Wednesday, December 31

Peru Mission Trip

Tomorrow morning Karen and I will fly off to join a team of missionaries high in the Andes for a Bible conference and a time of encouragement and equipping. We will be in Cuzco, a city in the rugged Incan region of southeastern Peru. It is a particularly poor part of a country wracked in recent years by political unrest, economic instability, and cultural devolution. Sometimes threatened by the Communist-trained Shining Path terrorists, but more often threatened by the numbing realities of poverty, isolation, and ill-health, the region all around Cuzco is a "field white unto harvest."

We will be helping the missionaries think through the process of starting schools--but even more importantly, we will seek to build up, strengthen, and bolster the wonderful team of Mission to the World workers in that amazing corner of the globe. Do pray for us. Pray for the missionaries we'll be working with. Pray too for the Quechua-speaking believers there, that the nascent church-planting movement emerging in their midst may be used of God to usher in a whole new epoch of grace--and that a redolence of both justice and mercy would result.

As with the trip to Iraq earlier this fall, Joanna will be holding down the fort at the King's Meadow offices. She plans on posting regular blog updates as we are able to shuttle news back to her.

Monday, December 29

Childermas Sermon

Christmas is God’s great affirmation that people matter. It is His dramatic commitment to the last, the least, and the lost. It is the amazing manifestation of His unshakable love for the unloved and the unlovely, the weak and the base, the unworthy and the unwarranted, the rebels and the sinners. The incarnation is God’s grace made evident and obvious: people matter; life is sacred; men, women, and children are worth the greatest sacrifice, the supreme effort, the ultimate gift. Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king, peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled. This is the essence of Christmas!

He who is worthy to receive power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing laid it all aside, “making Himself nothing, being born in the likeness of men.” Though the Wise Men of the East, offer the babe in the manger tokens of all that was rightfully His, others were already plotting to rob Him of that power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing. Even as the Magi acknowledged that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, having seen His glory, Herod was conspiring to snuff out that great light. According to the Gospel of John, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1: 9-11).

This sad truth is driven home to us with inescapable clarity in the Gospel immediately following the story of the Nativity. Notice how Matthew masterfully tells this tale--he takes us from laughter to tears; he takes us from the sublime beauty of the manger scene to the tawdry ugliness of man’s inhumanity to man; from the sheer joy of angels in the realms of glory to the utter despondency of sinful man’s perversity, violence, and decadence. The first thing we see after Christmas is why Christmas was necessary in the first place.

The second chapter of Matthew's Gospel is actually the B-side of the Christmas story--or perhaps better, page two of the story--and serves as its essential context. It is "the rest of the story." This page two perspective affords us five different scenes:

In vs. 1-6, the Magi arrive from the East, and the priests and scribes inform Herod that the Messiah would indeed be born in Bethlehem. In vs. 7-12, the Magi do homage, then being warned, return home another way. In vs. 13-15, Joseph too is warned, and he takes Mary and Jesus away to safety. In vs. 16-18, Herod, realizing he has been tricked, kills all the boys of Bethlehem--a horrific genocide akin to anything Hitler or Pol Pot or Mao or Stalin or Sanger or Saddam ever perpetrated. Finally, in vs. 19-23, after the death of Herod, the holy family returns to Galilee.

Each of these five scenes vividly illustrates the depths of man’s depravity; the strong vocabulary emphasizes the wretched estate of sin: v. 3 describes Herod as "troubled," or literally, “profligately mad;” v. 7 says Herod "summoned the Magi secretly," or more literally, he “skulked, conspired, and plotted in the dark;” v. 13 says Herod "sought to destroy" the Christ child; the word used here is particularly gruesome, meaning to “smother or to slaughter;” v. 16 says Herod became "furious;" the word here is thomoo, literally “enraged.” Herod was consumed with a mad, cruel, destructive rage and as a result his murderous heart led him to commit horrific genocide, a wholesale slaughter of the innocents. But even after Herod died, the mad violent bent of man continued--vs. 20 and 22--for “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is death.”

But notice too that each of these five scenes is anchored by an Old Testament prophecy: v. 6 is from Micah 5:2; v. 11 is from Psalm 72:10; v. 15 is from Hosea 11:1; v. 18 is from Jere. 31:15; and v. 23 is from Isaiah 11:1. It is as if Matthew is assuring us that as horrific as things appear, events are not spinning out of control; God’s redemptive purposes cannot be frustrated--not even by the most evil schemes of men; the worst that man can do is no match for the best that God can do.

