Saturday, December 29

Thank You Notes

Are thank you notes the "last bastion" in an epidemic of discourtesy? This fascinating article in the London Times by Valarie Grove quotes everyone from St. Ambrose to Emily Post, from The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy to the Von Trapp Family Singers. I love it--even though I've not finished writing my thank you notes yet either.

Tuesday, December 25

Merry Christmas

Christians have celebrated the incarnation and nativity of the Lord Jesus on December 25 since at least the early part of the third century—just a few generations removed the days of the Apostles. By 336, when the Philocalian Calendar—one of the earliest documents of the Patriarchal church—was first utilized, Christmas Day was already a venerable and tenured tradition. Though there is no historical evidence that Christ was actually born on this day—indeed, whatever evidence there is points to altogether different occasions—the conversion of the old Pagan tribes of Europe left a gaping void where the ancient winter cult festivals were once held. It was both culturally convenient and evangelically expedient to exchange the one for the other.

And so joy replaced desperation. Celebration replaced propitiation. Christmas Feasts replaced new Moon sacrifices. Christ replaced Baal, Molech, Apollo, and Thor. In other words, it wasn’t that the new Christian calendar was an accommodation to the old Pagan calendar, it was that Christ had begun the process of converting the culture. Glad tidings of great joy, indeed.

Monday, December 24

Yet: O Glorious Yet

This day,
In sadness borne,
We must confess:
The Spirit of the Age
Has crushed
The infant in the cradle.

And yet:
O glorious yet,
One day, in gladness shown,
We must profess:
The infant from the manger
Has crushed
The Spirit of the Age.

Tristan Gylberd (1954-)

Saturday, December 22

Christmas Gifts

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

Thus, gift giving was originally conceived as an act of covenant renewal and commitment. It was intended as a simple but beautiful expression of a Christo-centric worldview. Joyeux Noel.

Thursday, December 20

Not for Fashion

The fad has passed. The fashion has dulled. But cancer continues to harry us. I wear the yellow LiveStrong band to remind me to pray for Kay. I wear the red St. Jude Hospital band to remind me to pray for Charlotte. I wear them both together with thanksgiving for the faithfulness, courage, and testimony of all those who suffer the adversity of illness and pain, yet not as those who have no hope.


It's a Wonderful Life was shown in a charity preview at New York's Globe Theatre the day before its official premier on this day in 1946. The film was directed by Frank Capra and starred Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore. It became an instant holiday hit.

Based on the story The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern, it focused on a man who believed he was a failure in life--all because he never left the small town where he grew up. George Bailey, ran his family's small-town savings and loan, something he swore as a child he’d never do. George, a decent and good man who served his town well, struggled to make ends meet at a job he never really loved. When disaster strikes, Bailey decides to commit suicide. But then, in a Christmas Carol-like twist of fate, an angel named Clarence helps George see what life would have been like in the town if he had never been born. In the process, he rediscovers all the things that matter most--and realizes that he has actually had them all along.

The film's emotional ending, vindicating the values of hard-work, community, faithfulness, service, loyalty, friendship, faith, family, and true love, is an undoubted classic.

It's a Wonderful Life was reportedly the favorite work of both actor Stewart and director Capra from their long and illustrious careers. And, as you might have guessed, it is one of my all-time favorite films as well--holiday or otherwise.

A Wonderful Trailer

Tuesday, December 18


Bierce's Franklin

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Ambrose Bierce, formerly a student of Architecture, History, and Latin at the Kentucky Military Institute, had aimlessly drifted into itinerant life as a waiter and day-laborer. Out of sheer boredom he enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Infantry and for the next four years he was anything but bored as he was thrown into the maelstrom of the terrible battles of Shiloh, Picketts’s Mill, Chickamunga, and Franklin.

The experience provoked him to begin keeping a journal—and ultimately those battlefield musings became the basis for some of his greatest literary works including “The Crime at Pickett’s Mill” (1888), “A Son of the Gods” (1888), “The Coup de GrĂ¢ce” (1889), “Chickamauga” (1889), “The Affair at Coulter’s Notch” (1889), “Parker Adderson, Philosopher and Wit” (1891), “A Horseman in the Sky” (1891), “Two Military Executions” (1906), and his hauntingly provocative short story, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1890). In 1891 his collection Tales of Soldiers and Civilians was published gathering all these works together in a single volume.

Bierce went on to become one of the great iconic writers of the day, standing shoulder to shoulder with Mark Twain, Henry Adams, and Stephen Crane.

