Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Notes from the valley-floor

Where do you turn when you feel low? What is the most helpful thing to think about - when you feel crushed, or when your own mistakes, errors, sins and follies press in on your conscience with an unusual severity? Whilst we are all sinful all the time, there are occasions when we are reminded of that fact with a new force, or conviction. Likewise, we are all fallible all the time, yet - if we dare to allow pride to fool us otherwise, we set ourselves up for an inevitable fall. In such times, when the contemporary cult of self-esteem is just so much froth - where do you turn? There are probably several answers to those questions, which might involve, prayer, a wife, a husband, key Bible texts, a pastor, or a friend.

In addition to such invaluable resources, in just such an experience during the last year, I stumbled across a quite wonderful book, intriguingly entitled, "The Valley of Vision". Though I am all too easily impressed by the feel, smell and look of a handsomely leather-bound volume like this - there was a lot more than simply the aesthetics of The Valley of Vision which affected me. Rather - it was the content of this little book which is a lament for the sinfulness of humanity, which gets surpassed, eclipsed and overtaken by the grace of God in Christ - which engulfs the wounded soul like a tidal wave of mercy!

Such help comes from, what many people would consider, a highly unlikely source. The Valley of Vision is not a vague, poetic or touchy-feely book of sentimental spirituality; neither is it an ego-massaging psychology of the power of positive thinking genre. Still less, is The Valley of Vision a nod towards the success orientated neo-legalism of the prosperity gospel preachers. Rather - this book is a collection of prayers and spiritual journal entries from the much-maligned Puritans.

The Puritans have had a bad press it would be fair to say! Their close association with Oliver Cromwell and the extremes of the Protectorate have damaged their reputation as much as their much parodied hatred of anything that might be enjoyable! Within theological history, their reputation has often fared little better, with their Sabbatarianism often appearing Pharasaical, and their theological writing being sometimes impenetrably turgid. If you saw a chapter heading entitled: "Proposition #843 concerning the relationship between the helmet of salvation and the rest of the armour of God in the great analogy of gospel warfare as depicted by The Apostle Paul in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Ephesians" - you'd know you were amongst the Puritans!

The tragedy would be however, if that was all that we saw of that great Reforming movement in the church. "The Valley of Vision" presents the other side of the equation, as it allows these great Puritans to give voice to the depth, passion and immense warmth of their spirituality. The title of the book is a reference to the Puritan's great belief in human sinfulness - coupled with the idea that it is only when we cease to flatter ourselves with silly notions of our own worth, but instead accept that we find ourselves on the valley floor; that we are enabled to look up and truly see Christ! It is in so doing that we are actually enveloped in his love, grace, goodness, warmth, assurance and security. Puritan antagonism to 'worldly pleasure', perceived from outside as being a celebration of misery - was from inside the movement rather a desire that nothing but nothing be allowed to distract the broken soul from feasting on the eternal goodness of Christ; especially not anything either sinful or transient.

The assumption of all the prayers in this great volume is of human sinfulness. However, far from being a depressing or gloomy premise - it is the ultimate reality check, the required diagnosis needed; the shredding of all pretense. The Puritan use of Augustine's notion of original sin, isn't only the great leveller of all men before God - but the genuine spur to end introspection and to delight in Christ. So many contemporary Christian books, flatter and - like the L'Oreal adverts begin with the premise that "you're worth it!". Such sentiments might be of use to the self-assured or the proud legalist; but are of no help at all when we experience conviction of sin. When we look at ourselves, then contemplate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for us- our whole being should be screaming out "I'm not worth it!" At times like this - a book like the Valley of Vision is pure gold, as it contains the words of many great men who have been in such a place, but found peace, solace, and a deep-rooted joy in Christ alone. The spirituality of this book resonates well with what I think might be the most wonderful lyric in recent Christian hymn-writing, that comes from the pen of Stuart Townend who wrote: "When Satan tempts me to despair, and tells me of the guilt within - upwards I look and see him there- who made an end to all my sin." Such thoughts are too good to be rushed - and with over three hundred pages of short prayers and meditations; the book provides wonderful encouragement to the soul and joy in spade-fulls.

One of the strange things about the contemporary church is that you could almost divide us into two groups; those who faith is "full of emotion" and those who are "into doctrine" One of the glories of this collection of prayers is that they show nothing of this false dichotomy, between heart and head. In fact they show, in the way that the writers were so moved by, impacted by, even overwhelmed by, the doctrine of grace that any separation of the 'the word' and 'The Spirit' is a horrible distortion. For these writers it is the truth of the word, which the Spirit uses to both break and then remake them; which strips away the flawed treasures of earth, only to replace them with a glorious vision of Christ!

Here is one example I read the other night, entitled "The Gift of Gifts", a wonderful meditation for Christmastime:

What shall I render to thee for the gift of gifts,
thine own dear Son,
begotten, not created,
my Redeemer, proxy, substitute,
his self-emptying incomprehensible,
his infinity of love beyond the heart's grasp.

Herein is wonder of wonders:
he came below to raise me above,
was born like me that I may become like him.

Herein is love:
when I cannot rise to him,
he draws near on wings of grace,
to raise me to himself.

Herein is power;
when Deity and humanity were infinitely apart
he united them in indissoluble unity,
the created and the uncreated.

Herein is wisdom;
when I was undone, with no will to return to him,
and no intellect to devise recovery,
he came, God-incarnate,
to save me to the uttermost,
as a man to die my death
to shed satisfying blood on my behalf,
to work out a perfect
righteousness for me.

Oh God, take me in spirit to the watchful shepherds,
and enlarge my mind;
let me hear good tidings of great joy,
and hearing, believe,
rejoice, praise, adore,
my conscience bathed
in an ocean of repose,
my eyes uplifted to a reconciled Father;

place me with ox, ass, camel,
goat, to look with them upon my
Redeemer's face,
and in him account
myself delivered from sin;

let me with Simeon clasp the new-born child
to my heart,
embrace him with undying faith,
exulting that he is mine
and I am his.

In him thou hast given me so much
that heaven can give
no more.

1 comment:

Hazel said...

Yes, I would agree the emotion/doctrine division is VERY evident in the "contemporary" church. A very thought provoking post.