Friday, July 30

Holiness: The Ordinary Christian Life

In his Lectures on Moral Philosophy, Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) regularly reminded his students that, “In bygone days when God’s covenant people sought to strengthen their piety, to sharpen their effectual intercessions, and give passion to their supplications, they partook of the means of grace in all holiness with humble prayer and fasting. When intent upon seeking the Lord God’s guidance in difficult after-times, they partook of the means of grace in all holiness with humble prayer and fasting. When they were wont to express grief—whether over the consequences of their own sins or the sins of others—they partook of the means of grace in all holiness with humble prayer and fasting. When they sought deliverance or protection in times of trouble, they partook of the means of grace in all holiness with humble prayer and fasting. When they desired to express repentance, covenant renewal, and a return to the fold of faith, they partook of the means of grace in all holiness with humble prayer and fasting. Such is the call upon all who would name the Name of Jesus. Such is the ordinary Christian life.”

Chalmers didn’t just preach such notions to others—he faithfully proclaimed the Gospel of grace and holiness to his own heart. As his daughter later testified, “His ambition was to know Christ, and this one aim simplified his life. His obedience in the smallest details was very striking. It was not so much that he did not do wrong, but he seemed always to do the things that pleased God. Those who lived with him can hardly recall a single unworthy action in his life of which he was not quick to repent. Step by step he walked with God, doing everything as in his sight. ‘You are not very holy if you are not very kind,’ he used to say, and this spirit of love characterized his actions.”

Chalmers not only attempted to live a righteous life marked by genuine sanctification, his message was marked by an uncompromising call to holiness. His books and sermons were filled with the theme—his Commentary on Romans was concerned with little else; his compilation of Sabbath Readings aimed at accenting matters of sanctification; and his preaching would admit little else.

How different is the temperament of the modern church and her churchmen. 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.

Perhaps that is why the experience of Chalmers seems so remote to us; to our modern ears, the painful self-examination of his Letters seems overwrought; his fierce denunciations of sins we hardly notice seems wildly exaggerated in light of his disciplined attention to holiness, “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.”

Oh, that we might regain even a modicum of his passion for this, the “ordinary Christian life.”

Sunday, July 25

A History in Photographs

Prentice Herman Polk (1898-1984) was fascinated with photography from as early as he could remember. He began studying through a correspondence course which he paid for with $10 he was mistakenly given as change for a candy bar at a local store. Before he was in his teens he had begun taking photographs of the everyday lives of former slaves and sharecroppers--the kinds of subjects which would occupy his work for the rest of his long and storied career.

In 1916, he had the opportunity to attend the famed Tuskegee Institute. Although the school was technically chartered by the Alabama state legislature to repay black voters for their support, its early history is almost synonymous with the name of its founder and first administrator, African American leader Booker T. Washington. Tuskegee's roots were in the post-Reconstruction era in the South, when higher educational opportunities for African Americans were still severely limited.

Washington's most significant contribution was his strong belief in industrial education and training as the key to success for African Americans. Students were required to learn a trade and perform manual labor at the school, including making and laying the bricks for the buildings that became the first campus. Tuskegee's charter had mandated that tuition would be free for students who committed to teaching in Alabama public schools. The students' labor helped with financial costs, and Washington solicited much of the remaining funding from northern white philanthropists.

Tuskegee was incorporated as a private institution in 1892. Because social conventions would have prohibited white instructors from serving under a black principal, Tuskegee became the first black institution of higher learning with a black faculty. In 1896 the school hired a young teacher who would become famous, George Washington Carver, whose groundbreaking agricultural research received international recognition. Washington also became nationally accepted as a social and cultural leader during the 1890s, because many whites appreciated his gracious and gradualist approach to race relations--as a result Tuskegee gained wide recognition and substantial funding.

Changes to the original industrial training approach came gradually after Washington's death in 1915. Tuskegee was able to award its first baccalaureate degree in 1925, and began its first full collegiate curriculum in 1927, with departments for business and teachers' and nurses' training.

When Polk completed his course of study on this day in 1920, he was appointed to the faculty of the photography department--which he and several other pioneers literally built from scratch. He then served as department chair from 1933-1938. From 1933-1982 he was the official school photographer, taking pictures of members of the Tuskegee community as well as visitors such as Henry Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Perhaps his greatest contribution to history though was the fact that he also chronicled the experiences of George Washington Carver--his experiments, his discoveries, his innovations, and his triumphs. By the time Polk retired in 1982, he had documented virtually the entire history of the Tuskegee Institute community in the twentieth century--a history that helped to shape the very destiny of the civil rights movement, African American opportunity, and the very character of the American experience.

