The patterns of Puritan piety

The following quote is from a sermon by John Eliot and recorded by Cotton Mather. It gives a good feel for the patterns of Puritan piety.

 

Behold, the ancient and excellent character of a true Christian; ’tis that which Peter calls ‘holiness in all manner of conversation’ [1 Peter 1:15]; you shall not find a Christian out of the way of godly conversation.

For, first, a seventh part of our time is all spent in heaven, when we are duly zealous for, and zealous on the Sabbath of God. Besides, God has written on the head of the Sabbath, REMEMBER, which looks both forwards and backwards, and thus a good part of the week will be spent in sabbatizing.

Well, but for the rest of our time! Why, we shall have that spent in heaven, ere we have done. For, secondly, we have many days for both fasting and thanksgiving in our pilgrimage; and here are so many Sabbaths more. Moreover, thirdly, we have our lectures every week; and pious people won’t miss them, if they can help it.

Furthermore, fourthly, we have our private meetings, wherein we pray and sing, and repeat sermons, and confer together about the things of God; and being now come thus far, we are in heaven almost every day.

But a little farther, fifthly, we perform family-duties every day; we have our morning and evening sacrifices, wherein having read the Scriptures to our families, we call upon the Name of God, and ever now and then carefully catechise those that are under our charge.

Sixthly, we shall also have our daily devotions in our closets; wherein unto supplication before the Lord, we shall add some serious meditation upon his word: a David will be at this work no less than thrice a day. Seventhly, we have likewise many scores of ejaculations in a day; and these we have, like Nehemiah, in whatever place we come into.

Eighthly we have our occasional thoughts and our occasional talks upon spiritual matters; and we have our occasional acts of charity, wherein we do like the inhabitants of heaven every day. Ninthly, in our callings, in our civil callings, we keep up heavenly frames; we buy and sell, and toil; yea, we eat and drink, with some eye both to the command and honour of God in all.

Behold, I have not now left an inch of time to be carnal; it is all engrossed for heaven. And yet, lest here should not be enough, lastly, we have our spiritual warfare. We are always encountering the enemies of our souls, which continually raises our hearts unto our

Behold, I have not now left an inch of time to be carnal; it is all engrossed for heaven. And yet, lest here should not be enough, lastly, we have our spiritual warfare. We are always encountering the enemies of our souls, which continually raises our hearts unto our Helper and Leader in the heavens.

Let no man say, ‘Tis impossible to live at this rate’; for we have known some live thus; and others that have written of such a life have but spun a web out of their own blessed experiences. New-England has examples of this life: though, alas! ’tis to be lamented that the distractions of the world, in too many professors, do becloud the beauty of an heavenly conversation.

In fine, our employment lies in heaven. In the morning, if we ask, ‘Where am I to be to day?’ our souls must answer, ‘In heaven.’ In the evening, if we ask, ‘Where have I been to-day?’ our souls may answer, ‘In heaven.’ If thou art a believer, thou art no stranger to heaven while thou livest; and when thou diest, heaven will be no strange place to thee; no, thou hast been there a thousand times before.

 

From Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Principles in Puritan New England, University of North Carolina Press. The Practice of Piety is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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O Lord our Rock, redeeming King

Here’s the second track from the new The Crowded House album for which I wrote the lyrics. They’re based on Psalm 19. I think they’re my best lyrics to date.

Here are the words …

O Lord our Rock, redeeming King,
your truth alone can comfort bring
when we are in distress.
Your perfect law revives the soul
and binds our wounds and makes us whole.
Your promise leads to rest. 

Your precepts make our hearts rejoice
for in your word we hear your voice,
the voice of God above.
Your gospel breaks like break of day
to give us light to light our way,
to walk in paths of love.

Your statutes make your people wise,
illuminating darkened eyes
for your commands are true.
Your word is firm and will endure.
The fear that it evokes is pure
and binds our hearts to you.

Your word is worth far more than gold
for in its pages we behold:
the treasury of Christ.
Its lines upon the tongue are sweet.
They lead us to our Saviour’s feet
and his great sacrifice.

As your decrees are read and taught,
may every word and every thought
be pleasing to you Lord.
Your Spirit’s power to all impart
that Christ may dwell in every heart,
and be our true reward.

May wand’ring hearts be warned from sin.
May troubled souls find peace within.
May Christ be our delight.
Forgive our faults unlock our chains,
and in our lives restore your reign:
our hearts with love ignite.

You can listen to the album and buy it here.

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Jesus the Word

Here’s one of the tracks for which I wrote the lyrics from the new The Crowded House album.