My friend Bing Davis recently drew my attention to a previously uncollected Bierce journal entry from his years as a soldier. His eyewitness reminiscences of the Battle of Franklin tell the story of the five bloodiest hours of the entire war on November 30, 1864. With economy, irony, and cinematic clarity the short piece, What Occurred at Franklin, already shows the young writer’s promise and affords a rare glimpse into one of the most tragic engagements in all of American history.

The Terms of the Debate

On this day in 1979, Francis Schaeffer gave an historic speech which would form the basis of his landmark book A Christian Manifesto. He asserted that "the basic problem with Christians in this country" over the last two generations or more has been that "they have seen things in bits and pieces instead of totals." The result has been a kind of hesitant hit-or-miss approach to the dire dilemmas of our day: "They have very gradually become disturbed over permissiveness, pornography, the public schools, the breakdown of the family, and finally abortion. But they have not seen this as a totality--each thing being a part, a symptom, of a much larger problem."

Of course, the issue of worldview had been prominent in modern theological discussions ever since the work of Abraham Kuyper made it the centerpiece of the debate between Revolutionary Enlightenment Modernity and Reformational Biblical Christianity a century earlier. But by raising the issue when he did and how he did, Francis Schaeffer altogether altered the terms of the cultural debate in America and ushered in a new wave of reform by making it the everyday parlance of Evangelicalism.

Saturday, December 15

Amending the Constitution

Because of fierce opposition to the adoption of the newly drafted Constitution by the anti-federalists, several of the independent American states proposed amending the document to better protect the states as well as individuals from the incursions of the centralized federal government. Thus these ten new planks were drafted, debated, and eventually adopted. They became the first ten amendments to the Constitution—finally ratified on this day in 1791. Ultimately, this Bill of Rights, as the amendments came to be known, proved to be among the greatest cornerstones of American liberty.

The preamble—often edited out of school book copies of the Bill of Rights—laid out the purposes of the amendments as well as the character of the fledgling federal union, “The conventions of a number of states having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: and as extending the ground of public confidence in the government, will best insure the beneficent ends of its institution.”

The first of the amendments, quite contrary to modern interpretations, clearly prohibited the new federal government from restricting religion in any way shape or form, as well as providing for free speech and expression, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

The second of the amendments clearly expresses the need for citizens to be able to defend themselves against the incursions of oppressors—including those that might come from the government itself, “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”

The third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth amendments secured legal rights for the citizens against possible incursions by the government, while the ninth asserted the extremely limited nature of government allowable by the new constitution—only those prerogatives specifically enumerated by the covenant could be exercised, and no more, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Finally, the tenth of the amendments asserted that any governmental powers not specifically assigned to the new federal union automatically remained in the hands of either the states or the people, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”

It was a remarkable hedge of protection that has served for all these many years now to preserve the unprecedented freedoms of the American people.

Thursday, December 13

St. Columba

Two centuries after Patrick had carried the Gospel of Christ to Ireland, Columba was born in the Irish town of Donegal on this day in 521. He was a member of the royal family—though his parents were devout Christians, and as a boy Columba attended what was said to be the first church established by Patrick.

Columba was ordained and apparently established several churches and monasteries in Ireland, but in 563 he left his native land (some say, under a cloud of controversy) and went on pilgrimage for Christ. With twelve companions he sailed to Iona, a rugged little island just off the west coast of Scotland. There he established a monastery which would eventually serve as a base of evangelism among the barbarian Caledonians and the Picts.

He and his cadre of pioneer evangelists courageously preached to the fierce Scots peoples who were still under the strong influence of the Druid religion. Brude, king of the Picts, was converted under Columba's influence, and Christianity began to spread quickly and have a strong influence on the region.

The monastery Columba founded at Iona also became a center of learning and piety. In a day when the Roman church was becoming more ceremonial and priestly, the school at Iona emphasized the Bible as the sole rule of faith. For these Celtic Christians, Christ alone was head of the Church—they did not follow the hierarchical authority or the liturgical ceremonies of the Roman church.

From Iona, a vast number of missionaries went out to the lands of Holland, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy. As a result, the island became a favorite burying place for kings—more than seventy Irish, Scots, Norse, and Fleming kings sought to be interred within its holy confines.

By the end of the sixth century, Pope Gregory tried to bring the movement Columba had begun under the authority of the Roman ecclesiastical see. He sent the missionary Augustine to Britain in 592 and established him as bishop at Canterbury. For a century there was a struggle between the British church and the Roman church for authority in the region. At last though, in the seventh century, at the synod of Whitby in 664, the authority of the Roman prelacy was affirmed and accepted by all but a few of the churches. Even those few recalcitrant parishes in the Highlands of Scotland eventually acceded to Rome’s control by the end of the eighth century and Columba’s vision seemed all but lost—until that is, as many later claimed, it was revived under John Knox and George Buchanan during the Scottish Reformation of the sixteenth century.