Saturday, July 24

Samuel Rutherford on Adversity

”I hope to over-hope and over-believe any troubles.”
“Grace withereth without adversity.”
“I see grace groweth best in winter.”
“Your rock doth not ebb and flow--but your sea.”
“I know no sweeter way to Heaven than free grace and hard trials together.”
“Dry wells send us to the Fountain.”

Often Affliction

“Often the same thing that makes one person bitter makes another better.” J.C. Ryle
“God often digs wells of joy with spades of affliction.” Isaac Watts
“To scale great heights, we must come out of the lowermost depths. The way to heaven all too often leads through hell.” Herman Melville
“Affliction is often that thing which prepares an ordinary person for some sort of an extraordinary destiny.” C.S. Lewis

Caedmon’s Coffee

Meditating on the strange ironies of Nehemiah 6:1-9, I could not help but remember a poignant, similarly-themed song by Derek Webb and Caedmon’s Call:

I am small; I've seen things far beyond these city walls
The land is flat and it rolls for miles
I don't know much
I know I've many places yet to see
I know I've been here for a while

Wouldn't you know just when I thought I had this figured out
I'm back at my first day at school
Trying not to think too loud
I raise my hand to scratch my head
I've no ideas of what to do

'Cause something's changed today
And what it is I just can't say
And if I don't seem okay, well I'm okay

So sue me! Sue me!
If I just don't want coffee tonight
Back in this coffee house where we just met a week ago
Now we've been friends since we were young
But all our conversations are hitting walls we can't ignore
We can hide but we can't run
And I can't run from you
Or what we've run into
Now regardless what I choose, we both lose

It must be getting late
Where's my head
Where is my head
Where is my head

I still hear you telling me what a big mistake I've made
Funny that's what I've been telling you
I can lead a horse to water
You can even make him drink
But you can't change his point of view

Tonight as I was driving home I passed a coffee shop
You know I wrestled with the truth
And how I'd explain to you
What you could never understand
And how I'd keep my mind from you

But that's the price I pay
Your way is not my way
Today's another day and it's okay

So sue me! Sue me!
If I just don't want coffee tonight
Back in this coffee house where we just met a week ago
Now we've been friends since we were young
But all our conversations are hitting walls we can't ignore
We can hide but we can't run
And I can't run from you
Or what we've run into
Now regardless what I choose, we both lose

I think I need some rest
Rest my head, arrest my head
Rest my head, arrest my head
Rest my head, arrest my head


“Of all the cants which are canted in this canting world, there is no cant to me more hateful than the cant of an ostentatious and affected liberality.” Thomas Chalmers

Wednesday, July 21

Suffer the Children

"There is a certain gentleness about really great Christians. There are many ways to observe this, but perhaps one of the best is to notice the tenderness for children in the great spiritual warriors of the past." Francis Schaeffer

Redemptive Optimism

"It is not enough for a prophet to believe in his message; he must believe in its acceptability. He must have confidence in God and in the image of God." G.K. Chesterton

Monday, July 19

When the New York Times Was Pro-Life

On this day in 1871, Augustus St. Clair was given an extremely dangerous undercover investigative assignment for the New York Times. He was to infiltrate and ultimately expose the city’s prosperous and profligate “medical malpractice” industry--the common euphemism for the abortion trade. For several weeks, he and a “lady friend” visited a number of the most heavily trafficked clinics in New York, posing as a couple facing a crisis pregnancy. They were shocked with what they saw.

It wasn't that the clinics were sordid back alley affairs. They weren't. It wasn't that they were operated by shady or seedy quacks. They weren't. It wasn't that they were dark, dangerous, and disreputable. They weren't. On the contrary, it was that the rich splendor of the entrepreneurial abortuaries—fine tapestry carpets, expensive mahogany furniture, elegant decorations, and spacious parlors--contrasted so sharply with the desperation, helplessness, and poverty of their clientele. It was that the smug complacency of the proprietors—men and women who made quite an opulent living out of the sordid trade—contrasted so sharply with the dispiritedness of their patients. It was that their frank and forthright commerce—advertised openly in all the magazines, newspapers, digests of the day—contrasted so sharply with the secretive shame of their customers. It was that the dens of iniquity were simultaneously dens of inequity.

