Sunday, April 30

Self-Examination As a Check Against Idolatry

The years leading up to the Scottish Disruption and those immediately afterward produced some of the most remarkable servants of God in the history of the church. Andrew Alexander Bonar (1810-1892) was a member of that galaxy of brilliant, Reformed Scots preachers, writers, and missionaries which included his brothers John, James, and Horatius, as well as Robert Murray McCheyne, William Chalmers Burns, John Milne, Alexander Moody Stuart, John Urquhart, Robert Nesbit, Alexander Somerville, Rabbi John Duncan, David Ewart, Alexander Duff, and William Sinclair Mackay. They were bound together by a common cause, in a common time, with a common vision, by a common love.

Together these men came to be known variously as the “Evangelical Prodigies,” the “Chalmers Bejants,” and the “School of the Saints.” Indeed, they would be responsible for an astonishing burst of Gospel energy, productivity, and profundity hardly ever matched before or since.

Bonar was the scion of a prominent and pious Presbyterian family. His parents were people of strong religious conviction, Calvinist in their theology, and keen that their children should grow up to view Christianity from that worldview perspective. But like most of the other members of that esteemed Disruption circle, he was most profoundly influenced by the life, work, and ministry of Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847). He grew up under the shadow of Chalmers, who was indisputably the greatest preacher, theologian, and reformer of the day—and according to Alister McGrath, “the virtual re-founder of Scots Presbyterianism.” He then studied under Chalmers at the University of Edinburgh, followed him through the difficult days of the Ten Years’ Conflict, stood with him during the Disruption, worked with him in the establishment of the Free Church, and continued his legacy in missions and parish renewal.

Bonar’s long and fruitful ministry afterward was remarkable not only for his achievements in writing, hymnody, evangelism, missions organization and support, and pastoral effectiveness, but also for his personal piety and holiness. His great concern to guard against “the idol factory in my heart,” utilizing Calvin’s vivid phrase, was evident at every turn.

His books and sermons were filled with the theme—his Commentary on Leviticus was concerned with little else; his Memoirs of M’Cheyne focused most intently on that issue; his compilation of Rutherford’s Letters brought to light the great divine’s concern for piety far more than one might have expected of the author of Lex Rex; his work on Tyler’s biography of Asahel Nettleton aimed at accenting matters of sanctification; and his preaching would admit little else. He constantly commended the old Puritan and Covenanter discipline of self-examination as an essential check against the persistent and perpetual wiles of idolatry.

How different is the temperament of the modern church. The erosion of the distinctiveness of the Gospel and the subversion of the idea of holiness has wrought an avalanche of decadence. The moral practices of the average Christian today are not discernibly different from the average non-Christian. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist or a social ethicist to figure out: that does not bode well for the church. What we do or don’t do, how we act or don’t act, what we want or don’t want, are all likely to be practically identical to what our unbelieving neighbors do, act, or want. Idolatry is rampant--not just in the wider culture, but also in the church. And we are adamant in refusing to admit as much. Our gaze is steadfastly averted from the golden calves we have been busy erecting everywhere around us.

Perhaps that is why Bonar’s experience seems so remote to us; to our modern ears, his painful self-examination seems overwrought; his fierce denunciations of sins we hardly notice seems wildly exaggerated in light of his disciplined attention to holiness; his alertness to his proclivity to idolatry seems melodramatic, “I lament the sins of coldness and earthliness; wandering in prayer; seeking to benefit others without being benefited myself; something of discontent at little annoyances; chagrin and envy; opportunities lost; sick persons ill-advised; my class of young people too little taught of Christ; and in all my preaching very inadequate setting forth of Christ and the Spirit.” And again, “Tried this morning specially to pray against idols in the sape of my books and studies. These encroach upon my direct communion with God, and need to be watched.” And yet again, “I see myself selfish, hard-hearted, with very little zeal, and still less pity for souls. I easily see awful wants in my ministry and awful omissions. I feel that I am clothed in filthy garments.”

In this day of brazen and unapologetic modernity, we would do well to reacquaint ourselves with such sentiments; we would do well to attune our hearts and ears to the sonorous tones of holiness; we would do well to hear and heed the impassioned message of Bonar to guard against the thrall of idolatry.

