With the passing of the Presbyterian Record, one more branch no longer burns on the Presbyterian Church in Canada bush. It joins many others which have slowly, gradually, smouldered and died—once-strong congregations, missions, agencies, programs. Our motto is Nec Tamen Consumebatur—Not, However, Consumed—but at this rate of consumption, one wonders for how long.
It is an odd image, this burning bush. It originates, of course, with Moses and the revelation he received way back in Exodus 3: “And, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.” As an emblem for the Presbyterian Church, the Scots trace it back to printer George Mossman, who included it in his title page of the Acts and Proceedings of 1691. It is possible that he got the idea from the French Huguenots, who adopted the image in 1583 as their official seal. And their source? John Calvin himself.
Calvin, seeing in the miraculous bush a powerful symbol of the Church, says in his Commentary on Acts: “Neither is there any thing which keepeth it from being consumed to ashes, save this, because the Lord dwelleth in the midst thereof.”
What matters here is that whether you trace the burning bush and accompanying motto back to George Mossman, the Huguenots, or Calvin, you are tracing back to an age when the church was not operating from a position of strength, but from a position of considerable uncertainty. Presbyterians in 1690 Scotland were experiencing division as the unhappy Covenanters, refusing to join the Church of Scotland, broke away. The 1583 Huguenots were embroiled in the French Wars of Religion, which saw incredible persecution and the death of millions. And Calvin, whose Commentary on Acts dates to 1552, was in the midst of the difficult “Crucible Years” in Geneva, where not only the future of the Reformed Church was in the balance, but Calvin himself had recently suffered the loss of his beloved wife, Idelette.
And yet Nec Tamen Consumebatur they proclaimed, in the very sign, seal and symbol of their faith: struggling, yes; divided, yes; future uncertain, yes; but there is a future in which they hoped, in which we hope, “because the Lord dwelleth in the midst thereof.”
In the face of division, in the face of persecution, in the face of confusion and turmoil and loss, the hearts of the faithful turned to God, and focused on God’s presence in their midst. And this needs to be our focus, too, if we are not to follow the once-Presbyterian Record into the realm of memory. We have had many foci in the recent past, priorities which however worthy have sometimes served to draw our attention away from our primary focus, our primary purpose, our primary identity. We are the church—”one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”—”Christ together with his people called both to worship and to serve him in all of life.” (Living Faith 7.1.1-7.1.5) As the church, we need to focus our worship and our work on Jesus Christ. As the writer of Hebrews put it (12:1-2): “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”
Struggling, yes. Divided, I pray not. Future uncertain: No. Not if we refocus our faith, our priorities, our energy. For then as now, “the Lord dwelleth in the midst thereof.” Nec Tamen Consumebatur, indeed.