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Running the Race in the Pursuit of Excellence

 

(address to the graduates of Tyndale Seminary, May 2001)

Running the Race in the Pursuit of Excellence

 

I: — You have asked me to speak to you about excellence, the pursuit of excellence. I am glad to do so, for I relish excellence as much as I abhor mediocrity (mediocrity here defined as contentment with less than our best.)

Yet in eschewing mediocrity I am not advocating perfectionism. Perfectionists fall into two classes: those who neurotically pursue perfection yet bewail their inability to achieve it (these people can’t live with themselves); and those who neurotically pursue perfection and boast that they have achieved it (no one else can live with them.) Perfectionism, deep-down, is self-rejection born of self-contempt, even where the self-rejection masquerades as self-importance. Let me say it again: when I say I abhor mediocrity, I am not advocating perfectionism.

In the same way, in rejecting mediocrity I am not rejecting ordinariness. We should shun mediocrity; but we should cherish ordinariness. We should pursue excellence, but we should never aspire to be extraordinary. Extraordinary people are those think they have transcended their humanness, think they no longer put on their trousers one leg at a time, think they have risen above the earthbound humanness of inferior mortals. I’m convinced that people who want to be extraordinary, or think they are, are dangerous. Virtually all the damage wrought in the world is wrought by those who want to be extraordinary or think they are extraordinary.

We should aspire after humility. “Humility” is derived from the Latin word humus, “earth.” We are created earth-creatures and therefore glorify God by our earthliness, which earthliness, I am convinced, should always include more than a little earthiness. When I speak of excellence I never mean extraordinariness. I mean rather the utter repudiation of mediocrity, for mediocrity is sin.

II: — Let’s think for a moment about someone whose entire life bespoke excellence of many sorts, not the least of which was intellectual excellence, particularly intellectual excellence as it pertains to books. I speak now of the apostle Paul.

“I know a man”, says Paul, “who, 14 years ago, was caught up to the third heaven…. and this man heard things that cannot be told, which no one may utter.” The apostle is talking about himself. He was caught up to the third heaven. The “third heaven” was an ancient way of speaking of the most intimate, most intense, most vivid apprehension of God. At that moment, 14 years ago, the apostle wasn’t “seeing in a mirror dimly”. (1 Cor. 13:12) At that moment, rather, he was bathed in splendour and scorched by fire. Simultaneously he was transfixed by the purity of God and prostrated by the enormity of God and irradiated by the grandeur of God.

Isn’t it odd, then, that the fellow whose experience of God is so intense that he can’t speak of it then writes to the young man, Timothy, and asks for books? “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.” (2 Timothy 4:13) “Be sure to bring me the books.” Books? Why would he need books? What could a book do for him?

Paul’s experience of 14 years ago wasn’t the only time he had had an astonishing encounter with God. Three years before he was “caught up to the third heaven” he had been crumbled on his way to Damascus when the risen Lord had arrested him. In addition to the Damascus road experience Paul had had a vision of the man from Macedonia who had pleaded with Paul to go there with the gospel. In addition to the Macedonian episode Paul had fallen into a trance while praying in the Jerusalem temple, and while in the trance had been told unmistakably to get out of Jerusalem. The apostle’s experience of God had been vivid over and over.

And now he wants books? Compared to his experience of God, reading a book sounds so flat, so pedestrian, simply so dull. Yet he wants books! Obviously he thinks he needs books. Books are essential to his discipleship as a Christian as well as to his vocation as an apostle. Obviously he thinks that his vivid experience of God doesn’t render books unnecessary; his startling apprehension of God doesn’t render reading superfluous.

In his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell depicted a society crushed in the tentacles of cruel totalitarianism. One feature of such a society, Orwell insisted, was the banning of books. The oppressor would continue to oppress his victims by many means, not the least of which was the banning of books.

Aldous Huxley, in his novel, Brave New World, didn’t fear a society where books were banned. He feared something worse: a society where books weren’t banned simply because no one wanted to read a book.

