Author: Chris Spark

Scholarship: Stars, not the Sun – Wisdom from John Donne (Chris Spark)


      The sacred academy above
Of Doctors, whose pains have unclasp’d, and taught
      Both books of life to us—for love
To know Thy scriptures tells us, we are wrote
            In Thy other book—pray for us there,
            That what they have misdone
Or missaid, we to that may not adhere.
Their zeal may be our sin. Lord, let us run
Mean ways, and call them stars, but not the sun.

This is a section from a work by John Donne, The Litany.

Donne was a 17th Century Anglican clergyman, as well as a rather important writer. Two phrases which he coined are ‘no man is an island’ and ‘for whom the bell tolls’ (Metallica fans are especially fond of the latter). I would by no means endorse all he wrote, but, my goodness, sometimes he expresses the beauty and power of the Christian faith with depth I have seldom heard outside of Scripture. His words can be genuinely breath-taking. I first came across Donne through the sublime poem ‘A Hymn to God the Father’, one of the most wonderfully real and beautiful reflections on the personal significance of atonement I have ever experienced. Later I encountered ‘Death Be Not Proud’, a piece I think I would like read at my funeral.

The Litany, which is where I started this post, is an extended poetic reflection on various beings – from Father, Son, Spirit, Trinity, to different groups and orders of people. As with his wider work, I don’t think everything in it is awesome, and I would have to disagree fairly strongly at a number of points.

But section 13, quoted above, struck me as full of wisdom for many of us today who regularly engage with scholarship about Christ and Scripture – whether we do that in preparation for preaching or teaching, for general reading and interest, or for other reasons. If I understand what he is saying rightly (which I may not!), he helps us in two excellent ways:

Firstly, Donne would warn us against the kind of dependence on, and even worship of, scholarship which makes us ‘the sun’ (and in which we can let it eclipse the Son). In this way we might think and speak as if scholarship was always done from a neutral or completely transparent perspective, or treat it as almost canonical. We uncritically defer to scholarly opinion as it currently stands (or that of our favourite scholar or scholars), and this may indeed be a way of not having to do the hard work and thinking (and training and learning) ourselves. I know that temptation in myself.

Donne rather seeks that we be saved from what ‘they have misdone, or [m]issaid’, so that ‘…their zeal may not be our sin’.

This is well said, and even better if heeded.
But on the other hand…

Secondly, he would also encourage us to actually listen to, and make use of, scholarship. He speaks of scholars as ‘[d]octors, whose pains have unclasp’d, and taught, [b]oth books of life to us—for love’.

Some of us are at times in danger of what I think is a silly scorning of scholarship, where we have a fundamentally sceptical attitude, often arising from self-defensiveness. In my opinion (as one who is tempted to it at times!), this attitude lacks a basic Christian principle of knowledge: humility. If we won’t genuinely listen and consider what those who have spent a good deal of time learning have to say, we are very unlikely to ever discover areas where we are wrong – because we already think we have all the answers!

Now of course we will definitely have to disagree with scholarship at times – Paul did say the cross would be foolishness to the world (1 Corinthians 1), and no doubt that includes many scholars. Besides which, scholarship itself disagrees with itself very often. But to dismiss the opinions of those who have worked hard at learning, rather than humbly, if critically, listen – well that is to sow arrogance and to impoverish our riches for understanding the depths of God’s word as it has been given to us.

‘Stars, but not the sun’. There is a bit of wisdom from an old poet for all of us who stand on the shoulders of giants.

I’m Wrong (Chris Spark)

We’re both right.

That’s something an old friend and I used to say to each other in our teen years (I think the credit should go to him for originally coining it, but I could be wrong…). It was most likely usually used in the course of discussion of things like science fiction, music, and teenaged philosophy – not uncommonly in the potato and pumpkin fields of North Canterbury as we earned money to buy guitars and cymbals. We used ‘we’re both right’ when we differed on something and wanted to end the discussion happily. And we used it partially in jest.

But there is something profound in it I think. Not that we were profound (our discussions sometimes got very interesting, but ‘profound’ may be overreaching!). The profundity is in what it revealed about us that is common to so many of us. We didn’t like being wrong. When we held views, or made arguments, for two opinions that were clearly different, and wouldn’t fit together, we found it easy to say we were ‘both right’ than to admit one of us was wrong. Even if it was a case of saying one of us must be wrong, even if we weren’t sure which – it was still easier to say ‘we’re both right’.

