Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Peace Unity and Purity -- Some initial observations

As promised in a previous post, here are some thoughts on section I of the Peace Unity and Purity report of the Presbyterian Church USA.

But before I do -- check out this really good commentary from another blogger at Politickal (I like this guy's stuff -- I'm subscribing to his blog with bloglines)

This section contains the theological grounding of the report. The Task force makes clear "The following theological reflections are an account of conclusions we have drawn from our studies and basic conviction that we recognize as significant. They do not include every topic of theological importance or full development of the themes we lift up." (footnote 3). Even with these qualifications, the Task Force makes some pretty astounding statements (considering that the Task Force was supposed to represent a broad spectrum of theological liberals and conservatives)

First, note the strong statements about Christ:
Christ's death and bodily resurrection are real and central to the faith: "Our faith is in the God of Israel who raised Jesus Christ bodily from the dead. This is the one fiath confessed by the people of God" (lines 55-6) or again "We worship and serve a covenant-making God, the God of Israel, whose unbreakable covenant with Abraham, Sarah, and their progeny is not, by the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead, extended to the Gentiles" (lines 89-91). "What is our hope? That while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). And our hope is alive through the power of Christ's resurrection." (lines 148-149).

Back in the 1920's, the fundamentalist/modernist controversy called into question certain essentials of the faith (like the virgin birth, the inerrancy of scripture, and the bodily resurrection of Christ), there have been those who have claimed that the bodily resurrection was unimportant. This report silences those claims. While the Task force is not proposing a new "essential" here, they are reaffirming the basic truth -- "if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is useless and so is your faith...If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men." (I Corinthians 15:14,18). There is no encouragement here for those who claim that Jesus was a mere prophet who died tragically and was lost to history. We cannot avoid the bodily resurrection.

The full humanity and divinity of Christ: "He was fully human and fully divine, shared the exposed and vulnerable condition of all humankind, and gave himself, once and for all, to redeem us from sin and restore us to rightouesness." (lines 163-165). Again, this flies in the face of attestations by contemporary theologians who claim that Jesus was merely human. We cannot escape claiming Jesus full divinity. Again, this is a pretty astounding agreement for a collection of thinkers who claim to have theological liberals among their number.

Christ alone is the savior: This is perhaps the most encouraging statement -- in a denomination in which we heard a thinker opine "What's the big deal about Jesus?". When we have forces pushing us toward an uncritical pluralism, it is refreshing to see the task force affirm: "...in addressing questions of pluralism, truth and salvation, we must emphasize both the necessity and sufficiency of the grace by which God is for and with the world in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. With confidence in this divine grace, we affirm: '[Jesus] is the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [him]' (John 14:6, emphasis added) and 'There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other nume under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved' (Acts 4:12). At the same time, as Reformed Christians, we must remind ourselves and others that salvation rests not in any merit of our own but in the sovereign love of God that has been made known to us in Jesus Christ." (lines 78-85).

Now I'm well aware that there's lots of room in that language to allow a vague inclusivism -- but please pay close attention to the language -- Jesus is the exclusive means of salvation. Implicitly -- other faiths do not save -- only Christ saves. That is a huge admission. Of course, I would have been much more comfortable with an explicit statement about faith alone being the means God applies redemption. Even so, there is an encouraging statement later: "We confess the faith of the Protestant reformation, including the doctrine of justification by grace through faith, 'so that no one may boast) (Eph 2:8-9). From this doctrine, we know that all things, including peace, unity, and purity, are gifts that the church receives by faith in the saving work of Christ's life, death, and resurrection." (lines 167-170) Again, if we take these lines at face value, this is a tremendous evangelical statement -- an admission that explicit faith in Christ, of some sort, is necessary for salvation and for sanctification.

We could also talk about the sections on the power of the Holy Spirit to personally transform lives and behaviors, but I'm honestly running out of steam tonight.

Now, I don't offer these thoughts as an enthusiastic endorsement of the document (as said before, I have some reservations, that I'll share in a future post). Rather, I'm amazed at the orthodoxy of the language (realizing of course there is also vagueness; some might claim that there's enough gaps for a division of Panzers to drive through -- a lot of that depends on whether we can in good faith take the words at face value or not.)

Again, these are preliminary musings -- I'd be interested in your thoughts.

Soli Deo Gloria
Russell

Speaking up for the persecuted in China

As promised, a quickie that's not related to PCUSA struggles:

Last week's World Magazine featured an eye opening article about the persecuted church in China. It appears that China is cracking down on religious freedom of Christians. Reports from Voice of the Martyrs and Amnesty International confirm this.

The persecuted church (not just in China, but around the globe) features regularly in my prayers, and I long to do more. Tammy and I watched Hotel Rwanda this weekend, and guilt washed over me as I realized that genocide happened in my generation, and our western nations didn't lift a finger to stop it until it had already happened (admittedly, Rwanda's troubles were shortly after our humiliation in Somalia -- where we had just seen the corpses of American soldiers dragged through the street). It made me want to do something more than sit by and watch the suffering.

President Hu Jintao visits the US on September 7, but I don't anticipate much from this visit -- it will focus mainly on trade (China just recently hired big name lobbyists Patton Boggs to represent their interests -- only a slice of the $31 Billion that foreign lobbyists will spend on capitol hill this year -- there are over 36,000 registered lobbyists!)

