FORUM. Testimonies of Conversion and Calling. C a l v i n T h e o l o g i c a l S e m i n a r y. W i n t e r

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FORUM W i n t e r Testimonies of Conversion and Calling Forum Providing Theological Leadership for the Church Volume 18, Number 1 Winter 2011 Testimonies of Conversion and Calling 3 Our Stories
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FORUM W i n t e r Testimonies of Conversion and Calling Forum Providing Theological Leadership for the Church Volume 18, Number 1 Winter 2011 Testimonies of Conversion and Calling 3 Our Stories and The Story by Scott Hoezee 5 Reclaiming God s Gifts by Sarah Meekhof Albers 6 Philip and Sarinah Djung s Story as told to John Cooper 8 God s Calling Doesn t Involve Detours by Michael TenHaken 9 God s Interruptions by Reginald Smith 11 Lifelong Promises by Richard Sytsma 12 The Power of a Moment by Darwin Glassford Departments Formation for Ministry News COVER: istockphoto The Calvin Theological Seminary Forum is published in Winter, Spring, and Fall editions. Calvin Theological Seminary, 3233 Burton St. SE, Grand Rapids, MI The Forum is available at Editorial Committee: John Cooper, father of redhaired young woman in front row on p. 14, Duane Kelderman, Kathy Smith. Designer: Paul Stoub, Stoub Graphics Photography: Steve Huyser-Honig, Paul Stoub, Betsy Steele Halstead, Kathy Smith 2011 Calvin Theological Seminary from the president Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. Dear Brothers and Sisters, Even the most saintly of us needs revival because, outside Jesus Christ, we are dead in our trespasses and sins. Raising the dead, even gradually, is a miracle, and that means revival is the proper work of God. We don t revive ourselves because we can t; we don t revive the church either, or the world. Revival is heavyduty, industrial-strength work, divine work, and only God has an arm strong enough to crank up a dead human heart, to break down trespasses and sins, and to embrace a whole body of regenerated human beings. Only God can raise the dead. This fact is a stumbling block, an offense that we can t save ourselves. And, frankly, we do people a lot of damage by saying that if we just tried harder, or prayed more, or used Jesus name more often, we would rise up on eagles wings; we would run and not be weary, like the muscular Christian wannabes that we have always wanted to be. The Christian church has long been troubled by doit-yourself gospels, and the problem with them is that they are cruel. It s cruel to tell people lies of this kind because, of course, they trap people. Every alcoholic knows about this trap. Try to save yourself, and you will fail, and then you will drown your sorrow. Thinking not just of addiction, but of sin in general, John Calvin spent a lifetime exposing the cruelty and futility of self-help gospels. One of his central insights is that until we understand that God alone can accept us while we are still sinners, and raise us up with Christ in repentance and renewal of life until we have this truth in our marrow we will spend our lives trapped in a deadly oscillation between pride and despair. Some of the time we ll think we ve made it, and we ll puff up with a kind of pious arrogance; and some of the time we ll know, I ll never make it, and we ll sink into despair. Pride and despair and pride and despair. Only the knowledge of grace, said Calvin, can liberate us from this trap and give us repose. Cling to Christ, he said. Focus your faith on Christ alone, or on Christ clothed with the gospel. Then go ahead and take delight in doing all kinds of good as a free person. In this issue of the Forum some fine faculty and student colleagues tell the stories of their revival. God is in the stories. And so is repose. Grace and peace, PUBLICATIONS MAIL AGREEMENT NO RETURN UNDELIVERABLE CANADIAN ADDRESSES TO: CALVIN THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY 3475 MAINWAY, LCD STN 1 BURLINGTON, ON L7M 1A9 2 Testimonies OF CONVERSION AND CALLING Our Stories and The Story Some years ago in the New York Times Book Review, an author penned an essay that discussed or, better said, that lamented the recent glut of memoirs. If you go to a website like and type in the subject of Memoir, you will discover upwards of 150,000 titles currently in print that fit the bill. As the Times essayist noted, it only stands to reason that people like Winston Churchill or Eleanor Roosevelt would have memoirs worth writing because they have stories worth telling. But Paris Hilton? Ivana Trump? Puh-leeze! In the course of this essay the writer also referenced with obvious disgust and barely concealed contempt a recent poll that asked people, Do you think your life story is worth telling in a memoir? Somewhere in the neighborhood of 78 percent answered Yes. The essayist was at best incredulous (and at worst scandalized) by this. Three weeks later, however, an exceptionally smart Letter to the Editor appeared in which someone wrote, The recent article