Being wrong is really, really difficult. Actually, that is not quite right. Being wrong is easy. Admitting you are wrong, that is another kettle of fish. That is hard. One of New Zealand’s finest singer songwriter talents, Bic Runga, had a song on her first album called ‘Sorry’ with a line that went ‘it’s not that hard to say, so why can’t I say it now?’ The answer of course is that to say sorry is to admit I’ve been in the wrong. And to admit I’m wrong in that or any other way is just hard.

Should it be so hard? We are wrong all the time about a million things. And we so often claim to be happy to be corrected, to be happy to be shown to be wrong, to ‘hope I’m wrong’. Occasionally some of us manage to say ‘I was wrong’ – in the past tense. That is still hard enough, and rare enough. But it is a little safer, because that was the old me. I was wrong (but I’m right now).

But when it comes to actually being wrong now – acknowledging we are wrong, admitting it, and changing – it is hard. Because to be wrong feels like it is to question our value. To undermine the justification for our existence.

That is where Christianity is really hard. It can be hard in lots of ways for people to accept. But among the most universally difficult is this – to be Christian is to say ‘I’m wrong’. And not just in one area, or about one theory, or on one occasion. Rather, to become a Christian is to say, at the most fundamental level, I am wrong. As Jesus puts it, our hearts are wrong (Mark 7:20-23). As the Apostle Paul puts it, our rejection of God makes us thoroughly wrong and in big trouble (Romans 1-3). And that’s why, at the heart of the start of being a Christian, and essential to the continuation of being a Christian, is repentance – turning around, because you are continually admitting you are wrong.

“8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:8-9

If we confess our sins. In other words, if we say we are wrong. There is the real rub.

But there is the real freedom, too. To be able to admit we are wrong, and to know that at the same time we are justified. It’s not about being right anymore. Rather, as Paul puts it in that discussion of our wrong-ness: it’s about this: “Let God be true, and every human being a liar” Romans 3:4

It’s about us all admitting we are wrong. All of us. Each of us – including me, including you. On a level playing field of wrong-ness. And, having been freed from needing to justify our existence by being right, we can get on with really living. Because it is Christ’s right-ness that justifies us, not our own.

For those of us who are Christian teachers and preachers and pastors, I suggest this means we need to help our people get better at being wrong. Because they are anyway, whether they admit it or not. And perhaps the first way to help them admit they are wrong is to show them how. We can own up to being wrong, We can express the freedom of God’s justification in Christ by admitting the areas and ways we are wrong, rather than passionately holding on to our right-ness and defending ourselves all the time.

We are not both right. We are all wrong. I’m most certainly wrong. And Jesus is right enough for the lot of us.

The Golden Rule is Silver (Chris Spark)

When Jesus, a large number of secularists, and a whole lot of other religions all agree on something, you might figure you are on to something.

“Love you neighbour as yourself.”

This, and it’s close cousin “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, is a point where many secularists and many non-Christian religious traditions agree quite substantially with Jesus (and the Apostles, who are also big fans – Romans 13:9, Galatians 5:14, James 2:8). I suspect this fact has made this principle a pretty good starting point for a lot of discussion and working together. It seems to be on to something.

This in turn fits with it being referred to as ‘the Golden Rule’, both in general and by Christians in particular.

This is all good stuff. Frankly if any of us are following any part of Jesus’ teaching (as he picked up Old Testament teaching) that can only be good for us and for society as a whole.

However for Christians this will never be enough. And I wonder if some of us are in danger of forgetting that – thinking that if we get the Golden Rule right, we will get everything right.

Problem is, the Golden Rule is actually silver. It is good and vitally important – and frankly we could all do a lot more living it out. But, it is second – silver. It only makes ultimate Christian sense when it is understood in the light of the real Christian Golden Rule.

When someone came up to Jesus and asked him the most important commandment, here is what happened:

29 "The most important one," answered Jesus, "is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’

31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’1 There is no commandment greater than these."
(Mark 12:29

Here we see it very plainly – loving God with all our beings is first (the real Christian Golden Rule), and flows into the second, which is loving our neighbours as ourselves (the Christian Silver Rule).

What this does is makes sense of reality – if God is there, he deserves to be loved first. Jesus puts it in that order. But it also ends up providing motivation – if you really love God with all your being, you will love creatures made in his image, and you will have the resources to recognise that all humans are indeed made in his image, and are therefore rightful objects of your love. (When people who call themselves by Christ’s name forget to love in their speech and actions, that is a good opportunity to call us to return to being true to our love of God by loving others.)

