Let your care be to prepare yourself with all your strength to walk the way he would have you walk and to believe that he will go with you and assist you and strengthen you against all tyrants and deliver you out of all tribulation. But what way or by what means he will do it, that commit unto him and to his godly pleasure and wisdom and cast that care upon him.
—William Tyndale, OBEDIENCE OF A CHRISTIAN MAN, 1528
IT'S WHAT THEY WERE FORCED to do in a world on fire. To tread with awe, the step weightless and invisible, like the lines of a well written poem. It means they had to observe an extra measure of care with every action they took, every person they encountered, to walk and move about circumspectly; to think circumspectly; to exercise vigilance, as any outlaw must.
Martin Luther was an outlaw. William Tyndale was an outlaw. Anne Askew. John Wycliffe. Men and women who lived in defiance of the church, and essentially in defiance of the Middle Ages, though "high" Middle Ages might be more accurate. The church was drunk with rage for the heretic (poor Amelek), drunk on itself, on the high gloss of its own image—smug, elitist, and two-dimensional as that image was—drunk with power, as it was the government among governments, drunk on the obscenity of its wealth, drunk with the many pretensions of the age.
Monarchs were drunk for many of the same reasons. A sense of their own absolutism, divine right and the custom of nations. Henry VIII was his own religion. Henry was Henry's own favorite deity. The common believer, having been a pawn in the delirium, was caught in an existential bind between the old world and the slow emerging of the new, between the
sorceries of the middle ages and the emerging clarity of an early modern culture under alteration, a culture straining toward sobriety.
To tread fearfully is not the same as being afraid. That is something very different. Formidable and upright, the adverb can be compared with its use in PSALM 139:14. "I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made." I am crafted, it says, with awe and wonder. To tread fearfully is to invest this awe in our steps, in our perception of life. Greater than caution, it is more akin to vigilance, an inspired watchfulness, an awe above fear.
So how did the reformer process life in the great undoing of culture? Where did he or she find refuge and consolation, protection, fellowship, and comfort? William Tyndale provides a good example. There were three things he gravitated to, that they all gravitated to out of common necessity.
While translating an English Bible, Tyndale had to remain on the run, with a target on his back and a price on his head. To those like the outrageously Catholic Thomas More, Tyndale was the arch-heretic. Sir Thomas who wanted nothing more than to see the translator vanish, literally like a puff of smoke, with a "firebrand burning at his back." Blood was their argument. For Tyndale, and others like him, there was a kind of safety in movement, being, as it is, difficult to hit a moving target.
But Tyndale was not alone. There were many men and women who supported him and reformers like him. In London, Sir Humphrey Monmouth allowed Tyndale to stay in his home before the translator left England. Sir Humphrey was member of a secret organization called The Christian Brethren, a group of cloth merchants who helped to smuggle bibles and other forbidden literature, even people, into England.
Once on the continent, Tyndale sought out Christian community, those he knew and was able to trust. This represents the first of three things the reformers were drawn to and depended on in uncertain times: Christian Community.
They protected their own, so to speak, gave them hiding, sanctuary, and warmth, not only under their own roofs but by a powerful solidarity, sealed by the spirit that moved freely among them, keeping each other nurtured in the faith. The presence of death empowered Christian community, giving it a value underprized in fairer times.
2. THE LOVE OF CHRIST
The love of Christ can hardly be separated from Christian Community, for it thrives there. The love of Christ bloomed gracefully and bountifully among the reformers and their friends. The greatest evidence we have is in their words. I cannot read Tyndale or Luther and detect an alienation, detachment, or hermitic presence, not with them.
"I am thou thyself, and thou art I myself and can be no nearer or kin."
—William Tyndale, The Obedience of a Christian Man, 1528
Tyndale wrote this passage while on the run, a revelation that took bloom in his need. In this passage lies the very soul of Christian community. I am you, you are me, and there can be nothing nearer or kin. In the eye and in the economy of heaven, my neighbor is as "dear to me as my own soul," as Tyndale says elsewhere. I can't read that passage without wincing, considering our modern, more cultivated translation of the faith, a Christianity at our leisure, a thing I am not sure the reformers could have anticipated (with the exception of Luther perhaps).
As a writer, I also suspect that in spite of Tyndale's brilliance, Luther's, or any of the more vocal reformers, much of what they learned they learned under fire, under the press of the age, brutal and vindictive as that age was. Literally, learning on the run. It was a craving they felt, a tender lash that drove them as the world around them burned. Some things we can only learn or "hear" in the fire, however that fire may present itself to you. That, curiously, is between you and the Almighty.
The point is they sought Christ in each other. The desperation that swept up Western culture only helped cultivate this love, making it stronger, deeper, and truer. The presence of death only sanitized their desperation, made it lean and trim. With the intense pressure the reformer was against, she needed sanctuary, which she found in community. She needed the life of that community and bound herself to it, to Christ himself, the true father of reform.
3. THE WORD
Then there was the Word. I would say they were drawn to the Word, but that seems light for our purposes. It was more plunge than draw. The Word gave reform a beginning, even as it provided sustenance, life, comfort, correction, revelation, and instruction. The Word itself was in a state of renewal among them, expansion and nurture. Not in itself, because it is eternal, but in them. And they were wild for it. The more they fed, the more they wanted to feed, as if hunger itself was the meat they fed upon. Luther, like most of them, was very at home with the Word. It was backbone. It was spine. He said once, concerning his spat with Holy Mother Church, "I did nothing; the Word did it all."
In these three things are a book's worth of feeding. For the sake of both brevity and clarity (not to mention internet attention spans), I have condensed the above to a few paragraphs. But I think the point is made. My plan is to be vigilant, to keep an editorial eye on this and the other articles generated and inspired from GODSPEED, which is rightly called devotional literature, a voice they have earned. There is still much to discover and explore, particularly where relevance can be found, where a word or a thought may touch us from such a distance.
Community. The love of Christ. And Word. Lots and lots of Word. This three-fold thread runs throughout GODSPEED, as it did among the reformers. Read and discover these amazing men and women for yourself. You will detect, first, a sobriety, a clarity that sparkles, that gives off light and warmth. The fire around them was too hot and bright to summon anything out of them that wasn't true and right, as transparent as a June morning. These three pillars support the true temple and sanctuary of the believer, where reform may do its greatest work still, of refinement and detail. It was the rock they clung to when the seas roared, safety and repose when the world was on fire.
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