Mary Bates McLaurin was one of the earliest pioneers of the Canadian Baptist missionary movement. Along with her husband John McLaurin, and her sister Jane and her husband A.V. Timpany, they were the first missionaries sent out from Ontario, settling first in Ramapatam, then in Kakinada, India. A lifetime of service followed, shaping the nascent churches in East India. I have had the chance to make my own pilgrimage to her grave in the shadow of the Kakinada Theological College on many occasions.
In a biography of Mary Bates McLaurin (written by her daughter) there is a story of how Mary preserved in her Bible a carefully folded letter from her father, which she received at age 11. In the letter, we read these words: “Always pray to Jesus to guide you and bless you every day, because there will be temptations every day for you to meet. Ask Him to strengthen your faith, your hope and your love, along with all the graces that adorn a Christian’s character, that the Lord may bless you is the prayer of your absent, but affectionate father.”
Faith … hope … and love.
In our Christian tradition, we refer to this triad as the three theological virtues, or the three graces of our faith. In Mary’s life, I wonder if having been identified by her father, they became the three identity markers of a lifetime of mission service. In the upcoming editions of Mosaic this year, you are going to read more about the relationship of faith, hope and love to our mission as Canadian Baptists. We believe that they are a firm foundation upon which we can build our own praxis: being, doing and saying – bracing ourselves as we are embraced by God and embrace what we believe.
The Apostle Paul leaned heavily on the three to identify the heart of Christian praxis. In 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3 (NRSV) he wrote, “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Faith, hope and love. The stability of the three, leaning into the Christian life and outward into the world. On this we can find our centre of gravity. Have you ever noticed how, on an uneven floor, a four-legged chair will wobble but a three-legged stool will stand stable? The three points determine a plane. In the midst of unevenness, they create a centre of gravity, just as these three graces ground our lives.
This past Christmas, I spent time reflecting on the mystery of faith, the first of the virtues, and the inconceivable uniqueness of the incarnation that lies at the core of what we believe – surely one of the strangest and strongest doctrines. The enfleshment of the deity in
the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The cosmic Creator became a baby. Nothing permanent like that had happened before. He wasn’t known to take up residency in human body. Nor has he since.
Certainly, for us at CBM, we like to appropriate this doctrine of incarnation in our own immanent missiological praxis: We incarnate the gospel. We make hope real. We are God’s hands and feet among the poor. God alive in the Church in local communities. Perhaps we also need a healthy dose of humility. We don’t make the sacrifice he made. Heavens, most of us wouldn’t even accept to sleep in a barn. We are not God. Rather than trying to find some application of the miracle of the incarnation, perhaps we need to embrace its mystery once again.
As David Guretzki points out in a wonderful article in Faith Today (The Incarnation Mystery, Nov./Dec. 2017) the biblical essence of mystery is not that it is a problem to be solved, but rather that it is something to be revealed. The Apostle Paul wrote of his apostleship in Ephesians 3:9-12 (NRSV): “… to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known … in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have access to God in boldness and confidence through faith in him.”
We are the Revealers. This is our calling. Living into a place, a space, where peace and balance are the rule. In the dark places in our world … hold it, forget that thought. Make it, in the dark places of our soul, God reveals the mystery of faith through the Incarnate One. We are not so much called to incarnate the Good News as to reveal it, accepting that it is always something incredibly odd. We bear faithful witness of a mystery revealed in a tiny baby, lying in a manger, the Godhead three in one, in flesh. God didn’t have to become a human, but he chose to in order to allow us to experience him in all his fullness: “For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him.” (Col. 2:9-10a, NRSV).
My favourite theologian, Lesslie Newbigin, wrote, “Faith is the hand that grasps what Christ has done and makes it my own” because “Christ has laid hold of me.” As we lean into 2018, may we all embrace the mystery and a life of faith, hope and love, just as we have been embraced by God.