So, I'm not sure what to do. My faith reminds me that God is sovereign -- He reigns over the nations, but my faith also challenges me to be used as God's instrument. In a free and open society, I believe that means voicing my Christian convictions. And so, I offer this post up, and ask for your thoughts...

Soli Deo Gloria

Russell

Monday, August 29, 2005

Peace Unity and Purity -- some initial thoughts

As I alluded to last week, I had the opportunity to go to Chicago to observe the gathering of the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s Task force on the Peace Unity and Purity of the Church, and to preview the release of the final report.

For those of you not in the know about our little corner of Presby-dom, a quick whirlwind explanation is in order:

The Presbyterian Church (USA) for the past few decades has been embroiled in a rather unpleasant free-for-all fight regarding a number of issues, including the authority of Scripture, the person of Jesus Christ, religious pluralism, and human sexuality (just to name a few minor issues). In 2001, the General Assembly (that would be the highest governing body) assembled the task force of 20 people. These were representitives from all across the theological spectrum: liberals, conservatives, and everything in between. Their task was to think through how (and if) we can maintain the peace, unity, and purity of the Presbyterian Church in the face of such conflict.

They've spent the past four years meeting, studying, worshipping, and working on their report. Along the way, they've released resources and encouraged members of the denomination to mirror their process. They've released drafts of their report -- but this final version also included some heretofore unseen recommendations for moving forward.

One of these recommendations is controversial -- and I have some serious reservations about it. However, the folks on the task force also spent a lot of time preparing theological reflections, thoughts about process, and resources for peace unity and purity. These items comprise the bulk of the report and are quite encouraging. I heard one member of the task force say it would be a shame for the denomination to go straight to the controversial recommendation without first heeding these earlier parts of the report. I agree -- so in that spirit, I'll be reflecting on the report one section at a time (beginning with section I: The theological basis of the report).

I hope you'll download the report and give it a read. There you'll also find biographies of the task force members, their original charge, and some of the resources they've already produced.

You might also be interested in some of the preliminary comments coming out about the report:

From the liberal More Light Presbyterians
From the more mainstreamPresbyterians for Renewal

I'll try to link to other commentary as it becomes available (though I suggest Presbyweb as a great resource for keeping abreast of the issue). And for those of you who aren't Presbyterians, have no fear -- I have a few other topics that will appear this week as well (might be doing double duty to make up for last week!)

Soli Deo Gloria
Russell

Friday, August 26, 2005

Incommunicando ... and a happy birthday

Yes, I know I've not posted for the past several days -- I was invited by my friend Michael Walker of Presbyterians for Renewal to attend this week's meeting of the Presbyterian Church (USA)'s Task force on the Peace Unity and Purity of the church. (see Michael's initial thoughts here) That probably means absolutely nothing for most of you, but it was a very interesting event, with some important results for presbytery-dom. (Read the PCUSA article and download the report for your viewing here) Next week I'll blog my way through some initial thoughts on the meeting -- just thinking aloud about the report that was released.

In the meantime -- I'm wishing my big sister Alison a happy birthday -- Alison teaches Spanish and French at the College of Charleston in SC, and is one of the most erudie people I know. Happy Birthday hermanita!

Excelsior
Russell

Monday, August 22, 2005

Thoughts on Bold and Biblical

Don't you just love controversey! Michael Kruse, whose weblog is new to me (and I've been enjoying it greatly this past week) pointed his readers to a lecture given by Susan Garrett, a professor of New Testament at Louisville Seminary. Titled "Bold and Biblical" the lecture went on to show what progressive/liberal mainline Christians could do to counter the fundamentalists.

I'll be honest, my first reaction was to be quite offended -- after all, I'm pretty sure that I fall into the "fundamentalist" camp that she references. And her language seems to characterize fundamentalists as non-thinking neanderthals who are spoon fed their theology by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Fallwell. Consider this extended quote:

"People hear about this or that high profile pop-cultural offering and they jump on the bandwagon. But they lack the training or insight to read or watch with discernment. Therefore the viewers do not recognize that these books and films are designed in service of ideologies that the viewers themselves might well find offensive if laid out plainly. I have picked on the Left Behind books but I put Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ and (on the other side of the religious spectrum) Dan Brown’s book The DaVinci Code into the same category. And it is not just the books and the movies. People today are being bombarded from every quarter with conflicting information and opinions about what it means to be a Christian, what it means to be patriotic, and how those two are different or the same. Some of our members will buy into the right-wing arguments. Others will leave the church in exasperation or disgust if we do not show them that our commitments are not just relevant but also faithful to the Bible."

Then, as I re-read the lecture, I noticed a defensive posture. There was an acknowledgement that the liberal/progressive camp could not "defeat" the fundamentalists -- rather the lecture expresses a desire to hold the line -- to preserve and engage in a creative manner.

And then I re-read her advice for engagement, and I realized that I had no reason to be offended, no reason to be afraid. Indeed, Dr. Garrett's lecture is a gift not just to the liberal/progressive wing, but also a helpful reminder for evangelicals. She has three suggestions:

First " We must renew our commitment to teaching the Bible and to reflecting with our people on how to use the Bible in our personal and congregational lives. Such teaching and reflection needs to happen at all levels of congregational life." Garrett calls for greater scriptural engagement -- what a great idea! We evangelicals need to take this to heart as well. After all, we can easily fall into a steady diet of self-help, be better platitudes and miss out on the grand story of God's redemptive love extended through Jesus Christ.

