Monthly Archives: November 2015

The Life and Times of George Whitefield

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18th century Britain, found Christianity in rough shape. Author Robert Philips quotes Bishop Butlers Analogy from that era.

It is come, I know not how, to be taken for granted by many persons, that Christianity is not so much as a subject of inquiry, but that it is now at length discovered to be fictitious; and, accordingly, they treat it as if, in the present age, this were an agreed point among all people of discernment; and nothing remained but to set it up as a principal subject of mirth and ridicule, as it were by way of reprisals for its having so long interrupted the pleasures of the world” (p.13) 

Sounds like something coming right out of 21st century North America, but there it is, in 1730’s England. This reality was even more unsettling when one considers that these sentiments were coming not just from people outside the church, but from people inside it!

A long comes George Whitefield and everything changes, not just in England, but Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and America. The wave of doubt and distraction to pleasure which looked to extinguish the flame of the gospel was rebuffed in large part by the voice of this one man.

What was special about George? Certainly due credit was attributed to God for the incredible work wrought through this man, but George was no ordinary man. It must however, be borne in mind that his face was a language, and his intonation music, and his actions passion. So much was this the case, that Garrick said of him, he could make men weep or tremble by his varied utterances of the word “Mesopotamia” (575) He could represent in the most awful manner the terrors of the Lord (156) When Whitefield preached “Neutrality was an impossibility(156)  With what a flow of words—what a ready profusion of language, did he speak to us upon the great concerns of our souls! In what flaming light did he set our eternity before us! How earnestly he pressed Christ upon us! How did he move our passions with the constraining love of such a Redeemer!” How awfully — with what thunder and sound—did he discharge the artillery of heaven upon us! And yet, how could he soften and melt even a soldier of Ulysses, with the mercy of God!  George burst on the scene, with his passion for the living God, and incredible oratory at exactly the time when preaching had been reduced to the reading of set pieces without emotion or even belief, rote tradition was all that dribbled out of the mouths of passionless sleeping ministers.

Whitefield was one of the first of his kind. He was the new thing. In our world, we would say he went viral. Everyone had to come and listen to this totally unique preacher who preached in fields instead of church buildings, who refused to use notes, who cried, and emoted in dramatic fashion. George would stoop to such unthinkable tactics as to use stories and humour while he preached! He also would defy and criticize the religious leaders of the established church. The net result is that for over 30 years years people would come to listen to him by the thousands, many traveling 20 miles or more on foot to come and hear. He preached an estimated 18,000 sermons in his life! Many weeks of his life he would preach 9 times or more. In the end, thousands upon thousands of people repented of their sins and trusted in Jesus. The tide of large scale unbelief was turned back. In the nearly 300 years that have passed from Whitefield, the use of emotion, drama, and storytelling in the pulpit has become commonplace for us. I wonder, were it possible to transport Whitefield into our era, if he would even distinguish himself? We have taken seriously his warning: Awkwardness in the pulpit is a sin — monotony a sin — dulness a sin — and all of them sins against the welfare of immortal souls (560)

As with any new thing there will always be criticism. How George managed to survive and thrive considering all of the invective and persecution he faced is a testament to his faith in God.

What was Whitefield like?

