Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith
Here is a monument of a book! Forgive the exuberance, but I jest not. One can easily claim to have done a theological course just reading this book. There is church history and biography, applied theology and spirituality, and best of all, personal application at the end of it. For it makes one ask: “Where am I in all of this and what can I do to make up for the lack I see in my own life of faith?”
Within the covers of the book, Richard Foster sketches the movements and people who make the Christian Church so multi-faceted in the expression of its faith, all of them “streams of living water” issuing from the same source. He is personally convinced that God is drawing together believers from various traditions, hitherto quite separate, but now more ready to appreciate and work with one another to accomplish the same goal of making Jesus Christ known to the world.
It is, of course, Jesus himself who models the way we should live as his followers. The “divine paradigm” is that of prayer, purity of heart, life in the spirit, compassion and proclamation. On this platform emerge the various traditions: Contemplative, Holiness, Charismatic, Social Justice, Evangelical and Incarnational.
Foster takes a clean, straightforward approach to examining each of these traditions. First, he looks for a historical paradigm. So in the contemplative tradition, he introduces Antonius of the 3rd century, a powerful athletae Dei (athlete of God) who sought the solitude of the desert for character and spiritual formation. Next, he seeks a biblical paradigm: here, it is the Apostle John, whose understanding of divine love makes him a true contemplative. Then we are given a contemporary paradigm: now, Frank C. Laubach who devoted a lifetime to bringing literacy to millions who had no access to formal education. Foster gives a definition of the tradition, describing the contemplative as being “beautiful of soul”. He points out the major strengths and possible dangers of the movement and ends with some suggestions on how it may be practised: taking time off to be alone, praying, instead of reading, Scripture, be intentionally at leisure and waste time with God – simple, everyday applications that make sense in our ordinary world.
Using this pattern Foster makes a selection of various personalities in biblical and church history who, whether they are already familiar or unknown to us, become vividly meaningful when seen in the context of the tradition that defines them. Here, of course, lies a problem that Foster acknowledges at the end: that is, labelling has its limits. Shouldn’t John Wesley be better placed in the Evangelical Tradition rather than Holiness? How are the Franciscans to be regarded for they are surely of the Charismatic, Social Justice and Evangelical Traditions all at once? Still, this is a minor problem and only academic.
Like me, most readers will probably be fascinated by the portraits of the representatives of each Tradition. Some will be little known personalities such as Phoebe Palmers who exerted tremendous spiritual influence in 19th century United States when women were not generally accorded positions of authority; John Woolman, an early abolitionist who, more than 100 years before the Civil War, worked with quiet, tireless conviction against slavery and William J. Seymour, a black American preacher who exemplified the best of the Charismatic Tradition in his amazingly powerful ministry on Azusa Street that united believers of all race and colour during a time when desegregation was still a long way off.
Even when the portraits are familiar – Billy Graham, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Dag Hammarskjold – because they are more contemporary, we are equally fascinated by Foster’s presentation because he masterfully brings out the quintessential spiritual qualities of these people in relation to the Tradition that they exemplify. In placing Bonhoeffer in the Holiness Tradition, Foster changes for us the way we understand “holiness”. He picks a hero of the faith who believed we must live in “existence for others”. Bonhoeffer’s virtue was his conviction that following Jesus meant taking the Sermon on the Mount seriously; it led him to take free, responsible and obedient action at a crucial time without regard for the cost to himself. Foster defines holiness as “the ability to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done” and virtue means simply “to function well”. Foster invites contention here because some of Bonhoeffer’s actions were not exactly “regular” by normal church standards (conspiring to assassinate, even a monster like Hitler, would have its detractors). But he is right in his clear-sighted understanding of that essential ingredient of holiness in Bonhoeffer’s life of faith and it is this clarity that illuminates his descriptions of the many controversial personalities in the book.
As the Traditions unfold one by one, we may begin to realise, and even feel guilty, that we have neglected the practice of many aspects of our faith. Yet it is not the book’s intention to generate guilt. It seeks to inform and correct perceptions. It encourages acceptance of practices differing from ours, and it prompts us to ask what more we can do for God.
Foster is generously open in his assessment of all Christian Traditions, placing Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox streams together as coming from the same source. If the Protestants weigh in more heavily with their Evangelical and Charismatic Traditions they are not better than the Catholics with their Social Justice and Contemplative or the Orthodox with their Incarnational Traditions. It is only by the grace of God that we are called, and all who have proven faithful He has used majestically. It is the gift of Streams that we come away from its reading with a sublime appreciation of the Church and its many faces. It removes once and for all narrow-minded sectarian righteousness and baptises us with a vision of a gloriously united Body of believers whose eyes are fixed on the one and same Lord and Saviour.
Chapel on 13 September 2006
Dr Quek spoke on the theme of “holiness”. The text was Leviticus 19:20-29. The text concerns sexual violation, first crops, and issues pertaining to blood and mutilation. From them, the dean drew three general principles pertaining to holiness.
In summary, it is that God has a right to command us to holiness; that He expects holiness from us; and that holiness separates God from men.
God has a right to command holiness. Right through the chapter, we cannot help but catch the refrain, “I am the LORD.”
That God expects holiness is clear not only in the regulations of Old Testament law, but also in New Testament exhortation. Citing the famed “separation” text of II Corinthians 6:14-7:1, Dr Quek drew attention to the climax of Paul’s exhortation in the call to “make holiness perfect in the fear of God” (7:1).
The “separation text” led to the third point. Holiness separates God from men. If we are to spend eternity in the presence of God, it makes sense to begin the process of practising holiness now. The preacher also took care to spell out the terms of true biblical separation. It is a call to separation from that which is evil, rather than separation from other brethren.
The speaker ended his address with a story of someone he knew who had obsessive compulsive disorder. The call to holiness is by no means to engender OCD. It is but a reminder that we, as God’s people, do need to practise personal holiness.
Chapel speaker on Sep 27 will be Ms Oriana Sun.
(Summary by Ng Seng Chuan)
the Craft of Teaching
(CE255, 1.5 credits), starting Sep 26, 7.15-10.15pm. Lecturer: Dr Ng
Galatians (NT312, 1.5
credits), starting Oct 12, 7.15-10.15pm, at Mt Carmel BP Church.
Lecturer: Dr Oh Boon Leong.
Religious Movements: Field Trips
(TS370, 1.5 credits), starting Oct
23, 7.30-10pm, Meeting point: Bishan campus. Lecturer: Rev Adrian
van Leen/Tutor: Dr Quek Swee Hwa.
Retreat Experience: Nature, Purpose & Dynamics
(CE264, 1.5 credits), Dates: Nov 6, 13, 20, 27, Dec 4, 7.15-10.15pm.
Residential Retreat: Dec 8-10 (additional charge). Lecturer: Mr John
Chong Ser Choon.
¨ Addictions: On Substance & Pathological Gambling (CO260, 1.5 credits), starting Nov 9, 7.15-10.15pm. Lecturer: Mr William Teo.
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