Wednesday, December 12

George Clymer (1739-1813)

The heir of a substantial Philadelphia business and banking fortune, George Clymer risked everything to become a leader of the patriots in the early in the conflict with the King, served in public office for over twenty years, and signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. A man of unusual intellectual curiosity, he also served as an officer of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and the Philadelphia Agricultural Society.

One of the first members of Pennsylvania’s Committee of Safety, and one of the first to advocate complete independence from Britain, Clymer was called upon by the Continental Congress to serve as the first treasurer for the United States, and he undertook the almost impossible assignment of raising money to support the government’s operations, chief of which was the new Continental Army. And Clymer devoted not only his great energy, but also his own fortune to the cause, exchanging all his money, which was in hard coin, for the shaky continental currency.

On this day in 1776, when Congress fled a threatened Philadelphia, Clymer was one of the committee of three left behind to maintain essential government activities. During this crisis Clymer drove himself almost to a state of exhaustion. Shortly after this ordeal, the British captured Philadelphia and plundered and destroyed his home.

In Congress, Clymer performed valuable services as a member of committees dealing with financial matters. During the final years of the war, he was again responsible for obtaining funds for the Army. At the Constitutional Convention Clymer, who was not an exceptional speaker, distinguished himself by his work in committees dealing with his specialty--finance. In 1791, after a term in the first Congress, Clymer served as Federal Collector of the controversial tax on liquor, which led to the Whiskey Rebellion.

He concluded his career by negotiating an equitable peace treaty between the United States and the Creek tribe in Georgia. Clymer served the cause from the beginnings of the movement for independence and established his place among the Founding Fathers, although he never sought a public office in his life.

Saturday, December 8


The Hebrew word for "fast" used throughout the Old Testament is tsome. The Greek word used throughout the New Testament is nacetis. Both literally mean "to cover over" or "to affix." The idea is not simply to cover over the mouth--and thus to refrain from eating for a few hours or even a few days--but to affix the attentions to other matters altogether. It is "to focus on" or "to fasten on" spiritual matters rather than merely temporal matters. It is "to hold fast" to Christ--and nothing else. It is to abstain from one thing in order to attain to another.

It is only by a slow and patient walk in grace that we are able to fully comprehend that "man does not live by bread alone" (Matthew 4:4). Fasting is a means that God has appointed to realize anew how it is that Christ has liberated us from the tyranny of the flesh and from the awful surrender of the spirit to the body and its appetite. It is a mighty provocation for us to "humble ourselves under God's mighty hand" (1 Peter 5:6).

Whenever and wherever it is mentioned in the Bible, this gracious appointment of the mature Christian life--the discipline of fasting--has a conspicuously prominent role in humbling God's people so that they can concentrate on spiritual things:

Joshua and the elders kept a solemn fast after their people were defeated by the men of Ai (Joshua 7:6).

Jehoshaphat appointed a day of fasting and prayer throughout his kingdom when the confederated forces of Ammon and Moab came against him (2 Chronicles 20:3).

When Queen Esther felt herself and her people to be in danger from the conspiracy of Haman, she set apart a season of solemn prayer and fasting (Esther 4:16).

Ezra, when setting out on his mission to Jerusalem, assembled the returning captives at the River Ahava, and there proclaimed a fast (Ezra 8:21).

David fasted and prayed in humiliation in the aftermath of the Bathsheba incident (2 Samuel 12:16).

The inhabitants of Nineveh set apart a season of special prayer and fasting following the pronouncement of judgment by Jonah (Jonah 3:7-8).

Even the hardened Ahab fasted and cried for mercy when the judgment of God was denounced against him by Elijah (1 Kings 21:27).

In the New Testament, we see the pious prophetess Anna engaged in serving God day and night with fastings and prayers (Luke 2:37).

Cornelius, the devout centurion, likewise was engaged in fasting and prayer when the Lord first appeared to him (Acts 10:30).

The apostle Paul repeatedly speaks of his habit of waiting on God by fastings as well as by prayer (2 Corinthians 6:5; 11:27).

And even our Lord Jesus entered on His public ministry only after a long season of preparatory fasting (Matthew 4:2).

Mentioned more than seventy-five times in the Bible--more than Baptism, the Lord's Supper, witnessing, or even tithing--fasting is one of the most basic and essential of the disciplines of the Christian life. Of course, iving as we do in these modern times, the very idea of fasting seems a bit arcane and esoteric. Perhaps a tad legalistic. Maybe even bordering on fanatical. But from a Biblical perspective it is just a normal aspect of the Christian faith.

