The L'Abri Connection
Dear LifeSharers, February 2014
As I write this month’s letter, I can see big flakes of snow being whipped around outside by strong, gusting winds. But here in the living room, I have logs burning nicely in the grate. I’m finally getting warmed up after praying in front of the Planned Parenthood abortion mill earlier this morning with Quint. The snow wasn’t much while we were there but, on the other hand, it felt like the wind was trying to blow the cold rain right through us. By the time we were leaving, the wind intensified even more; the snow started in earnest; and driving home got a little dicey.
Nevertheless, this wasn’t my worst driving experience of the week. That had occurred last Thursday when Claire and I and our old friend Pat Osborne were heading up to Rochester, Minnesota for a two-day theology conference. I wrestled high winds the whole trip but, as we neared the Minnesota border coming up I-35, those winds started blowing snow across the highway, creating patches of ice that were really dangerous. We came up to one semi-trailer truck off the road, then another, and then vehicles of all sorts. By the time we finally pulled into Rochester (the last 70 miles took two hours), we had encountered dozens more off the road from ice, winds and very low visibility.
The conference we attended was sponsored by the Rochester chapter of L’Abri, one of the Christian study centers started decades ago by Dr. Francis and Edith Schaeffer. It was the first conference Claire and I had attended in several years and we went with great anticipation, especially because we have a rather intense history with the Schaeffers and the ministry of L’Abri. Would you like to hear about it? I sure hope so because that’s the focus of this month’s LifeSharer!
To start at the very beginning, we’ve got to go way back …and I mean way back…to the spring of 1971.
That spring I was 19 years old. I had become a Christian almost a year earlier through the ministry of Young Life back in my hometown of Lakewood, Colorado. But after several weeks in my new life, I recognized there was way too much of my old life still hanging on. A yearning to be more consistent in my faith led me to think I needed to get out of Denver and far away from relationships which were making my “easily besetting” sins all the easier still. So, in the summer of 1970, I hitchhiked out of town, eventually landing in Omaha. I knew no one here. I had but a few dollars in my pocket. It wasn’t the wisest, most mature way to handle such a problem but the Lord still honored my desire. And within about 16 hours of first hitting Omaha, I was miraculously and providentially led by God to the Christian Brotherhood where I lived, worked, studied the Bible, and engaged in evangelism and discipleship ministries from June-October 1970 and February-May 1971.
My theological foundations were established in those months as I was taught by instructors from Grace Bible Institute (who humbly, courageously came down and taught Bible studies to the young hippies) and preachers like Darrell Scott and a fellow out of Kansas City, Chet McCalley. But there were also the books! Strict theology books by Harry Ironside, Charles Ryrie and Dwight Pentecost. Thematic studies by Gene Getz, Howard Hendricks, John Stott and Donald Grey Barnhouse. And then, added to these much-treasured authors, came three more whose work had a particularly intense influence on my thought and lifestyle – an influence that continues to this day. Those three were C.S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton and Francis Schaeffer. (Beginning in the mid-1970s Alexander Solzhenitsyn and then in the 1990s Randy Alcorn would richly add to those foundations…but that’s for another letter. This one is concentrating on Schaeffer.)
The first book I read of Schaeffer’s was not the one everyone suggests. No, the standard advice is to begin with his famous trilogy: The God Who Is There, He Is There and He Is Not Silent, and Escape from Reason. But somehow I started with The Church at the End of the 20th Century. It didn’t matter. I was hooked from the very start for here, in Francis Schaeffer, I found a startlingly honest, humble intellectual who considered the Bible of the utmost importance for daily, supernatural living. He was an apologist and philosopher of no small account yet he was foremost an evangelist with great compassion, perseverance, courage and faith. He was also counter-culture in the most wholesome, winsome ways and I found his books of immense value.
So, there in the spring of ’71, when a friend asked if I would be interested in hearing Frances Schaeffer in person, I immediately said, “Of course! Where’s he speaking at? Grace? The Gospel Tab? Somewhere on the UNL campus?” No. It turned out that he, his wife Edith, and other members of the L’Abri team were speaking at Covenant College at Lookout Mountain, Tennessee! Ah! Road trip! Four of us piled in a VW bug, took off immediately, and drove all night to make it in time.
That conference was a turning point for me in a couple of very important ways.
It convinced me, for instance, that it was time to leave the Christian Brotherhood and take my faith into a “more real” world. I saw too how important it was to cultivate a Christian ethic regarding creation, history, literature, the arts, and so on. And third, seeing in person the remarkable impact created by a married couple helped me realize that an adventurous, radical Christian ministry need not be muted by marriage and family life – in fact, these things actually made one’s message to the world more beautiful and effective.