Do we want to read one? read many? Some people who lived a long time before us, and who are foreparents in faith, certainly wanted to.

Like the Jewish people, in whose house all Christians are guests of honour. On Christmas Day in the year 800 Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. At the coronation he was supposed to sign his name to a document. But he couldn’t write — or read. However, he remembered having seeing his name written in Latin: CAROLINUS. He recalled that one letter (“U”) had two vertical strokes in it. Whereupon Charlemagne grabbed an instrument of some sort and made two crude strokes on the document. Meanwhile, the Jewish people were 100% literate. In whose house are Christians guests? Abraham and Sarah are our foreparents in faith, not Charlemagne.

And then there are the Puritans. Don’t listen to those who defame them wickedly! When persecuted Puritans left the old country and settled in New England, every Puritan minister was given 10 pounds with which to start a church library. Between 1640 and 1700 the literacy rate among men in Massachusetts and Connecticut was 93% — while it was only 40% in England. (The rate of literacy among Puritan women in the new world was 62%, 10% in England.) Six years after these people landed in Massachusetts they voted 400 pounds “towards a school or college.” The “school or college” they built was Harvard (1636).

By 1650 virtually all New England towns had developed grammar schools. As people there learned to read, the effect of the printed page was immense. People were released from the domination of the immediate and the local. People who don’t read live in a very small world, a world of the immediate (in time) and the local (in space). Books are vehicles that convey us to a different era, a different history, a different culture. Books free us from the domination of the immediate and the local. They free us not only from the domination of the horizontally immediate; they free us as well from the vertically immediate. On the one hand they free us for a deeper immersion in creaturely riches; on the other hand books — at least those which speak of the gospel — free us for a deeper immersion in the riches of the Creator himself.

Books have to do with a word-culture rather than an image-culture. The difference between a word-culture and an image-culture is huge. The word encourages critical reflection; the image encourages uncritical absorption. Words present us with ideas for thoughtful evaluation; flitting images provide for titillation and amusement. As soon as the politician goes on TV what he says is of no importance; what matters is how he appears. Is his tie knotted properly? If it isn’t, he can’t be elected. When Menachem Begin sought political office in Israel his media advisors told him he had to stop wearing shirts with oversized collars, since a shirt with an oversized collar makes a man appear terminally ill. John Turner’s media advisors told him he had to break his habit of licking his lips. Night and day they hammered him, “Who is going to vote for a man who looks like an anteater at a picnic?”

The word encourages thinking; the image, by and large, encourages emoting. Words present us with arguments that we have to assess; images present us with impressions that we merely blot up. Visual stimulation is a shabby substitute for thought, just as emotional manipulation is a shabby substitute for verbal precision.

A society given to mediocrity despises excellence. In resisting all mediocrity I am making a gospel-plea for intellectual excellence; particularly intellectual excellence fostered through books.

III: — Yet I should never want to suggest that intellectual excellence is the only kind. In fact it isn’t even the chief kind of excellence. What is? John Henry Cardinal Newman knew what is. Newman tells us that when he was a young scholar he realized one day that he had almost succumbed to the liberal heresy, namely, “prizing intellectual excellence above moral excellence.” Now when Newman speaks of “moral excellence” he doesn’t mean “moralistic” or “legalistic.” By “moral excellence” he means the excellence of a human being who is a spiritual/ethical agent. Our life in the Spirit is lived, lived out, in the integrity of our honouring Christ’s claim upon our obedience. This is the excellence.

The excellence of that life which has been apprehended by truth and thereafter aspires to do the truth; this excellence has an inherent winsomeness, attractiveness, appeal.

Have you ever pondered the Greek wording of our Lord’s self-description in the fourth gospel, “I am the good shepherd”? Ego eimi ho poimen ho kalos. “I am the good shepherd.” “Good”? There are two Greek words for “good”, agathos and kalos. Agathos often has the force of “correct, proper, upright.” It has the force of “good” in the sense that Mark Twain has Huckleberry Finn pray that God will make all the bad people good and all the good people nice. This isn’t quite the sense in which Jesus speaks of himself as the “good” shepherd.

