Which Way to the Oasis? — Reflections on Learning in Community

Dr. David D. Stewart is Professor Emeritus, Trent University, and teaches Humanities as a volunteer at St. Stephen's University, St. Stephen, New Brunswick. He is a lay member of the Presbytery of Saint John, serves on the General Assembly's Committee on Theological Education, and is a member of the Atlantic Renewal Task Force Co-ordinating Group of the Renewal Fellowship.

We always sat in the sixth row, to the left of the centre aisle. My earliest recollections of those wartime years growing up in Knox Church in Toronto were good; snuggling up to my Mum in her warm furry coat, being carried by the flow of the Word and the words sung, spoken, read. Yes, and as my eyes wafted to and fro from one familiar part of the sanctuary to another, always I was lifted up, up to those words: WORSHIP THE LORD IN THE BEAUTY OF HOLINESS that climbed across the great arch high above the pulpit.

That was then, as they say; and this is now. For in between lie decades of yearning for what those words from Psalm 96 hold out before us as both a promise and a marching order. For me, amazingly enough, the image that rises before the inner eye is that of a desert. (Remember in your mercy, Lord, all those hectic years of parenting, developing one's career and Christian service.) I wonder whether one is ever prepared as a young person for what is ahead, for that "long obedience" hinted at in Isaiah's expression "… they shall walk and not faint." For all our marvellous experiences of fellowship in the context of Christian student work, in my case with IVCF here and in Germany, I sense that many of us were dying inwardly of the disease of individualism. Our orthodoxy was as pure as our consciences and our church traditions could make it, but at bottom our spiritual life was individualistic, very private, even selfish. (I will not say that it is no longer so, but at least it is an identified pathology, with rumours of healing.) It is possible to pursue holiness and yet miss out on wholeness. If we had had better trained hearts and sounder reflexes we would have been able to read in one another's eyes the marks of desert weariness and the inertia of the inner self amidst all that triumphant forward surge of our Christian enterprise.

This is not a success story.

It has taken me most of my adult life to come to the point of recognizing a bit of what was wrapped up in that command and invitation, "Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness." Worship as the central act of the people of God is hardly a novel idea, but seen as the "environment" in which all of the work of the Kingdom, including spiritual warfare, is carried on, it has recently become more widely embraced by the Church at large. My computer uses Windows 95 as the "environment" in which all those incomprehensible software minions go about their mysterious duties at my behest. This is a faint echo of what the Old Testament is speaking of here. We see the rich truth unfolding before us like Autumn's golden apron of maple leaves spreading down a slope from the tree above: "Whoever offers praise glorifies me, … and to him I will show my salvation…" (Psalm 50:23). And then: "Praise waits for thee in Zion" (Psalm 65:1) — apparently an irresistibly powerful inducement to God to visit his people! In Psalm 22:3 (KJV) the Lord is described as "inhabiting the praise of Israel." Here we are in the middle of a zone of transforming power; the praising people are emboldened to cry out "Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and the work of our hands establish thou it…"(Psalm 90). Clearly there is a direct tie between the offering of praise and the coming of the beauty, the brilliant, glorious splendour of God's own being, upon his covenant people, concretely expressed through the daily life of the people ("the work of our hands"). Paul says the same in 2 Corinthians 3:18 when speaking of the transforming vision of Christ. All of life is to be worship, and all of worship is designed to flow into the nooks and crannies of our daily life, if only we are prepared to offer them to God.

Beauty is something we think we can recognize, even though we might be hard pressed to define it. But that is not our job right now; this is not a class in aesthetics. We know this much instinctively, as the Greeks did analytically: Beauty speaks to us of wholeness, of harmony, of order, of grace or gracefulness. We know what is meant when someone is praised for doing a "beautiful thing" for someone else; the deed was full of light and goodness. For a moment the world was in order again, and the life of the ages, eternal life, the life of Jesus risen and glorified, had touched down at a point in time and space. So beauty, as we meet it in Scripture, is dynamic, it is holiness expressed, just as perhaps we can say that praise is the expression of the inward posture of the heart toward God. I began to get excited about this when reading in 2 Chronicles 20. Faced with the gathered invading armies of the neighbouring kingdoms, King Jehoshaphat of Judah appoints singers unto the Lord, who are to praise the beauty of holiness. They go out before the army to sing and to praise, and the army prevails against the children of Ammon and Moab. The God of holy order creates chaos among the enemy forces and they are routed. The result is peace round about (2 Chronicles 20:29-30) for the people of God.

