Tuesday, February 28

We Few, We Peculiar Few

Long before the bane of television invaded our every waking moment C.S. Lewis commented that while most people in modern industrial cultures are at least marginally able to read, they just don't. In his wise and wonderful book An Experiment in Criticism he said:

"The majority, though they are sometimes frequent readers, do not set much store by reading. They turn to it as a last resource. They abandon it with alacrity as soon as any alternative pastime turns up. It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called reading oneself to sleep. They sometimes combine it with desultory conversation; often, with listening to the radio. But literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention. When they are denied such attentive and undisturbed reading even for a few days they feel impoverished."

He goes further admitting that there is a profound puzzlement on the part of the mass of the citizenry over the tastes and habits of the literate: "It is pretty clear that the majority, if they spoke without passion and were fully articulate, would not accuse us of liking the wrong books, but of making such a fuss about any books at all. We treat as a main ingredient in our well-being something which to them is marginal. Hence to say simply that they like one thing and we another is to leave out nearly the whole of the facts."

All this is not to imply any hint of moral turpitude on the part of modern bohemianism, rather it is to recognize the simple reality of the gaping chasm that exists between those who read and those who don't, between the popular many and the peculiar few. It is to recognize that education demands the latter while maintaining steadfast incompatibility with the former.

Monday, February 27

The Pilgrimage Home

On this day in 1901, English author, journalist, and wit G.K. Chesterton wrote a rather obscure short story that would ultimately define his work as a popular philosopher. It was about a man who traveled around the world in an effort to find his true home—only to end up precisely where he began.

Thomas Smythe had been born, brought up, married, and made the father of a family in a little white farmhouse by a river. The river enclosed it on three sides like a castle—on the fourth side there were stables and beyond that a kitchen garden and beyond that an orchard and beyond that a low wall and beyond that a road and beyond that a wood and beyond that slopes meeting the sky—but Smythe had known nothing beyond what he could see from his house. Its walls were the world to him and its roof the sky. Indeed, in his latter years he hardly ever went outside his door. And as he grew lazy, he grew restless; angry with himself and everyone. He found himself in some strange way weary of every moment and hungry for the next.

His heart had grown stale and bitter towards the wife and children whom he saw every day. His home had become drab and wearisome to him. Yet there was a fragment of a memory that yet remained of happier days when the thatch of his home burned with gold as though angels inhabited the place. Even so, he remembered it as one who remembers a dream. One calamitous day, his mind snapped under the weight of the contradiction—the contradiction between his fond remembrances of the past and his drab circumstances in the present. He presently announced that he was setting out to find his home—that fine white farmhouse by the river. Though his beloved wife and children tried to make him see that he was already there, he could not be persuaded. His delusion was complete.

Thomas Smythe then set out on an epic journey. He crossed hill and vale, mountain and plain, stream and ocean, meadow and desert. Like a transmigrating soul, he lived a series of existences but he never diverged from the line that girdled the world. At long last though, he crested a hill and suddenly felt as if he had crossed the border into elfland. With his head a belfry of new passions, assailed with confounding memories, he came at last to the end of the world. He had arrived at the little white farmhouse by the river—he had arrived at home. His heart leapt for joy as he saw his wife run to meet him in the lane. The prodigal had returned.

The story struck a chord with Chesterton’s readers for a thousand different reasons—it was a powerfully told parable of the universal human experience, it was a poignant prose poem of everyman’s heart longing, and it was a stern rebuke to the vagabond spirit that drags all the Cains, the Esaus, and the Lots eastward away from Eden. But they probably loved it most of all because it was their own story—the testimony of their own, as yet incomplete, pilgrimage home.

