November 18, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
. . .keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.
If the Lost series captured your attention for all 121 episodes over six seasons, you devoted somewhere around 92 hours trying to figure out the meaning of the island.
If you are a devotee of a particular football team and watch every regular season game this fall, you will spend around 48 hours staring at the gridiron. (Though, a recent Wall Street Journal study discovered that for every 3 hour game, the ball is in play for a mere 11 minutes. If only TiVo could make watching that efficient.)
Say you're a literary aficionado and you like to curl up with a good work of fiction. If the average novel runs around 600 pages, and you read at an average rate of 90 seconds per page, it will take you around 15 hours to complete the work
No, this isn't a lead-in to criticism for our love of stories or sport. Both can add richness and excitement to life. They can portray simple truths in unexpectedly resonant ways. But while narratives of whatever sort can provide glimpses of reality, why wouldn't we want to devote at least some of our time focusing our attention on the lives of real believers, in both their brightest and darkest moments?
Mark gave us some very practical wisdom last Sunday in how to run the race of faith. Essential to that race is life in community, inviting others to encourage us and keep us accountable. Community also provides us abundant examples of what faith in practice looks like. That's why Paul encouraged the Philippian church to keep their eyes on those who walk according to his example.
But one other way we can reflect on the exemplars of the faith is by reading their biographies. They enrich the community we keep while clarifying our sense of how faithfulness is refined.
We may know John Calvin's astounding intellect enabled him to compose The Institutes, the seminal tome of the Reformation; but were you aware of his very pastoral work among the "Consistory"—the company of pastors that would meet weekly to resolve disputes between citizens, admonish sin, and exercise godly discipline? Or did you know of his protracted embroilment with Miguel Servetus, a Spanish theologian who outspokenly rejected the Trinitarian view of God? The Genevan Council, a body on which Calvin did not serve but gave counsel to, convicted Servetus of blasphemy and executed him by burning at the stake. Bruce Gordon's recent biography expands our view of the Genevan Reformer and explains his thinking surrounding the severe punishment laid upon the Spanish heretic.
Many are aware that Jonathan Edwards stood at the epicenter of the Great Awakening of the 18th century. But were you aware of the events that led to his firing from his pastorate in Northampton, MA? George Marsden's magisterial treatment of Edwards' life details the unfortunate turn of events. Or how the young student who would later become Edwards' biographer, Samuel Hopkins, suffered from dejection that he wasn't experiencing the same intensity of emotion as others during the Awakening—and how it was Edwards' wife, Sarah, who did the most to encourage him out of his misery? Marsden's shorter treatment of the Edwards' life includes that detail.
John Piper provides brief treatments of some whose names we've come to associate with faithfulness: the author John Bunyan, the poet William Cowper, and the missionary to native Indians David Brainerd. Less known are their respective bouts with affliction—both physical and mental. Cowper, in particular, suffered from seasons of profound depression.
Lest you think faithfulness is confined to the masculine, Justin Holcomb has recently compiled a list of volumes about the notable women of the Reformation. To what extent Luther and Calvin's impact was attributable to the character and support of their wives is beyond measure. But Holcomb identifies many other women whose contribution to the spread of the Gospel is distinguished in its own right.
And while we may know Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged for his complicity in an assassination plot against Hitler a mere 23 days before the Nazi surrender, Eric Metaxas has unearthed even more of what shaped the German theologian—including the impact of his time worshipping in the black churches of Harlem.
We read biographies, not just to add color to our understanding, nor to use their inglorious moments to assuage the guilt of our own. Instead, we consider their lives in context to see how they struggled with their moment. We find both the salutary and the cautionary. We see how each applied Paul's admonition to "forget what is behind. . .and press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ." (Phil 3:13-14) Most of all, we read their stories to see God's hand in them—noticing the work of Providence in their situation when perhaps they could not detect it themselves. Taking note of the work of God in their stories becomes especially helpful to us when it seems like God has disappeared from ours.
At year's end, the days grow shorter—the shadows longer—and the holidays afford us a little extra time. If keeping our eyes on living testimonies of faith are critical to our own faithfulness, perhaps we could use some of that time to give our attention to those who have walked by faith (sometimes clumsily) before us.
(Editor's note: The devotional will take a break the week of Thanksgiving and will resume the first week of Advent.)