Sunday, December 31, 2006

Bunyan on Prayer, Thought for the New Year

My friend Archie Parrish included this great thought from John Bunyan in his most recent prayer letter from Serve International. We would do well to heed it in the New Year.

"You can do no more than pray before you pray; but after you pray you must do more than pray." No wonder Bunyan, and Matthew Henry following him, loved the old Latin motto Ora et labora. Pray and work!

One could choose worse mottoes for the year to come. Let's make this one a byword for our congregation.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Facing a New Year

When my daughter, Hannah, graduated from High school we wanted to do something special to celebrate. So, we flew to Northern California. We stayed with close friends, Gary and Chris Smith, who live on, own, and operate, a vineyard. We found no shortage of intriguing people and unique places.

One location stood out: Donner Memorial State Park. The Donner Party was a group of American families who got caught up in the “westering fever” of the 1840s. They heeded the call of California. Filled with the trepidation and excitement that attends the promise of a new beginning, 33 people departed Springfield, Illinois in mid-April, 1846, bound for Northern California. The shortcut at “Hastings Cutoff” seemed like a common sense option at the time. They never envisioned the nightmare of becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains and resorting to cannibalism.

Today, a monument marks the spot. The plaque on the monument reads, “Virile to risk and find; Kindly withal and a ready help. Facing the brunt of fate: Indomitable—unafraid.” This certainly gives us a sense of the western, pioneering spirit that we prize as Americans. But “Virile” when facing risk? “Indomitable” and “unafraid” when facing “fate”? Will we never learn?

Contrast this with the disposition of the Psalmist:

42:[5] Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him
For the help of His presence.

[11] Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why have you become disturbed within me?
Hope in God, for I shall yet praise Him,
The help of my countenance, and my God.

43:[5] Why are you in despair, O my soul?
And why are you disturbed within me?

Hope in God, for I shall again praise Him,
The help of my countenance, and my God.

The Psalmist examines his hopes, “Why are you in despair, O my soul?” and preaches to himself, “Hope in God.” He stops listening to his heart and starts preaching to, and reminding, his heart.

Let us face the new year and “run with endurance the race that is set before us, [2] fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. [3] For consider Him who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:1-3).

A rescue party is coming. Hope in God!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Merry Christmas!

Cindy Mercer Photography

"Christmas Day"

A baby is a harmless thing
And wins our hearts with one accord,
And Flower of Babies was their King,
Jesus Christ our Lord:
Lily of lilies He
Upon His Mother's knee;
Rose of roses, soon to be
Crowned with thorns on leafless tree.

A lamb is innocent and mild
And merry on the soft green sod;
And Jesus Christ, the Undefiled,
Is the Lamb of God:
Only spotless He
Upon his Mother's knee;
White and ruddy, soon to be
Sacrificed for you and me.

Nay, lamb is not so sweet a word,
Nor lily half so pure a name;
Another name our hearts hath stirred,
Kindling them to flame:
'Jesus' certainly
Is music and melody:
Heart with heart in harmony
Carol we and worship we.

Christina Rossetti

From "Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity"

This is the Month, and this the happy morn

Wherein the Son of
Heav'ns eternal King,
Of wedded Maid, and Virgin Mother born,
Our great redemption from above did bring;
For so the holy sages once did sing,
That he our deadly forfeit should release,
And with his Father work us a perpetual peace.

That glorious Form, that Light unsufferable,
And that far-beaming blaze of Majesty,
Wherewith he wont at Heav'ns high Councel-Table,
To sit the midst of Trinal Unity,
He laid aside; and here with us to be,
Forsook the Courts of everlasting Day,
And chose with us a darksome House of mortal Clay.

John Milton


Friday, December 22, 2006

A Lover's Quarrel with the World

Cindy Mercer Photography

I am especially mindful of it at Christmas. Many have embraced it. It feeds on Darwinian theory, post-Kantian philosophy, the harsh realities of modern urban and industrial life, and the tidal wave of technologies. Many learn it when they became “too mature” to read fairy tales. The new literature professor introduces them to it through Emily Dickinson, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Richard Rorty. Bishop Spong convinces them of it through his argument that the biblical account of creation and fall is “pre-Darwinian mythology and post-Darwinian nonsense.” Richard Dawkins helps clarify it when he preaches that only a fool would believe “The God Delusion.” What is it?

Max Weber called it “The disenchantment of the world.” Herman Melville refers to this disenchantment in Moby-Dick: “Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must go there to learn it.” Robert Frost composed a song of disenchantment:

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

If the cosmos is mindless machine, nature reveals nothing, God is wish-fulfillment, and there is no one out there, what are we to make of this “diminished thing”? This tormented Frost. Later, in “The Most of It,” he wrote,

He thought he kept the universe alone;
For all the voice in answer he could wake
Was but the mocking echo of his own
From some tree–hidden cliff across the lake.
Some morning from the boulder–broken beach
He would cry out on life, that what it wants
Is not its own love back in copy speech,
But counter–love, original response.