Friday, February 24

Testimonies to Chalmers

“To know Chalmers is to love him, and to wish to be like him. Those to whom the cause of Christ is dear can but seek that a double portion of his spirit should be upon them.” Adam Philip

“What I thirst to read is Chalmers’ life….I cannot conceive of a wiser, greater or better man. Every part of his character was colossal; he had the heart of twenty men; the head of twenty men; the energy of a hundred. He has not left his equal in the world.” John Mackintosh

“Truly I consider him as raised up by God for a great and peculiar work. His depth of thought, origionality in illustrating and strength in stating are unrivalled in the present day. In other respects he is too sanguine. He does not sufficiently see that a Chalmers is necessary to carry into effect the plans of a Chalmers.” Charles Simeon

“It was his contagious ‘enthusiasm for humanity’ that invested him in the eyes of students, as well as congregations, broad Scotland over, classes and masses alike, with an admiring reverence assigned to one of the old Prophets of Israel.” J.R. Macduff

Tuesday, February 21

Chalmers Conference

Thomas Chalmers believed in pastoral care. He believed it should be personal, intentional, covenantal, and incarnational. In other words, he believed that it should be strategicly designed to run counter to our natural inclinations in this poor fallen world. He said, "Show me a people-going minister and I will show you a church-going people."

Of course, for that sort of thing to actually work, pastoral care had to be done on a human scale. As Chalmers often asserted, "Gargantuanism and the care of souls cannot coexist."

So, how can the modern evangelical congregation put into practice these insights? That is the very thing we will be exploring Friday and Saturday at the Parish Life Conference here in Franklin. I am excited both for the clarity it will bring to my own thinking (remember: thoughts tend to disentangle themselves as they flow over the tips of pen or tongue) and to my own covenant community's practical agenda for ministry.

Rosalie Slater (1919-2006)

I first met Rosalie Slater within the pages of a stack of big red books--the big red books which formed the basis for The Principle Approach to Christian Education. There I encountered her love for Christ and His Word, her love for freedom, her love for America, her love for beauty, goodness, and truth, and most of all, her love for her students.

Years after her loves had stirred up in me those very same loves, I was able to meet this remarkable trophy of grace face to face. In fact, I was her birthday present! Several of her yokefellows and co-laborers at the Foundation for American Christian Education conspired to fly me to Virginia and then sneak me into a dinner party honoring her and her great legacy. We talked of Chalmers and Scott and Comenius and Spurgeon into the wee hours of the night. We listened to a piper play Scotland the Brave. We ate a chocolate cake to die for. We laughed. We sang. We plotted. We opined. I was enraptured. I still am.

For the next few years we corresponded often. We sent each other books and articles and little snippets of interest. Ours became a rich and dear friendship--but more, ours became a rich and dear partnership in the great task of discipling the next generation of Christian leaders.

This past Friday evening, Rosalie went to sleep in Virgina only to awake in Heaven. Her many books, curricula, and projects will continue to allow her to continue to stir up a love for all that is good and right and true. Thanks be to God for a life well lived, a legacy passed on, and a heart tuned to the great anthem of the Gospel.

I will miss her. We will miss her. May God be pleased to raise up from the throng of her students the next Rosalie.

Monday, February 20

Chalmers Conference

Thomas Chalmers once asserted, "I am thankful to say that no reading so occupies and engages me as the biography of those who have made it most their business to prosecute the sanctification of their souls." I rather think he would be amazed that in this day and time we would be studying him in that light. After all, he was a very self-effacing man. As Robert Balfour said, "I am astonished at a man of such superior powers so modest and humble."

But, here we are. And from this vantage point it is evident that Chalmers was a giant of the faith. So, study him we ought.

Alas, that is easier said than done. There are no major biographies of him currently in print (though I hope to remedy that before this time next year). None of his more than forty books remain in print either (though, I hope to remedy that as well). As John Duncan, his contemporary and fellow-laborer commented, "We have lost much of Chalmers for want of a Boswell. Many of his best sayings are gone forever. As a man of erudition he could hardly have been better. But more, as a heaven-taught man, he needed little."