Let us remember the truth of Isaiah 55: "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yeilds seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth; It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it." -- scripture that talks about the reliability of the oracles of Isaiah, but also generally appliccable to the whole counsel of God. If the Word of God is truly living and active and sharper than any two edged sword (and it is), then we ought to rejoice at any call to be immersed in scripture and let the scripture shape our lives and the cadences of our thoughts. Is God not great enough and mighty enough to grip hearts through the diligent reading of His word? Preach on Dr. Garrett, and would that we evangelicals would hear and attend.

The second suggeston is " we need to re-articulate our doctrinal commitments, and do so in a way that engages fundamentalist assaults on progressive or liberal Christianity. I think we need nothing less than a new art of “apologetics for the mainline.”"

Again, upon reflection, a hearty Amen. First this entails an honest presentation of beliefs, rather than relying on vague language the hedge theological committments. Indeed, a little open honest debate (note, not ideological positioning in order to "win" a battle, but honest truth seeking debate) would serve an "iron sharpening iron" function. Francis Schaeffer's mantra was that honest questions deserve honest answers -- such an "apologetics for the mainline" would certainly bring some contrasts into sharp focus and help evangelicals hone their apologetics.

Finally, Garrett's third suggestion, which she believes is most important:
"Above all we must show people the way to a personal God, to Jesus Christ living and moving in our midst. Jim Wallis writes, “In today’s world, there is one overriding and key distinction in all of the religion that is growing—a God who desires relationship with each person. Much of liberal religion has lost the experience of a personal God, and that is the primary reason why liberal Christianity is not growing. And without a personal God, liberal faith will never grow.”"

Again, right on -- the personal encounter with Jesus Christ is key. Again, a point for evangelicals to remember. Our God isn't some great iceburg in the sky -- not some aged English actor on a golden throne. Our God is personal, and real, and dwells within. We have mystic union with Christ through our faith. We have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ. We have reconciliation with the Father through the work of Christ. Indeed, the whole Trinitarian concept shows God to be at His core to be relational -- and we, made in God's image, are relational and created for relationship.

And it is that relationship that transforms. Praise God when liberal/progressives long for that relationship, for it is a relationship that cannot be controlled or contained. And yes, we evangelicals need to remember this as well -- for it is a relationship that doesn't submit to our agendas either.

So all that said -- thank you Dr. Garrett -- thank you for your heartfelt honesty and your call back to the living Triune God. May all who have ears hear.

Soli Deo Glori
Russell

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Speaking to Ross High School's Show Choir

Our church choir director, Rosie Collier, invited me to do a "master class" at the summer camp for her school show choir. I asked her what she wanted me to talk about -- I'm just a preacher, not a choir director (he writes, doing his best Dr. McCoy from Star trek). "Talk about unity and working together," she says.

So, with much trepidation and trembling I travelled out to Ross to speak with them for about an hour (hey, even pastors still get nervous). My goal was to impress upon them three things 1) you need to feel the music -- lose yourself in your work. 2) You need to listen to each other and feel yourselves working together 3) you need to feel the audience -- they want you to succeed and you need to feel that they're with you.

I dusted off a few old theatre exercises designed to help people connect. We circled up and tossed an imaginary ball back and forth (to help us learn to match our reaction to the force of the person "throwing"). We paired up and did the mirror exercise where you have to mirror every movement of your partner (to learn to follow and tune in to the other). And we did the freeze frame exercise -- where two actors are playing a scene, and someone in the audience yells freeze, takes the exact position of one of the actors, and then starts up a brand new scene (the actor still on stage has to listen very closely and work with the actor coming onstage to make the exercise work).

These folks did great -- they threw themselves into the exercises (and I hope they had a little fun). There are some truly talented performers in that group, and I'm sure that given a little sweat equity, they'll do great in competition.

The only place where I got theological was in telling them that we can't achieve greatness alone -- God created us to lean upon one another and depend on one another. I referenced I Corinthians 12 -- but there were other passages that make the same point (my favorite being Romans 12:4-5 "Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others." I know, I know, the passage applies to the church, not to show choirs -- but the general principle that lays behind the passage is that we were made to be in relationship and to lean upon one another -- that design finds its culmination in the covenant relationships within the church, but it still gets partial fulfillment out there in society.)

I also enjoyed how open many of these kids were with their faith. Rosie had them all make posters telling about themselves, and several of them wrote about their relationship with Jesus (one of the girls is a pastor's daughter, even). This encouraged me more than they will know.

Rosie has had several of these kids sing in church -- and I hope that some of them will come back down this year -- God has distributed some really great gifts there.

Soli Deo Gloria
Russell

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Builders and Destroyers

I’ve been reflecting on this concept for quite some time – Neal Postman, in his famously unused graduation speech captures it well, but I’ve seen evidence of its truth all about of late. The basic idea is this: there are some who relish destruction – they love to tear down and to destroy. There are others who love to create and build – they envision things and they take the necessary steps to make those things reality.

