Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Prayer for the New Year: "Valley of Vision"

O Lord, length of days does not profit me
Except the days are passed in Thy presence,
In thy service, to Thy glory.

Give me a grace that precedes, follows, guides,
sustains, sanctifies, aids every hour
that I may not be a moment apart from Thee,
but may rely on Thy Spirit
to supply every thought,
speak in every word,
direct every step,
prosper every work,
build up every mote of faith,
and give me a desire
to show forth Thy praise;
testify Thy love
Advance Thy kingdom.

I launch my bark on the unknown waters of this year,
with Thee, O Father, as my harbour,
Thee, O Son, as my helm,
Thee, O Holy Spirit, filling my sails.

Guide me to heaven with my loins girt,
my lamp burning,
my ear open to Thy call,
my heart full of love,
my soul free.

Give me Thy grace to sanctify me,
Thy comforts to cheer,
Thy wisdom to teach,
Thy right hand to guide,
Thy counsel to instruct,
Thy law to judge,
Thy presence to stabilize.

May Thy fear be my awe,
Thy triumphs my joy. Amen.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Monday, October 14, 2013

In the Way of Grace

"We have to make the Bible our Vade Mecum, our book of reference, our book of trust.  Let us be convinced more and more of the prodigious fertility of the Bible.  How much lies hidden and unobserved, even after many perusals; and surely if it be true that a man may read it an hundred times and find something on his next reading which he missed on all his former ones, oftener recourse to this means of grace bids fair for multiplying our blessings.  Therefore, let us be quick to be in the way of grace." Thomas Chalmers

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Creed or Chaos

During the Second World War, the English woman of letters, Dorothy Sayers, gave a stunning address on the importance of doctrine.  Published after the war as Creed or Chaos, the central argument of the book remains remarkably prescient:

"Something is happening to us today, which has not happened for a very long time. We are waging a war of religion. Not a civil war between adherents of the same religion, but a life-and-death struggle between Christian and pagan. The Christians are, it must be confessed, not very good Christians, and the pagans do not officially proclaim themselves worshippers of Mahound or even of Odin, but the stark fact remains that Christendom and heathendom now stand face to face as they have not done in Europe since the days of Charlemagne. 

The people who say that this is a war of economics or of power-politics, are only dabbling about on the surface of things. Even those who say it is a war to preserve freedom and justice and faith have gone only half-way to the truth. The real question is what economics and politics are to be used for; whether freedom and justice and faith have any right to be considered at all; at bottom it is a violent and irreconcilable quarrel about the nature of God and the nature of man and the ultimate nature of the universe; it is a war of dogma. 

The word dogma is unpopular, and that is why I have used it. It is our own distrust of dogma that is handicapping us in the struggle. The immense spiritual strength of our opponents lies precisely in the fact that they have fervently embraced, and hold with fanatical fervor, dogma which is none the less dogma for being called "ideology." We on our side have been trying for several centuries to uphold a particular standard of ethical values which derives from Christian dogma, while gradually dispensing with the very dogma which is the sole rational foundation for those values. 

The thing I want to say is this: it is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand upon the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously. 

It is fatal to let people suppose that Christianity is only a mode of feeling; it is vitally necessary to insist that it is first and foremost a rational explanation of the universe. It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism. 

This is the Church's opportunity, if she chooses to take it. So far as the people's readiness to listen goes, she has not been in so strong a position for at least two centuries. The rival philosophies of humanism, enlightened self-interest, and mechanical progress have broken down badly; the antagonism of science has proved to be far more apparent than real, and the happy-go-lucky doctrine of "laissez-faire" is completely discredited. But no good whatever will be done by a retreat into personal piety or by mere exhortation to a "recall to prayer." The thing that is in danger is the whole structure of society, and it is necessary to persuade thinking men and women of the vital and intimate connection between the structure of society and the theological doctrines of Christianity. 

The task is not made easier by the obstinate refusal of a great body of nominal Christians, both lay and clerical, to face the theological question. "No creed but Christ" has been a popular slogan for so long that we are apt to accept it, without inquiring whether religion without theology has any meaning. And however unpopular I may make myself I shall and will affirm that the reason why the Churches are discredited today is not that they are too bigoted about theology, but that they have run away from theology. 