Kalos, on the other hand, has the force of “good” in the sense of all that agathos includes PLUS attractive, winsome, appealing, compelling, comely, desirable, endearing, inviting, prepossessing, fine. That’s it: “I am the fine shepherd.” Malcolm Muggeridge found himself ravished by the comeliness of his Lord, and discovered the same comeliness in Mother Teresa of Calcutta. For this reason he titled his book about her, Something Beautiful for God.

What seized Muggeridge is precisely what has startled and moved the Israelite writers who speak of “the beauty of holiness.” Among our more recent spiritual foreparents no one grasped this, or was grasped by it, more profoundly than Jonathan Edwards. When Edwards has in mind what our Hebrew ancestors called “the beauty of holiness” he rarely uses these exact words. Instead he speaks of the “excellence” of God. And when he speaks of the excellence of God he is careful to distinguish those predicates which describe who God is from those which describe what God is.

What is God? God is spirit. But what if this spirit were demonic? God is infinite. But what if God were infinitely malicious? God is immense, omnipresent, inescapable. But what if God were everywhere lupine?

Who is God, on the other hand? God is infinite, yes, and infinite in mercy. God is eternal, and precisely eternal love. God is omnipresent, which is to say his judgement is inescapable; and his judgement is the only judgement in heaven or earth administered by a judge who is first and last our saviour.

Without any suggestion of saccharine sentimentality Edwards speaks of “the loveliness of God.” It is a sign of Christian maturity to love God for the sake of God’s inherent, compelling, irresistible loveliness. Edwards insists that when we are newer in the faith we love God because he first loved us; we love God on account of all that he has done for us and continues to do for us. Yet the day comes when the incomparable excellence of God transfixes us; our apprehension of it mesmerizes us and in turn reshapes our love for God. Now our love for God is transmuted as it assimilates to itself the excellence of God himself. The point to which Edwards returns endlessly is this: to apprehend God’s intrinsic beauty and glory is not only to love him out of gratitude for his mercy but even to love him out of self-forgetful adoration of his inherent worthiness.

In light of all that Edwards says in this regard we shouldn’t be surprised when he insists, “Holiness is the only virtue.” Why is holiness the only virtue? Edwards knows that any virtue (so-called) — chastity, for instance — can cloak and will cloak ever so much that has nothing to do with godliness unless holiness is its ground and guide. Am I a chaste person? Yes. Do you know why I am chaste? It might be because I’m afraid of contracting an S.T.D. It might be because sexual impropriety could issue in me, a clergyman, being defrocked. I might be chaste inasmuch as I’m neurotically averse to sex. Or I might be afraid my wife would otherwise leave me and thereby deprive me of access to her schoolteacher’s pension. It might be because I’m a moralist who, qua moralist, wouldn’t know Jesus from a gerbil. It might be because my distorted theology has left me believing that chastity merits “justification” before God.

There is only one adequate reason for being chaste, as there is only one ground and guide: an apprehension of a splendour in God that finds his winsome holiness fostering in me a holiness that I welcome. Holiness is the only virtue. There is a singularity to excellence, a singularity that is the profoundest simplicity.

Now I am as put off as you by an unrealistic simplicity that refuses to admit the enormous complexity of everything human. When genuine complexity is denied (likely because complexity is threatening) we speak of such simplicity as simplistic inasmuch as we know it’s false. Then we shouldn’t succumb to the simplistic. And I maintain that any simplicity “this” side of complexity is artificial and merely simplistic. But I want to maintain with equal force that on the “other” side of complexity there is a genuine simplicity that is the simplicity of the gospel.

According to two superb philosophers, Emil Fackenheim and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the greatest thinker to arise in Christendom is Soren Kierkegaard. Plainly Kierkegaard can never be accused of being simplistic. Yet just as plainly Kierkegaard knows the simplicity born of the gospel when he writes, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” One thing. Simplicity and singularity ultimately coalesce.