Unlike many of his “enlightened” contemporaries, Robert Frost could not accept the silent melancholy of a disenchanted world and the hopeless, echoing sound of his own voice. He longed for “counter-love, original response.” As far as I know, he never found it. He continued his “lover’s quarrel with world.” This seeking of wonder, beauty, and “original response” sounds notes of humility, loss, and deep sadness in Frost’s poetry as a whole.

He never found what G.K. Chesterton, a liberal Unitarian turned Christian, found:

The Christ-child lay on Mary's lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's breast
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary's heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world's desire.)

The Christ-child stood on Mary's knee,
His hair was like a crown,
And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

From "Me" to "You"

Congratulations! You are person of the year!

Tom Wolfe was an avid reader. Early on, he knew he wanted to be a professional writer. He graduated from Washington and Lee University in 1951 and earned a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale University in 1957. He went on the serve as a reporter for the Springfield Union, the Washington Post, and the New York Tribune. The rest is history. His essays and novels have introduced “household name” phrases into our language, “the right stuff,” “radical chic,” and “good ol’ boy,” to name a few.

Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter & Vine, Wolfe’s 1975 collection of essays, introduced a phrase that would characterize a generation of Americans: “the Me decade.” Wolfe's coinage, “the Me decade,” was soon transformed into “the Me generation” in popular parlance. Now, “Me” is “You.” Time magazine's “Person of the Year” is “You,” which is really “Me,” which is more specifically, “Everyone.” The issue includes a mirror on the cover so readers can reflect upon their favorite subjects. Little did I know when I wrote “Reflecting of Narcissus” in November that Time would so soon provide such an unmistakable case in point.


Monday, December 18, 2006

The Death of Homo Sapiens

Cindy Mercer Photography

“A maximum of six people are usually invited to watch, but from a carefully judged distance so as not to fret or disturb the mother. And afterwards, if all goes well, there is a celebratory meal, often with champagne.” This new birth, this celebration of life, soon to be followed by a ritual christening with family and close friends, takes place in Oxford, England in 2021. The “child” is a kitten, yes, a kitten.

On December 25, Children of Men, a movie based on P.D. James’ 1992 novel, The Children of Men, will be released across the nation. James takes her title from Psalm 90, which is contained in a burial rite in The Book of Common Prayer:

Lord, Thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were born,
Or Thou didst give birth to the earth and the world,
Even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God.

Thou dost turn man back into dust,
And dost say, "Return, O children of men."
For a thousand years in Thy sight
Are like yesterday when it passes by,
Or as a watch in the night.

James, a committed Christian, points her readers to a future world (2027 in the film version) in which all human beings are infertile. The cause of this malady eludes the lords of science. Soon, like other forgotten animal species, homo sapiens will be extinct. In this context, even the birth of an animal evokes wonder and celebration.

How do people attempt to come to terms with this bleak future? They seek “protection, comfort, pleasure”—at any price. If this means submission to an all-powerful “Warden” because he promises to keep the lights on and provide hot water, so be it. If compulsory reproductive examinations, state-sponsored porn shops, prison camps, and the practice of euthanasia and slavery are necessary to pacify the majority, why not?

What happens to watered down Western Christianity as this crisis intensifies? It evaporates. It is empty, meaningless. It reveals itself for what it is, “chaff which the wind drives away.” James’ portrayal of humankind in its last desparate days is unnerving. Reading through this book provoked in me a repeated response: “That’s true—now.”

Don’t be misled. This is not another lamentable contribution to that forgettable genre, “Christian fiction.” Although The Children of Men is not an overt apologetic for Christianity, its unsettling vision of narcissism and its complex, imaginative depiction of sin, death, redemption, life, sacrifice, and love may just change the way you see the world—on the spot. The book is replete with biblical themes. I have not seen the movie, but let us hope it is true to the book (I have my doubts). Read the book; consider the movie.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

"Packing" for Christmas

My copy of Knowing God is worn out. It cost me $3.95 in 1979--I've gotten my money's worth. As many of you know, J.I. Packer often refers to himself as “Packer by name” and “packer by trade.” He has the gift of profound theological insight coupled with articulate expression. His writings are “packed.” The following section from chapter 5, “God Incarnate,” is a must for the Christmas season. It is simply great stuff. I read it every year at this time.

“We see now what it meant for the Son of God to empty Himself and become poor. It meant a laying aside of glory (the real kenosis); a voluntary restraint of power; an acceptance of hardship, isolation, ill-treatment, malice, and misunderstanding; finally, a death that involved such agony—spiritual, even more than physical—that His mind nearly broke under the prospect of it. (See Luke 12:50, and the Gethsemane story.) It meant love to the uttermost for unlovely men, who ‘through his poverty, might become rich.’ The Christmas message is that there is hope for a ruined humanity—hope of pardon, hope of peace with God, hope of glory—cause at the Father’s will Jesus Christ became poor, and was born in a stable so that thirty years later He might hang on a cross. It is the most wonderful message that the world ahs ever heard, or will hear.”

“We talk glibly of the ‘Christmas spirit,’ rarely meaning more by this than sentimental jollity on a family basis. But what we have said makes it clear that the phrase should in fact carry a tremendous weight of meaning. It ought to mean the reproducing in human lives of the temper of Him who for our sakes became poor at the first Christmas. And the Christmas spirit itself ought to be the mark of every Christian all the year round.”