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow as far as the curse is found.

The implications of this passage are stunning. Here is what "page two" of the Christmas story teaches us:

Man’s conniving, plotting, and scheming will always be frustrated—because God is God and man is not. However much we may covet power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing, only God is worthy to receive these things. Thus, we are forced to face the futility of our vain ambitions. And this infuriates us. Witness the rage of Agamemnon and Achilles in the Iliad; witness the same rage of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings; witness the same rage of a two-year-old pitching a tantrum in his playpen. It is the rage native to all of us. It leads all of us toward destruction, for ultimately, we are all Herod-of-heart.

The first inclination of our wrath is death and destruction. Sadly, because all men without exception are sinners, the most fundamental factor in understanding anthropology is the thanatos factor. Very simply, what that means is that all men have morbidly embraced death (Rom. 5:12). At the Fall, mankind was suddenly destined for death (Jere. 15:2). We were all at that moment bound into a covenant with death (Isa. 28:15). Whether we know it or not, we have chosen death (Jere. 8:3). It has become our shepherd (Ps. 49:14). Our minds are fixed on it (Rom. 8:6), our hearts pursue it (Prov. 21:6), and our flesh is ruled by it (Rom. 8:2). We dance to its cadences (Prov. 2:18) and descend to its chambers (Prov. 7:27). The fact is, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) and “all have sinned” (Rom. 3:23). “There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one. Their throat is an open grave, with their tongues they keep deceiving, the poison of asps is under their lips; whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness; their feet are swift to shed blood, destruction and misery are in their paths, and the path of peace have they not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Rom. 3:10-18). And “all those who hate God, love death” (Prov. 8:36). Since the dawning of time, men have contrived ingenious diversions to satisfy their fallen passions. We still do.

Abortion, infanticide, suicide bombing, genocide, terrorism, and euthanasia are not new dilemmas. Indeed, they have been a universal blight on every human society from the beginning of time. None of the great minds of the ancient world--from Plato and Aristotle to Seneca and Quintilian, from Herodotus and Thucidides to Plutarch and Euripides--disparaged child-killing or mercy-killing or convenience-killing in any way. In fact, most of them actually recommended it. They callously discussed its various methods and procedures. They casually debated its sundry legal ramifications. They blithely tossed lives like dice.

The wholesale slaughter of the unwanted was so much a part of ancient human societies that it provided the primary literary liet motif in popular traditions, stories, myths, and legends. The founding of Rome was, for instance, presumed to be the 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 monarch 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. Later, a shepherd discovered them and took them home to his wife and the kindly couple brought them up as their own. Romulus and Remus would later establish the city of Rome on the seven hills near the place of their rescue. Oedipus was presumed to be an abandoned child who was also found by a shepherd and later rose to greatness. Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, was supposedly a survivor of infanticide. According to Homer's legend, Paris, whose amorous indiscretions started the Trojan War, was also a victim of abandonment. Telephus, the king of Mysia and Ion, ruler of the Gracians, had both been exposed as children according to various folk tales. Zeus, chief god of the Olympian pantheon, himself had been abandoned as a child. He in turn exposed his twin sons. And so the story goes.

Because they had been mired by the minions of sin and death, it was as natural as the spring rains for the men and women of antiquity to kill the innocents. It was as instinctive as the autumn harvest for them to summarily sabotage their own heritage. 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. But they were wrong. Dreadfully wrong. And that is why Christmas is such a stunning answer to all of who are Herod-of-heart.

Life is God's gift. It is His gracious endowment upon the created order. It flows forth in generative fruitfulness. The earth is literally teeming with life (Gen. 1:20; Lev. 11:10; 22:5; Deut. 14:9). And the crowning glory of this sacred teeming is man himself (Gen. 1:26-30; Psalm 8:1-9). To violate the sanctity of this magnificent endowment is to fly in the face of all that is holy, just, and true (Jere. 8:1-17; Rom. 8:6). To violate the sanctity of life is to invite judgment, retribution, and anathema (Deut. 30:19-20). It is to solicit devastation, imprecatation, and destruction (Jere. 21:8-10). "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked, whatsoever a man sows, that he shall also reap" (Gal. 6:7).