But, Why Fast?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus drives home the importance of normal, regular fasting for His disciples with a warning, a command, and a promise, "And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret, will repay you" (Matthew 6:16-18).

First, notice that fasting is not an exercise of ritual correctness: for those who must put on holier-than-thou airs. Jesus says that when we fast, we are not to look like it. None of that baptized-in-vinegar look. No woe-is-me-I'm-in-the-midst-of-a-spiritual-trial expression to wrinkle our nose or mar our visage. Fasting is supposed to evoke humility. If we fast for some outward, physiological, or social benefit; if we fast for whatever sympathy, empathy, or kudos we can muster, then we have already received our reward in full. "Do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do," that is the warning.

Second, fasting is to be a part of our regular routine. It is to be seamlessly woven into our normal lifestyles. It is to be fully integrated into our walk with both God and man--with a minimum of disruption. We're to do good--but we're to look good while doing it. "Anoint your head, and wash your face," that is the command.

Third, fasting is Godward in its orientation. It's only audience is Him. It's only intent is Him. It's only object is Him. It is wholly and completely subsumed in Him. "And your Father who sees in secret, will repay you," that is the promise.

Inherent in all three--the warning, the command, and the promise--is the assumption that no matter what, one way or another, the disciples will fast. That much is understood. It is assumed. It is a given. "When you fast," Jesus says (vs. 16). And again He says, "when you fast" (vs. 17). No ifs, ands, or buts about it. "When."

Our fasting may be absolute (Deuteronomy 9:9) or partial (Daniel 10:3). It may be entirely private (Nehemiah 2:1) or demonstrably corporate (Jeremiah 36:6). It may be occasional (Acts 13:3) or seasonal (Zechariah 9:19). But one thing is certain: if we are followers of Christ; if we are genuine Christian disciples; if we are seriously seeking the will of God, obeying His Word, and walking in dependence on Him, we will fast (Matthew 9:14-15).

It is interesting to consider that Adam and Eve lost both their spiritual purity and their temporal paradise--all because they failed to fast at the appropriate time.

It is equally interesting to survey the annals of history to discover that virtually all of the heroes of the faith through the ages have put a high priority on fasting. From Athanasius to Augustine, from Polycarp to Patrick, from John Chrysostom to John Calvin, from Brother Andrew to Mother Teresa, and from Francis of Assisi to Francis Schaeffer, the saints of yore took advantage of every appointment of grace--not the least of which was fasting. Not only that, but they encouraged their churches, their communities, and their nations to do likewise. It is nothing if not common to find references to whole congregations consecrating themselves to covenantal fasts and solemn assemblies. Calls by national leaders for days of prayer and fasting were regular occurrences throughout the West during the glory days of Christendom. Washington, Adams, Jackson, Lee, Davis, Harding, Coolidge, and Eisenhower all stood foursquare in that tradition of "seeking first the kingdom" by establishing regular days of national repentance and fasting.

It would have been inconceivable to any of them to neglect such an essential aspect of humble discipleship--as inconceivable as substituting recovery for repentance, serenity for sanctification, or limericks for creeds.

Otto Blumhardt, the great seventeenth century Lutheran missionary speculated that should the day ever come when such substitutions did actually occur, the minions of the "culture war" would be the least of our worries. He said, "On the day the church abandons its care of the poor, its fervent ministry of supplication, and its intently chosen fast--for whatever good will or intentions--on that day we will undoubtedly see its clergy dragged off in wickedness and promiscuity, its parishes awhoring after greed and avarice, and its congregations awash in every vain imagination and unspeakable perversion. On that day, the church will cease to be the church. May it never be. May it never be. Stay that day with the hand of faithful diligence, I pray. Stay that day with the fastening of faith."

Thursday, December 6

St. Nicholas

The fourth century pastor who inspired the tradition of Santa Claus, may not have lived at the North Pole or traveled by reindeer and sleigh but he certainly was a paradigm of graciousness, generosity, and Christian charity. Nicholas of Myra’s great love and concern for children drew him into a crusade that ultimately resulted in protective Imperial statutes that remained in place in Byzantium for more than a thousand years.

Though little is known of his childhood, he was probably born to wealthy parents at Patara in Lycia, a Roman province of Asia Minor. As a young man noted for his piety, judiciousness, and charity, he was chosen bishop of the then rundown diocese of Myra. There he became gained renown for his personal holiness, evangelistic zeal, and pastoral compassion.

