Wednesday, June 29

An Experiment in Liberty

The great liberties that we enjoy in America have been secured against the arbitrary and fickle whims of men and movements by the rule of law. Our social system was not designed so as to depend upon the benevolence of the magistrates, or the altruism of the wealthy, or the condescension of the powerful. Every citizen, rich or poor, man or woman, native-born or immigrant, hale or handicapped, young or old, is equal under the standard of unchanging, immutable, and impartial justice.

As Thomas Paine wrote in Common Sense, the powerful booklet that helped spark the War for Independence, "In America, the law is king."

If left to the mere discretion of human authorities, even the best-intended statutes, edicts, and ordinances inevitably devolve into some form of tyranny. There must, therefore, be an absolute against which no encroachment of prejudice or preference may interfere. There must be a foundation that the winds of change and the waters of circumstance cannot erode. There must be a basis for law that can be depended upon at all times, in all places, and in every situation.

Apart from this uniquely Christian innovation in the affairs of men and nations, there can be no freedom. There never has been before, and there never will be again. Our Founding Fathers knew that only too well.

The opening refrain of the Declaration of Independence affirms the necessity of that kind of absolute standard upon which the rule of law can then be established:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Appealing to the "Supreme Judge of the World" for guidance, and relying on His "Divine Providence" for wisdom, the Framers committed themselves and their posterity to the absolute standard of "the laws of nature and of nature's God." A just government exists, they argued, solely and completely to "provide guards" for the "future security" of that standard. Take away those guards, and the rule of law is no longer possible.

That is precisely why they felt compelled to so boldly declare their autonomy from the British realm. The activist government of the Crown had become increasingly intrusive, burdensome, and fickle and thus the possibility of rule of law had been thrown into very real jeopardy. The Founders merely protested the fashion and fancy of political, bureaucratic, and systemic innovation that had alienated the inalienable.

They said that the King's government had, "erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance." It had, "called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant. . .for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with the King's measures." It had, "refused assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary to the public good." It had, "imposed taxes without consent. . . taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our government." And it had, "plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, destroyed the lives of our people. . .and excited domestic insurrections amongst us."

The Founders believed that no one in America could be absolutely secure under the king, because absoluteness had been thrown out of the constitutional vocabulary. Because certain rights had been abrogated for at least some citizens by a smothering, dominating political behemoth, all of the liberties of all the citizens were at risk because suddenly arbitrariness, relativism, and randomness had entered into the legal equation. The checks against petty partiality and blatant bias had been virtually disabled.

Thus, they acted boldly to "form a more perfect union." They launched a sublime experiment in liberty never before surpassed, never again matched.

Sadly, not even in our own time. As P.J. O'Rourke has asserted, “There are twenty-seven specific complaints against the British Crown set forth in the Declaration of Independence. To modern ears they still sound reasonable. They still sound reasonable in large part, because so many of them can be leveled against the present federal government of the United States.”

Saturday, June 25

The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

Grappling with the dangers of the world, the flesh, and the devil has always been a prominent aspect of Christian thinking and living:

In his helpful Golden Booklet of the Christian Life, John Calvin asserts, "Nothing is more difficult than to forsake all carnal thoughts, to subdue and renounce our false appetites, and to devote ourselves to God and our brethren, and to live the life of angels in a world of devils."

Centuries earlier, Peter Abelard wrote in his Expositions that, “There are three things which tempt us, the world, the flesh, and the devil.”

Thomas Aquinas refers to the world, the flesh, and the devil in his Summa Theologica as “the great adversaries of our souls.”

The phrase probably entered popular use in English through the Book of Common Prayer, which utilizes the phrase in its Daily Litany, “From all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, Good Lord, deliver us.”

But, this triad of dangers is actually first clearly articulated in Christ’s parable of the sower in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 8. There the Lord provides us with three illustrations of unproductive soil: the seed choked by thorny soil represents the cares of the world; the seed that springs up in rocky soil but then withers represents shallow and carnal believers who live according to the flesh; and the seed that fell on pounded soil, along paths and roadsides, only to be devoured by the birds represents the Devil’s voracious wiles.

The Apostle Paul also describes these three dangers in Ephesians 2:1-3, “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit now at work among those who are disobedient. For, all of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh."

And, the Apostle John alludes to them in 1 John 2:16, “For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the adversary.”

The point is: ours is a comprehensively fallen universe—it’s not just the devil we have to watch out for; it’s not just the devil and me; it’s everything, everywhere, all the time.

Friday, June 24

Re-Affirming the Parish Vision

Our little faith community here in Tennessee, Parish Pres, has undertaken a host of changes in the past several months. We have multiplied our Gospel outreach by planting Cornerstone Pres--in a kind of reverse church plant. In so doing, we moved the mother congregation from downtown to east Franklin, from the historic Church Street chapel to the bucolic Clovercroft property, and from a central location to an out-of-the way mission.

In concert with these changes we felt that it was important to re-affirm our vision and mission--we have wanted to make sure that we remain unchanging in our commitments and our calling. To that end, we have been working on crafting an image to represent those missional principles of grace we hold so dear.

You’ll notice that the image paradoxically conveys both tradition and contemporaneity simultaneously--we’ve updated some very traditional elements and treatments with very modern typefaces and layouts. As you might expect, there are a lot of things “going on” in the image: the word “Parish” itself conveys movement and the embrace of covenant community as the r and the s wrap around the i; then the i forms the trunk of a tree of life with the cross forming the branches and leaves; the cross is taken from an old Celtic form to indicate both our Reformed theological heritage and our great Gospel hope in the finished work of Jesus; the cross also has elements representing the four Gospels, the five books of the Pentateuch, and the Trinity; the cross even hints at the idea of a fountain in the center of a garden; the arboreal theme is reinforced by the organic color scheme; the parchment background reminds us of the plenary nature of God’s revelation to us in Scripture; the very modern typefaces are ink-stamped and distressed to convey a sense of both the past and the future; and finally, the distinctiveness of the word “Parish” lends itself to lots of creative uses for future church plants, conferences, and missional works.

