Common Grace for the Common Good

COVENANT SEMINARY Commencement Address, May 2014

I suppose I was a favorite of the librarians in my hometown. Week by week I would come in, see what was on the shelf, and bring several books home. My favorites were of the frontiersmen who made their way across America, crossing the great Mississippi and up the long Missouri, over the Rockies and into the great beyond, the West, in all its majesty and mystery.

But if the biographies of Jim Bridger and Kit Carson captured me, there was another stream of story that I loved too. These were the stories of the French Revolution, full of sword-fighting and adventure, of right vs. wrong, of hope vs. heartache. Scaramouche and The Scarlett Pimpernel, and A Tale of Two Cities. I loved them, far away as they were from my growing up years in California.

BastilleOperaA few weeks ago my wife Meg and I were in Paris with some of our children and grandchildren. Our son is a veterinarian in the U.S. Army, and is living in Europe for several years. We rented a flat in the neighborhood long-named the Bastille. From the windows of our flat we could see the unholy ground itself– once home to that which was most hated by the French people, so much so that the attack on the Bastille was their first act when they finally rose up against their king and queen. 200 years later it is home to the great tower that Napoleon built to remember to remember. In every way it is a sober memory, full of violence as it was on both sides of the revolution.

The Bastille is a half hour walk to Notre Dame, and on our first night there we walked through the ancient streets, taking it all in. And then wonder of wonders, surprise of surprises, we turned around on a bridge over the Seine and saw a gloriously full moon! It was just about as good as it gets, so very beautiful.

But not all nights in Paris have been beautiful, which brings us back to swordfights and Scaramouche, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and the storming of the Bastille, icon it was for the indifference of the French aristocracy, with the cup of the people’s anger finally overflowing in 1790.

That tells the tale too soon, though. 500 years earlier another King Louis reigned over France. Though with our Protestant and modern sensibilities we may shake our heads at some of his decisions– for example, building a chapel to honor his most prized relic of faith, the crown of thorns — he is remembered as the most devout of French kings, 35 years after his death being sainted. Yes, Sainte Louis.

Sainte-Chapelle-Photo4In hope, King Louis built a beautiful chapel, an amazingly magnificent chapel. We call it Sainte Chapelle, with its 15 windows, each one 50 feet high.

The Story of all stories is told, artfully and dramatically. The Narrative of all narratives, yes, the metanarrative— the Biblical story from creation to consummation, of the way the world ought to be, the way the world is, the way the world can be, and the way the world someday will be. It is the story that Augustine told 1000 years earlier, of posse peccare, posse non peccare, of who we are and what we are, as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve making our way across time from creation to consummation, with its promise of redemption as far as the curse is found. At Covenant Seminary we know this as the history of redemption which Geerhardus Vos brought into the modern world in his magisterial Biblical Theology.

Human being that he was, lover of God that he was with longings that drove him like they do us, King Louis’ questions are the perennial questions, the ones that human beings have always asked, are always trying to answer—and because of his own piety, he asked them in light of what he most deeply believed to be true.

How will we live in the world? Or better, What will it mean to live in the world under the Word? That is the question of King Louis in his time, and of course it is the question for everyone in every time.

Christian belief and the public square butting up against each other

When it was built, Sainte Chapelle was situated within the grounds of the royal palace; centuries later now it is the Palace of Justice, the chief court of France completely surrounds the chapel, with libertie, equalitie, and fraternitie inscribed in stone over the main entrance. In fact it almost seems architecturally unfair that the buildings are so close to each other, but they represent the pushing-and-shoving of a messy world where faith and life, Christian belief and the public square, butt up against each other—and in this life, in no time and place is there a clear winner.

A few hundred years later the Louvre became the royal palace, and even later Versailles was made the seat of the king and his queen. Tragically, for them and for the world, when the later Louis, number XV, pronounced himself “god,” the Sun King, it all eventually imploded. France fell in on itself, and the kings and queens lost their glory and their lives.

At this same time, during these centuries of social/economic/political/ecclesiastical evolutions that sometimes became revolutions, across the English Channel, and north into Scotland, the Reformation began, and Christians began to protest over the same questions: How will we live in the world? What will it mean to live in the world under the Word?

Early on in the days following Knox’s preaching in St. Andrews, two brothers, James and Andrew Melville, gave an important speech to King James at his hunting palace in Scotland.

“There are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland, your majesty.”

