Reminiscences of an octogenarian

To ascend the balcony of remembrance, as I have been invited to do, and in retrospective mood describe the road I have traversed, interpreting the things learned on the way, confronts this traveler with a delicate task. Yet there are indeed moments in life’s pilgrimage when action on the road must give place to reflection from the balcony.

From the balcony of quiet retirement, therefore, let an oldster whose Celtic surname means “son of a firebrand” briefly recount some of his life’s most creative experiences. Let him identify the major realities that have shaped his thinking and his living down the years. Let him also set in relief some crucial issues, in both the secular and the religious order, that have stirred within him ever deepening concern.

My life’s most revolutionary discovery was the reality of God as a loving and sovereign Presence. This discovery came in early boyhood. Following a period of anxious yearning, expressed each night before falling asleep in the words “Lord, help me,” I experienced a revolutionary change of attitude toward God, toward myself, and toward others. Of a sudden I found myself a new being. The Bible, especially the Psalms and the Letters of St. Paul, became more exciting reading than the books of fiction I adored.

The passage that gripped me most deeply and interpreted to me most fully my new selfhood was that affirmation of Paul to fellow Christians in Ephesus, “And you he made alive, when you were dead …” (Eph. 2:1). The way was opened for an understanding of grace, the Gospel, and the new life in Christ. Moments of rapture and ecstasy were not uncommon in those first months. In solitary hikes among the Scottish hills I conversed with God. Jesus Christ became the center of my being.

As time passed, and new frontiers had to be crossed, there developed a sense of Christ’s personal presence and companionship. He was my light and my strength, my teacher and guide, my fellow pilgrim and crusader. There was this also. The reality of God as a sovereign as well as a loving presence was becoming increasingly meaningful and exciting. Life had become adventure; the expected was now the unexpected.

Providential circumstances, including a scholarship, had made possible my enrollment in the Royal Academy of my home town, Inverness. The Baillie brothers, John and Donald, both destined to become eminent theologians, were fellow schoolmates. We were also members of a debating society that met on Friday evenings. Circumstances no less providential opened the way later for periods of study in Aberdeen, Princeton, Madrid, Lima, and Bonn. At the core of my movement from one academic center to another was preoccupation with what I had come to regard as God’s call to be a Christian missionary. I sought the cultural preparation that seemed most expedient to equip me for effective missionary service.

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The calm certainty of God’s sovereign guidance that inspired me and determined basic decisions had its source in words addressed to Deity by a Hebrew psalmist, who said, “I trust in thee, O LORD, I say, ‘Thou art my God.’ My times are in thy hand” (Ps. 31:14, 15). These words were the text of my senior class sermon in the spring of 1915, on the eve of leaving Princeton Seminary to begin my missionary career in the Hispanic world. The sense of a divine hand that pointed the way, and lent support to the Christian traveler on the road, brought determination and peace to my spirit. To the direction and care of the loving and sovereign Being whose I was and whom I desired to serve, I left my all. Graduation from seminary was followed by study in Spain, ordination as a Presbyterian minister, and union in marriage to one who had had a spiritual experience similar to my own and who, since wedlock, has been my fellow pilgrim. Arrival in Peru, amid the turmoil of World War One, was the beginning of a new era.

Along the road traversed in the fulfillment of my missionary commitment, I encountered from time to time what I have called undersigned coincidences. By this I mean unanticipated combinations of events that facilitated the achievement of my objective. Sometime in the future I hope to deal concretely and at length with undesigned coincidences as creative landmarks on the highway of Christian decision. But for the moment I limit myself to this observation. When it is contended that God does not exist, or that, if he ever did, he is now dead or irrelevant, I ask the new atheists this question: “Upon what do you base the assumption, scientific or philosophical, that what I allege to have been a lifetime experience of the reality of God and his directive guidance has been pure illusion?”

My second life discovery was this: In quest of the most effective way to make Christ and the Gospel real and relevant I learned the incarnational approach to the human situation. To this approach my life became dedicated. What do I mean?

God’s approach to the problem of man was given dynamic expression in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The close identification with humanity of Christ, the God-man, and his concern to communicate the Gospel of the Kingdom by word, life, and deed to all types of people, provide the goal and the pattern for an effective Christian approach to man and his problems in every land and epoch. By being what he was, caring for people, and accepting the consequences of his loyalty to God and man, Christ triumphed and won the right to be heard. There are people today who, though they disdain the Church, Christianity, and religion, have limitless admiration for Jesus Christ, and are ready to listen to what he said, and to what is said about Him by persons they have learned to respect.

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I learned early in my career as an educational missionary in Lima, Peru, that if I was to be taken seriously and to succeed in influencing others in the direction of the Christian faith, it was essential to establish close ties of friendship with them, become sensitive to their problems and concerns, and learn to understand their cultural background and aspirations. As the years went by I became so closely identified with everything Hispanic, with the Spanish language and literature, with Latin-Americans and their cultural, social, political, and religious concerns, that I ceased to be regarded as a foreigner. People of all types were ready to listen to me. In private homes and public halls, in grade schools and high schools, in university auditoriums and workmen’s clubs, in churches, seminaries, and monasteries, in YMCA centers and summer camps, it was my privilege to discuss the question as to what it means to fulfill the vocation of being a real person, a true human being. In doing this in the way most meaningful to my audience, I sought to portray the figure of the “Man of Galilee” and his relevance to all of life. My first public address was to an audience in the Peruvian Sierra. The mayor of the town presided. My theme was Le Profesion de Hombre (“The Vocation of Being a Man”). My first book in Spanish was on the Parables of Jesus (Mas Yo os Digo—But l Say to You); the second was on the meaning of life (El Sentido de la Vida).