While we are speaking of singularity and simplicity we should also speak of elegance. Elegance — plainly a manifestation of excellence — doesn’t mean here what it is usually taken to mean: showy, gaudy, ostentatious, pretentious. In the realm of mathematics or logic “elegance” describes an argument whose conclusion is generated from the fewest possible premises. If a conclusion is generated from three premises rather than from four, elegance is emerging. (Obviously the most elegant argument is one that generates a conclusion from one premise only.)

In this sense there is an elegance to excellence just because there is an elegance to simplicity.

“Purity of heart is to will one thing.”

“This one thing I do.”
“Where is your brother?”

“My sin is more than I can bear.”
“Once I was blind; now I see.”

Elegance, simplicity, excellence is found in many dimensions and expressions of the Christian life. In the early 1800s a French priest, from the town of Ars, a priest noted for his pastoral diligence, Jean Vuillamy, remarked, “If we knew, really knew, what it is to be a pastor, we couldn’t endure it.” I was a pastor for 30 years, and in that time I found pastoral work — excellent with all the meaning that only Jonathan Edwards could lend to “excellent”; I found such excellent work simple. I didn’t say easy. I said simple. “If we knew, really knew, what we pastors mean to people in their suffering and bewilderment and sin as we are transparent to the comfort and consolation and mercy of God, we couldn’t endure it.”

 

IV: — Remember, I said simple; I never said easy. Pastoral work isn’t easy. The Christian life isn’t easy anywhere at any time. Then for how long are we going to pursue excellence? “Pursue” suggests diligence, ardour, perspicacity. For how long are we going to maintain all this?

The author of Hebrews tells us that the Christian life isn’t a sprint that ends in 9.97 seconds; it’s a long distance race. A sprint ends so quickly that no runner has time to get discouraged. But discouragement can take any long distance runner out of the race.

In the Christian life all of us face disappointment, frustration, betrayal, unforeseen potholes and pitfalls and pit bulls. Who wouldn’t become discouraged amidst all these? Then our discouragement is as understandable as it is excusable.

“Not so!”, shouts the author of Hebrews. “Understandable, yes; excusable, no. What would be the excuse?” Then in Hebrews 12:3 this writer points us to what will always render our discouragement inexcusable. “Consider him, Jesus, who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or faint-hearted.” Or as J.B. Phillips puts it in his splendid paraphrase, “Think constantly of enduring all that sinful men could say against him, and you will not lose your purpose or courage.”

The Christian life, the pursuit of excellence, is a particular kind of long distance race; it’s a relay race. Each generation of believers passes on the baton to the next. The one thing we mustn’t do is fumble the baton. In the 1992 Olympic Games two women were running side-by-side in a relay event when suddenly one jabbed the other with a sharp elbow. The elbowed woman, in pain now, gasped and slowed up slightly; whereupon the nasty runner surged ahead; whereupon the victimized woman lost her temper and threw her baton at the woman who had fouled her. As soon as she threw her baton she threw the race away; she disqualified herself and her team. Years and years of preparation and training and sacrifice; it was thrown away in an instant. And it all happened because she allowed victimization to deflect her from her pursuit.

In our pursuit we are going to be victimized endlessly. But if it is ever the occasion of our quitting the race we had better not offer it as an excuse, for we are mandated to keep on looking unto Jesus lest we lose our purpose or courage.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that the relay race of the Christian life is an unusual relay race in that Christians throughout the centuries who have already run their leg of the race go to the finish line in order to cheer on those who are still running. These people, having run valiantly, make up “the great cloud of witnesses.” You and I and all God’s people have been appointed to be added to the great cloud. We shall be added as surely as we run with perseverance. For then it will be said of us as it was said of another Christian, now himself in the great cloud, “…fought the good fight; …finished the race, …kept the faith. “

Victor Shepherd    May 2001