What happened there in the Desert of Tekoah is almost, in a sublime sense, holy comedy, this march of the band amidst a holy din of every kind of instrument and voice. But it was God's appointed way to show his arm, just as once before at Jericho (and, I dare say, to validate the place of music in the worship-warfare of the Church!). So we might quarry the narrative to suggest that in the place and inward posture of worship, issuing in praise, the people of God are surrounded, as it were, by a threefold wall of holy fire ("Holy… Holy… Holy is the Lord"), their protection against the power of darkness and their passage into the place of holy learning at their Master's feet.

Once more from the top…

Let's look once again at "O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness…"(Psalm 96:9) in context. The worship called for here is full of music, new music, it is witness to the nations, it affirms his lordship, and it provokes awe on the part of those who see it. Welling up amidst the beauty of holiness, praise is to be brought by the entire magnificent creation fashioned by the hand of God and still sustained by him. All around us we see people honouring the gods of the nations, which are nothing but idols, made things, "but the Lord made the heavens." This drips with irony, of course, because the main agenda of the pagan religions, and of their modern descendants, is to secure fertility and fruitfulness, long life and good crops, from the gods. For them the point of life is just . . . life. So it is striking to note in Psalm 115:8 that idolaters are described as being like the idols that they adore. No God? No life.

Gradually I am getting the message that the Old Testament concept of beauty as manifesting God's holy order and splendour, is of a piece with the sense of God's action. Psalm 145:4 sees one generation commending God's works to another, telling of his mighty acts. In a supreme sense the people of Israel possessed a culture of continuities; families were the primary place where learning about who God is and what he has done was to take place along with the skills that contributed to making the civic life of the people one more expression of the beauty of God's holiness. And this is where those of us who are parents and teachers come in.

Wherever the knowledge of the mighty acts of God is to be transmitted, all the powers of darkness are arrayed to frustrate this holy exchange between one generation and the next. The demons hate community. The Christian mind on its own is not proof against such attack, but the Christian community, gathered to praise God and let him be who he is, has a far better chance. It would call for a separate discussion, but one might profitably consider whether our Christian schools have even begun to take the notion of praise as the protecting environment for the holy work of the Christian mind and heart as seriously as the challenges to the Church would warrant. It is a war zone "out there" and "in here." And after such reflection we might more urgently look to the study groups and cell groups in our churches as an indispensable armoury of the Spirit in our midst, especially where they give themselves to praise and intercession. But that too would be a separate thread to be picked up elsewhere.

Which way to the oasis?

Universities and colleges today are not terribly happy places by and large. Just ten years ago, at a point of transition in my career as teacher and researcher, we began to feel that God might be nudging us in the direction of teaching in a clearly Christian context after all these years in secular universities. We came across St. Stephen's University, a tiny community of highly motivated students and university teachers, in small-town New Brunswick. Out of that encounter came for my wife Helga and myself a couple of years later the decision to move to St. Stephen's to teach as volunteers. The experience of becoming part of a community of faith, life and studies is worth telling, I think, because it may help to confirm in our minds, with regard to our congregational life, the rightness of certain notions about spiritual priorities.

The crisis of modern education is marked by a radical loss of community. The data are well familiar: mass university, smorgasbord-style parcelling of knowledge without much attempt at crafting a symphony of coherent insight and knowledge. All of our knowledge about the "temptability" of the human mind should tell us that this is inevitable, for the Genesis 3 account of the Fall displays the mechanisms of selfishness at work. The gifts of God to Eve and Adam become things whose discovered or imagined qualities (good to look at, pleasant to the taste, good for getting wisdom ) become the basis for behaviour, displacing the word of the Lord. So the experience of the awakening self and of the world that is going to be "taken in hand" is a fall from the freedom of obedience into the relentless bondage to things which seem to contain their own laws, and with this scenario we find ourselves at the heart of the modern university. Knowledge without servanthood is essentially selfish and individualistic…, breeding loneliness of a specially glacial kind.

