawl into bed. But very few set aside set times to pray alone-and fewer still think it is worth it to meet with others to pray. And we wonder why our faith is weak. And our hope is feeble. And our passion for Christ is small.

And meanwhile the devil is whispering all over this room: “The pastor is getting legalistic now. He’s starting to use guilt now. He’s getting out the law now.” To which I say, “To hell with the devil and all of his destructive lies. Be free!” Is it true that intentional, regular, disciplined, earnest, Christ-dependent, God-glorifying, joyful prayer is a duty? . . . Is it a discipline?

You can call it that.

* It’s a duty the way it’s the duty of a scuba diver to put on his air tank before he goes underwater.
* It’s a duty the way pilots listen to air traffic controllers.
* It’s a duty the way soldiers in combat clean their rifles and load their guns.
* It’s a duty the way hungry people eat food.
* It’s a duty the way thirsty people drink water.
* It’s a duty the way a deaf man puts in his hearing aid.
* It’s a duty the way a diabetic takes his insulin.
* It’s a duty the way Pooh Bear looks for honey.
* It’s a duty the way pirates look for gold.

I hate the devil, and the way he is killing some of you by persuading you it is legalistic to be as regular in your prayers as you are in your eating and sleeping and Internet use. Do you not see what a sucker he his making out of you? He is laughing up his sleeve at how easy it is to deceive Christians about the importance of prayer.

God has given us means of grace. If we do not use them to their fullest advantage, our complaints against him will not stick. If we don’t eat, we starve. If we don’t drink, we get dehydrated. If we don’t exercise a muscle, it atrophies. If we don’t breathe, we suffocate. And just as there are physical means of life, there spiritual are means of grace. Resist the lies of the devil in 2009, and get a bigger breakthrough in prayer than you’ve ever had.


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Everyday reliance on God

One of the characteristics of modernity in Western culture is the desire for control. This is what has driven much of the drive to scientific progress, managerial systems and modern state craft. We want to be able to control our world, our environment, our health.

But we are not in control in the world. God is sovereign. We cannot apply modernistic techniques to mission. We cannot control and determine mission. We are wholly reliant on God. Mission is a supernatural activity and we must treat as such.

People often ask: ‘How can I build a church?’ The answer is: ‘You can’t!’

When did you feel your need of God? I recognise in my own life that I have become adept as doing ‘risk-free mission’.

We need to learn again to be reliant on God. It means operating outside of our comfort zones. It means putting ourselves in situations in which we feel our dependence on God – in which we are not in control, in which we might fail, in which risk is involved.

We need to discover God in the everyday. We often relegate God to the crises of life because we have a created comfortable Christianity. We live risk-free because we are not living on the edge. We need to be telling one another stories of deliverance (that is Philippians 1:20-style deliverance from unfaithfulness in the fact of threat rather than deliverance from threat).

When God stepped into the story: reflections on Ian McEwan’s ‘Atonement’

I’ve just finished reading Atonement by Ian McEwan. (I’ve not seen the film.) The book is beautifully written with the amazing sustained descriptive passages that are characteristic of McEwan. It’s the story of a teenage , Briony Tallis, whose false accusations lead to a young man, Robbie, being wrongly imprisoned for se xual assault. Robbie and Briony’s older sister, Cecilia, are in love so Briony’s act destroys two lives. By the time Robbie is released, the second world war has begun and he has been conscripted. He and Cecilia, who has forsaken her family to become a nurse, meet only briefly before he is send away to France. As Briony realises what she has done, she endeavours to atone, leaving the privileges of her up-bringing and the pursuit of literature at university to devote herself to nursing during the war.

But she cannot self-atone.

On this first really fine day of May she sweated under her starchy uniform. All she wanted to do was work, then bathe and sleep until it was time for work again. But it was useless, she knew. Whatever skivvying or humble nursing she did, and however well or hard she did it, whatever illumination in tutorial she had relinquished, or lifetime moment on a college lawn, she would never undo the damage. She was unforgivable. (Ian McEwan, Atonement, Jonathan Cape, 2001, 285.)

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Spiritual experiences in the night

Not sure what it is, but many of my most profound spiritual experiences, or at least my most intense spiritual thoughts, come to me in the middle of the night. It might be the dark; it might be the quiet. Though they are not the result of time spent in contemplation. I usually wake with the thoughts fairly fully formed in the my mind. So perhaps they are the after-glow of dreams?!

Last night I had a strong conviction that, while in recent years I have come to a greater sense of how my sin is ridiculous and pathetic, I need a much stronger sense of its evil, horror, spite, darkness. I need to be repelled by my sin. I want to be brought low so that God might lift me up. I want to be horrified at my sin so that I might flee from it into the arms of God.

