Thursday, December 31

The New Year

The celebration of the New Year did not actually occur on the first day of January until after the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582--and even then only in France, the northern Italian city states, Portugal, and the Spanish nations of Castile and Aragon. The new calendar and thus, the change in the celebration of the New Year, was not adopted in Scotland until 1600 and in England and its American colonies until 1752.

From the earliest days of the Roman imperial calendar, the New Year was instead celebrated on March 25--which is why September, October, November, and December are derived from the Latin words septem (seven), octo (eight), novem (nine), and decem (ten). This also explains why presidential inaugurations were once constitutionally scheduled to be held in March--and so it was from 1789 until the 1933 ratification of the Twentieth Amendment.

Throughout Christendom, the beginning of the New Year, regardless of when it was celebrated, has been set apart as a day of renewal--for vows, vision, and vocation. It was on this day that guild members took their annual pledge, that husbands and wives renewed their marriage promises, and that young believers reasserted their resolution to walk in the grace of the Gospel.

In Edinburgh beginning in the seventeenth century, revelers would gather at the Tron Church to watch the great clock tower mark their entrance into the New Year--which was the inspiration behind the relatively recent Times Square ceremony in New York. In Edinburgh though, the purpose was not merely to have a grand excuse for a public party, but rather to celebrate the truth of Epiphany newness.

Tuesday, December 29

Contentment

"A Christian should follow his occupation with contentment. Is your business here clogged with any difficulties and inconveniences? Contentment under those difficulties is no little part of your homage to that King who hath placed you where you are by His call." --Cotton Mather

Sunday, December 27

Childermas

Often called Childermas, this day on the Christian calendar has traditionally been celebrated as the Feast of the Holy Innocents. It is a day which solemnizes the slaughter of the children of Judea by Herod the Great following the birth of Christ (Matthew 2:16-17).

It has always been the focus of the Christian’s commitment to protect and preserve the sanctity of human life--thus serving as a prophetic warning against the practitioners of abandonment and infanticide in the age of antiquity, oblacy and pessiary in the medieval epoch, and abortion and euthanasia in these modern times. Generally set aside as a day of prayer, it culminates with a declaration of the covenant community’s unflinching commitment to the innocents who are unable to protect themselves.

Virtually every culture in antiquity was stained with the blood of innocent children. Unwanted infants in ancient Rome were abandoned outside the city walls to die from exposure to the elements or from the attacks of wild foraging beasts. Greeks often gave their pregnant women harsh doses of herbal or medicinal abortifacients. Persians developed highly sophisticated surgical curette procedures. Chinese women tied heavy ropes around their waists so excruciatingly tight that they either aborted or passed into unconsciousness. Ancient Hindus and Arabs concocted chemical pessaries--abortifacients that were pushed or pumped directly into the womb through the birth canal. Primitive Canaanites threw their children onto great flaming pyres as a sacrifice to their god Molech. Polynesians subjected their pregnant women to onerous tortures--their abdomens beaten with large stones or hot coals heaped upon their bodies. Egyptians disposed of their unwanted children by disemboweling and dismembering them shortly after birth--their collagen was then harvested for the manufacture of cosmetic creams.

Abortion, infanticide, exposure, and abandonment were so much a part of human societies that they provided the primary literary liet motif in popular traditions, stories, myths, fables, and legends. The founding of Rome was, for instance, presumed to be the happy result of the abandonment of children. According to the story, a vestal virgin who had been raped bore twin sons, Romulus and Remus. The harsh Etruscan Amulius ordered them exposed on the Tiber River. Left in a basket which floated ashore, they were found by a she wolf and suckled by her. Romulus and Remus would later establish the city of Rome on the seven hills near the place of their rescue. Likewise, the stories of Oedipus, Jupiter, Poseidon, and Hephaistos, were all victims of failed infanticides.

Because they had been mired by the minions of sin and death, it was as instinctive as the autumn harvest for them to summarily sabotage their own heritage. They saw nothing particularly cruel about despoiling the fruit of their wombs. It was woven into the very fabric of their culture. They believed that it was completely justifiable. They believed that it was just and good and right.

The Gospel therefore came into the world as a stern rebuke. God, who is the giver of life (Acts 17:25), the fountain of life (Psalm 36:9), and the defender of life (Psalm 27:1), not only sent us the message of life (Acts 5:20) and the words of life (John 6:68), He sent us the light of life as well (John 8:12). He sent us His only begotten Son--the life of the world (John 6:51)--to break the bonds of sin and death (1 Corinthians 15:54-56). For God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life (John 3:16).

Saturday, December 26

Boxing Day

Today is Boxing Day, an official holiday in Britain and Canada--and an unofficial one in many other parts of the Christian world. On this day boxes of food are delivered to the needy--and in days gone by were given to servants by their employers. The spirit of "Good King Wenceslaus" is demonstrated so that the entire community may celebrate with joy the manifestation of the Good News of Christmastide. In many places, churches organize the day to particularly serve the physical and spiritual needs of their neighbors and thus demonstrate that the Scriptural injunctions to exercise Word and Deed compassion are still very much in full force.

Friday, December 25

On Christmas Morn

This is the month, and this the happy morn,
Wherein the Son of Heaven's eternal King,
Of wedded maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

--John Milton

Thursday, December 24

Christmas Gifts

Exchanging gifts--specially wrapped in beautiful foils and papers--were a feature of Christmas celebrations from as early as the fifth century. A reminder to everyone within the community of faith that “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” the gifts well represented the character of the incarnation itself--the most glorious act of selfless giving that could ever be possibly imagined. Thus, gift giving was originally conceived as an act of covenant renewal and commitment.

Silent Night

It was on Christmas Eve in 1818 that Franz Gruber and Joseph Mohr composed Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht--Silent Night, Holy Night, to be sung at the village church in Oberndorff, Austria, the following day. Since then the carol has been translated into more than ninety languages and dialects.