But the Lord God, who is the giver of life (Acts 17:25), the fountain of life (Psalm 36:9), the defender of life (Psalm 27:1), the prince of life (Acts 3:15), and the restorer of life (Ruth 4:15), did not leave men to languish hopelessly in the clutches of sin and death. He 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 death (1 Cor. 15:54-56). Jesus "tasted death for everyone" (Heb. 2:9), actually "abolishing death" for our sakes (2 Tim. 1:10) and offering us new life (John 5:21). “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).

One of the earliest Christian documents--actually predating portions of the New Testament--asserts that “There are two ways: a way of life and a way of death.” In Christ, God has afforded us the opportunity to choose between those two ways--to choose between fruitful and teeming life on the one hand, and barren and impoverished death on the other (Deut. 30:19). Apart from Christ it is not possible to escape the snares of sin and death (Col. 2:13). On the other hand: “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). All those who hate Christ "love death" (Prov. 8:36); while all those who receive Christ are made the sweet savor of life (2 Cor. 2:16).

Death has cast its dark shadow across the whole of human relations. Because of sin, all men flirt and flaunt shamelessly in the face of its spector. Sadly, such impudence has led to the most grotesque concupiscence imaginable: the slaughter of the innocents. Blinded by the glare from the nefarious and insidious angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14), we stand by, paralyzed and mesmerized. Thanks be to God, there is a way of escape from these bonds of destruction. In Christ, there is hope. In Him there is life--both temporal and eternal. In Him there is liberty and justice. In Him there is an antidote to the thanatos factor. In Him, and in Him alone, there is an answer to the ages long dilemma of the dominion of death.

Light of light descendeth from realms of endless day, and the powers of hell may vanish as the darkness clears away!

That is the rest of the story--the essential page two. Christmas has a context of genocide, of merderous rage, of man's inhumanity to man, and of hope nonetheless. And that makes the manger all the more beautiful!

Sunday, December 28

Feast of the Holy Innocents

Often called Childermas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents solemnizes the slaughter of the children of Judea by Herod the Great following the birth of Christ. 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 practicioners 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.

Friday, December 26

St. Stephen and Boxing Day

St. Stephen (c. 35) was killed because of his convictions about the revelation of Christ in the world. Indeed, according to the Book of Acts, he was the very first martyr of the Christian faith. For centuries, Christians have remembered his faithfulness on the day after Christmas. Traditionally, it is a day for selfless care for the needy, the despised, and the unloved.

The day after Christmas is also traditionally commemorated as an official holiday in Britain and much of the rest of the English-speaking world. Known as Boxing Day, it is a day during which boxes of food are delivered to the needy. The entire community of faith seeks to celebrate with joy the manifestation of the Good News. Often 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 in full force.

Thursday, December 25

The Declaration of Good King Wenceslaus

"The happy appearance of Christ in the world has made for a new dispensation of civic virtue. Because the Lord abides forever, He has established His Throne for judgment, and He will judge the world in righteousness. He will surely execute judgment for the peoples with equity. The Lord also will be a Stronghold for the oppressed, a Stronghold in times of trouble. As a consequence, a royal regent must needs be a bastion of both justice and mercy." Wenceslaus of Bohemia (907-929)

Wednesday, December 24

Merry Christmas

Every day, from December 25 to January 6, has traditionally been a part of the Yuletide celebration. Dedicated to mercy and compassion--in light of the incarnation of Heaven’s own mercy and compassion--each of those twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany has always been for Christians a season devoted to selfless giving and tender charity. In many Christian communities through the ages, gift giving is not concentrated on a single day, but rather, as in the famous folk song, spread out through the entire season.

And speaking of that famous folk song, all of the gifts mentioned in the "Twelve Days of Christmas" actually represent some aspect of the blessing of Christ’s appearing and are intended as reminders of our yokefellow responsibilities, one to another. Indeed, most of the images are Medieval adaptations of the rich Old Testament symbols of covenantal succession, joyous servanthood, and prophetic promise. They portray the abundant life, the riches of the godly inheritance, the ultimate promise of heaven, the incarnational character of faith, the gracious nature of even temporal hope, and the essential covenantal nature of life lived in community and accountability.