Of course, Bonar’s distinctive ministry was not merely rooted in an individualistic vision of pious introspection. For him, personal holiness was the foundation upon which a ministry within the covenant community and without, to the lost, was to be built. Identifying “idols for destruction” in his own life was merely a prelude for him to identify “altars for service unto the lives of others.”

As a result, Bonar came to have a passion for the souls of men. His manse in Collace and the chapel narthex of his parish church in Glasgow were both adorned with the Hebrew script reading, “He that winneth souls is wise.” It was his motto and his mission. It was his mindset and his motivation.

For all his spiritual achievement in the arenas of personal holiness and evangelism, Bonar remained remarkably humble throughout his life. Though he was not insensitive to the gracious appointments of blessing in his life, he was ever more alert to his vices than his virtues; he was all too aware of his idolatrous tendencies over and against his moral victories.

Thus, he would write, “I spent most of this day in reading Dr. Chalmers’ Life in two volumes. In the midst of my reading a man came in to ask me to go with him to settle a quarrel between him and his wife. The Lord does not use me, like his servant Dr. Chalmers, for great things, but my way of serving the Lord is walking three or four miles to quiet a family dispute! The Lord shows me that He wishes me to be one of the common Levites who carry the pins.”

Oh, that the church today had a bevy of such common Levites!

Friday, April 28

Chalmers Conference CD Set

The recordings of our King's Meadow Winter Conference are now available. The six-CD set includes four of the talks I gave on the life and influence of the great Scottish pastor, educator, theologian, and social reformer Thomas Chalmers. Session titles include: An Exemplary Life, Covenantal Succession, Cultural Transformation, and Lessons for Today. Also included are topical discussions by three of my former students (all now in graduate school) who share their experiences in implementing this Parish Life model in ministry, education, and their own lives. A helpful Q&A session wrapping up the conference series brings practical application to this rich vision of a true Parish Life.

You can order this complete set from our King's Meadow Audio site. If you just want the four lectures, you can also order them from our Gileskirk Curriculum site where you will also find a variety of other recorded lectures as well as links to our podcast.

Country Music Marathon

Tomorrow, I hope to run in Nashville's premiere sports extravaganza: the Country Music Marathon. Yep, 26.2 miles with 25,000 of my closest friends! You can retrace some of my preparations for this huge undertaking on my Run Blog site.

Thursday, April 27

Speed Reading

On the Gileskirk curriculum discussion board this past week, a dear, faithful mom asked for suggestions on "speed reading" programs. Apparently, her children were beginning to feel a bit overwhelmed with all the books they had in their "must read" and "assigned-to-read" stacks. I jumped into the discussion with both hands and feet. For whatever it is worth, here is what I wrote:

Of course, I do realize that reading for information sometimes requires skimming and surveying, but I never, ever encourage "speed reading." In fact, one of the books I often recommend to my students is How to Read Slowly by James Sire.

I do this for pretty much the same reason that I don't much care for "speed eating." Food is too wonderful a gift to scarf down. Fast food ought to be reserved for desultory moments like those spent on long distance drives down the interstate. Likewise, reading is too delightful to gobble down words and paragraphs, ideas and images all in a rush.

My recommendation: skim only when studying for your drivers permit or when you're making sure the warranty on your refrigerator is still in effect or when you absolutely, positively have to get that last chapter under your belt before you have to teach Quantum Physics in the morning (yep, the old homeschooling discipline of staying one chapter ahead of the kids).

Otherwise, relish your reading--even if it means going a lot slower and getting a lot less done. Make note of the melody of the phrases. Appreciate the architecture of the page. Close your eyes at the end of each chapter, or better, at the end of each page, and let the joy of discovery soak right through your skin and down to your bones.

Chesteron on Logic

This week I lectured on both the age of the "Enlightenment" and the age of the "Puritans." Quite a study in contrasts. One of the issues that such a juxtaposition raised in my mind was the question of the power of reason, rationality, logic, and knowledge--in other words, the question of epistemology.