Here are the words …

Jesus the Word speaks in the dark
lighting the spark of all we see
Jesus the Word rules through his promises
Lord over history
Jesus heals with a word and commands the waves
Jesus speaks to the dead and he empties graves

Word of hope from above,
word of light and love,
word of peace ending strife,
bringing joy and life.

Jesus the Word mute at his trial
and when reviled upon the tree
Jesus the Word silenced by violence
drowned out at Calvary
Jesus silent no more as he gathers breath
Jesus steps from the tomb and the grip of death

Jesus the Word message of love
rising above this noisy world
Jesus the Word gathers his people
as his command is heard
Jesus given a name over every name
to the ends of the earth we proclaim his fame

Jesus the Word speaks to our fears
comforts our tears with words of peace
Let all with ears come now and hear his voice
Let all your doubting cease

You can listen to the album and buy it here.

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Music and news from The Crowded House

The Crowded House has released its first album of music written by people with our church. It’s performed with our own musicians along with Michael Bleeker, the worship leader at The Village Church, Dallas. There’s more information including lead sheets here and you can listen online at Bandcamp.

The Crowded House website has also been revamped including a blog which contains a couple of great testimony videos.

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The Bruised Reed

Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) was one of the greatest Puritan preachers. This is how a contemporary described the impact of his preaching: ‘I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint … Doctor Sibbes, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit. His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had much of God and was confident in Christ.’

His most famous work is The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax (1631), based on Matthew 12:20. It was written. Sibbes says, ‘at the desire and for the good of weaker Christians’ to lead them to a strong sense of assurance.

The bruising and healing of Christ

Sibbes uses the metaphor of bruising to describes the process by which God humbles sinners by giving them a true view of their sin. Both before conversion and after conversion, God must wound before he can heal. But the point of this bruising is always to lead us to Christ. There is comfort in our union with Christ and therefore our experience of the Trinitarian love and life:

What a support to our faith is this, that God the Father, the party offended by our sins, is so well pleased with the work of redemption! And what a comfort is this, that seeing God’s love rests on Christ, as well pleased in him, we may gather that he is as well pleased with us, if we be in Christ! For his love rests in whole Christ, in Christ mystical, as well as Christ natural, because he loves him and us with one love. Let us, therefore, embrace Christ, and in him God’s love, and build our faith safely on such a Saviour. (Works 1:42-43.)

So the second point that Sibbes points out is that Christ will not ‘break the bruised reed’. Sibbes draws images of physicians and surgeons who harm the body for its own good. Sibbes expands on this healing work by expounding Christ’s threefold ministry as prophet, priest and king. ‘Go boldly to God in our flesh; for this end that we might go boldly to him, he is flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. Never fear to go to God, since we have such a Mediator with him, that is not only our friend, but our brother and husband.’ (46)

Sibbes expounds the second metaphor in the verse, the smoking flax, to show that Christians need not worry that evidences of grace are small in their lives. Rather every evidence of grace is a cause for reassurance because Christ will not snuff our the smouldering spark.

Sibbes’ main concern is to affirm that Christ will not quench our small beginnings because the spark is of heaven. Though Sibbes says we are not worthy of pertaining such a spark, but Christ is merciful and he gives himself unto us. Sibbes encourages ministers to be tender towards young believers, balancing severity with mercy. ‘Man for a little smoke will quench the light; Christ ever we see cherisheth even the least beginnings. How bare he with the many imperfections of his poor disciples.’ (42-43)

The government of Christ

The final section of The Bruised Reed discusses how Christ re-establishes his government in our souls. Some of Sibbes’ contemporaries believed (with Aristotle and Aquinas) that, while the will is crippled by sin, God’s grace re-enables the will to make virtuous choices. In this way the divine and human will co-operate. The will, informed by the mind, is sovereign over (potentially distracting) affections.

Sibbes, in contrast, believed the affections were sovereign. The will is not disabled, but disaffected. It still ‘works’ in that sense that it still makes choices, but now it always decides against God. But in the gospel the Spirit so discloses God’s love that our wills are moved to embrace Christ. ‘The same Spirit that enlightens the mind, inspires gracious inclinations into the will and affections, and infuses strength into the whole man.’ (82)

If the believer’s ‘affections and duty’ decline, the solution is ‘to warm ourselves at this fire of his love and mercy in giving himself for us.’ But even in this apparent initiative of the believer it is actually the Spirit’s work by which ‘he draws us strongly’ and must ‘subdue our hearts, and sanctify them to love him, without which all motives would be ineffectual.’ (79-80)

There was a strong polemic edge to Sibbes’ writing. He was challenging the tendency toward destructive self-absorption that came from examining one’s own behaviours for signs of grace in order to gain assurance of salvation. Ron Frost comments:

Sibbes clearly understood that duty can only be sustained if it is supported by the motivation of desire. Thus, Sibbes featured God’s winsome love more than his power: the Spirit accomplishes both conversion and sanctification by a single means – through the revelation of God’s attractiveness by an immediate, personal disclosure. This unmediated initiative was seen to by the means by which God draws a response of heartfelt devotion from the elect. (Ron Frost, ‘The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes’)

Faith, according to Sibbes, was not a human act of the will. But the response of the heart to the disclosure of divine love in Christ by the Spirit. We are wooed by Christ. Sibbes believed the law may be used to confront sin. But our central message must be God’s love in Christ. It is this love which causes us to embrace God and his holiness.

Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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Pilgrimage

In a previous post we looked at the theme of ‘ascent’ in Christian spirituality. In this post we explore the theme of ‘pilgrimage’. In both cases we are contrasting biblical and Reformation spirituality with the Medieval and modern spirituality.

In the Old Testament Jerusalem was seen as a place of pilgrimage. The annual feasts encouraged worshippers to journey to Jerusalem. The Psalms of Ascent testify to the significance of this journey.

But with the coming of Jesus the nature of pilgrimage changes. Jesus himself is the temple (John 2:18-22). We come to him rather than journeying to a physical location (1 Peter 2:4-5). And we journey towards our future home in the new creation (Hebrews 11:8-16).

Nevertheless, in the Medieval world pilgrimage became a major feature of spirituality and a major money-spinner if you could establish yourself as a holy destination. Abbeys would compete for sacred relics. Canterbury was the key destination in Britain, partly as the shrine as Thomas à Becket after his martyrdom in 1170 (hence Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales).

Pilgrimage was physical act that required physical movement. For some it was an act that earned merit before God. For others it enacted the ascent of the mind. For most, perhaps, it was journey to sacred relics or sites that were thought to have inherent power. It was a chance to pray to a saint at his or her shrine for a miracle or time off purgatory.

Pilgrimage in Reformed spirituality

All of this might suggest the Reformed tradition would be quick to drop the theme of pilgrimage. But instead it retained it as a central feature of its spirituality, but with a radical reorientation.

The primary change was that pilgrimage became an image for the Christian life. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress begins: ‘As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream.’ The dream tells the story of how a man named Christian becomes a Christian (losing his burden) and then travels through life to the Celestial City. It is the story of life as a pilgrimage. Even the opening non-dream element alludes to pilgrimage: ‘As I walked through the wilderness of this world’. This world is a wilderness through which Christians are travelling.

Charles Hambrick-Stowe in his fascinating study of New England Puritan piety says: ‘The sense of being on pilgrimage structured Puritan religious experience from the first stages of conversion on through the saint’s growth in God’s grace, and it strongly coloured the daily and weekly disciplines of devotional activity.’ It was a re-appropriation of Catholic ideas of pilgrimage. But it drew primarily on the wilderness wanderings of Israel in Exodus and Hebrews 11. Thomas Hooker, among the first generation of Puritan preachers in New England, said:

There must be Contrition and Humiliation before the Lord comes to take possession … This was typified in the passage of the Children towards the promised Land. They must come and go through a vast and roaring Wilderness, where they must be bruised with many pressures, humbled under many overbearing difficulties, before they could possess that good land which abounded with all prosperity, flowed with Milk and Honey.

The New England Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet wrote a poem entitled ‘As Weary Pilgrim’ (1669) which includes the lines:

A pilgrim I, on earth perplexed

With Sins, with cares and sorrows vext,

By age and pains brought to decay,

And my clay house mold’ring away.

Oh, how I long to be at rest

And soar on high among the blest.

The experience of the Puritans, both individually and corporately, was interpreted in the light of Old Testament patterns, but always in the light of their fulfilment in Christ. Indeed Christ’s own forty-day wilderness temptation was another referent for this theme. So Puritans used the metaphor of pilgrimage in three ways.

First, to describe Christians as those who are estranged from the culture and honour of this world (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11). This was particular expounded in the face of the hostility and corruption of the Established church.

Second, as a metaphor for pilgrimage to the individual soul, travelling through life towards heaven, by faith experiencing en route ever-increasing joy in Christ (Hebrews 11). The idea of keeping a spiritual journal, so popular among Puritans, itself had strong pilgrimage connotations. The words ‘journal’ and ‘journey’ both stem from the same root meaning ‘day’. In the Middle Ages the word ‘journey’ was used of the distance of about twenty miles, a day’s travel. People often kept a journal when travelling. So a journal was the record of a journey – either a literal journey or a person’s pilgrimage through life.