on memoir indicates that 78 percent of people think they have a story worth telling. But that means that 22 percent of people think they have no story to tell at all. How tragic. The letter-writer turned the essay on its head, and in a most wonderful way at that! Even if we are prone to do some eye-rolling over the specter of a Paris by Scott Hoezee, Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching Hilton memoir, as Christians we should surely agree with the sentiment that if anyone was convinced that he or she had led a life of such unimportance and low account as to be not worth talking about, that would be tragic indeed. The truth is that lots of ordinary people have stories to tell that are finally more interesting and quite probably more redemptive than many of the celebrity memoirs that get published these days. Yet it may be precisely in Christian circles that we will encounter the most hesitancy when it comes to telling our stories. Pride may or may not be the original besetting sin of the human Each individual story counts and is worth telling because, by grace, we all are caught up in the Big Story of God s redemption. 3 Testimonies Our Stories and The Story race, but we all know it has long been listed among the deadly sins for good reason. The witness of Scripture makes it clear that God has little room in his kingdom for the haughty, the self-absorbed. As Mary sang in her Magnificat, God intends to scatter the proud and exalt the humble. And as Mary s Son went on to say, in God s kingdom it s the poor, the meek, and the lowly who get exalted. The first shall be last, and all that. Few things strike us as more prone to pride than talking about ourselves. As a teacher of preaching, I repeatedly tell my students that when it comes to injecting themselves and their own stories into sermons, less is definitely more. As Tom Long has said to preachers, stories in sermons about your children, your spouse, your favorite hobby, or your college years are like oregano: it s a strong spice, a little goes a long way, and not every dish needs it. Nobody likes a self-absorbed preacher who seems to find his or her own life to be so endlessly fascinating and instructive as to season every single sermon with at least a dash or two of his or her story. True enough. But even outside sermons, many in the church have a certain shyness about speaking of themselves too much. In the Reformed tradition and especially in various streams of the Dutch tradition within that larger Reformed ethos there has long been a tendency to downgrade ourselves as a way to make room for glorifying God alone. Yet here we have an issue of the CTS Forum that is filled with personal stories. In recent years perhaps as a part of the larger trend in memoir publishing already noted there has also been in Christian publishing a resurgence of spiritual autobiographies and articles in which often ordinary Christians talk at some length about their individual spiritual journeys. Is this a good thing, or just another example of the church s being co-opted by a narcissistic culture of celebrity-driven media hype? 22 percent of people think they have no story to tell at all. How tragic. For the most part it s a good thing, provided we keep such personal storytelling nestled securely in the Big Story of God s great drama of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. To again invoke Tom Long, in the Bible, narrative is not a device; it is a reflection of the fundamental nature of reality. The Bible is not a book of doctrines that now and then uses stories by way of illustration. No, the Bible is one big Story that comprises lots of individual stories because that is how God views the universe: it is all a grand Story filled with little stories. We learn about God best not by memorizing lists of doctrines rather, the doctrines emerge from the stories and from the Story. When Christians tell their stories and Christians have been doing so in one form or another since at least the time of Augustine s now-famous Confessions the purpose is never self-aggrandizement but rather testimony. We bear witness to what God has done in our lives and what God has taught us along the way so that this story can become the lens through which others can then look at their own stories. Christians tell their stories not out of pride but out of humility. I testify to what God has done in my life because God s Holy Spirit has a tendency to work in similar ways in all of our lives. If I can name instances of grace I have witnessed, you are then enabled to tell your story in ways that will possibly help you spy grace in places you had not seen it before. Each individual story counts and is worth telling because, by grace, we all are caught up in the Big Story of God s redemption. Each of our stories is alive to God every moment. This came home to me recently when writing a sermon starter article for the Center for Excellence in Preaching website. The Lectionary passage was from Luke 20 where the Sadducees are questioning