However, there has been much lore and legend surrounding the composition of this quintessential Christmas carol. Franz Gruber (1787-1863), the composer of the tune, gives the definitive version of the story in a signed statement issued by him: “It was on December 24 of the year 1818 when Joseph Mohr, then assistant pastor of the newly established St. Nicholas' parish church in Oberndorf, handed me a poem, with the request that I write for it a suitable melody arranged for two solo voices, chorus, and a guitar accompaniment. At the time, I was attending to the duties of organist for the parish and was at the same time a schoolmaster in Arnsdorf. On that very same evening the latter, in fulfillment of this request made, I handed to the pastor this simple composition, which was thereupon immediately performed and received with all acclaim.”

Saturday, December 19

Caroling

Carols are Yuletide songs which are usually narrative and celebratory in nature with a simple spirit and often in verse form (I've posted a list of some of my favorites over on the Eleventary Blog). The term carol has a varied and interesting past and is derived from several words that include the idea of dancing as well as singing.

It has been often mentioned that the first carol was sung by the Angels to the shepherds on the night of Christ's birth. Mary's song, the Magnificat, could also fit in the category of early Christmas music.

The idea of caroling from one home to another seems to have started sometime during the 18th century or earlier. Carolers would visit each house of a parish on Christmas Night to sing songs of the Nativity and to call forth blessings on every home. The term wassail means "Good health!" Carolers would often receive food, money, and drink--as thanks for the spreading of good cheer.

Thursday, December 10

Magnalia Christi Americana

Just over three hundred years ago the American Puritan pastor Cotton Mather completed a book of historical reflection he had worked on “in snatches” for a little more than four years. Toward the end of 1693 he became convinced that in order to facilitate a spiritual reformation in the life of the American church—and those abroad—a survey of the heretofore untold “mighty works of grace” needed to be made public. Though it would not be published until 1702, Magnalia Christi Americana is clearly marked by the concerns of the fin de sciecle—or end of the century—in which it was written.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Then, as now, the speculations of men ran to the frantic and the frenetic. Ecstatic eschatalogical significance was read into every change of any consequence—be it of the weather or of the government. Apocalyptic reticence was chided as faithlessness, while practical intransigence was enshrined as faithfulness. Fantastic common wisdom replaced ordinary common sense, and plain selfish serenity replaced plain selfless civility.

Mather wrote three hundred years ago, but he wrote in a time very much like our own. What he wrote was a jeremiad—a stern warning. It is a mode of address that we would do well to hear and heed. Though his subject was a survey of the ecclesiastical history of New England—from the founding at Plymouth, the establishment of culture at Boston, and the erection of institutions like Harvard to the desperate struggles of the frontier, the disputations of heretics like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, and the wars against the Indians—his purpose was the restoration of the original vision of the pioneers who had come to America to “set a city on a hill.” He desired, first and foremost, to revive the traditions of the “New England way” and the fervor of the old “errand into the wilderness.” His fear was that the growing prosperity of the land had “softened the resolve and hardened the hearts” of the “heirs of the Pilgrims and Puritans.”

Reading Magnalia Christi Americana is thus satisfying on several levels. First, it affords readers insight into the colonial era unclouded by the palimpsests of modern skeptics and cynics—instead, the remarkable achievements of our Pilgrim and Puritan fathers is confirmed through the lens of faith.

Second, it reveals the breadth and depth of the spiritual foundations upon which American liberty was based—freedom was clearly not conceived in a worldview vacuum.

Third, it recasts the image of American education—its character and its purpose—by recalling the remarkable early days of classical and covenantal learning at Harvard and Yale.

Fourth, it presents a lucid literary approach to the task of writing history—one that became a model of moral philosophy for many of America’s finest historians and writers in the years to come.

Monday, November 30

Yuletide

The holiday season--what we generically just call Christmastime--is actually a long sequence of holy days, festal revelries, and liturgical rites stretching from the end of November through the beginning of January that are collectively known as Yuletide.

Beginning with Advent, a time of preparation and repentance, proceeding to Christmas, a time of celebration and generosity, and concluding with Epiphany, a time of remembrance and thanksgiving, Yuletide traditions enable us to see out the old year with faith and love while ushering in the new year with hope and joy. It is a season fraught with meaning and significance.

Unfortunately, it is also such a busy season that its meaning and significance can all too easily be obscured either by well-intended materialistic pursuits--frenzied shopping trips to the mall to find just the right Christmas gift--or by the less benign demands, desires, wants, and needs which are little more than grist for human greed. The traditions of Yuletide were intended to guard us against such things--and thus, are actually more relevant today than ever before.

Sunday, November 29

The First Sunday of Advent

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent. It the beginning of a rich season of anticipation and preparation.

For centuries Christians have used the month prior to the celebration of Christ’s incarnation to ready their hearts and their homes for the great festival. While we moderns tend to do a good bit of bustling about in the crowded hours between Thanksgiving and Christmas--shopping for presents, compiling guest lists, mailing holiday greeting cards, perusing catalogs, decorating hearth and home, baking favorite confections, and getting ready for one party after another--this hardly constitutes the kind of preparation Advent calls for.

Indeed, traditionally Advent has been a time of quiet introspection, personal examination, and repentance. It is a time to slow down, to take stock of the things that matter the most, and to do a thorough inner housecleaning. Advent is, as the earliest Christians asserted, a Little Pascha--a time of fasting, prayer, confession, and reconciliation.

All the great Advent stories, hymns, customs, and rituals--from the medieval liturgical antiphons and Scrooge’s Christmas Carol to the lighting of Advent candles and the eating of Martinmas beef are attuned to this notion: that the best way to prepare for the coming of the Lord is to make straight His pathway in our hearts.

Saturday, November 28

Dating Christmas

When was Jesus born in Bethlehem? The Bible describes with great certainty the fact of Christ’s birth as well as the place. But not the exact date.