Tuesday, December 23

Reading the Classics

Silent reading is a fairly modern innovation. As late as the eighteenth century, it was thought that the best way to truly appreciate the enduring works of literature was to read them aloud--all the better to relish the beauty of the words, the music of the composition, and the architecture of the ideas. In older works, the proliferation of odd colloquialisms, archaisms, feints, nods, allusions--to say nothing of the antiquated literary structures--make reading aloud even more advisable. You’ll quickly find that what was an obstacle when you were reading silently is suddenly been transformed into a delight.

Remember though: go slow; pronounce the words phonetically; if the edition of the classic you've chosen has a glossary--the Penguin Classics, Cambridge Cantos, or Oxford Masters editions generally provide enormous help in this area--keep a finger in place as you read along so you can flip back to confirm meanings of unfamiliar phrases, historical references, and vocabulary; stop after each chapter and reflect on what you’ve read thus far; keep a journal to record your progress.

If you’ll practice these basic habits of substantive reading, you’ll find that the classics are classics for good reason.

Now, with all this new-found knowledge and inspiration, why not tackle an out-loud holiday reading of The Christmas Carol by Dickens or The Antiquary by Scott or even Lepanto by Chesterton?

Lepanto Gem

Looking for the perfect, last minute Christmas gift? Good news! The American Chesterton Society has released a wonderful new annotated edition of GK's astonishing epic poem, Lepanto.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton was surely among the brightest minds of the twentieth century--a prolific journalist, best-selling novelist, insightful poet, popular debater, astute literary critic, grassroots reformer, and profound humorist. Recognized by friend and foe alike as one of the most perspicacious, epigrammatic, and jocose prose stylists in the entire literary canon, he is today the most quoted writer in the English language besides William Shakespeare.

His remarkable output of books--more than a hundred published in his lifetime and half again that many afterward--covered an astonishing array of subjects from economics, art, history, biography, and social criticism to poetry, detective stories, philosophy, travel, and religion. His most amazing feat was not merely his vast output or wide range but the consistency and clarity of his thought, his uncanny ability to tie everything together. In the heart of nearly every paragraph he wrote was a jaw-dropping aphorism or a mind-boggling paradox that left readers shaking their heads in bemusement and wonder.

But Chesterton was not only a prodigious creator of characters, he was also a prodigious character in his own right. At over six feet and three hundred pounds his romantically rumpled appearance--often enhanced with the flourish of a cape and a swordstick--made him appear as nearly enigmatic, anachronistic, and convivial as he actually was. Perhaps that was a part of the reason why he was one of the most beloved men of his time--even his ideological opponents regarded him with great affection. His humility, his wonder at existence, his graciousness and his sheer sense of joy set him apart not only from most of the artists and celebrities during the first half of the twentieth century, but from most anyone and everyone.

He was amazingly prescient--alas, all too many of the very things he predicted have come to pass: the mindless faddism of pop culture, the rampant materialism permeating society, the moral relativism subsuming age-old ethical standards, disdain of religion, the unfettered censorship by the press (as opposed to censorship of the press), the grotesque uglification of the arts, the rise of the twin evils of monolithic business and messianic government with the accompanying results of wage slavery and the loss of individual liberty. It seems that on nearly every subject, Chesterton’s words ring truer today than when they were first written nearly a century ago.

But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chesterton was not his prodigious literary output, his enormous popularity, or his cultural sagacity. Instead, it was his enormous capacity to love--to love people, to love the world around him, and to love life. Maisie Ward, Chesterton’s authoritative biographer and friend asserted, “Some men, it may be, are best moved to reform by hate, but Chesterton was best moved by love.”

That love is on full display in the Lepanto poem--an epic written about one of the most important battles in the history of Western Christendom against the perils of advancing, militant Islam. This new edition, published in paperback by the American Chesterton Society, is annotated with historical notes, military analysis, and a brief literary assessment. No Chesterton-lover on your Christmas list should be without it!

Monday, December 22

Peru Mission Trip

In just over a week, Karen and I will be joining a team of missionaries high in the Andes for a Bible conference and a time of encouragement and equipping. We will be in Cuzco, a city in the rugged Incan region of southeastern Peru. It is a particularly poor part of a country wracked in recent years by political unrest, economic instability, and cultural devolution. Sometimes threatened by the Communist-trained Shining Path terrorists, but more often threatened by the numbing realities of poverty, isolation, and ill-health, the region all around Cuzco is a "field white unto harvest." Pray for us as we seek to build up, strengthen, and bolster the wonderful team of Mission to the World workers in that amazing corner of the globe. Pray too for the Quechua-speaking believers there, that the nascent church-planting movement emerging in their midst may be used of God to usher in a whole new epoch of grace--and that a redolence of both justice and mercy would result.

