Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Photo of the Week

Light shines on the righteous
and joy on the upright in heart.
Rejoice in the Lord, you who are righteous,
and praise his holy name.

- Psalm 97:11-12

Monday, February 27, 2017

Quote of the Week

"These things made of the church for me something entirely different from the rest of the town; a building which occupied, so to speak, four dimensions of space--the name of the fourth being Time--which had sailed the centuries with that old nave, where bay after bay, chapel after chapel, seemed to stretch across and hold down and conquer not merely a few yards of soil, but each successive epoch from which the whole building had emerged triumphant."

- Marcel Proust, French writer from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, from his novel In Search of Lost Time (Vol. 1)


(Painting: "Leaving Church in Leiden," by Bartholomeus van Hove, 1846)

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Sunday Scripture - Mark 15:39-47

Mark 15:39-47


15:39-47 – In these verses, Mark begins to highlight for us the upside-down nature of the Kingdom of God, revealed in power in Christ’s death on the cross. As soon as Jesus dies, we see unexpected witnesses step forward to hail him, mourn him, and honor him. It’s not his inner circle of twelve male disciples who are in the forefront of this first wave of recognizing Jesus’ lordship—no, it’s a pagan Gentile army officer, a group of women, and a member of the body who condemned Jesus to death. First, Mark shows us the centurion, one of the closest observers of Jesus’ death, who is quoted as saying, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” In their parallel passages, Matthew keeps a similar wording, while Luke tones it down a bit (“Surely this was a righteous man”). Where critics might point to a clear discrepancy in the accounts, and claim this as a point in their argument that the gospels are historically unreliable, there is quite probably a very good explanation for this. First, one needs to recognize that first-century historiography was not quite the same as the practice in our own day, and so it would have been considered “true” to convey the underlying substance of a statement, even if not the exact words. From that point, we could note two possibilities: either (1) the centurion said “Surely this was a righteous man,” but he later came to faith in Christ and was known to the Gospel writers, and so Matthew and Mark have “backdated” his authentic reflections on the death of Christ to that moment on Golgotha, or (2) he said, “Surely this was the Son of God,” but Luke decided to tone the wording down, because a pagan calling someone “the son of god” is not necessarily the same thing as a Jew or Christian saying those same words. In either case, there are possibilities whereby all of the Gospel writers are remaining true to the events and meaning of Calvary. For our purposes, though, the most important thing is to note the irony that it is a Gentile army officer, reviled by the Jews, who is the first to recognize the Messiah of the world. Mark then goes on to note the presence of the women. In first-century cultures, women did not have a strong position in society—they were regarded (unfortunately) as weaker and less intelligent than men, too swayed by their emotional natures, and thus not dependable as witnesses. And yet they are shown here as the most faithful of Christ’s disciples, exhibiting courage that not even Jesus’ inner circle showed, and they stand as the primary witnesses to both Jesus’ death and resurrection. (This is, incidentally, another strong point in favor of considering the Gospel accounts to be historically reliable; if you were making up this story in that culture, you certainly wouldn’t choose to make women your primary witnesses, unless that’s the way it actually happened.) Throughout all ages of the church, it has been the women—often behind the scenes—who have often been the most faithful members of the Body of Christ, standing with their Lord in prayer, suffering, and service; they remain today the strongest part of most local fellowships, and thus there is no place in the Body of Christ for the marginalization of women. After highlighting the women, Mark shifts his focus onto the third surprising witness—Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Council (that is, the Jewish body that condemned Jesus). He is apparently so struck by Jesus’ death that he gets Pilate’s permission to bury Jesus, and places him in a rock-cut tomb. This was extravagant treatment—a rich man’s tomb for a man executed in the manner of the lowest of criminals! Yet Christ had begun to turn the world on its head, and now the least likely of men can become the most faithful of converts. Along the way, Mark also notes the time for us (Preparation Day, before the Sabbath—that will become important later on) and records two historical details that help to refute common conspiracy theories regarding Christ’s resurrection. One such conspiracy theory is that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross—he merely swooned, and then revived later on. This might seem plausible if one is familiar with crucifixions, because the truth is that the victims of crucifixion almost never died as a result of the torture itself. Convicts would have to be killed at the end of the crucifixion, often by breaking their legs so they can’t push themselves up, and they drown in their own fluids. But Mark notes for us that Pilate knew this fact about crucifixions very well, and that he even double-checked to make sure that Jesus was dead—and yes, it turns out, he truly was. (The other Gospels offer other proofs to this effect, such as the soldiers piercing Jesus’ side with a spear, and blood and water coming out—a sure sign of death). The second conspiracy theory is this: that perhaps the poor, grief-stricken women didn’t know where they were going on Sunday morning, and they happened to come upon a tomb they thought was Jesus’, but, lo and behold, it was empty! Well, Mark clearly tells us why this couldn’t have been the case—the women followed Jesus’ body all the way from the cross to the tomb on Friday evening, and they saw where he was laid. It wasn’t a case of them getting lost and picking the wrong tomb; no, Jesus truly was dead, and then he truly was risen from the dead.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Saturday Synaxis


God, always the same, let me know myself, let me know you… God our Father who exhorts us to pray, who makes it possible for us to pray, our entreaty is made to you, for when we pray to you we live better and we are better. Hear me groping in these glooms, and stretch forth your right hand to me. Shed your light on me, call me back from my wanderings. Bring yourself to me so that I may in the same way return to you. Amen. 