Thankfully, there are sources we can turn to in order to learn of and from this remarkable man. As W. M. Taylor recorded, "To the end of his days he had around him a circle of loving and devoted students, all of whom were fired with enthusiasm which they had caught from his lips. He was not so much an instructor as a quickener. The other professors laid the materials in the minds of the students, but he brought and struck the match, which kindled these materials into a flame that burned with an energy kindred to his own."

Likewise, David Masson wrote, "To describe the matter of the lectures of Thomas Chalmers would be more difficult than to give an idea of their form. It was called Theology, and there certainly was a goodly survey of the topics of a theological course. But really it was a course of Chalmers himself, and of Chalmers in all his characters. Within two or three consecutive sessions, if not in one, every listener was sure to be led so completely and with so much commotion through the whole round of Chalmers’s favourite ideas, that, if he remained ignorant of any one of them or unsaturated with some tincture of them all, it could only be because he was a miracle of impassiveness."

This weekend at the King's Meadow Conference, we will recall the legacy of this reforming pioneer of parish life by paying heed to some of those favorite ideas and the passions they somehow quickened in his students. And thus may God be pleased to use Chalmers again, in this day just as He has in days gone by.

Jayme Tagged Me, So...

Four Jobs I've Had (These Aren’t Even the Weirdest Ones):
1. Truck Stop Janitor
2. Radio Talk Show Host
3. Art Director/Editorial Director
4. Life Guard/Pool Manager/Swim Coach

Four Goals I Set This Year:
1. Run Across the State of Tennessee (Fundraising for Missions)
2. Complete My Book, The Forgotten Presidents
3. Compete in a Triathalon
4. Begin Work on My Book, Parish Life

Four Movies I Could Watch Over and Over:
None! Not Anymore, At Least.
But, Four Books I Could Reread Over and Over:
1. G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy
2. Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism
3. Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse
4. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings

Four Places I've Lived:
1. Houston, TX
2. New Orleans, LA
3. Little Rock, AR
4. Fort Lauderdale, FL

Four TV Shows I Love to Watch:
Besides Sporadic, Selective Sports, None!
But, Four More Books I Could Reread:
1. G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man
2. C.H. Spurgeon’s The Soul Winner
3. John Calvin’s Institutes of Christian Religion
4. Augustine’s Confessions

Four Favorite Vacation Spots:
1. Wherever Karen Is
2. The Texas Hill Country
3. Just About Any B&B in Scotland
4. The Coast of Maine

Four Websites I Visit Almost Daily:
1. Deutsche-Welle: dw-world.de/dw
2. BBC News: news.bbc.co.uk
3. Arts and Letters Daily: aldaily.com
4. ESPN News: espn.go.com

Four iTunes Podcasts I Subscribe To:
1. Phedippidations
2. Family News in Focus
3. Truths That Transform
4. King’s Meadow Audio

Four Favorite Foods:
1. Texas Barbeque
2. TexMex
3. German Bratwurst
4. Kougelhopf

Four Places I Would Rather Be Right Now:
1. St. Andrews, UK
2. Prague, CZ
3. Amsterdam, NL
4. Austin, TX

Four Favorite Accomplishments:
1. Thirty Happy Years of Marriage
2. Parenting (And Now, Grandparenting)
3. Helping Missions Organizations
4. Running Marathons

Chalmers Conference

"Regardless of how large, your vision is too small." Thomas Chalmers

"Gospel preaching always requires great courage, both to execute and to tolerate, for it must ever needs be a running toward a lion’s roar." Thomas Chalmers

"When Chalmers was born in 1780 it was about the deadest time in the history of the Church of Scotland since the Reformation. When he died in 1847 it was about the alivest. The difference was almost entirely attributable to the Spirit’s work through him." Gerald Trobish

This coming weekend I will lecture five times on the "parish life" concept of covenant church extension as modeled by the remarkable Thomas Chalmers. In addition, a number of my former charges will discuss various aspects of this model as practiced during their time as students. I am so looking forward to this--both for what we will be thinking through and how those ideas may drive our agendas for the future of strategic ministry planning and church planting.