As with the trip to Iraq earlier this fall, we plan on posting regular blog updates as we have opportunity.

Cutting Across the Grain

When Hugh Goldie (1806-1881) joined a mission station in Old Calabar on the West Coast of Africa early in the nineteenth century, he was horrified by many of the things he found there. The living conditions of the people were utterly deplorable. Their nutrition was abominable. Their hygiene was disgraceful. Their social and commercial arrangements were in utter disarray.

The zealous Scots Presbyterian was a disciple of Thomas Chalmers. So it was rather expected that he would be determined to bring the blessings of modern medicine, nutrition, and hydration to the people he had quickly came to love. He had plans to launch industrial initiatives, educational institutions, and social projects. But before he could address such material needs, there was a yet greater spiritual need that demanded his attentions first.

As difficult as their social and cultural circumstances had made their lives, it was their cavalier attitude to the sanctity of human life that most enthralled and enslaved them. Although they had recently abandoned the centuries-old practice of human sacrifice, they still freely practiced abortion, abandonment, and infanticide. Goldie was met with stiff opposition by the tribal chiefs--and even by many of his fellow missionaries who felt that his pro-life convictions would compromise their evangelistic efforts--he stood firmly on what he believed was the essential integrity of the whole counsel of God.

He faithfully taught the people and served all those in need. He worked hard to ensure that every man, woman, and child had access to adequate health care so that there would be no excuse for the taking of innocent lives. He laid foundations for development so that new enterprises and industries could emerge. But first and foremost, he followed up his forthright preaching of the Word of God by establishing a pattern of care and concern for the least desirable people in the community--rather than focusing his attentions on the most prestigious. As a result, he built his mission on ideas that flew in the face of the current cultural norms--thus modeling a consistent ethic of the sanctity of all human life.

He said that his task was "most assuredly not be relevant to the culture at hand, but rather to cut across the grain of it, to contradict it, to bring the cross to bear on it." Hardly the sort of tactic we might recommend to missionaries today!

Nevertheless, God blessed Goldie's efforts. Conversions came in waves. The church was solidly built. And finally, as a result of his life-long crusade for life, tribal decrees in 1851 banned the terrible customs. The culture was transformed and Goldie eventually went on to his eternal reward having "run the race, fought the fight, and held the course" (2 Timothy 4:7).

Wednesday, December 17

Blogging Dangers

Once again, believers in China are facing fierce persecution from the Communist government. And at the center of the storm are blogs! Computer technician Zhang Shengqi was detained last month in a raid on the home of his fiancee in the northeastern city of Jilin. He was then transferred to a jail in the eastern city of Hangzhou where he was charged with "leaking state secrets." In fact, his real crime was posting a blog detailing a wave of oppression against the underground church. Bob Fu, president of the China Aid mission, said authorities have tried to keep the crackdown quiet, but the bloggers had blown their cover of secrecy. The case is yet another reminder of both the power of new communications technologies to upset the apple carts of tyrants and the hazards of using such tools in closed societies like Communist China.

News Flash!

Good news on the political front: the "Material Girl" has fianlly stepped onto the political stage and endorsed Democratic presidential hopeful Wesley Clark. "I think he has a good handle on foreign policy, I think he's good with people, and I think he has a heart and a consciousness," Madonna said. "He's interested in spirituality. I mean, those things mean a lot to me." What a relief! I was really beginning to fear that she might endorse a candidate that sane people might be inclined to vote for!

Monday, December 15

Snafu Hunt

Calling all goofs, muffs, blunders, gaffes, bloopers, howlers, bungles, slip-ups, boo-boos, oversights, missteps, and clangers! This week, while I'm limping about, I will be editing and revising The Christian Almanac and The Patriot's Handbook for second editions. I'll only be working on these this week--so please don't send in any embarrassing errors, glaring typos, or unforgivable omissions next week. Do it this week! Preferably, by Thursday. If you know of any particularly irksome mistakes, please do pass them on! If you know of any noticably eggregious miscalculations, here is your opportunity to make them right!

Both books are so encyclopedic that I have little hope of getting them entirely cleaned up, even on this pass through. But with a little help from my friends, perhaps we can rid them of the worst of the worst inexactness, incorrectness, and imprecision!