The destroyers are evident – even among “creative” types. Witness for instance films like Rob Zombie’s uber-violent films or the ultra-subversive The Aristocrats. The basic goal of these films is to undercut anything that is decent and good and lovely. The goal is to offend, shock, and otherwise tear down things that we value; everything is subject to undercutting/mocking/destruction.

Or witness the more dark trends in comic books (or graphic novels, as we like to say now to dignify the genre). The storytelling is still quite grand, and the art is fantastic – but the types of stories that are being told are nihilistic and appalling (the same can be said for the films of Quentin Tarentino – When I first saw Reservoir Dogs, for instance, I thought that it was a wonderfully told film – a very neat way of telling the story – but the story itself sucked joy out of my life). The lust for subversion and glorification of darkness, violence, and general cruelty are marks of those who relish destruction.

And that is their right, and to a degree artistic responsibility – art does shine light on the whole human endeavor, glorious and profane. We need artistic reminders of our depravity, for our depravity is real. However, we also need artistic reminders that we bear the imago dei – that we are fearfully and wonderfully made. A few shining examples are out there: The first two Spider-Man films, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Passion of the Christ, Finding Neverland, the most excellent adaptation of Peter Pan that came out last year. And yet it still seems the destroyers are ascendant.

I even saw this theme as I was working on my next installment for "The Gospel According to Shakespeare": Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare depicts the wrath of the destroyers and the sorrow they cause – when the goth princes Demetrius and Chiron rape and mutiliate the heroine Lavinia, cutting out her tongue and chopping off her hands, we have a picture of the wrath of destroyers. They did this simply for the joy of “having” her, and when they were done, they were fixated on cruelty and destruction.

Lavinia’s uncle Marcus, on finding the ravaged girl in the woods, utters a long and terribly sad speech:
“…he hath cut those pretty fingers off,
That could have better sewed than Philomel.
O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble like aspen leaves upon a lute
And make the silken strings delight to kiss them,
He would not then have touched them for his life.
Or had he heard the heavenly harmony
Which that sweet tongue hath made,
He would have dropped his knife and fell asleep
As Cerberus at the Thracian poet’s feet.” (42-51)

Again, the contrast of the creators and the destroyers – Lavinia, the creator of beauty, has come up against the destroyers, and fared badly in the bargain.

Postman, in his speech, casts builders (Like Lavinia) as Athenians and destroyers as Visigoths. He challenges us to nourish the inner Athenian. It seems too that God has called us to be builders -- Genesis 1 tells us that we were charged to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. Matthew 5 tells us to let our light shine before men that they may see our good deeds and praise our Father in heaven. I take these passages to point us toward building around us a culture that celebrates truth, beauty, and goodness.

Building is as simple as tending your garden, baking goods for your neighbors, generally being involved in culture and making a positive contribution (perhaps even writing a web log????). Far too often, I fall into the trap of neither being a builder nor a destroyer, but simply a consumer -- enjoying all the benefits of being surrounded by builders, without contributing anything myself.

Now is the time to step into the fray, overcome our fear, and begin to build.
More to come....

Soli Deo Gloria
Russell

Monday, August 15, 2005

A longing to be known -- Post Secret

Several months ago, I heard an NPR story on the web site Post Secret. The gist of this site is this -- you create your own postcard sharing a secret that you've never shared with anyone else -- then you send it in anonymously to the custodian of the site -- each week, he selects a few dozen of the cards he receives, scans them, and posts them on the website. He's calling it a "public art project".

It's interesting -- it preserves anonymity, it encourages creative expression, but it also allows for an indulgence of the exhibitionist instinct. Now we can share our darkest secrets, and thus have something of the mental relief that comes from confession, but maintain the anonymity that prevents any kind of embarrassment.

I expect that some folks make up things and send them in just to see if they're posted -- however there are many posts that are so poignant that if they're true, they're heartbreaking. For instance -- there is a post of a card that is covered in crosses, except for one star of david in the center. A hebrew phrase is written on the card which translated reads: "I'm afraid". Another scanned an image of an IRS tax form and in the place of the signature wrote "I M A Crook". Some are just odd "I stole valium from my epileptic dog." A lot of the cards deal with sex and drugs (which make me suspicious that they're fake), though a few deal with abuse.

The site shows the inner yearning that we have for connection -- to be known in full. To have our shame known and still be embraced. This is the yearning that drives us to the one who knows the hearts and minds of all mankind -- to the one who knows us in full, and still extends a gracious embrace.

Soli Deo Gloria
Russell

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Shyalaman's The Village -- a vindication

Warning -- for those who have not yet seen the suspense film The Village -- this post contains massive spoilers -- if you've not yet seen the film, but want to preserve the surprise, then read no further.

This film received a lot of dislike -- Horror fans seem not to have liked it (and the referenced posts point out some plot absurdities-- not on a site for the faint of heart -- horror fans like their websites a little grisly). The critics seemed to hate it. It seems that everyone was expecting M Knight to give us another chiller like the Sixth Sense (and sadly, it was marketed this way). In so doing, they set their expectations wrong.

I agree with Allan Andrychuck's comments on IMDB: "The Village is about seeking innocence. It is endearing and flows nicely. It does take a couple of turns but they are far secondary to the story itself. Some very important things are said here and its done in a very entertaining way. This movie is for the core movie buff, as it does not have the elements that would brand it any particular genre."

