Emerson Hall is the building that houses the philosophy department at Harvard University. Over the entrance to the building is an inscription from Psalm 8: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4 KJV). Members of the faculty had decided that the statement of Protagoras, “Man is the measure of all things,” should be inscribed on the building. While they were away on vacation during the summer of 1900, C.W. Eliot, the university president, himself a Christian, had the inscription changed to the citation from the Psalms, much to the chagrin of many of his colleagues.
This episode reflects the drift at Harvard, and throughout western society, from faith-based roots. At Harvard’s founding, the university motto was Veritas, drawing from the words of John 8:32 (MEV): “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” A change in 1692 modified the motto to Veritas—Christo et ecclesia (Truth—for Christ and the church). Like so many educational institutions with church roots, Harvard has moved from that reference point. In saying that, I do not wish to denigrate the university. Our son, John, was paralyzed in an automobile accident while he was finishing his master of business administration program there and we were serving as territorial leaders in France. The kindness shown to John and our entire family by the university and its staff touched us deeply. The love of God will erupt where and when we may not expect it.
The drift of universities from their original moorings came to mind as I reflected on the deep malaise that has gripped the world as the COVID-19 pandemic accelerates the loss of confidence in the materialistic values upon which we have built our society over the last 350 years. Around me I hear the discourse of panic. Against that, I see the truths of Scripture reminding us that “God is our refuge and strength … we will not fear, though the earth give way” (Psalm 46:1-2).
A novel that has seized Canadian readers is Songs for the End of the World, by Saleema Nawaz. It tells the story of a global pandemic and the collapse of civility and hope that the pandemic engenders. I found reading it to be a disturbing experience, yet it reminded me how the essential message of hope inherent in the gospel is so desperately needed now. People who never come to church but who watch our online services are longing for this message of hope.
Our tradition and its rootedness in the gospel allow us to offer a wonderful gift to contemporary society.
A Conviction About the Gospel
Our doctrines and our mission statement start with the Bible, the message of the gospel. The Apostle Paul asserted that he was not ashamed of the gospel (see Romans 1:16). We should not be ashamed. To Paul, the intellectual architect of the gospel, the truth of the good news made sense and answered the questions in the human heart. Intellect and faith cohere to give the answers we are looking for.
Two thousand years after Paul, American physician and geneticist Francis Collins, who headed up the human genome project, made the same assertion in his brilliant book, The Language of God. Interestingly, Collins is viewed as a sellout by some in the scientific community because of his firm faith, and he is also viewed with suspicion by some evangelicals because he embraces a scientific interpretation of the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2. But the essence of his book is that faith and science are entirely reconcilable. In fact, he contends, only faith can answer the basic questions that lie behind scientific enquiry, the questions to which the Teacher refers in Ecclesiastes 3:11 when he writes, God has “set eternity in the human heart.”If the gospel ever made sense, it is in the emotional, psychological and spiritual miasma that COVID-19 has laid bare.
A Witness of Total Holiness
Holiness is part of the lingua franca of our Wesleyan tradition, but holiness—serious Christlikeness, an openness to the work and presence of the Holy Spirit—is a core component of the Christian gospel and is intended to be the hallmark of any follower of Jesus.
There is always the danger that holiness can deteriorate into a form of legalism. That can be a weakness in our tradition, a weakness that would be so unfortunate were it to obscure our witness to a God who is love.
Holiness is not about moralism. It is not about behaviour. To be holy—hagios—refers to an inclination to set our hearts apart for God. We are holy because we are set apart for God. We are, as Philippians 3:20 puts it, citizens of another country, with another loyalty, another set of values, another view of life. My real passport is not Canadian—it is the passport of the kingdom of God.
When we are set apart for God, we want to think as Christ thinks. When we have the mind of Christ, we begin to see the world the way God sees it. Our hearts are broken by those things that break the heart of God. This inculcates a desire to work to bring about the transformation of our world by advancing the coming of the kingdom of God. It places us squarely in our Methodist tradition of working for the redemption of all society.
Years ago, as divisional youth secretaries, my wife, Eleanor, and I attended the International Youth Congress in Macomb, Illinois. One of the Sunday speakers was Tony Campolo, a university professor and Baptist pastor. I will never forget his call to us to invade the arts, theatre, medicine, law and the world of business with our faith and our skills and to treat them as outposts of the kingdom of God.
This redemptive, healing witness and presence of Jesus is the gift we can give to our confused and dispirited world.
Hope and Certainty in Chaos
There is a marvellous French word, desarroi, which has no direct English translation. It describes a state of confusion and hopelessness. Our world is currently harvesting the desarroi that comes from three centuries of trying to live as if we were independent of God. In that context, our witness is one of certainty and hope. God’s people shine as a light as we assault the darkness of the current age.
The witness of hope is more than proclamation of the gospel, important as that is in this age of desarroi. It leads us to action.
I have enjoyed the privilege of seeing the light of the gospel shine in so many places. And as I talked to servants of Jesus—in France, Canada, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Afghanistan, Haiti—I have seen evidence of the church of Christ assaulting the forts of darkness. We could visit Christian hospitals in Africa run by The Salvation Army and by Christian hospital associations. Faith-based hospitals provide more than 50 percent of the health care in sub-Saharan Africa. When I have visited these hospitals, the resourcefulness of the medical personnel as they deal with limited resources has struck me. And then they remind me that their serenity is based on a strong calling and an absolute certainty in the presence of the risen Lord.
I think of Salvationists who work to combat human trafficking. A few years ago, one of these workers told Eleanor how she held a young girl in her arms as she sobbed her sense of shame to this servant of Christ. Two weeks later, the girl was murdered—but not before she had sensed the redeeming love of Jesus in the person of this Salvationist worker.
During a global pandemic, this certainty and hope is so important to the people of our world. It is not pride in The Salvation Army. It is not some sort of extreme patriotism. It is, rather, a conviction that the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus and God’s triumph over evil gives us reason to be confident as we engage with the world to share the love of Jesus.
Today, as I write, Salvation Army personnel are serving food for those in need, housing for those with no place to go and a message of hope in a sovereign God of love who is with us, even as “nations are in uproar” (Psalm 46:6).
In the worship literature of The Salvation Army, there is a magnificent hymn by General Albert Orsborn. The last stanza and chorus read:
Stretch out thy hand, o God, and let the nations
Feel through your host, the thrill of life divine;
Grant us, we pray, still greater revelations,
Make of these days an everlasting sign.
Jesus shall conquer, lift up the strain!
Evil shall perish and righteousness shall reign.
As I read the news and listen to the underlying panic, the hope of the kingdom of God renews my hope and reinvigorates my purpose. We are here for such a time as this.
Colonel Glen Shepherd is the divisional secretary for business administration in the Quebec Division.
Reprinted with permission from The Officer.
Photo: FilippoBacci/iStock via Getty Images Plus
On Wednesday, May 19, 2021, Neil Church said:
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