In light of this, I have stopped calling ‘love your neighbour’ and ‘do unto others’ the Golden Rule. As the Silver Rule, it is still vitally important, and it can still be stated on its own of course (as Jesus and the apostles do at times). But calling it the Silver (rather than Golden) Rule reminds us that there is indeed another command that is Golden. And that in urn reminds us that to really get the Silver Rule in its depth, with the sorts of implications Jesus saw in it, and to really have the resources to live this Silver Rule out in its Christian fullness, you need the real Golden Rule firmly in your heart and mind first.

But of course, Christians will realise that even knowing that the Golden and Silver Rules go together is not enough to motivate us to keep them when it is really costly – and Jesus clearly thought it would be costly (see the Good Samaritan for example, Luke 10:25-37). The only thing that will really cut it to motivate and resource us to live lives shaped by these rules is the Love to which both rules point – the Love that teaches us how to love both God and neighbour; the Love shown us in the one who loved others (to the point of death) in the way they had positively not loved him; the Love which moved that one to give his whole being – heart, soul, mind and strength – for us, when we didn’t even care for him.

10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

11 Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:10-11)


The Two Together:

Matt 22:36-40; Mk 12:28-34; Lk 10:25-8

Love your neighbour as yourself:

Matt 19:19; Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14; James 2:8

Do unto others:

Lk 6:31; Matt 7:12

More Jesus, less Bible? (Chris Spark)

I hate false dichotomies. They are a pet hate of mine. They are almost always a way that an oversimplification starts sounding plausible. If you are A, you can’t be B. Like ‘if you are angry at someone you don’t love them’. Or ‘if you judge someone’s actions to be wrong, you don’t accept that person’. Anger and love are not mutually exclusive – in fact sometimes they are closely related – you are angry because you care about the person. Considering someone’s actions to be wrong and acceptance of that person are similarly not mutually exclusive. When I hear these sorts of false dichotomies claimed or assumed, it drives me crazy.

I was chatting with a wonderful Christian woman a few weeks ago, and our discussion helped me realise that something a lot like a false dichotomy sneaks into Christian thinking quite often. I mean a division between loving Jesus and loving the Bible.

As I say, it is not usually actually a false dichotomy as such. People don’t say ‘if you love the Bible you can’t love Jesus’ or vice versa. Rather, they say things like ‘you love the Bible too much, you need to love Jesus more’. ‘Stop focussing on the Bible and start focussing on Jesus.’ ‘If you focussed on Jesus more and the Bible less, you’d be much more tolerant.’ That sort of thing. It’s as if there is only so much love and focus to go around, so if you love the Bible too much and focus on it too much, then you won’t have any love and focus left over for Jesus. (I don’t think I usually hear it said the other way around – ‘you love Jesus too much, you should love the Bible more’ – maybe you have?)

Now at one level this either/or is understandable. Some people seem to focus on the Bible heaps and not Jesus. Westboro Baptist Church are one group that come to mind – they are famous for picketing funerals with insensitive signs. In a documentary I saw on them, they talked about ‘the Word of God’ a lot (meaning the Bible), but almost never about Jesus. This could have been because of editing by the documentary crew, but I think not. And that sort of attitude might make you think that ‘love Jesus more rather than the Bible’ is a fair thing to say.

But I want to suggest it is completely wrong. If you really want to love Jesus more, you need to focus more on the Bible. And on the other side of the coin, the problem with people who seem to focus on the Bible too much is that actually they don’t focus on the Bible enough.

Sound strange? Let me try to explain.

The Scriptures (aka the Bible) point us to Jesus. There is no doubt that in their Christian form this is what they do. In the New Testament the writers constantly see the entire Old Testament pointing to Jesus, which isn’t surprising seeing as Jesus himself told them that was the case (Luke 24:44-49).
The purpose of the Gospels is clearly to focus us on Jesus – he is the subject of the narrative, and the purpose of bringing people to him is explicitly stated in some cases (eg John 20:30-31).
The New Testament letters absolutely brim with Jesus, showing us what he has done, who he has made us, how we ought to live as his people.
The Scriptures, if we take them seriously and really read them on their own terms, point us to Jesus. And they do that not just so that we would know about Jesus, but so that we would love and obey and cherish him.

So let’s not assume there is a limit of love and focus we have, and therefore we need to split it between Jesus and the Bible. No, rather, let’s listen to what the Bible actually says and let it fill our hearts with love for Jesus.

This will mean two important things for two groups of people – who may be more like each other than it seems at first:

1) When you see an individual or group who seem to love the Bible a lot, but don’t seem to love or act like Jesus, the answer is not for them to spend less time on the Bible. Rather it is for them to actually humbly and honestly read the Bible prayerfully more, to truly love the Bible more, and through it (by the work of the same Spirit who inspired the Bible) to come to love Jesus more. If they take the Bible seriously and humbly and open-mindedly, that can’t help but result in love for Jesus.