Sunday, December 14

Mohammed Atta, Abu Nidal, Saddam, and Pessimism

In his always-insightful Spectator column, Paul Johnson recently wrote about George Bush saying that, “no Western leader since Winston Churchill” has been able to “so defy expectations and so overachieve” to the point of actually “bringing about a transformation of the world.” The president has been able to "defy every tenant of the current reigning ideological orthodoxy--the orthodoxy of pessimism--simply by quietly and confidently doing what he knows to be right."

Going even further this week, he elaborated on this notion saying that, “I don’t think we sufficiently appreciate the amount Mr. Bush has achieved, at such speed and at such comparatively small cost in lives. He has destroyed the two most malignant and dangerous Muslim regimes, and set up military occupation of those countries, which makes it impossible to reestablish them or anything like them. Both these campaigns were brilliantly conducted at great speed.”

Now, with the capture of Saddam as well as the confirmation that Mohammed Atta, the mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was trained in Baghdad by Abu Nidal under Saddam’s direction, the president’s achievement seems all the more momentous.

With the Dow up, the unemployment figures down, the war on terror apparently succeeding, and the will to press on as strong as ever, Johnson argues, this poor fallen world is still more than a little dangerous and imperfect "but it is getting better all the time.” That's just got to be driving the nay-sayers abolutely bonkers! Oh no! Something is going right! Determined action, moral pluck, and humble courage seem to be winning out over haughty elitism, simpering skepticism, and political correctness! Mohammed Atta, Abu Nidal, Saddam, and Western pessimism all knocked flat. Gee, who'd a thunk it?

Friday, December 12

The Whip of Advent

This bit of verse by Tristan Gylberd aims at capturing the stunning Chestertonian paradox of the incarnation by recalling and retelling the twin stable scenes from the Synoptic Gospel accounts--one during the first week of Christ's life, the other during the last. It is the strangest and most glorious of all the ironies ever to appear in this poor fallen world:

The pitch of the stall was glorious
Though the straw was dusty and old
The wind sang with orchestral beauty
Though it blew bitter and cold

The night was mysteriously gleaming
Though the earth was fallen, forlorn
For under the eaves of splendor
A child--The Child--was born

Oxen Sheep and doves
Crowded round Nativity's scene
Though the world still failed to grasp
T’was here that peace had been

Cast out into a cave
When no room was found for Him
His coming was a scourge
That cleansed a robber's den

While the Temple's become a cattle stall
Where beasts and such are sold
The Child's turned Manger into Temple
And changed the base to gold

Tis the paradox of the ages:
Worldly wisdom will ne're relent
To notice signs of visitation
Nor the cords of the whip of Advent

Thursday, December 11

Update Redeux

The second day after surgery is supposed to be the worst. If so, Dr. Grant is coming through with flying colors. He says that his knee is OK. Hurts a bit. And the bandage is a hassle. But he has not taken any pain meds all day. It looks like he should be up and running again in a week or so. Until then, He's getting all the sympathy he can muster!

Actually, he has a physical therapy session tomorrow. He is hoping he will be given clearance to speak at a Saturday morning breakfast for potential recruits for Servant Group International's mission to Iraq and again at the Lessons in Carols presentation at Christ Community Church Sunday evening. Under the direction of Greg Wilbur, that presentation is one of the highlights of the Yuletide season and Dr. Grant has already let it be known that he would not miss it for the world!

Wednesday, December 10

Political Blogs

The 2004 presidential campaign is shaping up to be as high tech as the war against terror has been. For example, the current political stealth tactic is blogging. President Bush has a blog on his reelection web site. So do most of the sundry Dems--led by front-runner Howard Dean. The blogs provide up-to-the-minute news direct from the candidates as they travel around the country to deliver their message to the American people. But they also solicit contributions, recruit volunteers, provide policy talking points, distribute customized screen savers and banner ads, advertise merchandise, and offer up hefty doses of spin and buzz. The sites are fascinating approaches to grassroots campaigning and are remarkable illustrations of how quickly politics can adapt to contemporary marketing and communication opportunities.

Wounded Knee Surgery

Dr. Grant will have minor surgery this morning to repair damage caused to his knee in a recent automobile accident. Of course, lately he has taken to quoting basketball great, Charles Barkley, who sagely quipped, "Minor surgery is only that surgery done on someone else!"