Thursday, February 16

Forgotten Republic

Over the course of the past three centuries, the Gulf Coast of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana has served under a variety of flags: the French Fleur de Lis, the Golden Spanish Imperium, the Great Magnolia, the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy, the Star Spangled Banner of the United States, and briefly during the War of 1812, the British Union Jack. But perhaps most intriguing was its tenure under the Bonnie Blue of the Republic of West Florida.

Early in 1802, Napoleon concluded that it would be in his best interest to sell his American colonies to the United States. Negotiations took about two weeks, and the territories—extending from New Orleans to the Canadian border--were sold for $15 million in 1803. The transaction is known in history as the Louisiana Purchase.

But specifically exempt from the sale was the land east of the Mississippi. Over the course of the next several months, the settlers there formed an independent nation extending from the Mississippi in the west to Pensacola Bay in the east and stretching as far north as present-day Montgomery, Alabama. The founders of this Gulf Coast state called their nation the Republic of West Florida and established their capital at Baton Rouge. Thomas Jefferson’s near relative, Fulwar Skipwith was elected president shortly afterward--and it was Skipwith who encouraged the adoption of the Bonnie Blue Flag, the old Celtic symbol of covenantal freedom, as the nation’s official banner.

Independence brought both liberty and prosperity to the region--but it was to be short-lived. On this day in 1810, the sovereignty of West Florida was brought to an untimely and ignominious end when President James Madison ordered a detachment of American cavalrymen under the command of General William Claiborne to conquer the territory for the United States. Legislators were marched out of the capitol building at bayonet-point and forced to pledge allegiance to the federal United States and its governmental emissaries. The Bonnie Blue flag was torn down and replaced by the Stars and Stripes. The conquest was made in the name of American Manifest Destiny--but it remained a point of contention in the region and contributed to its quick acceptance of secession in the earliest days of the War between the States.

Even today in many of the Katrina-ravaged areas of the region, the Bonnie Blue Flag continues to fly as a badge of the Gulf Coast's distinctive identity, heritage, and culture.

Wednesday, February 15

A Royal Honeymoon

Niagara Falls was established as the ideal honeymoon destination by the French at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Napoleon’s brother, Jerome Bonaparte, traveled by stagecoach from New Orleans to spend his honeymoon at the remarkable natural wonder, on this day in 1802. He returned home with glowing reports. Since then, it gradually gained a reputation as the undisputed honeymoon capital of the world. And for good reason.

The Niagara River is actually a mere 35 miles in length, stretching between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. But along that short distance are some of the most stunning sights on the face of the earth. The imposing Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side of the river drop 177 feet, and the stupendous Vertical Falls on the American side of the river drop 184 feet. Together with the thunderous crash of the waters, the rising mist from the pool below, and the wide panorama across the gorge, the falls create a surreal spectacle of titanic proportions.

Winter brings an added dimension of beauty and outdoor activity to Niagara. Thousands of gulls and terns flock around the Falls and rapids. The clinging spray of the Falls blankets the nearby trees, rocks and lamp posts forming luminescent frozen shapes. When Charles Dickens visited the Niagara Falls in 1841, he wrote, “Niagara was at once stamped upon my heart, an Image of Beauty; to remain there, changeless and indelible, until its pulses cease to beat, forever.”

In May 1535, Jacques Cartier left France to explore the New World. Although he never saw Niagara Falls, the Indians he met along the St.Lawrence River told him about it. Samuel de Champlain explored the region in 1608. He, too, heard stories of the mighty cataract, but never visited it. Etienne Brule, the first European to see Lakes Ontario, Erie Huron, and Superior, apparently was also the first to behold the Falls, in 1615. Later that same year, the Recollet missionary explorers arrived in Ontario. They were followed a decade later by the Jesuits. It was a Jesuit father, Gabriel Lalemant, who first recorded the Iroquois name for the river--Onguiaahra, meaning the Strait. In December 1678, Recollet priest Louis Hennepin visited Niagara Falls. A few years later, he published the first engraving of the Falls in his book Nouvelle Decouverte.