Early Byzantine histories reported that he suffered imprisonment and made a famous profession of faith during the persecution of Diocletian. He was also reputedly present at the Council of Nicaea, where he forthrightly condemned the heresy of Arianism--one story holds that he actually slapped the heretic Arius. But it was his love for and care of children that gained him his greatest renown. Though much of what we know about his charitable work on behalf of the poor, the despised, and the rejected has been distorted by legend and lore over the centuries, it is evident that he was a particular champion of the downtrodden, bestowing upon them gifts as tokens of the grace and mercy of the Gospel.

One legend tells of how citizen of Patara lost his fortune, and because he could not raise dowries for his three young daughters, he was going to give them over to prostitution. After hearing this, Nicholas took a small bag of gold and threw it through the window of the man’s house on the eve of the feast of Christ’s Nativity. The eldest girl was married with it as her dowry. He performed the same gracious service for each of the other girls on each of the succeeding nights. The three purses, portrayed in art with the saint, were thought to be the origin of the pawnbroker’s symbol of three gold balls. But they were also the inspiration for Christians to begin the habit of gift giving during each of the twelve days of Christmas--from December 25 until Epiphany on January 6.

In yet another legend, Nicholas saved several youngsters from certain death when he pulled them from a deep vat of vinegar brine--again, on the feast of the Nativity. Ever afterward, Christians remembered the day by giving one another the gift of large crisp pickles.

The popular cultural representation of St. Nicholas as Father Christmas or Santa Claus, though drawing on a number of such legends, was based primarily on a the Dutch custom of giving children presents--slipping fruits, nuts, and little toys into shoes or stockings drying along the warm hearthside--on his feast day, December 6. Throughout the rest of Europe during the middle ages, that day was marked by festively decorating homes and by a sumptuous feast that interrupted the general fasting of Advent. And in Scandanavia it was celebrated as a day of visitation, when the elders of all the remote country churches would bundle themselves in their thick furs and drive their sleighs laden with gift pastries through the snowy landscape to every home within the parish.

The transformation of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus is rooted in a number of intertwined traditions, legends, and archetypes. But perhaps more than any other sources, the advertising of soft drink manufacturer Coca Cola and the holiday cartoons of New York newspaperman Thomas Nash have profoundly shaped our perception. Coca Cola’s serving trays, signage, and print ads popularized the Nash caricature of a rotund, jolly, fur-draped, gift-laden, and unbidden visitor who pops down chimneys and distributes gifts to children all over the world.

Alas, thus stripped of his pastoral function and parish proximity, Santa has become almost fairy-like in his mythic proportions--and this day of remembrance has become little more than just one more shopping day before Christmas.

Sunday, December 2

The First Sunday of Advent

"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." Edith Schaeffer

Throughout history, Christians have marked the passing of the days, weeks, and months of any given year with the sequential details of the Gospel story—with an anticipation of the coming of Jesus during Advent, His birth at Christmas, His trials, temptations, betrayal, and death during Lent, His resurrection at Easter, the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost, and then the growth and maturity of the church thereafter until the cycle is repeated the next year. In other words, the keeping of the seasons is a way for us to retell the Gospel every single year, from start to finish.

Advent is thus, the beginning of the “church year” or “church calendar.”

This season is one of those rare times when even the most spontaneous of us loves to recall old traditions and familiar legacies. We love to sing old carols. We love to break out the old dishes, the old recipes, and the old stories. Advent traditions abound.

For instance, the Advent season begins today--four Sundays prior to Christmas. Traditionally, Christian families and churches have celebrated this season of preparation each Lord’s day with the lighting of one candle in a small table-top evergreen circle--known as an Advent Wreath--accompanied by an appropriate Scripture reading. The candles vary in color from culture to culture, but generally the first three candles are red or purple and the last one is white or golden. For families that find themselves each year vowing that their celebration of the season will focus more on the real meaning of Christmas and less on the brouhaha, this is the place to begin to set the tone for the holidays.

Another enduring tradition is Saint Nicholas Day. Celebrated on December 6, this day recalls the selfless service of Nicholas of Myra (c. 288-354). The fourth century pastor ultimately inspired the tradition of Santa Claus. In reality, he was a model of graciousness, generosity, and Christian charity. His great love and concern for children drew him into a crusade that ultimately resulted in child protection laws that remained in force for more than a thousand years. His feast day is celebrated around the world. In the Netherlands, cookies and gingerbread treats are often placed in shoes or laid out stockings for the sleeping children--which may well have been the origin of Christmas gifts and hearthside stockings.

Regardless of what particular traditions our individual families celebrate, as we begin this new season of glad tidings, let us enter into a new season of Gospel retelling with great joy, remember the old paths, the old ways, and the old traditions, with new and fresh faith.