Surgery Update

Well, it’s over. Dr. Grant is home. He’s a bit woozy, but is doing well. The surgeon, a dear friend and a fellow church member, said that the cartilage tear was worse than he thought it would be, but that it should be as good as new in no time. He is grateful for all those who have prayed for him and encouraged him through this whole process. He is really looking forward to getting back to running--but it may be a while before that is possible!

Tuesday, December 9

Spam Ban

The House of Representatives has sent a bill to President Bush that would allow penalties of up to $6 million and five years in jail for sending some of the most noxious forms of e-mail spam. About 13 million pieces of unsolicited commercial e-mail are sent each day, which represents about half of all e-mail sent. I can confirm that from personal experience!

Senators Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, and Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, cheered the House's passage of the bill as a bipartisan, bicameral effort and an important step towards stopping the "kingpin spammers and stemming the flow of garbage into America's in-boxes."

The House, by unanimous consent, approved an amended version of the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act of 2003, which had been bouncing between the House and Senate as both houses of Congress made changes to it. Most political watchers have said they expect the bill to be signed into law by the President by the end of the year.

Critics have said CAN-SPAM will allow "legal" spam to continue because it requires that e-mail users opt out of receiving commercial e-mail, instead of requiring that spammers receive opt-in permission before sending e-mail. Nevertheless, all across the board, experts agree that an initial counter-blast on the ponography spewers, Viagra hawkers, and mortgage brokers has been made at long last. And that is a very, very good thing!

Why Yuletide Traditions?

The holiday season--what we generally just call Christmastime--is actually a long sequence of holy days, festal revelries, and liturgical rites 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.

Recently, a dear friend wrote me to ask how I was able to reconcile my relish for such ancient Christian practices with my obvious commitment to the Reformed faith? After all, didn’t the Scots reformers (among my dearest theological heroes) adamantly eschew all such holiday practices? Wouldn’t they have considered such traditions tainted by Catholicism? Indeed, wouldn't they have argued that the liturgical bent of Advent, Yuletide, and Epiphany are quite contrary to the most basic tenants of Protestantism?

Excellent questions. Here is how I answered:

First, the glory of the Reformation has always been the a reliance on Scripture and a willingness to be "Reformed yet ever reforming." Thus, as we continue the process of recovering the richness of the Scriptural approach to worship and the marking of time, shouldn't we mature beyond the days of mere reaction to the empty ritual of Medieval Catholicism. None of us want to dredge up the old bath water of works righteousness and empty ritualistic superstition, but lots of us are starting to wonder whether or not we ought to recover the baby of a Biblical worldview we threw out with it! This is, as Philip Schaff argued, the very "principle of Protestantism."

Second, there are innumerable Reformed legacies that have always joyously embraced the sheer beauty and intentional substantiveness in worship through the seasons. Some of these rich legacies are Dutch, some are Scottish, and some are Continental. We ought to look to them all to inform how we should be growing up in faith in these difficult times. Edith Schaeffer has written, “There is something about saying, 'We always do this,' which helps keep the years together. Time is such an elusive thing that if we keep on meaning to do something interesting, but never do it, year would follow year with no special thoughtfulness being expressed in making gifts, surprises, charming table settings, and familiar, favorite food. Tradition is a good gift intended to guard the best gifts.”

Third, celebrations are inescapable. So the only question for us really is, which celebrations will we make a part of our lives? Why the pastor's anniversary and not Christ's anniversary, for instance? Why the immediate building program and not the timeless Kingdom program? Why birthdays or national holidays or significant current events and not those aspects of the Gospel tied to the calendar? Corrie ten Boom once said, “When I think of Christmas Eves, Christmas feasts, Christmas songs, and Christmas stories, I know that they do not represent a short and transient gladness. Instead, they speak of a joy unspeakable and full of glory. God loved the world and so, sent His Son. Whosoever believes in Him will not perish, but have everlasting life. That is Christmas joy. That is the Christmas spirit.”

Finally, it is difficult for me to get past the incredible depth, symbolic richness, and adorned texturing of the worship of Heaven as portrayed in passages like Revelation 4-6. Why shouldn't our worship, our celebrations, and our passing of time look more like that than say a philosophical lecture or an Amway rally or a political convention or an educational conference or a night club act? Charles Haddon Spurgeon said that, "It is during Yuletide that the Church begins to catch a glimpse of the glory of true worship. As we adorn our homes and our villages with the evidences of incarnation, we adorn our lives and our worship with the majesty of heaven."