Although Napoleon’s greatest contribution to American was undoubtedly the Louisiana Purchase, the discovery of this marvel as a place to nurture young love must rate a close second.

Sunday, February 12

Father of the Founding Fathers

Cotton Mather was born on this day in 1663. He lapsed into a coma and died exactly 65 years later in 1728. He was the scion of a rich heritage that helped to shape American civilization in remarkable ways. His grandfather, Richard Mather, brought the family to the American colonies in 1635 after a distinguished career as a Puritan minister in England. There he became a vital member of the leadership of Boston--both through his articulate pulpit manner and through production of the Bay Psalm Book--the first book produced in America.

Richard’s son, Increase Mather, was likewise an influential pastor, educator, and author. He earned America's first Doctor of Divinity degree. He also served as president of Harvard and as a diplomat for the Massachusetts Bay Colony helping to renegotiate the colonial charter at the court of King Charles II following the restoration of the monarchy.

But the greatest of all the Mathers was Increase’s son, Cotton. Like his father and grandfather, he was an influential pastor, statesman, and author. Indeed, he ultimately proved to be the most prolific author in American history--nearly 450 of his very substantial works were printed in his lifetime, including books on an astonishing variety of subjects from theology and philosophy to natural science and history.

He left his mark in virtually every arena of human endeavor. So profound was his influence, in fact, that George Washington later called him the “Father of the Founding Fathers.”

Wednesday, February 8

Tullahoma Worldview Conference

The doggedly persistent and increasingly violent protests over the past two weeks in the Muslim East over obscure cartoons published in the Secular West have raised anew deep concerns about the rising tide of Islamic ji’had. Just consider the math:

Even if only 1 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims were to end up being seduced by the global call to ji’had preached by the likes of Osama Ben Ladin, Western governments and moderate Muslim regimes would still have to deal with some 12 million ji’hadists dispersed throughout more than 60 countries. And if only 1 percent of these 12 million were to actually commit themselves to “martyrdom operations,” the West would still have to deal, over the course of the next generation at least, with some 120,000 suicide bombers.

These are sobering figures. And they are not the least bit theoretical--this is in fact, the new reality of life in this poor fallen world of ours.

This coming weekend, I will be discussing this and much, much more at a worldview conference hosted by the Covenant Presbyterian Church in Tullahoma, Tennessee. I will lecture four times on a Biblical response to such perilous times. In addition, we will have several question-and-answer sessions with plenty of opportunity for good interaction. I am praying that this will be a rich and challenging weekend for the good folks at Covenant, in Tullahoma, and throughout the surrounding area.

Monday, February 6

Calvin's Geneva

For nearly a quarter century, John Calvin had led the Swiss city of Geneva with tireless devotion. In the process he not only brought the city to a place of great prominence and prosperity, he had planted the seeds of our modern democratic freedoms, our representative governing institutions, our free and open economic markets. In addition, he expounded a winsome and practical perspective of the Reformation doctrines of grace.

On this day in 1564, the man who had done most to stamp his intellect on the Reformation, on Western Civilization, and on the modern world, preached his last sermon. Unable to walk, he was carried to church in a chair. Just a month later, he succumbed to illness and died.

When he first came to Geneva in July 1536, he intended to spend just one night. He had just recently published the first edition of his magisterial work of systematic theology, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. In Paris, he had received a fine classical education—in preparation for a career in either the church or in law. As a result, he had a highly developed and disciplined mind.

William Farel, who was the leader of the Protestant movement in the city of Geneva at the time—and one of the most prominent evangelists and preachers anywhere in Europe—saw in Calvin the gifts and callings necessary to take Reformation to the next necessary stage of development. He attempted to persuade Calvin to stay. But the young man resisted his pleas. The city was not ready, he argued, for authentic and consistent reform. It seemed to him that sin ran rampant through its streets, day and night. Farel would not take “no” for an answer—he fulminated with warnings as if from the Lord. In the end, Calvin finally relented. Thus began an odd partnership between the fiery Farel and the scholarly Calvin.