This was the first time in modern history that the divine right of the king was called into question. Looking back on this, we remember James more for his Bible than for this crucial moment in the long conversation about the gospel and the world, the perennial sorting out of which coins belonged to which kings.

What is the relationship of the gospel with life?

Readers of our world argue that this speech and the reformation it spawned had a great influence on the founding of America a century later, with our own unique-in-history configuring of faith to life, of religious belief with the public square, i.e. there shall be no establishment of religion for the sake of the free exercise of religion.

This is of course the history and heritage of the Presbyterian and Reformed traditions here in the United States, which over time, rivers becoming streams as they do, became Covenant Theological Seminary.

The ideas and issues that run through this short history are still wrangled over by every nation on the face of the earth today. The great tinderboxes of the 21st-century are each their own story of faith and life, of worldviews with the world, grating, grinding, pushing and shoving. And they are never cheap questions, and therefore there are never cheap answers. Think about them.

What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens? Religious conviction with cultural power?

What is the relationship of religion to life? The gospel with life?

The Christian vision of life and the world with how we live in the world?

Honest questions, each and every one—and each requiring an honest answer. And for those with ears to hear, this reminds us of Francis Schaeffer, and his long love for Covenant Theological Seminary. Honest questions and honest answers are the pedagogical thread that has run through my life, making sense of my work as a teacher. The Institute here in his honor is an important memory of his vision and its influence on so many. Among many words that he loved, “presuppostions” stands out. He taught people to think presuppositionally, and he gave his life for the truth of the gospel which he understood as the presupposition for a good life.

It is an important word, as it reminds us to remember our deepest convictions, our pre-theoretic commitments. Like all human beings, like all institutions, we stand here on certain beliefs about the way the world is and ought to be.

The Covenantal Cosmos

If there is a presupposition upon which Covenant lives and moves and has its being it is the reality of the covenant and the covenantal cosmos. That is the heart of your heritage as a seminary and tradition, and the very core of what is most to be prized and therefore stewarded as you graduate and step into the vocations that you will have, as you serve people in their vocations.

Covenant is of course a word, and a doctrine. We speak meaningfully of an old and a new covenant, of a Noahic covenant, of a Mosaic covenant, even of the covenant become flesh in Jesus Christ. But I want to press into the word with you, insisting that it is also a word that gives life to human beings longing to belong to something somewhere. In fact it is a word that makes sense of our deepest hopes as human beings. In its own remarkable way, it is the answer to every question, at least every question that matters most.

Think with me about the rich, textured vision of “covenant” that allows us a way of making sense of life in a modern-becoming-postmodern world, full as it is of fragmentation and anonymity, and therefore of indifference and irresponsibility—these in their own ways are the heart-aching, tragic faces of our cities and societies in the 21st-century, and we all feel their weight.

At the end of the day, we have no other universe to live in than the covenantal cosmos of God—it is not a “whatever” world after all, because it cannot be. We may not prefer it, or choose it, or want it, but it is the world that is really there because it is God’s world, the covenantal cosmos of God. Yes, this reality is the ground of our existence as human beings, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are.

The Task of Translation

And yet, dear brothers and sisters, on this graduation eve, to have mastered the theological vision is not enough. We are called to the work of translation, of taking this education into a pluralizing, secularizing, globalizing world, which is the world of St. Louis in 2014, and of Missouri and these United States, of Europe and Asia and Africa and Latin America. It is our world.

It is our world, and yet, in the now-but-not-yet of our time in history, we live within two worlds, the covenantal cosmos of God and the pluralizing, secularizing, globalizing world of the 21st-century. How do we hold them together with any kind of coherence? All of us live within both worlds; we are called to live between these worlds. And in that there is a tension for all of us. Sometimes it seems that we are stretched beyond what we can bear– and sometimes, sometimes we find ways to hold onto our integrity and still live, with faith and hope and love. Please hear me clearly: more profoundly and pervasively than we could imagine, the theological education of Covenant Seminary takes place within the pressures and challenges of a pluralizing, secularizing, globalizing world.

Years ago I came one summer to the faculty gathering of the seminary, and offered The Economist and Wendell Berry to the Covenant faculty, maintaining that in their different ways both were drawing on the reality of the covenant, and the covenantal character of the cosmos; the one in the editorial vision of the magazine, in the very words that were used, the other in his novels and essays and poems, never using the word but assuming it in everything he wrote. I was pressing the point: how do we take the idea of “covenant” and see that it makes sense of life for everyone everywhere? Even The Economist sees that. Do we? Even America’s most serious essayist understands that? Do we?