This is a thoughtful movie that reveals some deep yearnings of the human heart. The story starts in what appears to be an isolated 1870's village. The village is surrounded by woods that are inhabited by horrible creatures. Years ago, the elders and the creatures made a pact to stay out of each others' territory. However, a horrible injury sets up a situation where Ivy, the blind heroine, asks to risk the wrath of the creatures to leave the village and go to "the towns" to seek medicine for her injured fiancee.

It is here we find out that the creatures were all a myth created by the village elders to keep the inhabitants in the village. Ivy is allowed to go -- but alone. She receives detailed instructions and a list of the medicines needed. And when she arrives on the road to the towns -- we find that this story actually takes place in the present day.

The elders of the village were all people who lost loved ones to horrible murders. They were in a support group together during the 1970's, and one of them (a wealthy heir) suggested the idea of relocating to a remote area and creating a peaceful village. What they create is a fine little society, filled with many moments of joy and pleasure (seen in children dancing while sweeping a porch, in a wedding celebration), but also filled with sorrow and heartache (seen in the opening scene -- the funeral of a child who died of illness).

The elders created the village and the deception that sustained it because they were desperately wounded people seeking innocence -- seeking escape. Are they all that different from the legions of suburbanites looking for a patch of green earth and good schools? Are they all that different from city dwellers moving to the country seeking to reconnect with some forgotten sense of vitue and rightness and goodness. This film is Frontier House meets Brigadoon. The village is built entirely upon the all too human hope and dream that people of goodwill can create a haven of peace and beauty free from suffering. It also plays heavily into the mythos of "olden times" when things were simpler and better.

Sadly, the myth doesn't stand up to reality -- pain and suffering continues. Children die or are born with mental handicaps. Jealousy erupts. Violence arises. The human sin nature is not so easily subdued. They have not escaped suffering, merely contained it. As the elders debate the wisdom of letting Ivy go for the medicine (and risk the outside world finding out about the experiment), one says "We can move towards hope, that's what's beautiful about this place. We cannot run from heartache. My brother was slain in the towns, the rest of my family died here. Heartache is a part of life, we know that now. Ivy is running toward hope, let her run. If this place is worthy, she'll be successful in her quest." Even among basically decent folk, there will be suffering because we live in a fallen world under a curse.

This is a subtle film that's ultimately not about suspense or plot twists -- it's about love -- the love that drives Ivy to great courage. It's about dealing with hurt (which is what drives the elders to withdraw from society); it's about taking steps to create a culture of truth, beauty, and goodness in the face of the forces of chaos and destruction. Are there plausibility stretches? Sure (though the careful viewer can see how Shyalaman covers his bases -- the stilted affected 19th century speech really bothered me at first because it didn't sound natural. But when I found out they were all playacting, it made total sense -- they were living out their fantasy of 19th century). But the overall theme of love, yearning for innocence, and the inescapable nature of sorrow in this earthly existence make the film an underrated gift. It reminds us that our calling is to create a culture of blessing, not in isolation, but in the midst of the chaos -- but that we have the City of God to look forward to -- the city where there are no more tears and death and suffering are conquered.

Soli Deo Gloria
Russell

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Glimpses of Eternity in William Butler Yeats

One of my favorite classes while working toward my English major at Wake Forest was Ed Wilson’s course on Blake, Yeats, and Thomas. Dr Wilson, a pillar of tradition at WFU, is perhaps the last of the great romantics – as he read the poetry, you could hear the relish in his voice. He diligently worked to impress upon us the richness of the language and the depth of vision held by these great poets. They were bardic visionaries, who longed to impart an otherworldly vision – a glimpse of eternity.

Time and again I am drawn back to the poets – not for their theological profundity. No, these men were outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity. I am drawn back because they so deeply feel the longing of the human heart.

Yeats, for today’s example, again and again captures the longing for eternity. One of his early poems, “Fergus and the Druid” announces this theme – Fergus was the ancient Irish king who gave up his throne so that he might become a visionary druid. This poem is a dialogue in which Fergus explains his world weariness: “A king is but a foolish labourer/Who wastes his blood to be another’s dream.” In this we hear echoes of Ecclesiastes “I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (1:12-14).

The druid responds to Fergus “Take, if you must, this little bag of dreams/Unloose the cord, and they will wrap you round.” Then Fergus takes the bag of dreams and has his mystical experience of oneness with the universe: “I see my life go drifting like a river/ From change to change: I have been many things --/ A gree drop in the surge, a gleam of light/Upon a sword, a fir-tree on a hill/An old slave grinding at a heavey quern/ A king sitting on a chair of gold/ And all these things were wonderful and great/” But like the teacher in Ecclesiastes, Fergus finds that all the wisdom does not avail – it only brings sorrow. “But now I have grown nothing, knowing all./ Ah! Druid, Druid, how great webs of sorrow/Lay hidden in the small slate-coloured thing.”

The longing for peace and escape to an eternal rest is evident in “The Lake Isle of Innnisfree” After describing the hideaway he will build on the isle, Yeats writes “And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow/ Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings; / There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,/ And evening full of the linnet’s wings.” The longing for peace dropping all about is the inner longing for eternal rest. Interestingly, though, it is not the picture of the Christian eternal rest – the City of God where the whole family is gathered together (Revelation 22). The Christian rest is a gathering is for a wedding party – the wedding of Christ and the church together (Revelation 19:1-10). No, Yeats’ vision is a solitary vision – rest from the ills of the world. Not celebration with all the redeemed saints.