Alas, it quickly became apparent that Calvin was right about the condition of the city. Within a year the two reformers were expelled from the city. When given the news, Calvin calmly replied, "If we had sought to please men, we should have been badly rewarded, but we serve a higher Master, who will not withhold from us our reward." He settled into a much quieter life as the pastor at nearby Strassburg.

But the citizens of Geneva eventually had a change of heart. Calvin and Farel were invited back. At first, Calvin again resisted, knowing that years of fierce opposition lay before him if he accepted. But he was once again compelled by conscience—and by Farel’s tenacity—to return. And thus began the remarkable transformation of the city into a beacon light of freedom, virtue, and faithfulness that shaped the world in ways that millions—who may never have heard of the name of Calvin—enjoy to this day.

Saturday, February 4

Bloody Mary’s Reign of Terror

Early in the morning on this day in 1555, John Rogers was burned at the stake in the center of London. He was the first martyr during the malevolent reign of Queen Mary Tudor—and thus, his was the opening chapter of that torturous period immortalized in the remarkable chronicle, Foxes Book of Martyrs.

Roger's scholarly youth certainly did not suggest his cruel fate. Born in 1500, he was educated at Cambridge, becoming a Master of the university. Afterward, he surrendered to a call to the ministry and became an orthodox catholic priest. He served first in the great commercial center of Antwerp where he ministered to English merchants. It was at that time that he befriended the reformer William Tyndale who was at that time working on his translation of the Bible into English. Their friendship ultimately led Rogers to convert to Protestantism. In short order, Tyndale suffered martyrdom and Rogers returned to England to pastor a small Reformed congregation.

Determined to see Tyndale's work into print, Rogers obtained a license to print a full English language Bible. Utilizing the text Tyndale completed—the entire New Testament and half the Old—as well as Miles Coverdale’s emendations, Rogers set the work to type and added his own interpolary notes. The work constituted not only the first English language Bible but also the first English language commentary on the Bible. Fully cognizant of Tyndale's fate, Rogers cautiously printed the work under the pseudonym Thomas Matthews. To this day it is known as the Matthews Bible. Later it became the basis of the Bishop's Bible and through it of the Authorized Version of 1611.

Eventually, the official acceptance of Protestantism in England under Henry VIII and Edward VI brought Rogers new prominence. He was awarded high church positions and he preached the doctrines of grace with great fervor and effect. But when sickly Edward VI died, his bitter half-sister Mary, ascended the throne. A staunchly fanatical Roman Catholic, she was determined to stamp out Protestantism altogether. Three days after she entered London, Rogers preached a message urging his congregation to remain faithful to the doctrines they had been taught. For this sermon he was questioned and placed under house arrest. A few weeks later he was transferred to the notorious Newgate prison where he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death.

Rogers begged to be allowed to speak a few words to his wife before his execution. This was denied him—though he did meet her and his eleven children in the street as he was marched—singing psalms all the while—to the site of his execution. At the stake he was offered a pardon if he would only recant and return to Catholicism. He refused, the fire was lit, and so began Bloody Mary’s Reign of Terror.

Thursday, February 2

Candlemas and Groundhog Day

Candlemas is a festival held to celebrate the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem in accordance with Mosaic Law (Leviticus 12:6,7). When Jesus was presented, Simeon took him in his arms and called him "a light to lighten the gentiles" (Luke 2:32). Traditionally, churches in Western Christendom would host a procession of congregants holding candles in commemoration of Christ as the Light of the World.

According to an old bit of Sussex folklore: “If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, Winter will have another flight; But if it be dark with clouds and rain, Winter is gone, and will not come again." This is a much older and really, a more beautiful tradition than our current Groundhog ritual which has, in any case, all but supplanted Candlemas on this day. A real pity, don't you think?

By the way, the forecast here calls for rain--all day long!