As I was pondering such imponderables, my friend, Robbie McBroom, reminded me of G.K. Chesterton's wonderful little essay on the limits of reason published in the London Daily News, Feb 25, 1905. It is quite a profound meditation--especially in light of the Enlightenment-Puritan contradistinction:

"Logic and truth, as a matter of fact, have very little to do with each other. Logic is concerned merely with the fidelity and accuracy with which a certain process is performed, a process which can be performed with any materials, with any assumption. You can be as logical about griffins and basilisks as about sheep and pigs. On the assumption that a man has two ears, it is good logic that three men have six ears, but on the assumption that a man has four ears, it is equally good logic that three men have twelve. And the power of seeing how many ears the average man, as a fact, possesses, the power of counting a gentleman's ears accurately and without mathematical confusion, is not a logical thing but a primary and direct experience, like a physical sense, like a religious vision. The power of counting ears may be limited by a blow on the head; it may be disturbed and even augmented by two bottles of champagne; but it cannot be affected by argument."

"Logic has again and again been expended, and expended most brilliantly and effectively, on things that do not exist at all. There is far more logic, more sustained consistency of the mind, in the science of heraldry than in the science of biology. There is more logic in
Alice in Wonderland than in the Statute Book or the Blue Books."

"The relations of logic to truth depend, then, not upon its perfection as logic, but upon certain pre-logical faculties and certain pre-logical discoveries, upon the possession of those faculties, upon the power of making those discoveries. If a man starts with certain assumptions, he may be a good logician and a good citizen, a wise man, a successful figure. If he starts with certain other assumptions, he may be an equally good logician and a bankrupt, a criminal, a raving lunatic. Logic, then, is not necessarily an instrument for finding truth; on the contrary, truth is necessarily an instrument for using logic—for using it, that is, for the discovery of further truth and for the profit of humanity."

"Briefly, you can only find truth with logic if you have already found truth without it."

Tuesday, April 25

Distinctives of a Biblical Church

According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the church has been entrusted with “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world.” According to the Four Articles of Prague, the church is to be “marked by an unfettered commitment to the primacy of the Holy Scriptures, the centrality of the sacramental means of grace in the worship of God, the integrity of pastoral ministry, and the practicality of discipling discipline in the Body.” Similarly, the Three Forms of Unity, The Augsburg Confession, and a host of other historical documents in the life of the church have distilled the Biblical calling of local congregations to these basics:

1. Word and Sacrament: worshiping God in Spirit and in Truth
2. Covenantal Discipleship: equipping the saints for the work of service
3. Pastoral Oversight: the care of souls in holiness, integrity, and accountability
4. Evangelistic Outreach: word and deed, love and vision, beauty and goodness

In order to faithfully carry out these stewardships wisely, the mission of the church has typically been organized in Reformed congregations around what Francis Schaeffer called Two Contents and Two Realities.

The first content is “sound doctrine.” The church must teach it, exhort it, nurture it, and highlight it in all that it does in both its evangelism and its discipleship, from its worship to its societal presence. It must be a community where the Word of God is systematically taught, prayed, sung, obeyed, modeled, and portrayed in every discipline at all times. Families must be nurtured in the Word. Men must become stalwarts of the Word. Ladies must be adorned by the Word. Relationships must be shaped by the Word.

The second content is “honest answers to honest questions.” The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) and the Cultural Mandate (Genesis 1:28) are the church’s highest priorities in mission to the world. They must be carried out, perpetrated, and perpetuated in gentleness, openness, kindness, and helpfulness. Word must be matched in deed.

The first reality is “true spirituality.” Holiness, godliness, and spiritual discipline must be the distinctive marks of the true church. Thus, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and fixedness in the Word should be just as evident in the lives of the members as fervent evangelism and glorious worship. The majesty of God and the fear of the Lord must be evident in every ministry, every program, every effort, and every conversation.

The second reality is the “beauty of human relationships.” Within the church there should be abundant evidence of true koinonia. Covenantal care, covenantal succession, covenantal marriage, covenantal love, covenantal mercy, covenantal justice, and covenantal vision must define this “peculiar people” who are in but not of the world. At the same time, relations between the church and the wider community should show forth selfless service crafted in tenderness, empathy, excellence, intelligence, and glory.

Two Contents and Two Realities: “sound doctrine,” “honest answers to honest questions,” “true spirituality,” and the “beauty of human relationships.”

While almost any church may reflect individual aspects of each of these dimensions of the Christian mission, a “Reformed, Ever-Reforming” congregation will mature toward balancing and integrating all of them together (Micah 6:8) so that the beauty, goodness and truth of the Gospel looms ever larger in the hearts and minds of the families and individuals yoked together in it.