He closes the poem with how he senses this longing for the peace of the lake isle everywhere: “….for always night and day/ I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;/ While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,/ I hear it in the deep heart’s core.” And herein we hear echoes once again of Ecclesiastes: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (3:11).

The great poets remind us of the longing for the heavenly realms. They remind us that deep within, we know that we’re not home. Much of our art, culture, and craft are but shadowy attempts at communicating the home for which we long – the best communicate this longing with a clarity and force that cannot be ignored. Sadly, in communicating the longing, they often miss out on the Christ who graciously fulfills the longing by preparing the home just for us (John 14).

Soli Deo Gloria
Russell

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Forgotten Heroes: Thomas Watson

For some time now I’ve felt this growing longing to know more of the breadth of the Christian experience – not just contemporary experience, but the grand story of how the Holy Spirit has been moving in God’s people for the past 2000 years. Of particular interest are the early church figures, for their proximity to Christ and the increasing similarity of our age to theirs, and the Puritans. The Puritans, though they’ve gotten a bad reputation, were magnificent in their desire to have their whole lives be living hymns of praise. They were adept at bringing the fullness of the heart, the body, and the mind all to bear in their faith.

The problem with the Puritans is that the great ones tend to be, shall we say, wordy – verbose – loquatious – they had a masterful command of the lexicon which they were not afraid to use – their works are well suitied for a weightlifting regimen or body armor for some of your rougher neighborhoods. Needless to say, they’re a little dense.

That’s why I’ve become enamored with the works of Thomas Watson, who lived in the 1600’s (roughly 1620-1686 -- this is the era of the English Civil War, the colonization of the Americas, the rise of the age of piracy, and fun stuff). He has all the passion and intellectual precision of his era, but he is wonderfully concise in his works.

I wish we knew more about Watson. We know he studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge – which nurtured many of the great Puritan minds. He graduated with honors, and was known for his scholarship. From there he was Pastor of St. Stephens, Wallbrook, in the heart of London. During the English Civil War, he supported the monarchy, and spent time in prison as a conspirator with Christopher Love in restoring Charles II to the throne. His loyalty to the crown didn’t pay off, however. He, along with over 2000 nonconformist pastors, was ejected from his pulpit in 1662 because he refused to comply with the mandates of the Church of England at the time.

Thought he lost his livelihood, he continued to preach privately, and 10 years later, when Puritans were allowed to preach again, he rented the great hall in Crosby House where he preached for several years. Finally he died in Exeter.

One of the few surviving anecdotes tells of when Bishop Richardson came to hear Watson preach at St. Stephen’s. Richardson was quite pleased by the sermon, but more touched by the prayer afterward. He followed Watson home to give him thanks and said he earnestly desired a copy of his prayer. “Alas,” said Watson, “that is what I cannot give you, for I do not usually pen my prayers; it was no studied thing, but uttered as God enabled me, from the abundance of my heart and affections.” And the good bishop was amazed that any could pray extemporaneously in such a manner.

Though we know little of his life, we know the heart of the man from his books – one of the most accessible of the Puritans, he is both passionate in his theological precision, and concise in his practical application. His Body of Divinity is a classic explanation of the Westminster standards. But I find his great strength to be his practical works. They are practical, not in the sense that they offer 10 steps to successful sin management or victorious living. Rather, his works are practical in that they diagnose the great heart needs, and apply the truths of the gospel to these heart needs.

Two books to start with are (books that I like because they are short and easily accessible)

All things for Good – published originally as A Divine Cordial, this book came out the year after the Puritans were ejected from their pulpits. This was a dark time for those clinging to the faith of their conscience, and rather than writing a defensive polemic, Watson brought forth a book of comfort. “As the hard frosts in winter bring on the flowers I the spring, and as the night ushers in the morning-star, so the evils of affliction produce much good to those that love God.” (27)

The Art of Divine Contentment – Published in 1653, this treatise speaks volumes to our age of discontent. Watson reveals that such discontent is not new to our era – and that good Christians at all times have had to learn the secret of being content, as Paul talks about in Philippians ch 4. “Remember you are to be here but a day. You have but a short way togo; and what need is there for long provision for a short way? If a traveler has but enough to bring him to journey’s end, he desires no more. We have but a day to live, and perhaps we may be in the twelfth hour of the day. Why, if God gives us but enough to bear our charges until night, it is sufficient; let us be content.” (89)

You might also consider visiting the Thomas Watson reading room to get a better taste of his style.

Per some of my previous posts – I’m going to adapt this to be an article in wikipedia – and rather than purchasing these books, contact your library with the ordering information provided by these links and see if they’ll purchase a copy (it might even help if you have a reading group who will explore one of the books).

Soli Deo Gloria
Russell

Monday, August 08, 2005

Environmental Stewardship -- Up close and personal

As a Christian, I take seriously the mandate given humanity for the stewardship of the earth "Be fruitful and increase in number, Fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Gen 1:28). The mandate to rule is not a mandate for despotism -- we are not authorized to be tyrants over the earth, but rather a stewardship mandate. Theoretically, as the rest of genesis 1 tells us, all the plants and animals on earth have been declared good -- all of them in some way bring glory to God (and a part of our calling is to call attention to and bring out the way these creatures glorify God).