Jesus about the resurrection. At one point Jesus says something utterly surprising in fact, if it were not Jesus who said this, you d wonder if this could count as a legitimate way to interpret the passage he mentions. He says that when God said to Moses from the burning bush in Exodus 3 that he was the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, what God meant was that each of those persons was still alive in God s sight. They were not dead but living in God s presence. Our stories matter and are worth telling and re-telling because each of us is always alive before the presence of God. Individuals matter. God does not save anonymous chunks of humanity, he saves Abraham and he saves Moses and he saves Theresa and he saves George and he saves Larry and he saves Mildred. God, in short, pays attention to people. Christians tell their stories not out of pride but out of humility. Humility is that Christian virtue which reminds us that no one is more important than anyone else and that we all exist on a level playing field in God s sight. This is why the insights we gain from one another s stories add to the richness of all our stories and also enhance our mutual appreciation for and celebration of God s providential grace. 4 OF CONVERSION AND CALLING Reclaiming God s Gifts Questions and adventure have always coexisted in my life. My mother will tell you I ve always had a lot of questions. Once I learned to talk, she patiently endured my incessant ponderings and propositions. An event from my early childhood illustrates the wondering soul God placed within me. I was five and loved to play in the woods between my house and the family dairy farm. On one wooded adventure I discovered an injured bird quivering in the dirt. Terrified and broken, it tried to regain use of its body. As I knelt down to hold the damaged creature, I remembered a verse I memorized for Sunday school: Do not be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows (Matt. 10:31). I held the vulnerable bird until it stopped quivering. Returning the creature to the dirt, I cried as I wondered why the bird had to die. The Holy Spirit continued to cultivate my childhood faith and even began to call me to ministry. I recall sitting on a pile of hay as an eight-year-old, reading Isaiah 43 and the Belgic Confession to a herd of Holsteins. The black and white giants took in my first sermons as they happily chewed their dinner for the second time. They, too, tolerated my incessant ponderings and propositions. Still today, if nerves shake me while preaching, I picture an uncomplaining herd of Holsteins. Just as the questions came as gifts from God, so did my zeal for life. Every once in a while my brain, needing a break from its seriousness, would embark on an adventure in a novel or on my horse. I loved galloping bareback and without reigns through open fields. I gleefully urged my mare to run faster, clinging only to her thin mane and the hope that she would stop when I shouted, Whoa! I didn t know it then, but I would soon need reminders of that joy of being an embodied creature. Somehow, fear gained access to my heart, quenching my love of adventure. I even started reading novels differently. I could not bear the unknown tension or trouble in a story. I flipped to the end of every story and read the end first. But this didn t work in real life, and that frustrated me. In high school, fear burrowed deeper into my heart, conquering my zeal for life. Rather than spending energy on asking questions or running through fields, I spent it on rules. I made rules to control everything: the hours I spent studying, every calorie I consumed, each mile I ran. Every moment of every day was carefully measured, until I lay in a hospital bed terrified and broken, praying that I would die. It was in this most vulnerable place that the Spirit once again whispered, Do not fear, you are worth more than many sparrows. A Scripture that had once troubled me now brought solace. The shadows of depression and fear were persistent, but so was God. As I lay in the hospital bed imagining myself at home in the safety of hay and Holsteins, a nurse walked up to my bed. When his kind I don t know where or when my story will end, but I know the end of God s story. 5 eyes met my hollow gaze he whispered, Isaiah 43, and then left the room. Choking on tears, I opened my Bible and read, When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. Indeed, God was with me, and he continued to illuminate the darkness. My family, friends, and church family encircled me in prayer and carried me back to the land of the living. My love for theological inquiry was encouraged at Kuyper College, and my passion for adventure was restored as I spent summers working road construction. God continues to restore me through wise mentors, good friends, and CTS. A couple years ago I practiced my first real sermon from a pile of hay in front of the Holsteins. They listened contentedly, mooing an occasional Amen. As I sat staring at the black and