One of the greatest of the Patristic writers, Basil of Caesarea believed Christ was born on November 20th in the year 4 BC. Another, Clement of Alexandria, speculated that Christ was born on November 17 in the year 3 BC. Still others, such as John Chrysostom, speculated that since shepherds were in the field the night Christ was born, it must have been in spring or summer. Similarly, Athanasius argued for a date of May 20. Cyril of Jerusalem reasoned for the date to be on either April l9th or 20th. And Ambrose of Milan made a strong traditional case for March 25th. Quite obviously though, no one really knew with any degree of certainty.

In 354, the Bishop of Rome started to observe December 25th as the date of Christ's birth. Four major Roman festivals had long been held in December, including Saturnalia which celebrated the returning sun god. As men converted from Paganism to Christianity, their culture was likewise gradually converted. Thus, it was natural for them to want to replace their old Pagan festivities with a celebration of the advent of their Savior.

In fact, Christians had already begun celebrating the incarnation and nativity of the Lord Jesus on that day since at least the early part of the third century--just a few generations removed the days of the Apostles. Thus, by 336, when the Philocalian Calendar--one of the earliest documents of the Patriarchal church--was first utilized, Christmas Day was already a venerable and tenured tradition. Though there is no historical evidence that Christ was actually born on that day--indeed, whatever evidence there is points to altogether different occasions--the conversion of the old Pagan tribes of Europe left a gaping void where the ancient winter cult festivals were once held. It was both culturally convenient and evangelically expedient to exchange the one for the other. And so joy replaced desperation. Celebration replaced propitiation. Christmas Feasts replaced new Moon sacrifices. Christ replace Baal, Molech, Apollo, and Thor.

Like so many calendar dates, the many different customs of Christmas ultimately melded together. And thus emerged the traditional Advent season--a four week long anticipation of Christmas beginning in late November and marked by a series of important feasts, fasts, rituals, and rites all the way through the designated day for the incarnation itself.

Monday, November 23

St. Clement’s Day

Serving as the pastor of the church in Rome just after Peter, Linus, and Cletus at the end of the first century, Clement (c. 100) was one of the greatest stalwarts of the early church. His letters, sermons, and commentaries remain among the best testimonies of the dynamism of the fledgling Christian witness. A constant encouragement to others, he was responsible for the establishment of at least seventy-five churches. His martyrdom apparently occurred on November 23 and as a result, believers have long remembered him on this day. Traditionally celebrated as the first day of winter throughout much of Christendom, this day is generally marked by community or guild suppers where co-workers gather to sing, to roast apples, and to offer mutual encouragement in the faith.

Pascal's Achievement

Blaise Pascal was a genuine a Renaissance man. He was a prominent mathematician, physicist, inventor, and philosopher. He made important contributions to geometry, calculus, and developed the theory of probability. In physics, Pascal's Law is the basis for all modern hydraulic operations. When he was still a teenager he invented the first mechanical calculator. He even created the theoretical basis for a computer language--known as Pascal—long before the technology was available to use it.

Pascal was born in Clermont-Ferrand in 1623, and his family settled in Paris in 1629. Under the tutelage of his father, Pascal soon proved himself a mathematical prodigy, and at the age of 16 he formulated one of the basic theorems of projective geometry, known as Pascal's theorem and described in his Essay on Conics. He proved by experimentation in 1648 that the level of the mercury column in a barometer is determined by an increase or decrease in the surrounding atmospheric pressure rather than by a vacuum, as previously believed. This discovery verified the hypothesis of the Italian physicist Evangelista Torricelli concerning the effect of atmospheric pressure on the equilibrium of liquids.

Six years later, in conjunction with the French mathematician Pierre de Fermat, Pascal formulated the mathematical theory of probability, which has become important in such fields as actuarial, mathematical, and social statistics and as a fundamental element in the calculations of modern theoretical physics. Pascal's other important scientific contributions include the derivation of Pascal's law or principle, which states that fluids transmit pressures equally in all directions, and his investigations in the geometry of infinitesimals. His methodology reflected his emphasis on empirical experimentation as opposed to analytical, a priori methods, and he believed that human progress is perpetuated by the accumulation of scientific discoveries resulting from such experimentation.

On this day in 1654 Pascal underwent a dramatic conversion experience. Afterward, he became a part of the Jansenist community at Port Royal, where he led a rigorously ascetic life until his death eight years later. The Jansenists were reformers within the Catholic Church who sought to bring a kind of Protestant theological emphasis to the church without disrupting its liturgy or hierarchy. The movement was founded by the Flemish theologian and bishop, Cornelis Jansen, whose ideas were summarized in the treatise Augustinus--a profoundly orthodox interpretation of Augustine's Biblical worldview.

Under the sway of this teaching, Pascal wrote his famous Lettres Provinciales, in which he attacked the anti-reform Catholics--and especially the Jesuits--for their attempts to reconcile humanistic naturalism with Christianity. He also wrote a defense of the faith, Apologie de la Religion Chrétienne in preparation for his magnum opus, Pensées sur la Religion. In the Pensées, Pascal attempted to explain and justify the difficulties of human life by the doctrine of original sin, and he contended that revelation can be comprehended only by faith, which in turn is justified by revelation.

A genius, yielded to the purposes of Christ, Pascal was one of the most remarkable men ever to grace the church.

Friday, November 20

A True Truism

"Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far. It sounds rather as if that were but a homely old adage, yet as is often the case with matters of tradition, this truism is actually true." --Theodore Roosevelt

Wednesday, November 11

Epistemological Unconsciousness

"All the evils in our now extensive catalogue flow from a falsified picture of the world which, for our immediate concern, results in an inability to interpret current happenings." --Richard Weaver

Tuesday, November 10

How to Give a Speech

One of my students asked what steps I go though when I am preparing a lecture or a talk or a sermon or a speech. Obviously, the first thing I have to do is make certain I have something to talk about--I need to master the material, do the reading, wrestle through the ideas, allow the concepts to enlarge in my thinking, consider the various opposing views, and arrive at some Biblical worldview conclusions regarding the subject. Then and only then am I ready to start thinking about constructing a presentation.