Gene Veith wrote in World Magazine last year about how Christians have a lot to offer the environmental activists....

"Christians will not agree with apocalyptic environmentalism (the notion that nature is doomed because of what human beings are doing to it), nor with anti-human environmentalism (the notion that humanity is nature's cancer), nor with Luddite environmentalism (the notion that all technology and all human dominion over nature are wrong), nor with animal-rights environmentalism (the notion that human beings may not use animals), nor with mystical environmentalism (the notion that nature is divine). Still, Christians should be nature lovers. Christians believe in the doctrine of creation, that nature is God's handiwork. Christians have also historically seen God's moral law as having been built into that objective creation. Not that we look to nature—that realm of predators and prey—for moral models, rather than God's Word, but moral transgressions violate something in human nature and in God's created design."

Now a lot of ink has been spilled about the public policy, but that is not my concern in this post. Beyond the public policy dispute, there are simple individual things that we as Christians can do to live out the stewardship of the earth.

One thing I've been doing is composting -- quite simple really. Save the scraps of vegetables, fruit, coffee grounds, teabags, etc and toss them in a bin with shredded newspaper, lawn clippings, etc. Turn it with a shovel every few days (particularly when you add new material) and within a month or two, you have rich brown compost to add to your garden, bare patches of the lawn, flower beds, etc.

You may think I'm nuts -- but I compost because I learned it from my mom (who has always had an awesome garden) who learned it from her father (who grew the best vegetables) who presumably learned it growing up in rural SC. This isn't some kind of new age concept -- it's basic simple resource management. Why fill up the landfills with organic material and pay for fertilizer when you can re-use what you've got as fertilizer.

Then last year, in the interest of saving on gasoline, I bought a Neuton electric mower (I had seen the product advertised in World Magazine, so I thought it worth a try). The Mower is battery operated, so I don't have to keep explosive gasoline in my basement, I don't have to worry about engine tune ups, I don't have to deal with deafening mower noise. And I leave the mulching blade on, so all the grass clippings go right back into my yard.

Another environmental step we took was just this weekend. Most of us have old paint, aerosol cans, batteries, etc. in our basements. These items, if disposed of improperly, can leach into groundwater, causing undue harm to plants and animals around us, and even getting into our drinking water. At the county fair, I found out that the Hamilton County Department of Environmental Services has a place and time for free dropoff of this hazardous waste. These are my tax dollars at work, so why not take advantage of the offer -- Tammy and I cleaned out our basement of dangerous old stuff. look up your county on the web and see if they offer something similar -- it's quite easy.

I take these steps in part because of my faith -- that I'm supposed to be a good steward and a good neighbor and a good citizen. Any ideas on where you're being a good steward?

Soli Deo Gloria
Russell

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

A Nifty Quote on an Old Theme

A nifty quote for the week – we’ve had an ongoing theme of Revival in this blog (though I won’t claim to be the “revival blog”, but the theme does seem to keep cropping up.

In reading Martin Lloyd-Jones work on Ephesians (in preparation for an upcoming sermon series), I came across this quote:

“How was it that the early Christians, who were but a handful of people, had such a profound impact on the pagan world in which they lived? It was because they were what they were. It was not their organization, it was the quality of their life, it was the power they possessed because they were truly Christian. That is how Christianity conquered the ancient world, and I am more and more convinced that it is the only way in which Christianity can truly influence the modern world. The lack of influence of the Christian Church in the world at large today is in my opinion due to one thing only, namely (God forgive us!) that we are so unlike the description of the Christians that we find in the New Testament.” (Volume 1, pg 24).

This quote goes right along with Mike Foster’s comments about being Missional. If we yearn for impact and long for making a difference, if we long for revival of Christian passion in our land, then we need to be used by Christ as missionaries where we've been placed. Then we go over to yesterday's post on Intellectuelle, and we see that God's ordinary method for shaping and transforming our lives is through the proclamation of the word. When, under the guidance of Scripture, we live lives of doxology – when all that we do serves to bring God praise – when we take seriously Christ’s claim upon our lives – and his intent to use us where He placed us – then we begin to understand the parable of the mustard seed.

Soli Deo Glori
Russell

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Moving toward McCulture

A lament:

Barnies was not my favorite coffee shop – that distinction goes to the Pleasant Perk. Nicely situated around the corner from our home, the Perk is the quintessential neighborhood shop – great coffee served in a quirky and clever atmosphere with local art on the walls and haphazard chic d├ęcor. Barnies, by contrast, was a mall chain store. I liked Barnies because it reminded me of our days in Orlando (where Barnies is based). I liked buying good flavored coffee there (yes, you coffee purists, I do from time to time drink flavored coffee – mainly because I like it, and I overcame food snobbery long ago). I liked that they sold Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee, not that I would ever shell out $40 per pound for any coffee, but I liked knowing that the Lexus of Coffee beans was available.

Now, Barnies is no more -- and Starbucks has moved in. I enjoy Starbucks – I truly enjoy their coffee. But there is something that saddens me about this change. There are Starbucks all over town, and this to my knowledge, was the only Barnies. Now I have to live with the encroaching presence of the Wal-Mart of coffee – a behemoth that actually limits my “coffee experience” by spreading their brand across the cultural landscape like some kind of Seattle Kudzu or hyper caffeinated Borg.