Clearly, every Christian is uniquely gifted to serve in the dispersal of grace and mercy to the whole of culture (1 Peter 4:10). Each member of the church is in fact, necessary for the proper and effectual functioning of that work (1 Corinthians 12:4-11). That is why it is so crucial that believers be properly trained and equipped for the tasks at hand within Christendom’s brilliant ethos of creativity (Ephesians 4:11-14). Thus, the church’s vision will necessarily be rooted in four basic principles:

1. The church is graciously commissioned by Christ to exercise a merciful discipling influence in the whole of culture (Isaiah 58; Matthew 25; and James 2).
2. It is the task of mature Christians in every vocation to train others around them—especially the coming generations—to do good works and to fulfill their unique callings with beauty, integrity, and passion (Ephesians 2; Titus 2).
3. A vision for a compassionate and comprehensive Word and Deed worldview of cultural endeavor is more caught than taught (Luke 4; 2 Corinthians 1).
4. It is more important to equip others as we fulfill our own callings—following a discipleship model—than it is to attempt good deeds in isolation, however splendid (Luke 22; 2 Timothy 2).

Thus will the church be enabled to do what God wants it to do as well as to be what God wants it to be.

Monday, April 24

DaVinci Phenomena

This past week I spoke in an informal faculty meeting about the DaVinci Code book and movie phenomena. I dealt with some of the basic issues of their lack of historicity as well as the implications and opportunities they present to the church. You can download the free lecture at the Gileskirk Curriculum Audio site.

Sunday, April 23

St. George's Day

Today is St. George's Day. The patron saint of England, Lybia, and Lebanon, George was a soldier who rose through the ranks of the Roman imperial army. At the height of his rank and influence, he confronted the Emperor Dioclesian concerning his harshness and bloody commands. For his candor and courage, George was immediately imprisoned and was soon after beheaded. The legend of George is centered around his slaying of the dragon that had demanded the children of the town of Sylene in Libya. George wounded the dragon and led him back into the town where he proclaimed that he would kill the dragon if the people of the city would covert to Christianity and be baptized. 15,000 citizens were baptized, including the local king.

Saturday, April 22

The Council of Constance

The Council of Constance was convened on this day in 1414. For 33 years Christendom had suffered schism. Popes in Rome and popes in Avignon claimed to be the legitimate successors of Peter. As a result, confusion reigned and corruption was unchecked. There seemed to be no hope of resolving the conflicts that created the schism in the first place. An earlier council held at Pisa to end the schism, only worsened the problem. It actually created a third pope.

The Constance conclave got off to an equally rocky start. Jan Hus, the brilliant theology professor from Prague who had stirred the fires of revival by calling for substantive, Biblical reform in the church, voluntarily appeared before the bishops. His purpose was to persuade them to legitimize his burgeoning Bohemian reform movement. Although he arrived under promise of "safe conduct," he was seized and imprisoned by the Bishop of Constance.

Told he must recant, Hus resolutely refused. After a mock trial he was summarily declared a heretic. That same day, they had him burned at the stake. Since his teachings were influenced by the work of John Wycliffe, the council also condemned Wycliffe, ordering his bones dug up and burnt. Both the English and Bohemian representatives left in enraged protest.

Still, the council dragged on. After four more years of contentious deliberations, the convened bishops finally tried to deal with the issue that had brought them together in the first place. Because they were unable to sort through the conflicting claims of the three rival popes, they did the only thing they could—they removed all three and appointed a fourth. The compromise ultimately did little to heal the wounds of the church and the council adjourned amidst fearful talk of worse, perhaps even permanent schisms, yet to come.

Thursday, April 20

Winners and Losers

Dan Brown, author of the blockbuster novel, The DaVinci Code, boldly asserts that, "History is always written by the winners." It is the sort of untrue truism for which his book, chock-a-block as it is with historical howlers, gaffes, and conspiratorial gumbahs, has become all-too notorious. The fact is, history is often written by the losers. Witness Thucydides, Augustine, Bolryn, Eusebius, or Bede--all progenitors of the art of history, all indispensible to our understanding of history, and all living in perilous times on the losing side of some great conflict.

The first installment of Plutarch’s famous Lives was published on this day in the year 118. He came to his vocation rather late in life, during the reigns of Trajan and Hadrian. And he, like so many other historians before him, was a man living on the wrong side of an imperial conquest that subsumed his land, his people, and his culture.