But, once that is done, what guidelines do I try to keep in view as I start pulling my thoughts together?

Here is what I told him:

1. Have just one point.

2. Frame that one point with a strong introduction and a well-crafted conclusion.

3. Have a strong outline for everything in-between.

4. Use pithy or funny or poignant quotes—or perhaps peculiar facts that you can then hang each of your points upon.

5. Just be yourself--don't try to inject or project some other persona.

6. Don't read the talk--but don't memorize it either.

7. Have fun.

"A lecture should proceed apace from knowledge to understanding to wisdom--offering insights, delights, and always some element of surprise. Oh yes, and its passion should be outdone only by its brevity." Arthur Quiller-Couch

Saturday, November 7

Friday, November 6

Almost Texas




The Words that Toppled the Wall

On June 12, 1987, President Ronald Reagan issued a now famous challenge to Soviet totalitarianism at the Brandenburg Gate in the divided city of Berlin. Standing with two panes of bulletproof glass behind him--to protect him from East German snipers--and in front of a crowd of 45,000 West Berliners. Glancing across the wall that had been a symbol of Communist oppression, he said:

"Like many Presidents before me, I come here today because wherever I go, whatever I do: Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin--I still have a suitcase in Berlin."

Then, interrupted by the cheers of the crowd some 28 times, his trademark folksy oratory quickly rose to a great rhetorical crescendo:

“We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Mr. Gorbachev never did. But, with history rapidly passing him by, he stood helplessly just over two years later as the captive people of East Berlin did--twenty years ago this week.

Wednesday, November 4

Books Galore

Don't you just love a good book sale? Well, here's a great one--with lots of amazing deals: head on over to the Canon Press site to clean up on a bevy of some 35 titles priced anywhere from $1 to $5 each. The deals are good for four days only--Thursday-Sunday this week. So, don't procrastinate. This comes just in time for those cozy nights curled up in front of a fire with a really good book, or maybe even better, just in time for knocking off a few difficult-to-buy-for readers on your Christmas list.

Friday, October 30

Where the Gospel Begins

"Out of love for the Truth and the desire to bring it to light, these ninety-five propositions are posted for the purpose of discussion by Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology. In the Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. Firstly, when our Lord Jesus said, "Repent," He assuredly intended that the entirety of the life of believers should be marked by humble repentance. He is Lord over all. --Herein, the opening lines of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses.

Luther's Ninety-Five Theses

On this day in 1517, German theologian Martin Luther carefully recopied the scroll of his soon to be revealed Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences—a document that would be popularly called the Ninety-Five Theses. The next day he would post the scroll, consisting of a series of propositions that established a theological basis for opposing the sale of indulgences.

Though written in Latin and designed to provoke only a limited academic discussion, Luther’s manifesto would almost immediately be translated into the vernacular and then widely distributed, causing a great public controversy leading to the Reformation. Who would have ever dreamed that in the little town of Wittenberg, Germany, all of Europe would be shaken by the simple act of provoking a series of questions? Certainly not Luther. But in fact, his little academic exercise would lead to a dramatic realignment of men and nations--indeed, he would eventually be excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church and become the founder of Protestantism.

But as he prepared the scroll, he certainly had none of that in mind. Indeed, the tone of the document was clearly a moderate call for little more than a bit of dialog and some serious theological investigation. He wrote, “A disputation on the power and efficacy of indulgences: out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light, the following propositions will be discussed at Wittenberg, under the presidency of the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and of Sacred Theology, and Lecturer in Ordinary on the same at that place. Wherefore he requests that those who are unable to be present and debate orally with us, may do so by letter.”

The theses themselves were not any more incendiary. Instead, they discussed the character and nature of true repentance, the core values of the Gospel, and the essence of the justice and mercy of God. Hardly the sort of material one might expect to cause a furor.

Nevertheless, the faithful Augustinian monk’s attempt to open a dialog was, in the good providence of God, the catalyst for a movement which would ultimately reshape the whole of Western Civilizaton.

Wednesday, October 21

The Blood of the Martyrs

On this day in 1555, less than a week after Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer were burned at the stake, Bloody Mary, the eldest daughter of England's King Henry VIII, launched a series of fierce persecutions against Protestant Christians in which more than two hundred men, women, and children were put to death for their faith.

Ridley had been a chaplain to Henry and was the Bishop of London under his son Edward. Latimer was the Bishop of Worcester. Both men were renowned for their piety and compassion.

When Mary became Queen, one of her first acts was to arrest Bishop Ridley, Bishop Latimer, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. After serving time in the Tower of London, the three were taken to Oxford in September of 1555 to be examined by the Lord's Commissioner in Oxford's Divinity School. Sensing the groundswell of support the men had throughout England, it was determined to make a public spectacle of their executions.

Mary and her minions were startled to discover however that the martyrdoms only intensified the Christian zeal of the Protestants. Thus, the horrors of the bloody persecution were unleashed in order to quash the confessing Church--in the end though, it had quite the opposite effect. As in the days of the Apostles and the Patristics, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the Church.

Saturday, October 17

Better to Be Underestimated

Known for his witty style, the amazingly prolific author G. K. Chesterton wrote in many genres, including fiction, biography, poetry, theology, belle lettres, art criticism, history, as well as a myriad of journalistic essays. He was one of the most beloved writers in England during the first part of the 20th century.

On this day in 1912, biographer Hugh Lunn interviewed Chesterton for the Hearth and Home magazine. He began with a description of the great man, “Everyone knows Mr Chesterton's appearance, a good portly man, of faith and corpulence, like Falstaff. His writings, too, have become familiar, winning many disciples, especially among the young. At Oxford the Chestertonian and the Shavian are well-known types: the Shavian enthroned above human emotion is clever, but a prig; the Chestertonian, less brilliant, is more likeable. He doesn't care for advanced ideas, but he would like to combine wit and probity. So he welcomes a writer who defends old modes of thought with humor, and attacks modern thinkers on the ground that they are antiquated bores in disguise.”