2) When you encounter an individual or group who claim to love Jesus greatly, yet have little time for the Bible or in practice dismiss it, it would be fair to question the depth of their love for Jesus. This is simply because the Bible’s very purpose and the intention of its writers is precisely that we love Jesus. It is filled with obedient and humble love for Jesus. So for someone who loves Jesus to not love and seek to obey and live out the Bible would be a very strange thing. The answer, I am so bold as to suggest, is to come again humbly and prayerfully and honestly before the Scriptures and thereby to come to Jesus as he has revealed himself by the Spirit and through his chosen Apostles (again Luke 24:44-49 is a good example of this choosing), and through this to love him more.

Anything less than a commitment to listening humbly and patiently and eagerly and openly and prayerfully to the Bible can only hurt our love for Jesus. And anything less than love for Jesus can only mean we have not really been loving and listening to the Bible.

May God help us all to love Jesus more through the Bible.

Too Heavenly Minded… (Chris Spark)

“They are too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good!”

You may have heard that line floating around. It captures something we have all come across. The attitude of a person who is so caught up in ‘matters of religion’ that they never seem to pay any attention to what is going on at ground level. This person is so focussed on heaven – and in particular probably on the One who is enthroned in heaven – that they are disconnected from the real world, from the mud and the blood and the sweat and, perhaps especially, the tears here on earth. And disconnection from the reality of earth is never a good thing. Especially seeing as it usually means disconnection from people – from the real world of people, from the messy business of being involved in the real lives of real world people.

A couple of weeks ago I looked closely at the second chapter of the first letter of the Apostle Paul to the Christians in the city of Thessalonica (in other words, 1 Thessalonians chapter 2). That chapter showed me something about this idea of being too heavenly minded to be of any earthly good. In fact, it did something I particularly love – it blew apart the false dichotomy that is contained in that pithy little saying.

Paul is the middle of describing his relationship with the Christians in Thessalonica – reminiscing with them over the time he had spent with them not too long before. In chapter 2 he describes the way he feels about them. He uses a series of ‘not…but’ statements – the first being that his visit to Thessalonica was not a waste of time (“not without results”, verse 1), but rather they preached the gospel in spite of the rough time they were having (verse 2).

It starts getting to my point in the second ‘not…but’ statement – their appeal did not come from wrong motives (verse 3), but rather they spoke as men trying to please God. In other words (and to cut a long and interesting story rather short), their major concern was not that they win over people (at all costs), but rather they were concerned about what God thought of them. They were interested in God’s opinion of them above all, as the one who had given them this message to preach. They were, in other words, above all heavenly minded.

So you would think they wouldn’t be much earthly good. And given they weren’t out primarily to please people, that they would keep people and all their messiness at an appropriate distance.

Which is where the dichotomy explosion kicks in. Because the third and biggest ‘not…but’ statement in this chapter goes, I am pretty sure, from verse 5 all the way to verse 8, and then the theme of it is expanded on to the end of verse 11. The contrast here is that they came not with deception or self-seeking (verse 5-7a), but rather with genuine, self-giving, life-sharing love. The depth of the language Paul uses here of the love he and his friends had for the Thessalonians is extraordinary. Paul describes himself as being like both a father and a mother in his affections for them, and talks of them in terms of his ‘earnest desire’ for them (verse 8, rather colourlessly translated as ‘care’ in most English translations). And, vitally in terms of exploding this dichotomy, he says this in verse 8:

“…we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of Godbut our lives as well,because you had become so dear to us.”

See Paul’s absolute focus on pleasing God, his thorough ‘heavenly mindedness’, resulted in a passion for people, and deep affectionate care. That passion and care meant he shared his life, his very self with them. He got involved in their lives, he shared in their hurts, he cared for them in every way he could. He was so heavenly minded that he was of immense earthly good.

To be honest that isn’t surprising. He was following and proclaiming a saviour who was the son of heaven himself, the very mind of heaven, who yet came and made his home on earth – precisely in the mud and the blood, the sweat and definitely the tears. Jesus was the heavenly mind doing the ultimate earthly good. Paul was simply learning and showing what it meant to follow Jesus.

So my question to myself, and to us all, is this: do we desire to please God enough that it spills over into passionate affection for people? Are we caught up with the mind of our saviour enough that sharing our lives with others is the natural overflow of our love? Or: are we heavenly minded enough to be of true earthly good?