[Originally posted on Sunday 8-15-10]
In the last few years I have begun to reread books that were important to me when I was new in the ministry. Some have held up very well, like Paul Tillich’s books of sermons. Some have been very disappointing, like Wm. Stringfellow’s “Free in Obedience.” [The title is still good, though.]
One in particular has been very humbling, Reuel Howe’s Man’s Need and God’s Action. As I reread it, I find that every good idea I’ve had along the way, that I thought was mine, actually comes from that book. The language is a bit formal and stilted, typical of its time. [The copyright is 1953. I read it in seminary in the early 1960s.] The insights, however, are, if anything, even more accurate today.
I had the good fortune, some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s, to be in a continuing education seminar with Reuel at Garrett-Evangelical Seminary. He was retired then, but just as insightful, and quite delightful in person.
In that seminar, he told the story of how, when he was a teenager, his father decided to take the family into the forests of Washington state to homestead. They went deep into the forest with their tents and supplies. Before they had really gotten started, a fire wiped out everything they had. Reuel and his father walked back out to get more supplies, leaving his mother and younger siblings behind. When they returned, they saw that his mother had found a rusted old tin can, picked wild flowers, and placed the bouquet on an old stump. The little children were playing “ring” around it. “She took a tragic incident and recycled it to make something beautiful,” he said. “I learned what was perhaps the only lesson I would ever need on that day.”
All this is leading up to his reflection on atonement in his book. It is the perfect word for what Christ is all about, at-one-ment, to make us at one with God, with the world and our neighbors, and with our own true self.
I, and all the people who heard me say almost daily for over 60 years, “Christ came to make us whole, with God, with self, and with the world,” owe a great debt to Reuel Howe.
There was no English word for this Biblical idea of making whole, so one of the early English Bible translators created “atonement,” to get across the idea of being restored to wholeness. (I think I learned this from “In the Beginning: The Making of the King James Bible,” by Alister McGrath.)