So far as academic audiences were concerned, the fact that during the years spent in Peru I had served for a period as professor of metaphysics in St. Marcos University, Lima, the oldest university in the Western hemisphere, brought me many invitations in later years. It was my privilege to give addresses in thirty-five Latin American universities, located in sixteen different countries, on diverse themes and issues. But the finality pursued was always the same: the reality and relevance of Jesus Christ.

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The most momentous academic experience of my life was in Mexico in 1928. It happened during the Calles regime, very shortly after his government had expropriated all church property and prohibited ministers of religion, Roman Catholic and Protestant, from voting in the Mexican elections. I happened to be giving talks on the teachings of Jesus in the YMCA Center in Mexico City when the invitation came to me from the National University to deliver three lectures. At the first lecture the president of the university presided. My topic was the Spanish poet-philosopher Miguel de Unamuno, whom I had come to know personally in Spain, and whose works had had a profound influence on my own thinking. Unamuno was recognized then, as he is now, as the greatest thinker in the Hispanic world. After dealing with the Basque writer as poet-philosopher and man of letters, I drew attention to the fact that, though unrelated to any religious organization, Unamuno was personally a Christian, and a profound lover of Jesus Christ. I concluded the lecture with a critique of his lyrical poem The Christ of Velázquez, a meditation on the Crucified Christ, which is recognized as the greatest poetic gem in the Spanish language. My final words were a citation of the two last lines of this poem:

My eyes fixed on Thine eyes, O Christ,

My gaze lost in Thee, Lord.

In the other two lectures I discussed Nietzsche’s Man and Superman and The Problems of Our Epoch. Toward the close of each lecture I moved to a presentation of the figure and abiding relevance of the real “Superman,” Jesus Christ.

This method of presenting Christ to highly sophisticated and secularized audiences, people completely alienated from religion and the Church, was possible because I had learned that, if a Christian approach to man and his problems is to succeed and be truly redemptive, the foreign word must become indigenous flesh. As the years passed, the pragmatic validity of this imperative became increasingly apparent. The practice of the incarnational approach brought in its train moving experiences of fellowship with people of the most diverse backgrounds and their response to the Christian message.

Nothing has brought me greater joy in recent years than the adoption of the incarnational approach by Christian groups, both Protestant and Catholic, at the grass roots of Latin American society. Of the many instances that might be mentioned I cite but two. The enthusiastic commitment to this approach on the part of Penetecostal groups, and of the Latin America Mission with its visionary creation “Evangelism-in-Depth,” together with the total rejection of everything purely impositional or condescensional, has produced in Latin American countries the most phenomenal church growth in modern history. Ardent lovers of Christ and of people, by identifying themselves closely with common folk and becoming sensitive to their spirit and needs, have succeeded in winning their esteem and with it an attentive hearing of the spiritual message. I thank God, in particular, for the Pentecostal movement in Chile and for the contribution it has made to the spiritual and social welfare of the Chilean masses. Representatives of the Chilean government and universities publicly expressed their gratitude for this some years ago.

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As for me personally, in the early thirties new horizons began to open in life’s pilgrimage. New frontiers had to be crossed. New issues had to be confronted that challenged my philosophy of mission. I was gripped by a new sense of the Church, its meaning and its role. Responding to what I believed to be God’s call to a new type of missionary service, and in obedience to the directive guidance of the “Hand,” I moved to the United States. I became involved in theological education as teacher and administrator. I began to play a part in the shaping of mission policy. I participated in the production and development of the ecumenical movement. Responsibilities increased and wider horizons opened. But one commitment remained. I sought in every human situation, whether secular or religious, to be incarnationally sensitive to the persons and issues involved, whoever and whatever they were.

Something happened—another frontier was reached on the incarnational path I had learned to tread. In New York in 1949, following a visit to Asia as chairman of the International Missionary Council and a conference in Hong Kong with refugees from Mainland China, I advocated, on their recommendation, a face-to-face encounter at the topmost level between representatives of the American government and the new Communist regime in China. I was immediately labeled a Communist or pro-Communist. The McCarthy era had begun. My Church defended me. The Lord “stood by me.” The Lordship of Christ in life and history was never more real to me. But for persons and groups fearful of any change in their country’s social or political outlook, I had become an “unsafe” person, a Christian heretic.

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However, my position has remained unchanged. In the solution of issues that involve conflict or misunderstanding between persons or between nations, whoever they be, there is a timeless imperative. There can be no substitute for quiet, frank, face-to-face encounter. The incarnational approach applies to all human relationships. The foreign word must become indigenous flesh. An enemy must be met eye to eye, listened to ear to ear, spoken to mouth to mouth, in the light and spirit of the “Word become flesh.”

But space has run out. For that reason I will do no more than mention here my third major discovery on life’s road, but with the hope of sharing it with readers at a later date. I have learned the significance of tragic irony. There have begun to appear in the life of this nation certain ominous traits, psychological and sociological, political and religious, that have been native to the Hispanic tradition and have had fateful consequences in Latin American lands. Signs increase in the United States of America that we are headed for a tragic era. This is said with pain by a loyal naturalized American who owes to Hispanic culture and to friends of Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American ancestry more than lips can tell or life repay.

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