May God be pleased to use this image to remind us that amidst all the changes, nothing has really changed at all.

Sunday, June 12

Celebrating Pentecost

Pentecost is the celebration commemorating the coming of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus (hence its name) and ten days after His ascension.

It is also called Whit Sunday, Whitsun, or Whitsuntide. These names are from an Anglo-Saxon contraction of "White Sunday.” White (or whit) was not only a symbol of purity throughout Christendom, but also of “wit” or understanding—thus, the association with the outpouring of the Spirit upon the redeemed.

Pentecost corresponds to the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which commemorates God giving the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai fifty days after the Exodus.

So it is that on this day, we who are named with the Name of Christ, rejoice at the giving of His Spirit and all the good gifts therein.

Pentecostal Joy

According to Arthurian legend, it was on Pentecost that the king always gathered his knights at the round table for a feast and a quest.

Goethe, Germany's great poet declared Pentecost "Das Liebliche Fest,“ “The Lovely Feast,” in a in his Reineke Fuchs.

Alexandre Dumas sets the sequel to The Three Musketeers at a feast to celebrate Penecost.

And Shakespeare sets the opening of Romeo and Juliette against the backdrop of Whitsuntide.

Saturday, June 11

His Floodgates of Blessing

Lord, as of old, at Pentecost,

Thou didst Thy pow’r display—

With cleansing, purifying flame,

Descend on us today.

Lord, send the old-time power, the Pentecostal power!

Thy floodgates of blessing, on us throw open wide!

Lord, send the old-time power, the Pentecostal power!

That sinners be converted and Thy Name glorified!

For mighty works for Thee, prepare

And strengthen every heart;

Come, take possession of Thine own,

And nevermore depart.

All self consume, all sin destroy!

With earnest zeal endue

Each waiting heart to work for Thee;

O Lord, our faith renew!

Speak, Lord! before Thy throne we wait,

Thy promise we believe,

And will not let Thee go until

The blessing we receive.

Lord, send the old-time power, the Pentecostal power!

Thy floodgates of blessing, on us throw open wide!

Lord, send the old-time power, the Pentecostal power!

That sinners be converted and Thy Name glorified!

Charles Gabriel, 1911

Thursday, June 9

Chivalry and Sacrifice

During the Senate hearing following the tragic sinking of the Titanic the doctrine of “women and children first” was very much the topic of discussion. Surviving Second Officer Charles Lightoller indicated that despite the fact that there were actually no maritime laws which mandated the such chivalry in times of danger, he and many other seamen like him, believed that the doctrine was a universally-recognized and uniformly-practiced principle of conduct. It was why the overall death toll in the Titanic disaster was nine men for every one woman--for the most part the men gave their places in the few available lifeboats to women.

That was the motivating virtue behind Nellie Taft’s efforts to establish a memorial to chivalry in Washington D.C. shortly after the Titanic disaster. The First Lady mounted a national campaign to raise funds for a monument to be built in Washington, D.C. Mrs. Taft explained, “I am happy to do this in gratitude to the chivalry of American manhood.”

Using the one-dollar donations of American housewives, nearly $90,000 was raised and a commission was given to a prominent team of artists, architects, and landscape designers.
The monument, dedicated at a very prominent location near the White House on this day in 1913, bears the inscription: “To the brave men who gave their lives that women and children might be saved.” Atop a grand pedestal a beautiful bronze statue of a man, arms outstretched, eyes toward the horizon, was placed.

Sixty years later, the entire monument was removed and placed in a storage facility where it languished, all but forgotten, for several years. Finally, in 1979 it was given a new home, overlooking the Potomac River where it stands to this day as a reminder of the old virtue of chivalry and sacrifice.

Wednesday, June 8

A World Split Apart

It was on this day in 1978 that exiled Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn shocked America's elite during a commencement address at Harvard University. Much to their surprise, he censured the West just as stridently as he did the East:

"The fight for our planet, physical and spiritual, a fight of cosmic proportions, is not a vague matter of the future; it has already started. The forces of evil have begun their decisive offensive. You can feel their pressure, yet your screens and publications are full of prescribed smiles and raised glasses. What is the joy about?"

The address was later published as A World Split Apart. It remains astonishingly relevant, even precient.

Thursday, June 2

Ascension Day

Hail the day that sees Him rise,
Ravished from our wistful eyes!
Christ, awhile to mortals given,
Re-ascends His native heaven.
There the glorious triumph waits,
Lift your heads, eternal gates!
Wide unfold the radiant scene,
Take the King of glory in!

--Charles Wesley

"By the Ascension all the parts of life are brought together in the oneness of their common destination. By the Ascension Christ in His Humanity is brought close to every one of us, and the words “in Christ,” the very charter of our faith, gain a present power. By the Ascension we are encouraged to work beneath the surface of things to that which makes all things capable of consecration. Then it is that the last element in our confession as to Christ’s work speaks to our hearts. He is not only present with us as Ascended: He is active for us. We believe that He sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; He the fount of Living Water, now ever lives to refresh us unto eternal life."
--Brooke Foss Westcott

See, the Conqueror mounts in triumph,
See the King in royal state,
Riding on the clouds His chariot
To His heavenly palace-gate;
Hark, the choirs of angel voices
Joyful halleluiahs sing,
And the portals high are lifted,
To receive their heavenly King.

--William Wordsworth