It happens all about us – the homogenization of culture. I knew our family vacation spot at Litchfield beach was in trouble when a McDonalds sprouted up down there. I predict that many of the quaint locally owned seafood restaurants will be replaced by “American corner restaurant” chains like TGIAppleBenniganFridays or “pseudo Italian” chains like CarrabOliveMacaroniGardenGrill. How long can it be before the distinctive local bookstore with piles of unshelved books and the spaced out counter attendant will be replaced by WaldenBordersandNoble.

So I beg of you – celebrate the local. Find that which is unique, flavorful, odd, and only served up in your area. Not just food – but record shops, comic book stores, garden centers. Buy produce from local farmer’s markets (or even, if you dare, purchase a share of a local farmer’s crop – I’ve still not worked up the courage to do this, but I’m longing to). By all means, don’t be a slave to fashon, trends, and “the next big thing” –

Excelsior
Russell

Monday, August 01, 2005

The Aristocrats -- does anybody with sanity really care?

I hesitate to tell you about this.

But then again ....

You'll hear about it sooner or later, and I want you to be prepared...

So, here it is. If you haven't heard about the film The Aristocrats, you soon will. I've seen it glowingly reviewed in articles in Time Magazine and Entertainment Weekly. It's quite simply a film documentary about the dirtiest joke ever told. 90 minutes of famous and hoping to be famous comedians doing their own perverse jazz riff on this same joke. That's it -- that's the movie -- 90 minutes of one really tasteless and disgusting joke. Nothing else.

Yeah, I was pretty indredulous too -- I don't care how good the comics are, it's still just a joke. But wait till you hear the hype. The film received acclaim at Sundance Film Festival -- critics are hailing it as brave and bold and the funniest movie of the year (of course, film critics have never struck me as a very discerning lot when it comes to identifying actually enjoyable movies).

The mastermind behind this project is none other than Penn Jillette -- the loudmouth half of magic/comedy team Penn and Teller. Jillette is an atheist, and an obnoxious one at that -- he loudly and cruelly mocks anyone who has faith. He's also a shameless self-promoter, along the lines of a PT Barnum for the new generation. He and Teller have an "acclaimed" TV show where they "debunk" all sorts of things -- propriety keeps me from telling you the title, but it is a commonly used pithy substitute for "bovine schatology". Their act has always been based on the shock factor, and the TV show takes it to the next level -- now Penn is going over the top. He has created a movie that has is being distributed without a rating (because it would have earned an NC-17 rating based solely on foul language). AMC theatres is refusing to carry the film (drop them a note thanking them for their sanity)

The premise is this -- "The Aristocrats" is a joke that comedians tell one another after the shows are over. The point is that they try to see who tells the best, funniest, most outrageous version of the joke. But it's all a secret, see? But clever Penn Jillette is going to let us in on the super-secret inside joke that comedians tell one another -- it's like the Davinci Code meets Lenny Bruce (I do wonder if you tell the joke just right, do you discover the path to the holy grail treasure trove of comedy, including George Burns Havana selects and the lost films of Fatty Arbuckle?). So Jillette has already set us up salivating for this "forbidden" joke.

And of course there is the shocking nature -- so many dirty words -- so many people to offend. Oh my goodness what are we to do -- the oh so clever comedians know how to tell a dirty joke and they want to offend people -- oh no, I'm so shocked and surprised (please note the thick sarcasm)

Jillette is counting on protesters in the street -- he's counting on this being so outrageous that the christians will boycott and picket -- he wants the buzz to be so great that people all across the country will rise up and say "If it's got that many people mad, it must be worth seeing." -- this is the PT Barnum effect -- any publicity is good for sales. A quote from the Entertainment Weekly Article: "'The best thing that could happen to the movie is its being attacked and censored,' says Gilbert Gottfried, who heroically delivers the movie's stirring climax (and who, in normal conversation, sounds shy — nothing like his screaming persona). 'It gives it media attention and makes people want to see it.'"

Which is why I suggest that Christians simply ignore the film (and yes I am aware of the conflicting message I send by blogging about it and suggesting we ignore it). It's presence simply illustrates the truth of Psalm 1 "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stnad in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away...."

This movie is here today, gone tomorrow. The Entertainment Weekly review nailed the film when he wrote "The Aristocrats has a lot of laughs, but as it giggles and blasphemes its way into areas not so far removed from the scandalous landscape of the Marquis de Sade, the movie, funny as it is, becomes exhausting and a bit depressing. It's at once a comedy, a horror film, and a hilariously unsettling testament to the deepest reality of what comedians are: rim-shot madmen, driven to seek out and destroy all that's taboo. The joke, of course, is ultimately about them, our aristocrats of unhinged anarchy." Psalm 1 -- the rim-shot madmen who seek to destroy will be gone tomorrow and forgotten in a generation.

So just ignore it -- or better yet (this will really take the wind out of Jillette's sails), tell people how terribly BORING this all sounds. 90 minutes of potty humor? Cant you do anything better than that? Behind all their bravado, performers crave the attention -- and hearing that their work is boring is just intolerable.

Soli Deo Gloria
Russell