But I also suspected that such insight might crush me. I thought of Isaiah seeing the holiness of God in the temple and crying out, ‘Woe to me’.

So my prayer in the small hours was this. First, that God would give me as much of a sense of the evil of my sin as I can presently bear. And, second, that he would match a realization of my sin with a corresponding realization of his grace so that I could bear it.

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure …

Yesterday we had another ‘vision Saturday’ when the congregations and teams in the Edge Network come together. We’re looking at a series of ‘identities’ that are ours in Christ and which should define who we are and shape how we live. This time it was heirs of God. I began with a story …

Let me tell you a story that Jesus once told. Jesus said the kingdom of God was a bit like this.

A man was walking home from working in the fields when he decided to take a short-cut across a scrubby area that never seemed to be used for anything. There was no clear path through the field so he picked his way through as best he could. About two-thirds of the way across he tripped suddenly and fell into the long grass. A few inches from where he fell he saw to his surprise a piece of metal sticking out of the ground. Curious, he pulled away the grass and brushed off the top soil. It was the metal corner of wooden chest. He tugged away the tufts of grass and dug away at the soil. He pulled and twisted the chest until it was free. He paused. And then lifted its lid. Inside were jewels, pendants, gold coins – all covered in dust, but clearly extremely valuable.

What was he to do?

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New Word Alive: Who like me his praise should sing?

The praise here at New Word Alive, led by Stuart Townend, has been great. Last night I was at the back of the main marquee and you felt a little bit more like a spectator, but if you sit near the front it’s brilliant. I was moved to tears on the first night rather randomly by the singing of Praise my soul:

Praise my soul the king of heaven,
to his feet your tribute bring.
Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven,
who like me his praise should sing.

I felt a powerful sense that I, more than anyone, should sing God’s praises. No-one, absolutely no-one, has more reason to praise God than Tim Chester (though maybe one or two others have equal reason to do so!) because I have been ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven; because the King of heavens welcomes my tribute of praise.

New Word Alive: Terry Virgo on grace and law

I think I’m doing what is called ‘live blogging’ – reporting live from a conference, in this case New Word Alive. It might actually be semi-live (half-dead?) blogging because I’m not making notes in real time as conference addresses are given.

The first New Word Alive kicked off last night with worship led by Stuart Townend and a great talk from Terry Virgo. Virgo expounded the opening verses of Romans 7. The law, he said, is like a demanding husband that never lifts a finger to help us. What’s more, the law is not going to go away. The law is not going to die off and leave us a free widow! But the good news is that we die. We are released form a marital obligations to the law because in Christ we die to the law. This is true not only for justification, but also for sanctification. The law cannot change us. If it could, says Paul, it would have been the way of righteousness. But Christ is our righteousness. Virgo was excellent on the way Satan accuses us, pointing out our failings and so we try harder. But his accusations come again and we feel defeated. But we can ‘reign in life’ through grace. when Satan’s accusations come we point to Christ’s righteousness which is now our righteousness.

This morning we have Don Carson on 1 John 2:2 and this evening  John Piper is speaking on Romans 8 on ‘treasuring Christ and the call to suffer’. In between are a host of seminars including a track from yours truly on ‘good news to the poor’.

Reflections on our Pentecost of Prayer

Over on our Pentecost Prayer website I’ve shared a few reflections on our prayer focus so far. Here they are …

1. As is so often the case, I’ve found my heart sinking when it has been time to go to another prayer meeting. I’ve dragged myself out through duty. But each time I then found great encouragement and joy in praying with others. I think this is an important thing to realise about the Christian life. If it is a life of joy, why do we need so often to act out of duty and self-discipline? The answer is, I think, that it is through duty and discipline that we discover, or rediscover, the joy. Duty, then, becomes an act of faith. I act out of duty because by faith I believe it will lead to joy – joy here on earth and joy in heaven.

2. I’ve been struck by how we (or at least, I) typically respond to problems or opportunities by asking, ‘What can we do?’ But this is surely wrong. Our first response should be, ‘Let’s pray.’ Let’s try to create this culture in our network – a culture in which our first instinct is to pray. Related to this, I’ve also realised how much I manage my ministry so that it is risk-free and controlled. I want (well at some level at least) to put myself situations in which I am consciously dependant on God.

3. Praying for mission has strengthened by appetite for mission! I particularly miss not reading the Bible with unbelievers on a regular basis. Perhaps we can make this a focus for prayer.