Lunn was soon to discover that, with Chesterton, there was much more than met the eye--despite the fact that his rotund figure was sufficient to fill the eye. With a glint of good humor, Chesterton began with characteristic words, “I am always ready to be interviewed, for I hold the theory, nowadays completely forgotten--as forgotten as this matchbox was still this moment (fishing a box out of a bowl on the mantelpiece)--the theory that the Press is a public agora. I should not refuse an interview even to a paper owned by one of those capitalist millionaires, whom I hate. Nowadays the Press merely echoes the powerful; its real aim should be to give the public a chance to state its views.”

Lunn could hardly get a word in edgewise, so the interview turned into something of a monologue--a forum for the great man to hold forth on all manner of ideas, much like his writing, “And now what do you want me to talk about? I am ready to give my opinion on any question, whether I know something about it or not. No, I'm not an Imperialist in the modern sense; the only theory of Imperialism that seems to me sound is Dante's. He defended the Roman Empire as the best human government, on the definite ground that the best human government would probably crucify God. Caesar had to be lawful; because Christ had to be killed by law.”

With that, he paused with a smile to ask Lunn what questions he really wanted to put upon the table. He should not have bothered, before he could reply, Chesterton was off again, “I do not believe in Cosmopolitanism, you know: nowadays it's either run by financiers for their own profit, or it's the product of Atheistic Socialism, as in Germany. Christ didn't come to bring peace among the nations. When He said that a man should turn the other cheek, I fancy He meant that a man, when attacked, should humiliate his enemy by treating him with sudden and unexpected contempt.”

And so it went for nigh on an hour. Lunn had to admit afterward, “I had altogether underestimated the tornado of thought and creativity and imagination that the jolly figure of Chesterton contained.” To which Chesterton later retorted, “It is always better to be underestimated than overestimated--that way, all good things are taken as if by surprise and are therefore all the more appreciated.” Indeed.

Saturday, October 10

Kuyperian Renaissance

Abraham Kuyper was one of the most remarkable men of the twentieth century. A true poly math, the Dutch statesman made his mark as a pastor, theologian, journalist, educator, orator, publisher, politician, and reformer.

He was born in 1837, just seven years after Belgium and the Netherlands separated. Though his pious family background, quiet rural community, and meager local schooling combined to afford him only very humble resources, he was a bright student and was early on marked out for great things. He attended the university at Leiden and quickly demonstrated an aptitude for serious scholastic work.

Following his postgraduate work, he pastored a succession of churches—first in Beesd, then in Utrect, and finally in Amsterdam. He became the leader of the theological conservatives who were working hard to hold at bay the encroachments of modernists and liberals.

By 1872, he had begun publishing a daily newspaper, De Standaard. He was already the editor of the inspirational monthly magazine, De Heraut. In addition, he had founded a new legal organization to protect the concerns of private Christian schools and had spearheaded the reorganization of the political conservatives into the Anti-Revolutionary Party. He was elected to the lower assembly and quickly became the leading exponent and spokesman for spiritual orthodoxy, fiscal restraint, and judicial tradition.

As if all these activities were not enough, he continued the serious academic research he had begun at the university, he wrote a flurry of books, pamphlets, and broadsides, and he managed a heavy speaking schedule at home and abroad. In later years he would also establish the Free University of Amsterdam, give vision and direction to the new Dutch Reformed Church, and lead a coalition government as the Prime Minister. He was a genuine renaissance man in every respect.

He first entered politics as a member of the lower chamber of the Dutch legislature, at the head of a new Conservative and Christian coalition party. After breaking with the national church and forming the Free Reformed Church in 1886, he united the Calvinist and Catholic parties and in 1901 formed a reformed Christian Conservative ministry, serving as minister of the interior until 1905 and Prime Minister until 1907. He served in the upper house of the legislature from 1913 to 1920.

Beginning on this day in 1898, he gave an influential series of lectures at Princeton University in New Jersey in which he developed the idea of a comprehensive and universal Christian woldview—rooted in the Reformation doctrines pf Calvinism. Before his death in 1920, he was able to successfully mobilize the ordinary citizens of the great Dutch nation to do the difficult work of societal transformation—through the consistent application of the Christian worldview he so articulately espoused.

Tuesday, October 6

Whistler's Art

James Whistler was one of the most remarkable and innovative artists in American history—renowned as a fine portrait painter and an unparalleled etcher, who incongruously assimilated the distinctive features of East and West, made innumerable technical innovations, and championed the wedding of modern artistic innovations with the craftsmanship and techniques of the classical Christian tradition.

He was born on July 10, 1834, in Lowell, Massachusetts and entered the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1851. He did not do well in his studies however, and was forced to leave the Academy in 1854 to take a job as a draftsman with the government’s Coastal Survey Corps. One year later, on this day, he went to Paris, where he became a pupil of the Swiss classicist painter Charles Gabriel Gleyre. Formal instruction influenced him less, however, than his acquaintance with the French realist painter Gustave Courbet and his own study of the great masters. It was also in Paris that he became fascinated with traditional Chinese and Japanese styles.

Whistler won recognition as an etcher when his first series of etchings, Twelve Etchings from Nature—commonly called The French Set—appeared in 1858. Soon after he moved to London, where his paintings, which had been repeatedly rejected by the galleries of Paris, found ready acceptance and acclaim. At the Piano was shown by the Royal Academy of London in 1860. Thereafter exhibitions of his work aroused increasing international interest, as did his flamboyantly eccentric personality.

Three of Whistler's best-known portraits, Arrangement in Black and Grey No. 1: The Artist's Mother—the official title of that famous painting best known simply as Whistler’s Mother— as well as Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1: Thomas Carlyle and Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander were all painted during a very productive period of his life around 1872.