Third, for the Puritans in New England pilgrimage was a particularly strong theme because it had a physical counterpart in their experience. They were, after all, ‘the Pilgrim Fathers’. Their own lives had involved a journey made for spiritual reasons. They had travelled out of captivity in the Egypt of old England and saw New England as a staging post on their journey to the heavenly Jerusalem. They were not a settled people, physically and spiritually. Indeed, many of the first generation feared for the second generation as they began to settle down.

Pilgrimage in post-modern spirituality
The language of pilgrimage and journey remains common today. ‘We are all on a journey,’ we are often told. Or we are encouraged to embrace ‘fellow travellers’, even if we are at different places on our journey. It is a very postmodern affirmation. In other words, it does not affirm much at all. Indeed it is a kind of warning off. It is an exhortation not to assert truth, but to recognise a provisionality in everything.

The key difference between this view of journeying and that of Pilgrim’s Progress is this. The pilgrim of Pilgrim’s Progress knew where he was going. His destination is not in doubt. He is heading to the Celestial City. And the only way to get through was through confidence in the word and reliance of Christ. Indeed the narrow gate of Pilgrim’s Progress is precisely an image of the exclusive claims of Christ.

When ‘post-evangelicals’ co-opt the image, in contrast, they do so to stress the vagueness of the journey. Who knows were they will end up, but it will probably not be orthodoxy! We are in danger of wandering off course and calling this a spiritual virtue by misappropriating the language of pilgrimage.

Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Principles in Puritan New England, University of North Carolina Press is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is readily available online or from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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Ascent

In this post we consider the theme of ‘ascent’ in Christian spirituality. In a future post we’ll look at the theme of ‘pilgrimage’. Both are biblical themes, but we can think about them in unhelpful ways.

Our culture is full of the language of ascent. We talk about ‘the ascent of man’, often as a synonym for evolution. Humanity has ascended above the animals and the sign of our ascent is our superior intellectual development. Or the ascent of man is a synonym for civilization. Our ascent is our move from primitive cultures to ‘high’ culture.

The image of ascending to God is an important feature of Medieval theology. This drew on Greek philosophical traditions of the ascent of the rational soul to join the logos, the rational principles that pervades the universe. It also involved transcending or even escaping the physical world.

Guigo II proposed a fourfold method for reading the Bible in which a monk passed from reading to meditation to prayer to contemplation. The title of the work was The Ladder of Monks. Clearly these represent progressive stages through which you ascend to higher spiritual levels. The sixteenth century Spanish writer St John of the Cross wrote the influential The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Again the mountain is symbolic of gaining insight and mastering techniques. The spiritual life is about progress towards the presence of God.

John Calvin, too, makes much of the language of ascent but in a radically different way.

Christ ascends physically

First, the ascension is physical. Ascension is not an escape from the body. Christ’s ascension was not his transition into a different mode of existence so that he has become some ethereal spirit. Rather, it was a physical departure into heaven:

It has been demonstrated by strong and clear passages of Scripture, first, that [Christ’s resurrection body] is bounded by the dimensions of the human body; and, secondly, that its ascension into heaven made it plain that it is not in all places, but on passing to a new one, leaves the one formerly occupied. (John Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.30)

In the first generation of Star Trek higher beings are those who have evolved to a point where they have left their bodies behind and become pure mind or pure love. They speak to Captain Kirk from the ether or communicate thought-to-thought through telepathy. This is how many people think about the ascent of Jesus. Jesus is somehow thought to be spiritually everywhere in a disembodied sense. Perhaps he has become one of Star Trek’s higher beings – pure mind or pure love, unconstrained in space by a body. We remake the ascension of Jesus in the image of our notions of human ascent instead of understanding human ascent in the image of Christ’s ascension. But the Bible refuses to leave the body behind in the ascent of Christ.

We ascend with Christ

For us ascent is not an achievement. It is not something that happens as a result of spiritual exercises or techniques. It is something we already experience through union with Christ by faith. Christ has ascended and we ascend with him: ‘And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.’ (Ephesians 2:6) ‘Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.’ (Colossians 3:2-4)

Christ is present by the Spirit

The role of the Spirit is key to putting this all together. Jesus is present with us by the Spirit. If you ignore the role of the Spirit then Jesus can only be with us as the expense of his embodiment. If you ignore the role of the Spirit then Jesus can only be with us. He cannot also be absent. But the absence of Jesus is the sign that this world is not yet what it will be. The rule of Jesus would be the rule we see on earth now – and that would be a big disappointment for anyone who has read the Bible’s promises of God’s new world! It is the Spirit who means it makes sense to talk about both the absence and presence of Jesus.

For more on the ascension see Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow, The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God, Christian Focus (available from Amazon.com and ThinkIVP).

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