If we really want a Christian society we must teach Christianity, and it is absolutely impossible to teach Christianity without teaching Christian dogma."


Even as Christ has wrought
Wine from water,
So has the Spirit wrought
Sweetness from gall,
Life from death,
Even in the first breath
Of repentance.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)

Robert Farrar Capon, a writer, thinker, pastor, and cook of extraordinary depth and insight, has gone home to be with the Lord.

He said and did and wrote much, for which we can all be thankful. Perhaps the following (one of my favorite passages from his revelatory book, The Supper of the Lamb) will suffice to explain why:

To raise a glass, however, is to raise a question. One honest look at any real thing—one minute’s contemplation of any process on earth—leads straight into the conundrum of the relationship of God to the world. The solution is hardly ob­vious. For something that could not be at all without God, creation seems to do rather well without Him. Only miracles are simple; nature is a mystery. Autumn by autumn, He makes wine upon a thousand hills, but He does it without tipping His hand. Glucose, fructose, and Saccharomyces el­lipsoideus apparently manage very nicely on their own. So much so, that the resolving of the conflict between the sacred and the secular (or, better said, the repairing of the damage done by divorcing them) has been billed as the major problem of modern theology. Permit me, therefore, glass in hand and cooking Sherry within easy reach, the world’s most interrupted discourse on the subject. In vino veritas.

Take the largest part of that truth first. God makes wine. For all its difficulties, there is no way around the doctrine of creation. But notice the tense: He makes; not made. He did not create once upon a time, only to find himself saddled now with the unavoidable and embarrassing result of that first rash decision. That is only to welsh on the idea of an unnecessary world, to make creation a self-perpetuating pool game which is contingent only at the start—which needs only the first push on the cue ball to keep it going forever. It will not do: The world is more unnecessary than that. It is unnecessary now; it cries in this moment for a cause to hold it in being. It was St. Thomas, I think, who pointed out long ago that if God wanted to get rid of the universe, He would not have to do anything; He would have to stop doing something. Wine is—the fruit of the vine stands in act, outside of nothing—because it is His very present pleasure to have it so. The creative act is contemporary, intimate, and immediate to each part, parcel and period of the world.

Do you see what that means? In a general way we con­cede that God made the world out of joy: He didn’t need it; He just thought it was a good thing. But if you confine His activity in creation to the beginning only, you lose most of the joy in the subsequent shuffle of history. Sure, it was good back then, you say, but since then, we’ve been eating leftovers. How much better a world it becomes when you see Him creating at all times and at every time; when you see that the preserving of the old in being is just as much creation as the bringing of the new out of nothing. Each thing, at every moment, becomes the delight of His hand, the apple of His eye. The bloom of yeast lies upon the grapeskins year after year because He likes it; C6H12O6=2C2H5OH+2CO2 is a de­pendable process because, every September, He says, That was nice; do it again.

Let us pause and drink to that.

Glorious Grace

"Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears." Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Rock of Ages

Augustus Montague Toplady, clergyman and writer, was born in 1740, at Farnham, about 20 miles southwest of Windsor, England. He studied at the prestigious Westminster School for a short time, but was sent to Ireland in 1755, the same year as his conversion—he had been greatly influenced by the teachings of John Wesley. 

Toplady received his degrees of Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts from Trinity College. During his studies, he gradually came to reject the Arminianism of the Wesleyan Methodists in favor of the doctrines of Sovereign Grace of the Puritan Calvinists. Ordained deacon in 1762, he was licensed to the Anglican curacy of Blagdon the same year. He was ordained a priest in 1764, and from then until 1766 he served as curate at Farleigh, Hungerford. For the next two years he held the benefice of Harpford with Venn-Ottery, and for two years after that, of Broad Hembury. During 1775 he took a leave of absence to minister to the French Calvinist Reformed Church in Orange Street, London. 