He was a Greek pagan at the time of Roman and Christian ascendency.

Greece, of course, had lost by this time the last vestiges of her independence. Her population had fallen precipitously since the days of her glory—the riches of Rome and the Asian provinces had not only attracted her most able administrators but also her most capable laborers. Thus, materially, culturally, and politically Plutarch’s homeland was is decline. Though he could do little to arrest this trend, he felt obliged to put it into perspective. And that he did quite ingeniously in the Lives.

At the same time, the Roman Empire was in its most stable and vibrant stage. The economy was prosperous. The military was invincible. And the culture was vibrant. Education, the arts, and the sciences were all flourishing. Despite the decrepit paganism of the day, there was a degree of personal freedom unprecedented in all of history.

But the most significant feature of the age was the sudden emergence of Christianity as a major societal force. Although Plutarch does not deal with Christianity directly, it is clear that he was attempting to revive interest in the very best of ancient paganism. In the face of the moral challenge that Christian evangelism posed to the ancien regime he wanted to reignite the moral vitality of classicism. Thus, we see in the Lives the last great gasping apologetic for Greco-Roman civilization on the threshold of an ascendant Christendom.

When later writers, thinkers, and social activists would appeal to the classical age for reforms in their own time, they would picture its ideals as seen through Plutarch’s rose colored glasses. This is why the American founders could remain so enamored with ancient mores—despite their unhesitating commitment to Christian truth, the founders' comprehension of the pagan essence of Greece and Rome was myopically obscured by Plutarch.

Thus, there are times when losers actually have more impact than winners in the writing of history.

Wednesday, April 19


On this day in 1526, the citizens of Strasburg, Nuremburg, Ulm, and nine other cities with the support of a few electors and princes, officially protested a decree of religious repression from the Hapsburg Imperial Diet. They petitioned the emperor, Charles V, to both revoke what the assembly of the German states had ordered as well as to issue a decree of toleration--in order to protect and promote fledgling Lutheran congregations. These reformers of both church and society were thus first given the name "Protestants."

Monday, April 17

The Divine Source of Liberty

Samuel Adams was one of the firebrands of the Revolution. The founder of the Committees of Correspondence and the Sons of Liberty, he challenged the authority of the English in violating the common law tradition in the colonies and eventually led the armed resistance to the King’s tyranny following the Boston Massacre. In this widely circulated verse, he detailed the standards for the American demand for freedom--a good reminder still, on this Patriots Day:

All temporal power is of God,
And the magistratal, His institution, laud,
To but advance creaturely happiness aubaud:
Let us then affirm the Source of Liberty.

Ever agreeable to the nature and will,
Of the Supreme and Guardian of all yet still
Employed for our rights and freedom's thrill:
Thus proves the only Source of Liberty.

Though our civil joy is surely expressed
Through hearth, and home, and church manifest,
Yet this too shall be a nation's true test:
To acknowledge the divine Source of Liberty.

Sunday, April 16

Patriots Day

Tomorrow is Patriots Day. A beloved holiday in New England--celebrated with spring cookouts, Red Sox games, and of course, the Boston Marathon--it commemorates the famed ride of Paul Revere in 1775, warning patriots as far as Lexington and Concord that British troops were on the march. One of America’s foremost poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow set this story, one of the most legendary in all the Founding era, to verse and thus immortalized it. The epic poem immediately became a popular anthem celebrating both the great valor of the Revolutionaries but also the great virtue of the Revolutionary cause:

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, “If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,
One, if by land, and two, if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm.”

Then he said, “Good night!” and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend, through alley and street,
Wanders and watches with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry-chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town,
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night-encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel’s tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, “All is well!”
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide, like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse’s side,
Now gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle-girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry-tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry’s height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns!

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet:
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night,
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.

He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock,
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer’s dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, blank and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.

It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadows brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket-ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read,
How the British Regulars fired and fled,
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farm-yard wall,
Chasing the red-coats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,—
A cry of defiance and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo forevermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

Friday, April 14


Although the campaign for president in 1888 was quite heated, the Republican candidate remained remarkably calm throughout the long ordeal. The grandson of a former president, Benjamin Harrison knew only too well the ebb-and-flow of politics and popular opinion, and simply refused to allow the process to disrupt his emotional equilibrium.