  • Not a fan of Sin — He was vicious in calling out the vices of his day. The 18th century version of UFC was known as cudgelling. He was not a fan. He blasted dancing schools and concert halls, referring to them as inconsistent with the doctrine of the gospel. These were “devilish diversions” One of Whitefields followers put it this way “every step in a dance is a step towards hell” (174) Whitefield was convinced that Satan used the common entertainments of his day as instruments of distraction that would fill “Beelzebubs Harvest” All of it was bad, so all of it came under his condemnation. Puppet shows, drummers, trumpeters, clowns, exhibitors of wild beasts — basically anything that happened in an 18th century fair was a distraction from the devil. (270) As you could imagine, this message was not always well received, and Whitefield paid for his criticisms in lumps and bumps, several times his life was nearly lost by people angry for his ‘captain kill joy’ stance. In the the end however, so many people converted that much of these entertainments ceased for a time.  It’s hard for a 21st century mind to conceive a clown or a drummer as evil. To Whitefield, anything that turned ones affections away from God was evil. He saw that these entertainments distracted people away from Sabbath keeping, prayer, Bible reading, fellowship, and service. These entertainments were creating self absorbed, idolatrous, consumers instead of people whose greatest joy was God. Does he have a point?
  • Not into Romance — Love was only really for God. However, he felt he needed to get married, But lest any young woman might fancy a marriage to George for loves sake, he was quick to set the record straight “I am free from that foolish passion which the world calls love…The passionate expressions which carnal courtiers use, I think ought to be avoided by those who marry in the Lord. I can only promise by the help of God, ‘to keep my matrimonial vow, and to do what I can towards helping you forward in the great work of your salvation’. (179-180) As you can see he really poured on the charm! Ultimately he was married, but one could hardly consider it a marriage, because he was gone so much of the time.
  • Wanted Peace and Unity – Denominationalism had found it’s stride in the 1700’s. Fragmentation was the way of the future for the church. Whitefield hated all of it, he wished that the partition wall of bigotry and party spirit (would be) broken down, and ministers and teachers of different communions join with one heart and one mind, to carry on the kingdom of Jesus Christ. (127)  I wish all names among the saints of God were swallowed up in the one of Christian. I long for professors to leave off placing religion in saying ‘I am a church man’ ‘I am a dissenter’ My language to such is ‘are you of Christ? If so, I love you with all my heart”  His desire for unity was severely tested. People pressured him to start his own denomination. The church of England was constantly persecuting him, and even the dissenters took shot’s at him as well, they could not understand why he would remain a part of that corrupted institution known as Anglicanism. Then there was the rift with Wesley. Whitefield could never agree with Wesley’s view on perfectionism and Wesley thought Whitefields belief in election was damnable. It got heated and it got public. It was a bigger thing than a modern U.S. presidential debate. All of this, you would think, would create a perfect storm for fragmentation. Whitefield resisted the storm and chose to pursue love, peace and unity. It was Wesley, who preached Georges memorial service, a final testimony to Whitefields commitment to unity.
  • Prayer was the Essential thing. – I frankly confess, that I see and feel more sublimity in a vestry prayer meeting for the spread of the gospel, than in the most splendid meetings in Exeter Hall. I would rather have been one in the first nameless groups, of two or three, who meet together in the name of Christ to pray…than have been the inventor of the platform. I feel much more sure that prayer meetings will prolong themselves, than that speech meetings will keep their place or their power” (532) What an incredible thing for the “prince of preachers” to say. He never lost his way for all his success. The work of God, starts, is sustained, and brought to completion through humble dependance on God in prayer.

The Freedom of Self-forgetfulness

  
The successful life is not about loving oneself or hating oneself. It’s about forgetting oneself. We can forget about ourselves only when we come to a place where we don’t care what others think and we don’t care about what we think.  As long as our identity and worth is tied to what I think about myself or what others think I will never flourish. I will always be overinflated or under inflated. The way through the mess that is our ego is to be come convinced that the ultimate verdict of my life is not tied to others opinion of me or even my own opinion but rather Gods opinion of me. 

The sheer beauty of Christianity shines on this point above all. In every other religion the verdict for my life only comes after my performance, so my self worth is still tied to what I do, only the stakes are much higher! Thanks to Jesus, the verdict of my life is in before the performance. The pressure is off, because of Jesus I am a loved and cherished by God. Proving my worth is no longer part of the equation of life. I am free. Criticism, self doubt, regret, and performance anxiety – all of these paralyzing realities connected to my ego are cut off. I can breathe, I can relax, I can love. This is so liberating.

This tiny little 46 page book is an absolute gem. 

Whether or not you follow Jesus this book is a worthy read. 

This Actually Happened To Me – Health Care, Canadian Style

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My hip was hurting again. I’ve put this off long enough, I thought to myself. It was time for me to face the facts. My hip was toast, and I needed to start the process of getting a new one. 9 years of limping needed to end.

Finally after waiting in the lobby of the Walk-in clinic for to long, I got the chance to tell my story to the doctor. I have letters and MRI reports, and X-rays from years past so I was ready.

“What seems to be the trouble?” he asks.

I launch in to my story, showing him what other doctors have said over the course of nearly a decade of hip pain. He notices that the reports which affirm joint deterioration and recommend surgery are from the States.

“F***ing Americans!” He blurts out.

Huh? What? Wasn’t expecting the F-bomb in the doctors office, I’m a little dazed. Before I can say anything he carries on.

“Yeah they don’t care about you, your hip is probably fine, it’s just that they get bucket loads of money for cutting you up!”

“Umm?”

“Yeah, man, they get all the money, and we GP’s get nothing up here in Canada, It’s really hard to make it as a doctor in Canada you know.”

At this point I have no idea what to say. Finally I try to get us back on topic.

“Well, the American doctors decided not to operate because I was too young. They said I needed to change my lifestyle and manage my pain, so anyway, I moved to Canada, and tried to figure out ways to avoid surgery and manage pain so I did all kinds of things, like PRP for example.”

“What’s that?”

“Platelet Rich Plasma Therapy” I tell him.

He cocks his head and crosses his arms “Is that some kind of Naturopathic thing?”

“Yes”

“F***ing Naturopaths! — It’s just witchdoctor voodoo s**t man and they make so much money doing it! It’s just really hard for GP’s to make it in Vancouver!”

