By Paul D. Wolfe April 25, 2017
A Recent Soirée
Last Friday night, April 21, I had the opportunity to speak briefly to those gathered at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia for the spring “soirée” event sponsored by the Huguenot Fellowship.
(Background: the Huguenot Fellowship is a US-based organization that supports the ministry of Faculté Jean Calvin [FJC], a Protestant theological seminary in Aix-en-Provence, France. For the past year or so I’ve served on the Huguenot Fellowship board. The soirée was a gathering of friends and supporters to learn about the ongoing work of the seminary in Aix and to consider how we might continue our efforts to bolster it from across the Atlantic.)
It was a thoroughly delightful occasion from start to finish, featuring (of course) very good food and very good music. God himself must have been pleased, since the soirée was lit up several times with lightning from heaven and accompanied by the unmistakable rumblings of divine-approval-thunder. Westminster Seminary’s own Libbie Groves provided a moving recitation of Genesis 1 in French (“et voici, cela était très bon”), and FJC Old Testament professor Gert Kwakkel reported concerning the state of the seminary and its contemporary French context.
My role at the end of the event was to provide some direction to those who were interested as to how they might get involved financially in supporting FJC. The thrust of my remarks was to spotlight the example in Scripture of a man named Gaius, the recipient of the apostle John’s third letter, a man who showed himself willing to support Christian missionaries even though they were, as John himself admits, “strangers” to him. Gaius’ example is a powerful one when we consider our own opportunities—and indeed, our obligations—to support gospel initiatives, both near and far, that may be led by those who aren’t well known to us.
Ever since that event last Friday night, I’ve continued to reflect upon it. (I suppose it’s the occupational hazard of the minister that he constantly finds himself tossing over in his own mind, after the fact, what he might have said from the pulpit on a given occasion as well as what he did actually say.) In particular, what has struck me forcefully since our soirée is the date it was held: April 21. The more I’ve thought about it, the more remarkable that has seemed to me.
Eighteen Years Ago
In April of 1999, I was a third-year student there at that same Westminster Seminary, enrolled in the Master of Divinity degree program, planning on a life spent in pastoral ministry. It was a rich seminary spring, to be sure: my four classes were (1) Richard Gaffin’s course on Christ’s person and work; (2) Dr. Gaffin’s other course on the book of Acts and the letters of the apostle Paul; (3) Sinclair Ferguson’s course on the ministry of the Holy Spirit; and (4) a course on the books of the Old Testament prophets taught by...Al Groves...Libbie’s husband. Four classes, three professors—one gospel. In effect, the three of them were all teaching me from different corners of the Bible and theology about resurrection.
It just so happens that as my grasp of that resurrection gospel was growing over the course of that spring semester, something else was growing too, though unbeknownst to me at the time: a cancerous tumor located within the vertebrae of my spinal column in the middle of my back. The pain it was causing worsened over those spring months, and it came to a head in April.
To be precise, it came to head...on April 21.
Eighteen years to the day before our soirée last week.
April 21, 1999 was a Wednesday. I had gone to Philadelphia for classes at Westminster that week, and had planned (as was my rhythm that semester) to return to my home in Virginia the following day, Thursday. But that Wednesday evening, April 21, the pain in my back became so intense that I realized my going home couldn’t wait. That Wednesday night I’d have to pack up and drive back to Virginia as soon as possible.
But what I remember perhaps most vividly about that night is that I had one last academic responsibility to take care of before I took off. The last thing I did—the last seminary action I took that week before I crawled into my car and drove back to Virginia—was to stumble over to a friend’s computer and print out a paper I’d written that was due that week so that my friend could turn it in for me. It was a paper for...Al Groves...Libbie’s husband. And it was a paper I’d written on Isaiah 43:1-3:
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not , for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.’
It was Wednesday night, April 21, 1999, exactly eighteen years before our soirée.
And I printed out that paper for Libbie’s husband.
And then I drove home.
And two days later, April 23, I was diagnosed with cancer. April 21. Groves. Isaiah. Gospel.