Thus, it is without apology that I declare "Good news and great joy!" It is Biblical theology, not merely a nostalgic appetite for Yuletide goodies that prompts me to say, "Joyous Advent to all! And bring on that Christmas pudding!"

Friday, December 5

Advent Traditions

Advent is a season of 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--that 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 ancient dogma of the Church asserts, 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.

One of my favorite Advent traditions is the of quiet and reflective beauty of the "Lessons and Carols" service. Most closely associated with the King's College Chapel, Cambridge, the service consists of nine Scripture lessons which alternate with carols of a similar theme. The lessons and carols tell of the Fall of Man, the promise of a Savior by the prophets, the annunciation to Mary, the shepherds and angels, and ends with the reading of John chapter one.

Sometimes performed for several evenings throughout Advent and sometimes just on Christmas Eve, the service follows a form laid down by the King's College Dean, Eric Milner-White, in 1918. As he saw it, the strength of the service lay in the Scripture readings which outline the need for redemption, the promise of a Savior, and the Nativity itself. Milner-White patterned his service on an Order of Worship drawn up by E.W. Benson, later Archbishop of Canterbury, for use in the wooden shed which then served as his cathedral in Truro on Christmas Eve 1880. His son, A.C. Benson recalled, "My father arranged from ancient sources a little service for Christmas Eve--nine carols and nine tiny lessons, which were read by various officers of the Church, beginning with a chorister, and ending, through the different grades, with the Bishop. "The suggestion for the service had come from G.H.S. Walpole who later became the Bishop of Edinburgh.

The original services in Cambridge have been adapted and emulated throughout the world. With the exception of 1930, the BBC has broadcast the concert annually since 1928. This includes the period of the Second World War, when the ancient glass (and also all heat) had been removed from the Chapel and even the name of King's College could not be broadcast for security reasons.

The combination of prayers, liturgy, carols, Scripture, and congregational worship creates a solemnity that recognizes the historic nature of the Christian faith as well as a celebration of the fulfilled promise of redemption. Thus, "Lessons and Carols" is a wonderfully rich antidote to the smothering secularism of our modern holiday season.

Believing in Nothing

Speaking of the smothering secularism of modernity, David Hart has written a stunning rebuke of our barren philosophical and spirtual wasteland in the current issue of First Things. It is a sobering reminder of how the petty and capricious gods of Promethean Will, Autonomous Liberty, and Unencumbered Choice have delivered us into the hands of an opulent void of nihilism.

Liturgical Calendars

Beautiful liturgical wall calendars incorporating the 2004 lectionary are available at the Life in Jesus Community web site. Designed for the International Charismatic Episcopal Communion, the calendars are very helpful for Christians from any and all traditions to understand and follow the complete course of the Gospel throughout the church year.

Tuesday, December 2

Abercrombie Flinched

Under concerted boycott pressure from family advocacy groups, Abercrombie and Fitch stores have stopped selling their pornographic "Christmas Field Guide." Maryam Kubasek, spokeswoman for the National Coalition for the Protection of Children and Families, sees the retailer's move as significant but says her group will continue its Stop A&F Campaign. "It is a victory; they are obviously sensitive to public pressure, but they are definitely not off the hook," she told WorldNetDaily, noting the "magalog" is still sold via subscription, and the company's blatant promotion of promiscuity continues. For instance, the company still issues shopping bags, fliers, and other marketing materials with sexually explicit images.

I started writing about the Abercrombie's commitment to brazen lasciviousness as long ago as 1998. For years they have remained recalcitrant. Finally, they've flinched. It looks like they are actually beginning to get the message that perversity is just not the best approach to drumming up business at the neighborhood mall.

Wounded Knee Update

Dr. Grant got the results of his MRI yesterday. It looks like he does indeed have cartilage damage from the auto accident he was in two weeks ago. In addition, there are indications of bone bruises on both sides of his right knee . Surgery has been scheduled for Wednesday, December 10. That means he will be out of commission for much of the next couple of weeks, And worse, he will be prohibited from running for as long as six weeks. The name of his Wounded Knee Running Team was chosen as a joke--intended as a lighthearted way to raise funds for his beloved Classical Christian schools in Iraq. It now appears to have been a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy! Can you say "cranky?"