In 1877 he exhibited a number of landscapes done in the Japanese manner; these paintings, which he called Nocturnes, outraged conservative art opinion, which did not understand his deliberate avoidance of what he called “narrative detail.” The famous traditionalist art critic John Ruskin wrote a caustic article, and Whistler, charging slander, sued Ruskin for damages. He won the case, one of the most celebrated of its kind, but the expense of the trial forced him into bankruptcy. Selling the contents of his studio, Whistler left England, worked intensively from 1879 to 1880 in Venice, then returned to England and resumed his attack on the academic art tradition.

In his later years Whistler devoted himself increasingly to etching, drypoint, lithography, and interior decoration—he was one of the first serious artists to turn to what he called “decorative architecture” to express his Christian worldview in “tangible, livable forms.” The Peacock Room, which he painted for a private London residence was the most noteworthy example of his interior decoration, but he actually worked extensively in the field arguing that “to live in art is a far more Biblical notion than to merely pander to the critics and collecting classes.” And so, until his death in 1903, that was his preferred medium.

Friday, October 2

Rhodia v. Moleskine

The legendary French stationer, Rhodia, has launched a diary/planner line for 2010. This means that those of us who have used (and loved) Moleskines for years are going to have to make a difficult choice: go with the tried and true or switch for the sake of finer paper stock, better bindings, and the more convenient A5 and A6 sizes.

Two brothers, Henri and Robert Verilhac, founded Rhodia, originally known as “Papeteries Verilhac Freres,” in Lyon, France in 1932. They came from a family of paper merchants, with two brothers from the previous generation having set up a family business selling paper in southern France and in French North Africa.

In 1934, the company moved from Lyon to Sechilienne near Grenoble in the French Alps. The name “Rhodia” reputedly comes from the Rhone, the river flowing by Lyon dividing the Alps from the Massif Central. Production of their famous line of notepads began that year.

Their wide-ranging array of stationery products quickly became known as the finest commercially-produced writing pads and notebooks available anywhere—indeed, Rhodia paper is a very smooth acid-free stock that accepts ink without bleeding or smearing. Not surprising, the pads and notebooks soon became essential tools for artists and designers, writers and journalists, researchers and educators all over the world and gained what can only be described as a near-cult following.

The family-owned company was merged with Clairefontaine in 1997 and production transferred to Mulhouse, in Alsace, France. Nevertheless, members of the Verilhac family have continued to maintain control of both design and quality.

Thus, the conundrum posed by the new diary/planner line.

The new planners come in two sizes and two colors—each in a weekly notebook format using the traditional Rhodia graph paper for notes, instead of ruled lines and with the added benefits of address pages and tear-off corner page markers. Oh yes, and with no shortage of audacity, each also comes with an elastic closure. Still, it is the 90g Clairefontaine paper that is the real selling point.

Better have an answer Moleskine!

Thursday, October 1

Resounding Nehemiads

“Jeremiad.” Definition: An elaborate and prolonged condemnation; a cry of lamentation; an expression of righteous indignation and judgment.

“Nehemiad.” Definition: An elaborate and prolonged humiliation; a cry of grief; an expression of righteous repentance and surrender.

Well might we plead the case for an outpouring of Jeremiads from evangelical pulpits in our day. What with inhuman-humanism and patronizing-pietism launching a tandem assault upon all that is near and dear, such a prophetic stance seems all too appropriate. Expose the evils. Demonstrate the inconsistencies. Broadcast the hypocrisies. Denounce the barbarities. Set forth with zeal the clear consequences of God’s wrath, God’s sore displeasure, and God’s judgment. Hurl upon the land Jeremiad after Jeremiad like unto none that man nor beast has ‘ere seen.

As fitting as all that may seem to be, the modern church is in no position to carry it out. Trivialized and crippled by praisalluia-poppycock, hermeneutical hot-dogging, church-growth skullduggery, and intellectual hodge-podgery, our churches are probably incapable of much more than the braggadocio balderdash and eschatological bosh that long has been our stock and trade. Jeremiads are thus, beyond the realm of possibility for us. Our obsession with brainless bric-a-brac and business meeting bilge has made our ineffectiveness and unproductiveness all but a foregone conclusion. Jeremiads? No way.

So, how should we then live? What can we then do?

Instead of attempting that which we are ill-equipped to do, instead of unleashing upon an unsuspecting wayward culture our righteous indignation, instead of venting our grievous Jeremiads upon deafened ears, perhaps we ought to consider the possibility of taking the alternate course of the Nehemiad. In contradistinction to the Jeremiad, the Nehemiad does not rip into those who flaunt ungodliness. Its concern is our own repentance. Unlike the Jeremiad, the Nehemiad does not have a negative, indictive tone. Its concern is restorative. Again, as opposed to the Jeremiad, the Nehemiad is not inescapably tied to a critical spirit. Its concern is constructive.

The Jeremiad is modeled by the prophet Jeremiah when he cried out, “This is what the Lord says about this people: they greatly love to wander; they do not restrain their feet. So the Lord does not accept them; He will now remember their wickedness and punish them for their sins.”

The Nehemiad, on the other hand, is modeled by the cupbearer to Artaxerxes, Nehemiah, when he cried out, “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant of love with those who love Him and obey His commands, let your ear be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer Your servant is praying before You day and night… I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against You. We have acted very wickedly toward You. For we have not obeyed the commands, decrees, and statutes You gave Your servant Moses… O Lord, hear, O hear this prayer and give Your servant, who delights in revering Your Name, success.”

Undoubtedly, our corrupt culture is in dire need of the work of zealous Jeremiad-pronouncing churches, but comprehending that our piffle spewing pulpits may well be unfit at present for the task, the place of the Nehemiad is surely all the more prominent. The walls are down. The rubble is nigh unto impassable. All is in a shambles. So let the Nehemiads begin.