April 23. Lymphoma. Waters. Fire. Fear.
“Fear not , for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
It was quite a week. And it’s been a week I’ve remembered ever since. I have April 23 marked on my personal calendar as “D-Day.” “D” is for “Diagnosis.” Perhaps April 21 should be “I-Day.” For “Isaiah.” (Or “G-Day”? In honor of Professor Groves?)
So there we were, exactly eighteen years later, April 21, 2017, back on that same campus for our Huguenot Fellowship soirée, and now it was Al’s wife Libbie who was the one (just like her husband before her, all those years ago) who was teaching me that all God’s works are “very good.” And doesn’t that include his works of testing us, and comforting us, and raising us, as well as creating us?
And make no mistake: one day he will raise us. For the God of creation, the God of Genesis 1, is the God of re-creation too, the God of 1 Corinthians 15. In the end he will raise us: the same Spirit who ordered and filled the heavens and the earth in the beginning according to the divine fiat will raise the children of God in the end according to a similar fiat (“Let there be glory”), clothing them with imperishable, glorious, powerful resurrection bodies. And on that day Christ will present the church to God as his new creation handiwork, and God will declare: “Voici, cela est très bon.” (And as we all know , he will say it in French. And because all God’s people will have been made perfect, all will perfectly understand him.)
I didn’t say all that in my remarks on Friday night—but I could have!
I think my experience as a seminary student on April 21, 1999, and in the days before and after, sheds some light on the realities of seminary life, including FJC in France as well as Westminster in Philadelphia. Theological seminaries are, to be sure, academic institutions first and foremost. But we must never forget that there’s so much more going on in the life of a seminary community than just academics. Students and faculty and staff—they’re all disciples of Jesus, and not just paper-writers and lecture-deliverers and form- filler-outers. In short, at the same time that they’re all learning and teaching and administrating, they’re fully living too. They’re all living as followers of Jesus in a fallen world. They’re all suffering, and rejoicing, and triumphing, and failing, and wondering, and hoping, and mourning and dancing. And now they’re doing all that in the context of a seminary community. And that community, that context, can matter greatly for the wide variety of experiences they’re enduring and emotions they’re shouldering.
For me, in the spring of 1999, it was Al Groves preparing me for cancer with gospel comforts from Isaiah. And Professors Gaffin and Ferguson too. But think about it: today, in Aix-en-Provence, it’s Gert Kwakkel teaching students about the lament Psalms. (Psalm 69: “Sauve-moi, ô Dieu! Car les eaux menacent ma vie.” “Save me, O God! For the waters threaten my life.”) And some of those students may be lamenting profoundly, hearts broken and minds overwhelmed, their very lives threatened by rising, rushing waters, even as they’re sitting in his classroom, taking in that teaching. And then, Lord willing, they’ll take what they’ve learned about lamenting (learned from lectures mixed with life) and share it with the churches they serve, in France and beyond. And in that way the ministry of FJC will reach hearts and lives far beyond the Aix city limits.
And studying the Psalms is just one example. No doubt FJC Systematic Theology professor Pierre-Sovann Chauny is teaching students about the doctrine of the resurrection just as Dr. Gaffin once taught me, and New Testament professor Donald Cobb is highlighting the work of Christ in Paul’s letters, and Practical Theology professor Jean-Philippe Bru is training ministers to proclaim that very good news from the pulpit. Teachers teaching students, students and graduates blessing churches, churches bearing witness in the world. And all because real life doesn’t stop in the midst of seminary life. And that, surely we can say, is a most worthy investment.
A Future Soirée?
So no, I didn’t say all that last Friday night. But I could have. Perhaps I should have. (Indeed, the second-guessing minister in me wishes that I had!)
Maybe the Huguenot Fellowship will hold another event some year on an April 21. And maybe Libbie Groves will be there then too. (Genesis 2, perhaps? “L ’arbre de la vie au milieu du jardin...”)
I’ll hold on to this essay, just in case. My (not-so-brief) remarks are all ready to go.