While studying at Regent College, some of my most enjoyable times were spent taking morning walks with the College’s founder: Prof. James Houston. This was the way by which he mentored and enriched generations of Regent students. So, it was my great delight to hear that Prof. Houston, at the urging of his son, has decided to pen down the spiritual convictions that he has embraced over his last eight and a half decades in Joyful Exiles.
Western Christianity, warns Houston, is in danger of losing its spiritual vibrancy and authenticity because of the negative influences of western secularism. According to Houston, the Christian life is, essentially, a life that is grounded in a joyful awareness of God’s transcendental reality in our everyday life. It is a life that is thoroughly assured of God’s love and deeply inspired by God’s eschatological promises for every believer. Such a spiritual vibrancy is clearly contrary to the unbelieving world. Unfortunately, it is also frequently rejected by many Christians and their ‘secularised institutions’. Consequently, Christians who desire to nurture an authentic Christian life would often find themselves marginalised and living like ‘exiles’ in the world, hence the title, Joyful Exiles.
Houston’s theme of joyful exile is developed over six essays. He begins in Chapter 1 by emphasising that the authentic Christian life can only be found when we conform ourselves to the image of Christ, i.e., to become a "godlike man [who] is not the hero who does extraordinary things, but the holy man who does good deeds." This, however, is a painful process for us because it demands our courageous embrace of all that is predicated in Christ’s life: self-denial, the rejection of worldly success and the mortification of sin. Yet, these sacrifices are worthwhile as they create the space in which we can deepen our self-knowledge and, most importantly, our communion with God.
Our growing intimacy with God, in turn, nurtures our openness to and experience of God’s transcendent reality in our everyday life. Houston explores this subject in Chapter 2, by first highlighting that mystical experiences are never foreign to Christians, both ancient and present. Such mystical visions, as Houston himself experiences, are often God’s means of encouraging Christians in our earthly pilgrimage and should never be perceived sceptically or with hostility. Having said this, Houston also cautions us against an overemphasis of our mystical visions over and against the teachings of Scripture. Indeed, such experiences must always be anchored in Christ, as taught through Scripture.
Ironically, as we deepen our friendship with God, tensions may develop in our relationships with fellow Christians! This is further explained in Chapter 3. Houston observes that, over time, Christians tend to develop formal organisation systems and structures (i.e., institutions) to manage the church. While such institutionalisation is necessary, it often distracts Christians to the extent that, practically speaking, the running of the church becomes the end in itself! For example, we may become so preoccupied with an orderly implementation of cell group meetings and ‘ministry targets’ that we neglect to discern the spiritual concerns of fellow Christians and how we may pray and minister to them. We may start deluding ourselves, thinking that a successfully conducted Bible study is equivalent to spiritual transformation! Worse, we may subtly marginalise those who are struggling with spiritual difficulties, thinking that spending excessive time with them is a hindrance to ministry goals! On the contrary, warns Houston, such institutionalisation of our faith often displaces the need and reality of God in the lives of Christians. Indeed, if our cell group meetings are so efficiently run, why do we still need God and prayer? Ultimately, these distortions create a Christianity that is devoid of spiritual vibrancy and heightens the implausibility (or ‘unbelievability’) of our Gospel.
To regain the plausibility of our Christian faith, continues Houston in Chapters 4 and 5, we must deepen our relationship with our Triune God. But, those of us who do so would often find ourselves marginalised or ‘exiled’ by fellow Christians. This is because intimacy with God must necessarily emphasise the importance of personal holiness, our eschatological hope and spiritual affections rather than institutional efficiencies or success. Alas, those who dare to live a life that is contingent upon God’s guidance will often find themselves moving against the grain of institutional ethos and incurring the displeasure of many.
Despite the difficulties that we might face, Houston comforts us in his concluding chapter that we need never endure this alone. Indeed, it is essential that we walk this path with like-minded Christians, i.e., Christians who are similarly determined to manifest Christ in their earthly lives. It is in the company of spiritual friends that we may encounter Christ deeper and discern Him better. It is in the company of such friends that we may be corrected or encouraged in our walk with Christ. And it is within this context that we may transmit the vibrancy of a life that is knitted with Christ to those who would come after us. Having benefited from my early morning walks with Prof Houston, I can certainly attest to the value of such spiritual friendships!
Joyful Exiles identifies a significant spiritual blind spot among many Singaporean Christians and churches: our technological or institutional tendencies towards spiritual utilitarianism and the substitution of a vibrant and authentic spirituality with mere ecclesiastical efficiency. How often do we pray as an afterthought and put our faith on the established systems and techniques of our institutions? How often do we ignore our sinful compulsions and refuse to deal with them by simply rationalising that we are spiritually OK as long as our Christian ministries are well-run? How often do we call for the multiplication of church members (i.e., spiritual ‘return on investment’) by marginalising those who need greater soul care but take up too much of our ‘ministry time’? How often have we abandoned many fruitful and worthwhile ministries just because they do not fit into the formal organisational objectives of our churches?
Truly, the message of Joyful Exiles is worthy of serious reflection by every Christian. Yet, we should never mistake it as a mere reprimand of our spiritual inconsistencies. Rather, it should be better understood as an invitation for all Christians to embrace the ‘eternal pleasures’ that God has prepared for us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
*Prof. James Houston’s course on "Psalms Through the History of the Church" will commence on April 4, 2007 at 7:15pm.
He will also be giving a Public Lecture on "The Paraclete and the Role of Christian Mentoring Today" on April 7 at 7.30 pm.
Both events will be held at Zion (Bishan) BP Church, 4 Bishan St 13, Sanctuary. Admission is free for the public lecture.