Let the Nehemiads take a priority place in our worship. Let the Nehemiads mark our heretofore paucitous preaching. Let the Nehemiads replace the Sunday School swill and training tatter-nasters. Let the Nehemiads proceed from our life and work.

It is only when a haughty church comes to grips with its theological, cultural, and intellectual impoverishment, does humiliation open the door for humility. And that is a position of vulnerability that we churchmen are sadly, none too anxious to embrace--which explains why humility is a Gospel virtue in desperately short supply, and why the Nehemiad is, to us, an alien concept.

But, considering the crisis that girds us round about, no risk is too great, no commitment too bold. Let the Nehemiads begin. For such is the need of the hour. O God, grant us repentance.

Friday, September 25

Planting Churches, Schools, and Liberty

Samuel Doak crossed over the Appalachian Mountains to the Tennessee wilderness in 1777 and became one of the most renowned men in the history of the western frontier. He had studied at Princeton and then served on the faculty of the college, and been ordained by the energetic Hanover Presbytery of Virginia. Loving an educated ministry, the settlers of the Watauga region welcomed Doak with open arms.

Shortly after he arrived he happened upon some men who were felling trees, “Learning that he was a minister, they requested him to preach to so many of them as could be assembled immediately. He complied, using his horse for a pulpit and the shady grove for a sanctuary. They entreated the preacher to tarry long with them. He yielded to their entreaty, and this led to his permanent settlement among them.” It would be the first of seven churches he would plant in the region. Doak built schools with the same industry with which he pioneered churches. In 1783 he secured a charter for a classical school--the first literary institution of the West, which would eventually become the mighty University of Tennessee.

On this day in 1780, a few days before the famous Revolutionary War battle at Kings Mountain, the local militia had gathered at Sycamore Shoals to prepare for the engagement. Before the men marched into the pages of history, Doak was asked to speak to the men and say a prayer over them. He spoke beyond the immediate occasion and captured what some have called the “American spirit,” that broader sense of the divine destiny of the nation. It is not hard to picture the faces of these buckskinned warriors, many standing with their families, hearts stirred by the power of the pastor’s words:

“My countrymen, you are about to set out on an expedition which is full of hardships and dangers, but one in which the Almighty will attend you. The Mother country has her hands upon you, these American colonies, and takes that for which our fathers planted their homes in the wilderness—our liberty. Taxation without representation and the quartering of soldiers in the homes of our people without their consent are evidence that the Crown of England would take from its American subjects the last vestige of freedom. Your brethren across the mountains are crying the Macedonia unto your help. God forbid that you shall refuse to hear and answer their call—but the call of your brethren is not all. The enemy is marching hither to destroy your homes. Brave men, you are not unacquainted with battle. Your hands have already been taught to war and your fingers to fight. You have wrested these beautiful valleys of the Holston and Watauga from the savage hand. Will you tarry now until the other enemy carries fire and sword to your very doors? No, it shall not be. Go forth then in the strength of your manhood to the aid of your brethren, the defense of your liberty and the protection of your homes. And may the God of justice be with you and give you victory.”

And then with hats removed and heads bowed, each family huddled tightly together, the men heard Doak pray a prayer that men destined for battle would quote for generations to come. He then led them in lustily singing an old Celtic battle Psalm. With “The Sword of the Lord and Gideon” as their battle cry and the lilt of the Psalter pacing their hearts, the “Tennessee Volunteers” decisively defeated the British forces in sixty-five minutes.

Sunday, September 20

Courage in Office

Although the nomination and election of the dark-horse James Garfield surprised many Americans, the nomination of Chester A. Arthur (1830-1886) as Vice-president was even more of a shock. Many a citizen feared the worst when Garfield died with three and a half years of his term remaining. And for good reason.

Arthur, who loved fine clothes and elegant living, had been associated with the corrupt New York political machine for almost twenty years. In 1878 he had even been removed from his post as Collector of the Port of New York by President Ruherford Hayes, who had become alarmed at his misuse of patronage. In spite of his questionable record, Arthur was nominated Vice-president—largely to appease the powerful party establishment.

Thus, when Arthur became President on this day in 1881, following the assassination of President Garfield, there was every expectation that the free-wheeling spoils system that had reigned in New York would be firmly established in Washington. But Chester Arthur fooled everyone—friends and enemies alike—somehow the responsibilities of that high office seemed to transform this corrupt petty politician into a man sincerely dedicated to the good of the country.

Courageously he established his independence by vetoing a graft-laden rivers-and-harbors bill, by breaking with his former machine cronies, and by vigorously prosecuting members of his own party accused of defrauding the Government. And, most important, instead of a spoils system, he supported a Federal Civil Service based on competitive examinations and a non-political merit system.

By his courageous acts Arthur won over many who had first feared his coming to power, but he lost the support of the political bosses. Although he was not an inspiring leader of men, he earned the nation’s gratitude as the champion of the Civil Service system.

Friday, September 18

Effort and Means

Born into slavery, Booker T. Washington literally pulled himself up by his own bootstraps to become one of the most articulate and influential educators in the nation. Founder of the Tuskegee Institute, author of a number of books, and popular speaker, he always emphasized the importance of education, hard work, and self-discipline for the advancement of African-Americans.

Washington became a celebrity, much in demand as a speaker and lecturer around the country and as a consultant and confidante to powerful politicians and community leaders. Though he was criticized by some because he refused to use his influence for direct political agitation, he had obviously begun the long process toward the reconciliation of long sundered communities and races.

He was asked to deliver an address at the Cotton States’ Exposition on this day in 1895. The invitation was noteworthy in and of itself since his audience would include both white and black Southerners. As a result, his speech received enormous attention throughout the country—it helped galvanize public opinion in favor of black self-improvement.