I want tell you a story of my work next week with the Mars Corp. Yes, they make M&Ms and much more. For almost 100 years Mars has been making its presence known in the marketplaces of the world, selling nearly $35 billion worth of products yearly. M&Ms yes, but Dove Ice Cream bars too, and Wrigley’s Gum, and Uncle Ben’s Rice, and lots and lots of pet food. A family-owed, privately-held company, Mars has long been committed to several principles: quality, efficiency, freedom, mutuality and responsibility. In fact they are committed to putting these principles into action in the push-and-shove of the global marketplace.

About eight years ago I was drawn into a conversation with two executives who were tasked with a complex question, “How much money should we make?” It may seem a silly question in a Milton Friedman-shaped world. Why wouldn’t you maximize profit? Why wouldn’t you make the most money possible?

But if mutuality and responsibility are built into the corporate vision, into the institutional identity of the company, it changes the purposes and plans of business. If we are in fact honestly and actually bound by mutuality, then we see that we are “in this” together, all of us, everywhere. All the employees, all the supply-chain. Everyone. And if responsibility is going to be honestly operative, then we have to see that our relationships with each other make us responsible for each other. Mutuality and responsibility feed on each other. They define each other.

And they do so because life is covenantal. And because life is covenantal, a more complex bottom line is required, one that honestly accounts for profit and people and the planet. All together.

I remember a day in the Mars headquarters setting forth this argument: we live in a covenantal cosmos, and that is why the words “mutuality” and “responsibility” make sense of business at its best, of the marketplace at its most meaningful. Not in abstraction, but it the metrics and spreadsheets, in the business plans and proposals, that are the heart of the business anywhere and everywhere. The ultimate goal is not “Christian” M&Ms. In a pluralizing, secuarlizing, globalizing world, we are called to create signposts of what might be, of what could be, of what someday will be.

Ours is a work of translation, isn’t it, taking what is true and making it understandable to the wide world? If we have ears to hear, when we hear mutuality and responsibility, we hear “covenant,” and the way that it alone makes sense of meaning and purpose, of the way things are and must be, if we are to flourish as human beings. There are a thousand more things to say here, but I won’t.

So, Covenant is not only the name of a seminary, but even more so an idea that forms our deepest longings as human beings– with implications for families, for neighborhoods, for businesses and economies, for schools and schooling, for politics, and all the rest of life. We all want to belong, profoundly so, and “covenant” makes sense of that, especially of the mutuality and responsibility built into its very meaning.

For a long time I have been asking this question, and it is one for all of us tonight, especially for the graduates; can you sing songs shaped by the truest truths of the universe in language that the whole world can understand? I first began asking this of people in the music business, and it is their question of course. But have you learned to do that in your years here, with the vocation that is yours? Have you learned this vision of the God of the covenant and of his covenantal cosmos so well that you can tell it to the whole world? Are you graduating with the vision of teaching others to do that, in and through their vocations?

Asked a thousand ways in a thousand congregations, it is our question as the people of God in the year 2014. Can we? Will we?

Will we see our stewardship of learning about God and his world, about the history of redemption, about the meaning of persons, about the nature of the human heart—in every way the vision of the covenantal cosmos –will we see this as a stewardship, to the glory of God for the sake of the world?

Will preachers and teachers, pastors and counselors, each one trained to know more about the things that matter most, take up this long story of God’s work in the world, remembered so gloriously in the windows of Sainte Chapelle, but telling it in your own ways in your own life?

Reintegrating Faith, Life and Vocations

So that the butchers and bakers and candlestick-makers, and men and women in business, in law, in social service, in education, in farming, in healthcare, at home and in neighborhoods, will see their work as translators of the Story of stories, in and through their vocations being and bringing common grace for the common good?

So, from Sainte Louis to Saint Louis. We gather tonight here in Saint Louis to remember to remember the vision of vocation that grows out of the biblical story remembered in the windows built by Sainte Louis, which, strangely, wonderfully and providentially, is the theological ground of institutional being here at Covenant Seminary– and we step into history, into the wonderful and wounded, beautiful and broken world of the 21st-century. That is what a graduation is, and we commission you this night for that purpose.

The ancient story is still true, even and especially so in the pluralizing, globalizing, and secularizing 21st-century– true to the way the world always has been, and always will be, a covenantal cosmos it is.

May it be so, in and through your lives, ever more faithfully, ever more fully, as your educations form your vocations—to the glory of God and for the sake of the world.

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