Borrowing from our friends at Sesame Street, this month’s column is brought to you by the word “repristinate.”
Retired Covenant pastor and superintendent John Notehelfer has a ministry of encouragement where every week he sends out a brief leadership reflection to anyone interested. The insights never fail to make an important point.
Recently he sent me this from Garry Wills’s book Certain Trumpets: “In order for a tradition to be worth passing on to another generation, you must ‘repristinate’ it, make it pristine again—restore it to its original state or condition.”
Wills then quotes the English author and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936): “If you leave a white fence post alone, it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white, you must be always painting it again. Briefly, if you want the old white post, you must have a new white post.”
You must always be painting it again. In other words, identity that nurtures must itself be nurtured or else it will lose its striking luster.
The Covenant, at its most pristine early self, painted its identity with two questions. The first was about one’s living faith in Jesus Christ: “How goes your walk with the Lord?” The second was about Scripture being the defining frame of reference for life: “Where is it written?” If the Covenant is to “repristinate,” to stay true to our notable essential identity, it is imperative that we keep painting over and over again with these twin values.
And so those two questions form my abiding and earnest prayer for the Covenant: that a deep love for Jesus would always be our center, and a deep obedience to the word would always be our guide.
In regard to the first question, there is a book looking at younger generations whose title is its message: They Like Jesus but Not the Church. I take hope in that because liking Jesus is core to who we are. It means to humbly cultivate a deeply authentic walk with Jesus; to humbly live into and lift up the values of Jesus; to humbly live into and lift up the priorities of Jesus. The more Jesus is Jesus among us, the more authentic is our witness.
Have you noticed in broader Christian circles, however, how the actual naming of Jesus is diminishing, being substituted with the more general reference, God? While in good Trinitarian understanding God certainly and wholly incorporates Jesus, the effect over time of reducing specific references to Jesus can unintentionally contribute to an impersonalization of sorts, a new deism, where God can be perceived as at a distance and amorphous.
That why I like what Will Willimon of Duke Divinity School says about the importance of the incarnation of Jesus. “God is not distant, unknowable, impersonal. God is not vague and indistinct, aloof and indiscernible. God has a face, a name, a certain way of talking and living, and dying, and rising.”
Jesus is the one who makes the indistinguishable God distinguishable. As the song says: “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. There’s just something about that name.”
The second question that keeps the fence post freshened is, “Where is it written?” It means Scripture is the authoritative source for establishing our frame of reference for all of life. Covenant historian Phil Anderson would say that question more fully means, “What does the Bible say?” In other words, it does not simply find an isolated verse here or there to support a position, but rather lets the whole of Scripture speak comprehensively to a matter.
And so we humbly search the Scriptures. We then humbly do our best to align with what we have discerned, believing that God’s truth is trustworthy to lead us into life-giving ways even when the choice is exceptionally hard and countercultural. Proverbs 4:13 says, “Hold on to instruction, do not let it go; guard it well, for it is your life.” God’s truth is always meant for our flourishing.
A physical law would say that things tend to deteriorate with time. And so we must tend to the fresh painting of the fence post. Join me in praying for the repristinization of our beloved Covenant, that a deep love for Jesus would always be our center, and a deep obedience to the word would always be our guide.