His first published work was a work of verse, Poems on Sacred Subjects. But he was best known for his polemical and dogmatic works—including The Church of England Vindicated from the Charge of Arminianism which was published in 1769 and The Historic Proof of the Doctrinal Calvinism of the Church of England which was published five years later in 1774. Those works proved vital in the ongoing theological struggles within the English church and helped to ensure orthodoxy for at least another generation. 

Toplady was only thirty-eight when he died, but his short life-span was enough to produce one of the most beloved of all hymns, Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages cleft for me, 
Let me hide myself in Thee; 
Let the water and the blood 
From Thy driven side which flowed 
Be of sin the double cure; 
Cleanse me from its guilt and power. 

The hymn was first published on this day in the Gospel Magazine, London, 1776. Today, only a very few non-specialists read the theological works which established Toplady as one of the most significant men of his day, but nearly all Christians sing his hymn—even the Arminians it was written to confound.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Different Tigger Altogether

“Well, I’ve got an idea,” said Rabbit.  “And, here it is.”
“We take Tigger for a long explore.  Somewhere where he has never been.  And then, we lose him there.  And, the next morning we find him again.  And mark my words, he’ll be a different Tigger altogether.”
“Why?” asked Pooh.
“Because, he’ll be a humble Tigger.  Because, he’ll be a sad Tigger.  A melancholy Tigger.  A small and sorry Tigger.  An oh-Rabbit-I’m-so-glad to-see-you Tigger.  That’s why.” A.A. Milne 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Soli Vade Mecum Vitae

"I conceive every duty of a Christian to be comprehended in a single word: translation--a translation of the Scriptures into his tongue, and a translation of its truths into his own heart and conduct. The Bible must be our soli vade mecum vitae, our sole book of reference for life, our only book of trust." Thomas Chalmers 

Friday, May 31, 2013

A Lesson in Skirling

During the Christmas holidays in 1841, Thomas Chalmers, then perhaps the most prominent man in all of Scotland, paid a visit to the tiny Borders town of Skirling in Peebleshire.  During his stay, he consented to stop by the local village school and give a lecture on Mathematics.  

The great man was always inclined to leave a moral philosophy lesson for his students, even when he was teaching natural philosophy.  And so it was that at the conclusion of his talk, he drew a large circle on the slate board and declaimed:

"The wider a man's knowledge becomes, the deeper should be his humility; for the more he knows the more he sees of what remains unknown. The wider the diameter of light, the larger the circumference of darkness. And so, with every footstep of growing knowledge there ought to be a growing humility--that is the best guarantee both for a sound philosophy and a sound faith."

The importance of this vital lesson was not soon lost on his awestruck students.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Theological Lint-Pickers

The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

In 1813, Thomas Chalmers wrote in “The Christian Instructor” bemoaning the compulsion to internecine warfare amongst the Reformed, Paleo-Conservative, Theological Lint-Pickers, and Nomenclature-Saber-Rattlers in the Scottish Church.

He described the tendency as “that mingled sentiment of fear and aversion with which they listen, even to opinions that are evangelical and substantially their own, when they came to them couched in a phraseology different from what their ears have been accustomed to.”

Their selective but ardent litmus tests for acceptance, he argued, goes well beyond creedal faithfulness. “They must have something even more than the bare and essential attributes of orthodoxy.”  Indeed, “Even orthodoxy is not welcome unless she presents herself in that dress in which she is familiar to them; and if the slightest innovation in the form of that vehicle which brings her to their doors, she is refused admittance, or at best treated as a very suspicious visitor.”

Chalmers concluded that this parsimonious fractiousness is largely due to “a want of those two very things which they often insist upon, and with justice, as the leading attributes of a true and decided Christian: there is a want of faith and a want of spirituality.”

Alas, two hundred years later, it seems little has changed.

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Glory of the Ascension

"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

Monday, February 25, 2013

Our Cottage in the Wood

"For our titanic purposes of faith and revolution, what we need is not the old acceptance of the world as a compromise, but some way in which we can heartily hate and heartily love it. We do not want joy and anger to neutralize each other and produce a surly contentment; we want a fiercer delight and fiercer discontent. We have to feel the universe at once as an ogre’s castle, to be stormed, and yet as our own cottage in the wood, to which we can return at evening." G.K. Chesterton

Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Acts of the Apostles