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Christians are called to be “in the world, but not of it.” I’ve heard this maxim repeated often since I became active in my faith, and have often preached variations of it. In John 17:16-18, one of my favorite passages of Scripture, Jesus prays to the Father about his disciples who are both “not of this world’ and “sent into the world.” But anyone who has tried to live as one who is “in but not of the world” knows that such a statement is a grand oversimplification.

I’m currently reading Sarah Osborn’s World: The Rise of Evangelical Christianity in Early America, for a class I’m taking at Pittsburgh Seminary. Sarah Osborn was a woman who lived in Rhode Island from 1714 to 1796, during the age of the First and Second Great Awakenings. As Catherine Brekus’ biographical work shows, this woman of exemplary Puritan and evangelical faith lived in a way that reveals many of the cultural trends of her age. To play on the book’s title, though Sarah wanted to live as much as possible for God’s glory alone, she was very much of the world of eighteenth century New England.

Rather than simply recounting the narrative of Sarah Osborn’s life, Brekus adds copious amounts of historical information, providing a deeper sense of context on a range of factors that influenced Osborn. A reader learns of the Church’s endorsement of slavery, the culture’s customary ways of disciplining children, and the growing market economy of the Colonies. Because Sarah’s story is one of faith, we learn about the rivalry between Congregationalists and Anglicans, as well as the variety of religious reactions to “Enlightenment” thought.

In this complex world, Osborn displayed both a deep suspicion of her surroundings and an unwitting participation in early evangelicalism’s accommodation to and endorsement of Enlightenment values of experience and individualism. For example, Osborn cared deeply about the poor in her city, and desired to provide for them in ways comparable to, or even surpassing, the generosity of secular “humanitarians.’ As Brekus explains, “When the word humanitarian was coined in the nineteenth century, it was virtually an antonym to evangelical: a humanitarian was a religious skeptic (perhaps even an atheist) who viewed happiness as the greatest good” (Kindle Ed. Loc. 4316). Concern for the poor among evangelicals like Osborn at the time was indeed new, and replaced a Puritan and Calvinist assumption that the poor were simply destined to be poor. Often giving to others at great personal sacrifice, Osborn challenged that notion. But this action on Osborn’s part was just as much reflective of her culture’s increasing concern for individual welfare and happiness as it was of her faith.

In another example of her rooted-ness in her historical context, even her humanitarian concerns did not make Osborn question the validity of slavery. For many years, Osborn possessed a slave boy named Bobey. Though Osborn befriended and even attended church with Bobey’s mother, Osborn even considered selling Bobey at a time of significant financial need. She decided not to do so out of fear that Bobey’s new master might not lead Bobey into faith in Christ. As Brekus explains, “Even though [Osborn] did not object to the buying and selling of slaves, nothing was more important than Bobey’s soul” (Kindle Ed. Loc. 4792). More than three hundred years later, such logic seems unbelievable, but such thoughts were tenable in eighteenth century New England.

These examples show the influence that Osborn’s surroundings had upon her. But Osborn was also an active agent in shaping her culture as well. Osborn left her mark on the world, partly through personal evangelism and witness and partly through her writings.  In fact, we might celebrate her writing as work that paved the way for other women to make an impact on the Church and the world.  Osborn was one of few women published in her day, and the fact that her tract The Nature, Certainty, and Evidence of True Christianity was first published anonymously indicates how rare publication of women’s writings were then. But she was at an early stage in the development of a religious movement that would eventually give women a much more significant voice in the Church. As Brekus comments, “Evangelicals were theological conservatives who believed that women had been created subordinate to men, but they also gave women a new vocabulary of individual experience to justify their authority and leadership” (Kindle Ed. Loc. 3635). Osborn was one to embrace that new vocabulary, and to use it to express her faith in powerful ways.

From the vantage point of twenty-first century Christians, Osborn’s record is mixed. Her story is a step toward a more egalitarian understanding of the place of women in both the Church and the world. But she also kept a slave. She was a product of her culture, but also someone who acted intentionally in ways that shaped her culture. All this matters for us today because: (1) Like Osborn, we are living in a world where the trends of our culture shape us more than we realize. (2) Some of the assumptions we take for granted may seem unbelievable to generations that follow us. (3) The Church’s response to the issues of our day will inevitably be shaped by those very assumptions, whether we are aware of them or not. 

If we are serious about being “in the world but not of it,” we’ll need to look closely at the unspoken assumptions behind what we mean by of the world. Where do those assumptions actually come from? Are they essential to the Gospel and the mission of the Church? Why do we embrace some cultural trends without batting an eye, and resist others with great vehemence? Perhaps as we start to look carefully at ourselves in our own historical contexts, we may discover some surprising insights about where we stand.  May those insights help us live more faithfully in this world which we’re also of.

“So, how’s your book going?”, asked a member of my church today. “It’s not,” I said with a smile. She was referring to this project which I happily announced here over a year ago. Last fall I wrote an introduction and two chapters. I outlined other portions and compiled a list of books I wanted to study to inform my writing. A group from my church met with me multiple times to read what I’d written, offering quite helpful encouragement and feedback.

Then our daughter was born.

Having a baby turned my life upside down in many ways, including obliterating the time I had to write. There are these things we call priorities. Learning to care for our daughter without question had to take priority over side-project of writing for which I had grand plans. For months I felt torn, wanting to complete this project I’d started, while at the same time recognizing that I no longer had the free space in life to write that much on top of co-pastoring a church, working a part-time job, and loving my family.

Peace has come, though, as I’ve accepted this as an opportunity to grow in patience and humility. Like marriage, parenthood is full of opportunities to cultivate such virtues, if we are willing to receive such opportunities as gifts for our sanctification. The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts (James 3:5). My tongue boasted of wanting to write a book. I still do. I’ve just realized that it will take years – not months – for me to write this particular book.

That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. I just completed an extended personal essay for the House of St. Michael. (If you leave your contact information in the form below, I can try to get you a copy.)* I’ve also had another totally different writing project under consideration with a publisher. I may still seek publication for Practicing the Truth, but I’m in no rush. To my surprise, God has given me a blessed amount of patience and indifference about these projects. If they work out, may God be glorified. If they don’t, may God still be glorified.

I think that in this I’m tasting the spirit of Psalm 131:1-2: “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; / I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.” The Lord has been humbling me recently, making me realizing that I can’t always give all I want to give, accomplish all I want to accomplish, or please everyone I want to please. Simply knowing that makes me a bit less frantic. A bit. I’m a long way from being able to continue with the Psalmist in saying, “I have calmed and quieted myself / I am like a weaned child with its mother, / like a weaned child, I am content.” The words calm and quiet do not always describe my inner being. But I want them to. And I believe the Psalmist who says such peace only comes with a heart that’s not proud.

And with that humility comes an ever-expanding freedom to trust that God is the one who completes what God began in us. As Paul says in Philippians 1:6, it is “God who began a good work” in us and “will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  It’s the hope of Psalm 57:2, which says, “I cry to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me.” Amen. May God fulfill his purposes for me, whenever and however He chooses.

 

 

 

*If you’d like to receive a print copy of “So That Your Hearts Will Not Be Weighed Down”, please leave your name, email address, and mailing address below.