On election night his chief interest seemed to be in the polling results of his own state of Indiana. When the numbers there were safely announced in the Republican column, just after ten, he went to bed. The following morning a friend, having called to congratulate him late the night before, asked why he had retired so early. The president-elect explained, "I knew that my staying up would not alter the result if I were defeated, while if I was elected I had a hard day in front of me. So a good night's rest seemed the best course in either event."

Later he added, by way of explanation, "A fellow who fails to take into account the divine is bound to miss a good deal of sleep unnecessarily--it can help but little. Our charge is simply to render our services aright and leave the results to providence."

Harrison could sleep peacefully because he knew that God ordains civil government--it is a sacred institution and an honorable and holy vocational field--and thus those who serve in that arena are ministers under the hand of providence. He knew that he was merely in the service of God's good purposes in the world and so to worry or fret was not only utterly futile, it was utterly faithless.

Monday, April 10

Little Things

Little things matter. Sometimes, they matter a great deal. Even subtle differences in vocabulary can mean this difference between tremendous truth and egregious error. This was all too evident during the swirling Christological conflicts of the fourth and fifth centuries.

Nestorius was consecrated bishop of Constantinople on this day in 428. Although there was little indication of it at the time, it was eventually to prove to be a momentous occasion. A firm opponent of the Arian heresy, he nevertheless, fell into an almost equal and opposite error.

The Arians taught that Christ was a created being. To refute this and other points, Nestorius argued that at the incarnation, the divine nature joined with the human merely as a man might enter a tent or put on his clothing. Instead of depicting Christ as one person with two natures, Nestorius saw him as a conjunction of two natures so distinct as to be different persons who had merged.

Thus, Nestorius refused to call Mary the Theotokos, literally, the "God-Bearer" or "Mother of God." Her baby was very human, he said. The human acts and sufferings of Jesus were in fact, of his human nature and not of his divine nature. He was concerned that to say Mary was "Mother of God" was to say God had once been just a few hours old. "God is not now nor has He ever been a baby," he argued. He never actually denied that Christ was divine. On the contrary, he asserted, it was to protect the doctrine His divinity that he argued as he did--lest it be lost in worship of the human child. Instead, he was just attempting to be "accurate and precise in the use of doctrinal vocabulary."

But Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, condemned Nestorius’ position on the incarnation as heresy by issuing twelve anathemas against his views. Nestorius responded in kind. The two men proved to be fierce antagonists. There was no chance of reconciliation. Pastors and theologians from across the Christian world began choosing sides. A fierce battle of words imperiled Christian unity--and orthodoxy. Emperor Theodosius II called a council in 433 to settle the question. Working quickly, Cyril deposed Nestorius before his Syrian supporters could reach the council site. Rome backed Cyril's move and Nestorius was stripped of his position and exiled.

But the followers of Nestorius did not easily yield. In regions controlled by Persia they formed their own church. It was a strong body which evangelized eastward as far as China. Nestorian churches appeared in Arabia, India, Tibet, Malabar, Turkostan and Cyprus. Many exist to this day, especially in modern-day Iraq.

Ultimately, the orthodox churches created a formula to describe Christ's person at yet another council, this one in the city of Chalcedon, in 451. The assembled bishops declared Christ was two natures in one person. "We all with one voice confess our Lord Jesus Christ one and the same Son, at once complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, of one substance with us as regards his manhood, like us in all things, apart from sin."

Many historians and theologians ever since have argued convincingly that it was the adherence to this Chalcedonian formula that established Christendom's uniquely balanced worldview and set the West on course to ultimately build the greatest civilization of freedom, opportunity, and prosperity the world had ever known.

Sometimes, it really is the little things that matter.

Saturday, April 8

Pasqua Florida

On this day in 1513, Ponce de Leon named his new discovery, Florida, near the present site of St. Augustine. The Castilian explorer chose that name in recognition of the fact that he made the discovery near the time of the Easter feast: Pasqua Florida.

Thomas Boston

Born in 1676 in the obscure village of Duns, Berwickshire, Thomas Boston died on this day in 1732 in the equally obscure parish of Ettrick in the Scottish Borders. But his 56 years of life, 45 of them spent in conscious Christian discipleship, lend credibility to the spiritual principle that it is not where a Christian serves, but what quality of service he renders, that really counts.