As a result of his discoveries St. Clair wrote a hard-hitting three column article which the Times published in late August. Entitled The Evil of the Age, the article opened with a solemn warning, “The enormous amount of medical malpractice that exists and flourishes, almost unchecked, in the city of New York, is a theme for most serious consideration. Thousands of human beings are thus murdered before they have seen the light of this world, and thousands upon thousands more of adults are irremediably robbed in constitution, health, and happiness.”

Skillfully, St. Clair portrayed virtually every dimension of the slick and professional abortion industry: from its bottom line economics to its medical methodologies and from its marketing savvy to its litigal invulnerability. Told with passion and insight, the story hit the city like a bombshell. Almost singlehandedly, the young reporter put child-killing on the public agenda for the first time in decades.

Being on the public agenda is not enough in itself to bring about widespread social change however. Something more is needed--an incident to galvanize the concern of the public. Just such an incident occurred in New York just days after St. Clair's article appeared in the Times. The body of a beautiful young woman was discovered inside an abandoned trunk in a railway station baggage room. A police autopsy determined that the cause of death was a botched abortion.

A spontaneous national campaign was launched that eventually made abortion illegal in every state, condemned by the American Medical Association, and vilified by the national press. And it all began with St. Clair's story in the New York Times--of all places.

Sunday, July 18

Beautiful Mathematics

"A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns. And just as in poetry and painting, the mathematician's patterns must be beautiful. Beauty is the first test. There is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics." G.H. Hardy

Saturday, July 17

The Invention of Greco-Roman Culture

The great biographer James Boswell once asserted that Plutarch was “the prince of the ancient biographers.” Indeed, our conception of the heroic men of ancient Greece and Rome owes more to Plutarch than to any other writer or historian—perhaps more than all the others put together. Thanks to his carefully researched labors we have access to intimate details about the careers, struggles, enmities, and passions of Caesar, Alexander, Demosthenes, Antony, Solon, Cato, Pericles, Cicero, and Lycurgus. Without them, the era would be a virtual blank.

Interestingly, though Plutarch wrote prolifically on the lives of others, he left very little to indicate the course of his own. He threw the searchlight of understanding upon the achievements of others, but his own remain shrouded in conjecture.

This much we do know, he was born just after the time of Christ in 46, on this day, in the small Greek province of Boeotia—the broad and fertile plateau northwest of Athens. He came from an ancient and renowned Theban family, and thus was given access to the finest educational opportunities. He excelled in his wide-ranging travels and studies in Athens, Corinth, Alexandria, and Ephesus. He later became a respected member of the imperial diplomatic corps and made his mark as a wise and effective adjudicator. In Rome, his reputation as a scholar earned him a number of influential contacts, friends, and opportunities. He served every Emperor from the accession of Vespasian until his death in 126 during the reign of Hadrian. He was even granted an honorary consular rank.

Despite all these cosmopolitan experiences, he never lost his deep affection for his hometown of Chaeronea. Though a loyal supporter of the Empire, he remained a Greek patriot throughout his life. He was both a firm believer in and a committed practitioner of the ideals of the ancient city-state. Thus, he held a succession of magistracies in Chaeronea and nearby Delphi. His attachments at home were evidently reinforced by the sublime happiness of his marriage and family. It appears that his tender devotion to his wife, Timoxena, and their five children defined his mission and focused his philosophical vision.

It is this fact—the commitment of Plutarch to hearth and home—more than any other, that illumines his work--especially his work in his magisterial Lives..

His beloved homeland was a shell of its former self. Many Greeks had all but forgotten the glories that once attended their land. The heritage of his community—and thus, of his own progeny—was very nearly lost. The splendor of the Roman Empire seemed to overshadow all that had come before.

But Plutarch believed that the achievements of Rome were merely the extensions of those of Greece. All of his historical and literary work was therefore aimed at showing the foundational role that Grecian greatness played in the Roman ascendancy. In fact, it was his thesis that there was direct continuity between the culture of Caesar, Brutus, and Antony with that of Pericles, Alcibiades, and Alexander. The entire parallel structure of the Lives was aimed at demonstrating this. And thus was created the notion of Greco-Roman culture.

Thursday, July 8

The Liberty Bell

The Liberty Bell, one of the symbols of American freedom, received its famous crack on this day in 1835 as it tolled for the death of Chief Justice John C. Marshall. Originally hung in 1753 in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, the Liberty Bell bore the inscription, "Proclaim Liberty throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof." During the British occupation of Philadelphia from 1777-78, it was removed and hidden for fear of its destruction.