“It is our shame and disgrace today that so many Christians—I will be more specific: so many of the soundest and the most orthodox Christians—go through this world in the spirit of the priest and the Levite in our Lord’s parable, seeing human needs all around them, but (after a pious wish, and perhaps a prayer, that God might meet them) averting their eyes and passing by on the other side. That is not the Christmas spirit. Nor is it the spirit of those Christians—alas, they are many—whose ambition in life seems limited to building a nice middle-class Christian home, and making nice middle-class Christian friends, and bring up their children in nice middle-class Christian ways, and who leave the sub-middle-class sections of the community, Christian and non-Christian, to get on by themselves.”

“The Christmas spirit does not shine out in the Christian snob. For the Christmas spirit is the spirit of those who, like their Master, live their whole lives on the principle of making themselves poor—spending and being spent—to enrich their fellowship, giving time, trouble, care and concern, to do good to others—and not just their own friends—in whatever way there seems need. There are not as many who show this spirit as there should be. If God in mercy revives us, one of the things He will do will be to work more of this spirit in our hearts and lives. If we desire spiritual quickening for ourselves individually, one step we should take is to seek to cultivate this spirit. ‘Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.’ ‘Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus.’ ‘I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart’ (Psalm 119:32).”

From J.I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1979), 55-56.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The "Commercial Racket"

Not long ago, I concluded a season of postgraduate study. Part of that work included reading everything C.S. Lewis ever wrote, excluding all of his letters. Whether you enjoy reading Lewis, find him exasperating, or land somewhere in between, the word “grumpy” probably doesn’t enter your mind when you think of Lewis.

That was true for me, until I discovered a short essay that Lewis wrote for the December 1957 edition of the publication, Twentieth century.
Here, C.S. Lewis is clearly, and quite uncharacteristically, grumpy. Why? Christmas, more specifically, the “commercial racket” that attends it. Lewis affirms that the celebration of Christmas for Christians is “important and obligatory.” He embraces the celebration, merry-making, and hospitality that characterize the season. But his denunciation of the commercialization of Christmas is scathing.

From "What Christmas Means to Me":

The interchange of presents was a very small ingredient in the older English festivity. Mr. Pickwick took a cod with him to Dingley Dell; the reformed Scrooge ordered a turkey for his clerk; lovers sent love gifts; toys and fruit were given to children. But the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers. Neither of these circumstances is in itself a reason for condemning it. I condemn it on the following grounds.

1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it [in the commerical sense] in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out—physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.

2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. It is almost a blackmail. Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we hardly remember) flops unwelcomed through the letter-box, and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?

3. Things are given as presents which no mortal ever bought for himself—gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

4. The nuisance. For after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it. We are told that the whole dreary business must go on because it is good for trade. It is in fact merely one annual symptom of that lunatic condition of our country, and indeed of the world, in which everyone lives by persuading everyone else to buy things. I don’t know the way out. But can it really be my duty to buy and receive masses of junk every winter just to help the shopkeepers? If the worst comes to the worst I’d sooner give them money for nothing and write it off as a charity. For nothing? Why, better for nothing than for a nuisance.

Taken from C.S. Lewis, “What Christmas Means to Me,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 304-305.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"I lock my door upon myself"

Cindy Mercer Photography

My wife loves doors. Yes, doors, old doors primarily, doors with character. She has taken hundreds of photographs, from around the world, of doors. For me, it's been an acquired taste.

Doors communicate. They bid welcome and convey rejection. Open doors invite the fellowship and hospitality of home, family, and church. At times, we pass through them racked by the fear and anxiety that attends personal confrontation or an unknown future. Closed doors announce security, privacy, and safety, or they declare exclusion, condescension, or even mystery.

The Scriptures are rich with door and doorway imagery. One must pass through doorways to enter the courts of the temple area and the Holy of Holies. The closed door of the ark signals safety for Noah and his family (Gen 6:16; 7:16), the blood-signed doorposts set the Israelites apart on the evening of the Passover (Ex. 12:22–23), and Paul writes that “a great door for effective work has opened to me” (1 Cor. 16:9). The “ancient doors” are commanded to be lifted up so the King of glory may come in (Ps. 24:7, 9).

During this hectic season, no doubt replete with comings and goings, let Christina Rossetti’s haunting lines remind you that no matter whom you shut out or let in, there is in the end only one door that matters, the “One” who breaks the yoke of sin, frees us from ourselves, and calls us to His praise and glory. It is He who declares, “I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture” (John 10:9).


God strengthen me to bear myself;
That heaviest weight of all to bear,
Inalienable weight of care.

All others are outside myself;
I lock my door and bar them out
The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.

I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?


God harden me against myself,
This coward with pathetic voice
Who craves for ease and rest and joys.

Myself, arch-traitor to myself;
My hollowest friend, my deadliest foe,
My clog whatever road I go.

Yet One there is can curb myself,
Can roll the strangling load from me
Break off the yoke and set me free.

Christina G. Rossetti (1876)