Graduating with a degree in the classical arts from Edinburgh University, Boston was able to afford only one session of theological training. He then underwent a rigorous self-guided study program completing all his studies extramurally. With arduous discipline, sustained by only a meager library, his autodidactic studies earned him a widespread reputation. Indeed, as a Hebrew scholar he was, according to the renowned linguist George Morrison, “welcomed as an equal by the finest Hebrew scholars in the world.” As a theologian, Jonathan Edwards wrote that he was “a truly great divine.”

But it was as a loving, faithful, rigorously self-disciplined Christian pastor, and one deeply committed to the grace of God, that Boston was best remembered. Leaving his first charge at Simprin, where he served 1699-1707, he settled in Ettrick for a 25-year ministry that saw the numbers of communicants rise from a mere 60 in 1710 to nearly 800 in 1731.

Constantly burdened for his congregation, Boston taught them in season and out of season, in pulpit and at home. Burdened for the truth of the Gospel, he overcame all natural timidity to engage in confronting heretical doctrine and dealing with the critical cultural issues of the day. Though he was a quiet man, by all accounts he became a roaring lion in the pulpit. According to James Heatherton, “There was a grip in it that no preacher wins who is a stranger to his own heart.”

He was thus counted as one of the most powerful and effective ministers of his day—and this despite the fact that he labored for Christ in an obscure, out of the way place all his life, never desiring for anything more. According to Thomas Chalmers, “He so understood the covenant that he found his greatest reward amongst those who knew him best; so he never desired to leave them.”

Friday, April 7

Isaiah 58

The first complete performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis was held in St. Petersburg on this day in 1824. Beethoven considered this work to be his most accomplished composition. During the writing of this monumental work, he wrote in his notebooks: “God above all things! For it is an eternal providence which directs omnisciently the good and evil fortunes of human men…Tranquilly will I submit myself to all vicissitudes and place my safe confidence in Thine unalterable goodness. O God! Be my rock, my life, forever my trust.”

Unfortunately, the Missa Solemnis is less an act of humility by a devout believer and more of a display of defiant pride by one who feels divinity within the creative process of the human spirit. It is a example of that man-centered, man-flattering religiosity so roundly condemned in Isaiah 58—brilliant, accomplished, creative, passionate, sensual, articulate, intellectual, and temporarily satisfying but nevertheless devoid of true spirituality.

Wednesday, April 5


First there were Hippies and Yippies. Then there were Yuppies and Preppies. Along came GenXers and and BoBos. Now, here come the Grups. Never heard of them? Don't look now: you might even be one. At the very least, you know some of them and are called to minister to them. Regardless, you need to read Adam Sternbergh's article in the New York Magazine to learn all about this remarkable sociological and cultural phenomenon.

Booker T

The centerpiece of the Tuskegee University campus in southern Alabama is the Booker T. Washington monument. Upon a grand classical pedestal stands a remarkable bronze statue sculpted by Charles Keck in 1922. Washington himself is portrayed—stately, dignified, and venerable—standing with his eyes set upon the horizon while one hand is extended toward the future. With the other hand he is resolutely pulling back a thick veil—presumably the smothering cloak of Strabo—from the brow of a young man seated at his side. The man, is obviously poor—he is only half-clothed, in stark contrast to the dapper presence of Washington—and is sitting upon the symbols of his labor, an anvil and a plow. But he too is gazing off into the distance while he grasps a massive academic textbook upon his knee. The inscription beneath this arresting image asserts, “He lifted the veil of ignorance from his people and pointed the way to progress through education and industry.

The monument is a perfect tribute to the man. While his life—the long and difficult journey up from the obscurity of slavery to the heights of national influence and renown—is a remarkable testimony of individual achievement and personal sacrifice, the greatest legacy of Booker T. Washington was not what he accomplished himself, but what he helped thousands of others accomplish—both black and white.

He was born on this day in 1856, on a small tobacco plantation in the back country of Franklin County, Virginia. His nine years in slavery were spent in abject poverty. And even after emancipation, his family faced a grim hardscrabble existence.

When he was sixteen, he gained admittance to the famed Hampton Institute—one of the first schools established for former slaves. Though he was worked full-time as a janitor in order to pay his tuition, he graduated with honors in a mere three years. Upon graduation, he returned to his family and taught in the local grammar school. Before long though, his mentor at Hampton beckoned him to return to that institution where he became an instructor and assistant to the president. Shortly afterward, the state of Alabama contacted the school about the possibility of establishing a similar college there. Washington was recommended for the job. Thus, on July 4, 1881, at the age of twenty-five, Washington founded Tuskegee.