The second F-bomb had landed as effortlessly as the first. Wow!

It occurred to me, that this was not the guy to help me with my hip today. I began inching my way to the door. Health care, Canadian style, not always helpful, but certainly never boring.

Desiring the Kingdom

 

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He is repetitive, however, since his book is all about the benefits of repetition and the development of desire shaping habits, I don’t suppose he should apologize for using the word “pedagogy” a whopping 57 times and “telos” 38 times in his book!

What is Smith after with all this talk about habits and liturgies? He is in full revolt against Descartes axiom “I think therefore I am.” For Smith we are not fundamentally rational/thinking creatures, nor are we fundamentally believing creatures. Smith is utterly convinced that we are desiring creatures. To be human is to love (51) We are affective embodied creatures who make our way in the world by feeling our way around it (47) — So when it comes to the goal (telos) of education methods (pedagogy) Especially the formation of Christian education, we should be less concerned about ideas, rules, and doctrines and more concerned about capturing the imagination through pictures, stories, and embodied rituals. The reason for this, according to Smith is that our habits are the hinge that turns our heart”(56) as embodied lovers our loves are aimed and primed by the rituals and practices that turn those desires (126) 

We need to give up our fixation on ideas, (65) he says, after all, before Christians had systematic theologies and worldviews they were singing hymns and psalms, saying prayers and celebrating the eucharist. (139) In so many churches belief and doctrine inform us and our worship follows as an expression of that belief.  Smith says that’s backwards. Worship comes first, because desire forms knowledge.

The undeniable passion of this book is to call Christians back to liturgy. We need intentional embodied practices at corporate worship gatherings because they are invaluable in shaping our loves and desire’s back toward God. Absorbing information about God won’t do it.  Smith’s argument was compelling especially when he compared how secular institutions such as the mall, the frat house, and the stadium all employ embodied rituals and habits with incredible success as the means to capture the hearts of people.

The curious paradox — Smith writes a book, books target the mind. His book is a bunch of ideas communicating that ultimately it’s not ideas that form our loves but rather practices. He himself is still fixated on ideas, by virtue of the fact that he writes a book. He wants us to believe that humans operate from the body up. (25) but yet his book, is attempting to grab our heart from the mind down, as books do. I point out this paradox to suggest that maybe there is more to the development of deep love than embodied practices. Maybe that’s just a part of it, granted even a big part, but this book on its face, is leading me to believe that if I just practice more liturgy, if I just actively engage in more embodied habits and rituals then a deeper love for God will be formed in my life. Is that true? I am not convinced.

What does the Bible say about this?  — Smith doesn’t really interact much with the Bible. I think it has a lot to say. In the Old Testament we discover Jewish worship and see quickly that it is loaded with liturgy. The ancient worshippers were totally embodied — all the senses engaged in repetitive worship designed to deepen love for God. So far, Smith could simply point to that and say “see there you have it”. The only troubling business is when you get to the prophets and then ultimately to Jesus. They all launch full scale attacks on the religion of their respective days and liturgy is at the centre of their condemnation.  The assault crashes in: They honour me with their lips, they are meticulous in the practice of their rituals, but yet there is a huge problem. From Isaiah to Jesus it’s the same problem. “Their hearts are far from me.” Bucket loads of liturgy, more than anyone in the 21st century Western world could even fathom, and yet the hearts of these worshippers are not even close to being captured by God’s love. What does one make of this? What is shocking to me, is Smith doesn’t even bring it up, not a single word word about it.

What does Church History say about this? — As you trace church history you see the same pattern emerging. Over time, faith often finds itself reduced to going through ritualistic motions, with hearts not at all captured by God’s love. After reading Luther’s biography (1500’s), and then Whitefield’s (1700’s) it’s plain to see that these men called their listeners away from dead ritual and into something that was not just felt, but also known and believed. It seems to me that somehow knowledge, belief, and desire working in concert is what awakened people to a deeper love for God.

I agree with Smith that love is what drives the human, it shapes our belief and our knowledge – or at least how we interpret knowledge. I also agree that at some level habitual practice is extremely formative in shaping desire, I’m just not sure if that’s all there is to it. I think there is more.

I think mission might have something to do with it — the habitual practice of outward action. (?) It might be why Paul says “What is important is faith expressing itself in love” (Gal 5:6) This coming after he straightly charges the Galatians believers not to fall back into their Jewish rituals and practices. — The Love of Christ must flow outward or it dies. Maybe for this same reason, Micah says to his listeners its not about bowing, and burning, and offering things to God in ritualistic fashion. Rather, it’s about doing what is right in the everyday, practicing mercy on people, and being humble. (Micah 6:8) — perhaps in the walking out of God’s mission love grows.