white giants, once again the words of Isaiah 43 rushed through my mind: You are my witnesses, declares the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. I, even I, am the Lord and apart from me there is no savior. Intrigued by the continued presence of this Scripture in my life, I called my mom to once again consume her time with my questions. It was then that she told me that when she was pregnant with me God gave her that Scripture. Before I was even born she began to pray that Isaiah 43 would be true of my life. I hung up the phone and returned to that passage in Isaiah. I [God] have revealed and by Sarah Meekhof Albers, seminarian saved and proclaimed I, and not Testimonies Reclaiming God s Gifts some foreign god among you. You are my witnesses, declares the Lord, that I am God. Yes, and from ancient days I am he. No one can deliver out of my hand. When I act, who can reverse it? God has acted faithfully in every stage in my life. With a wedding ceremony in the recent past and graduation from CTS in the near future, I am learning to live zealously in the story, joyfully embodied. I don t know where or when my story will end, but I know the end of God s story. This knowledge gives me courage to live through the tension, joy for the adventure, and faith that the work God began on one wooded adventure many years ago he will certainly make complete, for my good and for his glory. Philip and Sarinah Djung s Story as told to John Cooper, Nov. 19, 2010 John: Philip and Sarinah, you have come to Grand Rapids so that Philip could attend Calvin Seminary. How did you come to know Christ? Sarinah: I came from a non- Christian Chinese family. Our house was full of idols. My grandfather was a prominent figure in our village. He made idols for the Chinese folk-religion temple. My grandmother was a devout Buddhist. So there was also a Guanyin statue at home. We also worshiped the ancestors. I was very close to my grandmother and was prepared to follow her way. But she died when I was seven, and this created big questions in my heart. I did not know why she died or where she went. Where was she, and was she okay? Was I going to die someday too? I was lonely and afraid, and I had a terrible fear of death. Later my family sent me to a public school. Here I studied Islam. It was compulsory for us to recite Islamic prayer in Arabic every morning before the class started. I am sure that is the path I would have followed, if it were not for a Christian teacher who biked miles to come to our school, just to tell us about Bible stories. Although these stories were completely unfamiliar This very word of God answered the big questions I had been wondering about for years! 6 to me, God was at work in them. In junior high school I had another Christian teacher. She invited me to go to a Christian class on Friday instead of to Islamic instruction. There I heard about Jesus Christ. She then invited me to go to teen fellowship at a nearby church. My younger brother and I went. Once the minister spoke about John 3:16. God so loved the world that he sent his only Son so that we would not perish but have eternal life! This very word of God answered the big questions I had been wondering about for years! I knelt down and asked for God s forgiveness and accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. Two years later the pastor encouraged me to consider baptism. But I could not do this without my parents permission, and they were completely against it. At one point my mother challenged me to choose between my family and my God. Since I was only a teenager, I chose to be baptized secretly. Six months later, my mom found out and angrily confronted me. At first I lied about it, but I knew that was denying Jesus. So I admitted it to her and my father. They were very upset and considered forcing me out of the house. But they knew that would not be safe. So they let me stay, but did not speak to me for six months. OF CONVERSION AND CALLING During this time God enabled me to grow in love and kindness toward my parents. My brother and I continued to be good children, to love our parents, and to pray for them. That affected them deeply. After high school I went to university in Jakarta. There were very few Christians at university, and there was much prejudice against us. Yet God was very good to me and provided for my needs in many ways. During that time my father left the village and its religious influence and came to the city. He was impressed at what good children my brother and I had become much better than children who followed Chinese Confucianism. Once when the money that my father sent each month ran out, I went hungry for three days. I prayed to the Lord, and money came. I phoned my dad to thank him, but he said he had not yet sent it. It turned out that the bank had sent the money by mistake! My dad eventually went to a church, and he became a very strong Christian while in his fifties. By God s grace, my mom also became a
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