Thus, he argued in that famous speech, “In all things that are purely social we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress. There is no defense or security for any of us except in the highest intelligence and development of all. If anywhere there are efforts tending to curtail the fullest growth of the Negro, let these efforts be turned into stimulating, encouraging, and making him the most useful and intelligent citizen. Effort or means so invested will pay a thousand percent interest. These efforts will be twice blessed—blessing him that gives and him that takes. There is no escape through law of man or God from the inevitable: The laws of changeless justice bind oppressor with oppressed; And close as sin and suffering joined, we march to fate abreast.”

Washington had already instilled his philosophy of hard work, competence, and community-mindedness in thousands of students all across the country who were making a substantive difference in the welfare of African-American families, churches, neighborhoods, and businesses. And now, that message was going out to the entire nation, thus ushering in a new era of civil rights for all Americans.

Thursday, September 17

Fond Farewell

By the time he delivered his Farewell Address to his cabinet in Philadelphia on this day in 1796, George Washington had already served two terms and did not wish to serve a third. His once immense popularity had dwindled dramatically due to his fiercely partisan "Federalism" and his simultaneously paradoxical opposition to the formation of political parties—which were emerging nonetheless. In addition, he was tired of being lampooned in the political press.

He had his most trusted aide, Alexander Hamilton, to draft a kind of manifesto for his greatest concerns and deepest convictions. He considered its message so important that he had the full text published in newspapers around the country two days later so that it would reach a much wider audience. The address warned against foreign involvements, political factions, and sectionalism in the strongest possible terms.

It sounded a distinctly conservative tone, “Toward the preservation of your government and the permanency of your present happy state, it is requisite not only that you steadily discountenance irregular oppositions to its acknowledged authority, but also that you resist with care the spirit of innovation upon its principles, however specious the pretexts.”

But perhaps most remarkably, the address promoted the cultural benefits of the Christian faith, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” Indeed, the addressed warned, “The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

The Farewell Address was a sober message from the "Father of the Nation," all too often quoted yet almost never heeded.

Monday, September 14

Forgotten Stanzas

The War of 1812 was fiercely raging when Francis Scott Key, a Washington attorney was sent to the British naval command to secure the release of a prisoner when the fleet began to bombard the placements of American fortifications in Baltimore at Fort McHenry. Key had to watch in agony, wondering if his nation could possibly withstand such a barrage.

Though the battle raged through the night, the American defenses stood firm. The sight of the flag still flying over the fort the next morning inspired the young lawyer to pen the immortal words of the Star Spangled Banner—on this day in 1814.

Later it was set to a popular English hymn tune, Anacreon in Heaven, and it became a standard in the patriotic repertoire. Congress officially confirmed it as the national anthem more than a hundred years later, just before the First World War.

Though the first verse of the anthem is quite well known—sung at the opening of most political and sporting events—the other verses are almost entirely forgotten:

O! say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming:
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming,
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there:
O! say, does the star-spangled banner still wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mist of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam—
In full glory reflected, now shines on the stream
‘Tis the star-spangled banner, O! long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

And where is the band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country would leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave!
And the star-spangled banner in triumph cloth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

O! thus be it ever when freemen shall stand
Between their loved homes and the foe’s desolation;
Bless’d with victory and peace, may our heaven rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just—
And this be our motto—“In God is our trust!”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Sunday, September 13

Parish Picnic












Government

"Government is but a tool. If ever we come to the place where our tools determine what jobs we can or cannot do, and by what means, then nary a fortnight shall pass in which new freedoms shall be wrested from us straightway." --Henry Cabot Lodge

"There is no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you." --Will Rogers

"The most terrifying words in the English language are, I’m from the government and I’m here to help." --Ronald Reagan

"The intelligent man, when he pays taxes, certainly does not believe that he is making a prudent and productive investment of his money; on the contrary, he feels that he is being mulcted in an excessive amount for services that, in the main, are useless to him, and that, in substantial part, are downright inimical to him. He sees them as purely predatory and useless." --H.L. Mencken

"We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future upon the capacity of each and every one of us to govern ourselves, to sustain ourselves, in accordance with the Ten Commandments of God." --James Madison

"The Constitution is not an instrument for government to restrain the people; it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government—lest it come to dominate our lives and interests." --Patrick Henry

"I tell you true, liberty is the best of all things; never live beneath the noose of a servile halter." --William Wallace

Saturday, September 12

Roger Sherman

A Yankee cobbler who taught himself law and became a judge and a legislator, Roger Sherman (1721-1793) helped draft four of the major American Founding documents—the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Sherman had almost twenty years experience as a colonial legislator behind him when he arrived on this day at the First Continental Congress—a week after it had convened in 1774. He quickly won the respect of his fellow delegates for his wisdom, industry, and sound judgment. John Adams called him “one of the soundest and strongest pillars of the Revolution.” In Congress Sherman was one of the first to deny Parliament’s authority to make laws for America, and he strongly supported the boycott of British goods. In the following years he served with Jefferson and Franklin on the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, and on the one that drafted the Articles of Confederation. He also served on the maritime committee, the board of treasury and the board of war—all of first importance to the Revolution.

A Puritan of simple habits who performed all tasks with thoroughness and accuracy, Sherman gained more legislative experience in his years in Congress than any other member; by the time he left he was perhaps the most powerful—and most overworked—of congressmen.

Sherman’s greatest contribution—and the best known—was the “Connecticut Compromise” he proposed at the Constitutional Convention: by proposing that Congress have two branches, one with proportional, one with equal representation, he satisfied both the small and the large States, providing a solution to one of the most stubborn problems of the Convention. In Connecticut he defended the Constitution, writing articles in the New Haven Gazette, and helped win ratification in January 1788. Connecticut was the fifth State to ratify.

Sherman was the oldest man elected to the new national House of Representatives. In the first Congress he served on the committee that prepared and reviewed the Bill of Rights Amendments. By coincidence, the year that the Bill of Rights became part of the Constitution, Sherman was elected Senator—so that the man who conceived the “Connecticut Compromise” had the opportunity to represent that State in both of the legislative branches that he helped to create.

On the iPod