Universities like to describe themselves as communities, but the term can work against true community by creating on a superficial level a fiction of oneness which is not supported by the actual drama of relationships taking place beneath that surface. So one can even find oneself, as a Christian student in a Christian university, in a cosy supermarket, so long as there is no costly life-sharing and spiritual accountability built into its fabric of life. The traditional Bible colleges had an easier row to hoe in this respect; preparation for servanthood under Christ was "Job #1."

As I look back, I think what fascinated us as we observed, and then joined St. Stephen's as volunteers, was the absolutely central place of the worship-life of the community gathered day by day for an hour or so, and a corresponding freedom of intellectual enquiry. For as the psalms of praise make clear, worship is letting God be God, and the intellectual liberation that we see as our Reformed heritage is its demonstration. We observed discussion flowing out beyond class time into meal times and Chapel times: the natural presence there of all of the things that one wrestles with in the classroom. And if this is happening, it is no surprise when students begin to suspect that the same principle just might possibly be available to their spiritual life. This river, like the Saint John, also flows in reverse, from the "spiritual" into the academic. The ancient distinctions between spiritual and secular begin to crumble, and the sense of Christ's total lordship over the one "space," his world, our minds and hearts and relationships, begins to flood into our consciousness. It can be taught, but it must be caught.

"Prove all things; hold fast that which is good!" But how is one to do that as a student? Usually one has so few chances to "get hold of" one's instructors. This is what the present generation of Christian students must surely need more desperately than any before them, for on average they come from domestic situations scarcely more stable than those of their unbelieving fellow-students. They need to experience real, ordinary, fallible but dedicated instructors, who love them, pray for them as they go through hard places academically and personally ( or is that another false dichotomy?), and are there for them with a coffee and cookies at home or elsewhere on the spur of the moment. And who are seeking to model for them the servant-heart of our Lord Jesus by being servants of their joy rather than masters of their faith . . . or their mind.

The result of this process, as I have experienced it repeatedly, is a marvellous mutuality of shared servanthood under the rule of Christ. A quite typical if composite example would be that at 10:00 a.m. one is explaining the glories of Gothic architecture to a class in Cultural Studies; at 4:00 p.m. one is out in the parking lot splitting the firewood for the airtight stove in those same students' common room while they make a long chain to pass it up to the top floor of their residence. At 7:00 that evening the students may be gathering around that same faculty member in chapel to pray through some need that has arisen in his life, or to seek wisdom for him as he prepares to present a paper at a scholarly conference. A few weeks later, the same students are gathered in a circle around the members of the Board of Trustees, who have come from far and near to meet. These trustees are "seasoned" men and women, but they too are greatly in need of the touch of God's Spirit if their meeting is to bear his signature. So the students pray earnestly for illumination for these their elder brothers and sisters in Christ, for unity, for mutual love.

This is the life of the Body; in its rhythms, its giving and receiving, it is a brilliant, if very imperfect, demonstration of the beauty of holiness. It is the overcoming of ancient tendencies in the Church and in the University to build protective walls against the free flow of compassion, of insight, of the surging life of the Spirit of God who delights to create dynamic order. And this is the mutuality of ministry, the "democracy of Grace" being exemplified in what nowadays is perhaps the most unlikely place on our planet: the life of a university.

I have recounted some oasis experiences drawn from the "Indian Summer" of our lives, and from an unusual context: a Christian university conceived and existing as a community in a small town but with a world-wide perspective and presence. The usefulness of a report of this kind would be that in some way it validates and encourages similar, but not necessarily identical ventures in the life of our congregations.

Let me sum up by saying that I sense that the focal points of spiritual life in community which I have identified here are all part of one fabric: worship as the daily ingathering of the people of God under the blood of Jesus, surrounded by the host of heaven and issuing in praise and mutual service; healing of the ancient rifts between the heart and the mind in the accountability of shared daily life and intense study; and the remarkable demonstration of the transforming and character-shaping power of Christ upon ordinary people made extraordinary by the beauty of holiness that rests upon them in the freedom of obedience.

There must be some encouragement and even lessons in this for the wider church!