And that showed me a green light to ask Claire to marry me. I can hear many of you saying, “Well, if listening to Francis and Edith Schaeffer helped persuade you to marry Claire, that’s plenty right there!” I agree. And yet that was just the beginning.
Throughout that decade, Claire and I read most everything the Schaeffers had written along with several books by L’Abri colleagues like Donald Drew, Hans Rookmaaker and Os Guinness. We also listened to L’Abri sermons and lectures (on reel-to-reel tapes, no less). But in the late ‘70s, Francis Schaeffer began to deal more carefully and forcefully with the assault on the sanctity of human life, urging Christians to speak justice and compassion into the culture by opposing abortion, euthanasia, genetic tampering and so on. His book, A Christian Manifesto, especially gripped us and, after reading it carefully (twice) and praying long and hard, we knew we were being called into Christ-centered, activist-oriented, pro-life ministries. The rest is history: the Omaha Christian Action Council, sidewalk counseling, “Mercy Ministries” in the nursing home, the AAA Crisis Pregnancy Center, creative protests, “Vital Signs” radio, the change to Vital Signs Ministries, Frontier Issues conferences, rescue actions, P.A.L. Nights, the international travel, the various cyber-space endeavors, “When Swing was King,” and more.
So, was Francis Schaeffer much of an influence on our lives? Uh, I think so.
And yet there are still more connections. For instance, in all three of our month-long visits to the United Kingdom, the L’Abri at Greatham invited Claire and I to stay there a few days to lecture, talk to students and staff, and enjoy their warm hospitality before we had to take off for the next speaking engagements somewhere else in the country. Another L’Abri item is that our weekend radio program featured among its guests such L’Abri standouts as Os Guinness, Ian Cooper, and even Edith Schaeffer herself.
And that bring us (finally) to last weekend’s L’Abri conference up in Minnesota, a fully-packed two-days and nights that proved more informative, challenging, and encouraging than we dared hope. By the time we were ready to head home, I had taken 29 pages of notes, bought 6 books, made new friends, enjoyed wonderful conversations, and made a few bold decisions about life and ministry. Oh yes, I also delighted in sharing the experience with Claire and Pat.
It’s pretty cool, isn’t it? The first chapter of my L’Abri experience is now 43 years ago. But I’m still turning new pages and discovering things to deepen, enrich, and extend my counter-culture Christian life. Thank you, Lord, for all the servant-teachers You have blessed me with over the years, including the Schaeffers and their colleagues from L’Abri.
Okay, I’d better close. We’re in the middle of a very busy “When Swing Was King” week (6 presentations) plus we’re finishing work in setting up next week’s schedule for the visit of my friend and colleague from Belarus, Hleb Yermakou. So far we’ve got him in Christian schools, public schools, a college mission festival, radio, a Cru meeting, a church service, several informal visits, a couple of sightseeing events, and even a day in Kansas City. And that’s covering just 6 days!
So, I gotta’ change gears and get this letter out. If you’re interested in learning more about last weekend’s conference, I have posted a few items on Vital Signs Blog. We are also buying a few of the lecture tapes for use in a group setting. We’ll let you know about that as it comes around. Until next time, thanks for your kind-hearted and generous support.
I close now with a few observations by Francis Schaeffer himself.
* “When we understand our calling, it is not only true, but beautiful -- and it should be exciting. It is hard to understand how an orthodox, evangelical, Bible-believing Christian can fail to be excited. The answers in the realm of the intellect should make us overwhelmingly excited. But more than this, we are returned to a personal relationship with a God Who is there. If we are unexcited Christians, we should go back and see what is wrong.”
* “Doctrinal rightness and rightness of ecclesiastical position are important, but only as a starting point to go on into a living relationship - and not as ends in themselves.”
* “Certainly every Christian ought to be praying and working to nullify the abominable abortion law. But as we work and pray, we should have in mind not only this important issue as though it stood alone. Rather, we should be struggling and praying that this whole godless worldview can be rolled back with all its results across all of life.”
* “To fail to exhibit that we take truth seriously at those points where there is a cost in our doing so, is to push the next generation in the relative, dialectical millstream that surrounds us. ”
* “We must realize that the Reformation worldview leads in the direction of government freedom. But the humanist worldview with inevitable certainty leads in the direction of statism. This is so because humanists, having no god, must put something at the center, and it is inevitably society, government, or the state.”