The obstacles facing him were enormous. There was no money, no faculty, no campus, no land, and no student body. Indeed, there was nothing except the resolution of the state to launch the school and the determination of Booker T. Washington to raise up a whole new generation of leaders from the rubble of the South and the legacy of slavery. Nevertheless, before his death in 1915, Tuskegee had grown to encompass a 2,000 acre campus of 107 buildings with more than 1,500 students and nearly 200 faculty members. As a result of his efforts, Washington became a celebrity and the first great leader for civil rights for all Americans.

Tuesday, April 4

While You're Sleeping

While you’re sleeping tonight there will be an occurrence of historic proportions. At two minutes and three seconds after 1:00 in the morning, the time and date will be 01:02:03 04/05/06. Cool, huh?

Monday, April 3

Philosophy Teaching by Example

Separating fact from fiction, exactitude from nostalgia, and actuality from myth in early American history is often more than a little difficult. Though it is perhaps unwise to have anything like an idealized perception of that great epoch, nevertheless it is difficult to dismiss the breadth and depth of the fledgling colonial culture and by the substantive character of the people who populated it. Living in a day when genuine heroes are few and far between—at best—those pioneers and the times they vivified provide a startling contrast.

The fact is colonial America produced an extraordinary number of prodigiously gifted men. From William Byrd and George Wythe to Peyton Randolph and Patrick Henry, from Samuel Adams and John Hancock to Benjamin Franklin and George Washington the legacy of the seventeenth-century's native-born geniuses remains unmatched. Their accomplishments—literary, scientific, economic, political, and cultural—are staggering to consider. According to historian Paul Johnson, "Never before has one place and one time given rise to so many great men."

There are very few things that modern historians can agree on. But when it comes to God and His heroes, there is sudden consensus. The long-held notion that history is His story is fiercely resisted in our day. The once dominant view that history is not merely the record of what happened in the past but that it is a kind of moral philosophy worked out by great men and women of vision has been replaced by the odd assertions and assumptions by a handful of experts. It is too easy for us to forget—or to try to ignore—the fact that the doings of man are on the knees of an inscrutable and sovereign God. It is too easy for us to forget that the record of the ages is actually philosophy teaching by example.

Sunday, April 2

Better Late Than Never

The only Founding Father who in 1776 was not in favor of independence, William Johnson (1727-1819) grew into a strong supporter of the new nation. He helped draft the Constitution, signed it, and stoutly defended it at the Connecticut Ratification Convention.

Although he attended the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and served as a special agent for Connecticut in England, Johnson during these years was firmly convinced that the colonies and Great Britain would settle their differences. His stay in London, where he associated with Dr. Samuel Johnson, the great critic and lexicographer, and other notables, undoubtedly strengthened his ties with England, although in London he worked closely with Benjamin Franklin, then agent for Pennsylvania and other colonies, in representing colonial interests. And he supported the American policy of non-importation of British goods as a protest against the Townshend Acts. After returning, Johnson was elected to serve in the first Continental Congress, but since he was against the idea of independence, he declined the position. Still devoted to the idea of a peaceful settlement, in 1775 he visited the British commander, General Thomas Gage, in Boston—sent by the Connecticut legislature. His mission was unsuccessful, and he was for a time held by patriots there. He resigned from the Connecticut legislature, and from 1777 to 1779 his refusal to support independence cost him his law practice—which the State permitted him to resume after he swore allegiance to Connecticut.

Despite his tardy adoption of the cause of independence, Johnson was an influential member of the Congress of Confederation. At the Constitutional Convention Johnson, a soft-spoken but effective speaker, helped defend and explain the “Connecticut Compromise,” the proposal for representing the States in the Senate and the people in the House of Representatives that was finally adopted—to settle the dispute between the large and small States.

The scholarly Johnson, who was one of the colonies’ leading classicists and who was then serving as president of Columbia College, was chairman of the committee on style that produced the final version of the Constitution—though Gouverneur Morris wrote most of it. He eloquently defended the Constitution at the Connecticut Ratification Convention, and, after ratification, his state selected him to serve as one of the men to sit in the newly formed Senate on this day in 1791.