- Augustine

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Order & Rule of Life

*Note* - This post is an introduction to my particular method of keeping discipline in my devotional and study habits. I'm introducing it as a regular feature of this blog under a new sidebar heading, in which I can post my weekly rule-of-life checklists (they'll appear in a backdated post from 2006, so they'll have a link to them, but won't show up in the main weekly cycle of posts). Keeping this blog, like my rule of life, has been a positive help for me to maintain disciplined habits (particularly in my writing), so I've long wanted to find a way to combine the two and include my rule of life in the structure of this blog. The explanation below might serve as an inspiration to some readers who'd like to craft their own rule of life, but its appeal may be limited to that.
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Carthusian monks, by Vincenzo Carducci, c.1630
Since I was a teenager, the idea of being part of a monastic order appealed to me (in fact, my first series of articles for this blog was about the possible advantages of launching a contemporary neo-monastic movement). But God gave me different vocations--as a husband, father, and pastor--and so I haven't yet managed to find a way to insinuate myself into a monastic order.

However, in lieu of that, I've developed my own order, which has already reached the dizzying heights of a single enrolled member (myself). This is perhaps not a surprise, since it was created largely to give a disciplined structure to my own particular eccentricities, and until now it's been operating in the manner of a secret society. But today I bring it out of the shadows, not in order to open enrollment to all the other diffident introverts out there who are longing for carefully-structured forms of communal identity, but to encourage an ancient and too-often-ignored practice: the following of a rule of life. 

Benedict Presents the Monks with His Rule, by Il Sodoma, c.1505
A rule of life is simply a structured series of habits and resolutions that one puts into practice into one's daily life. In the Christian tradition, it is a tool that recognizes our human weakness--the many ways that we slouch toward vapid pursuits in the absence of an intentional spirit of discipline, put in place to give a firm hand on the reins of our passions. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, this interior struggle--the "arena" of the heart, where we battle against the passions that naturally draw us toward a self-centered existence rather than a God-centered existence--is seen as the first, and perhaps the most important, battlefield in the war of conquest that Christ is waging against the powers of evil. As such, a rule usually prescribes certain spiritual disciplines and devotional practices, in addition to other habits of discipline. The underlying idea is a very simple one--that to be a "disciple" of Christ, one ought to live according to "discipline." It's a good deal easier to follow a rule of life in a communal setting that provides built-in accountability (like a monastery), but it's an advisable course even for individual Christians, and especially if you can make use of a spiritual advisor to encourage you and oversee your progress.

In order to provide some motivation and inspiration in my order and rule of life, I organized it along the basis of a "Cursus Honorum" (an idea borrowed from the Roman Republic)--an ascending ladder of offices within the order, through which the ordinand may advance if he faithfully keeps the rule of life throughout a given year. The ordinand begins by taking the traditional three vows of a monastic vocation--obedience, chastity, and poverty. For a person like myself, though, who has obligations to my family, I can't keep these vows in quite the same way that a monk would. However, they do provide the broad outlines of how I try to live my life: (1) obedience to God and to the authority figures that he sets over me; (2) chastity, in keeping my heart and marriage free of immorality; and (3) poverty, in the sense of trying to pursue a course of simplicity and moderation in the many areas of personal consumption that I have to deal with in my day-to-day life (so, moderation in purchases, food, and using various forms of media). 

Each stage of the order's Cursus Honorum is given a name inspired by offices in the traditions of classical Christendom, developed so that the attaining of a new rank gives the ordinand a sense of identity, confidence, and encouragement. There are twelve stages in the Cursus Honorum, divided into three sections: Monk (of which the stages are Novice, Acolyte, Ostiary, and Lector), Knight (of which the stages are Squire, Cavalier, Paladin, and Master), and Noble (of which the stages are Tribune, Prefect, Praetor, and Consul). If an ordinand has climbed through all these stages, he ascends to the final rank, the Prester. For each of the twelve stages, the ordinand is assigned a theme virtue for the year and chooses a theme verse of Scripture to go along with it. (And additionally, if desired, an exemplar "hero of the faith" from Christian history can be chosen to represent each stage, whose example may serve as an inspiration. Because the voice of church history is particularly important to me, I have both an exemplar for each yearlong stage, and a rotating set of exemplar heroes for every 40-day stretch within a given stage. The 40-day cycle, not outlined here, is an optional overlay to the Cursus Honorum, which enables the intentional practice of focusing on a 40-day rotation of prayer concerns and spiritual disciplines).

Now, to some readers, this inventing of made-up offices with fanciful names might seem a little silly, a trifle puerile; and I suspect that I probably can't help them in that, since I've never suffered the tragic fate of facing life without an imagination. No, in all seriousness, I choose these names and ranks as a way to inspire myself, to make a challenge and a game of my deep desire to advance in virtue and to chasten my passions with careful habits of godly discipline.


I'm not the only one who enjoys complicated schemes of self-discipline.
So, one might ask, how does one advance through these ranks? Well, in lieu of an actual monastic community to provide oversight to my rule of life, I've had to go with a mode of accountability that just about everybody finds compelling: bookkeeping! My rule of life is expressed in a weekly checklist that I carry around with me. (I've experimented with apps that offer habit-checklist tracking, but I find that an old-fashioned paper checklist works better for me.) The checklist doesn't include the daily tasks of pastoral and family duties, which form the vast majority of my quotidian labors and are simply assumed as a prerequisite to most of these other tasks. Thus it's not meant to sum up everything that I do in a week, but simply to encourage me to be intentional in my pursuit of edifying free-time activities which tend toward my spiritual, intellectual, and physical well-being. Thus, it prescribes a certain set of devotional activities (organized around four daily devotional hours inspired by the Christian tradition), as well as small chunks of daily reading, language practice, and writing that I want to keep up with, on top of boxes for recording my successes in keeping a program of diet and exercise. The checklist categories may change form occasionally, and various tasks may be weighted differently, depending on which goals require the most motivation, but the overall structure will remain the same. It's organized to allow me to keep score of my discipline in these activities, such that I could score up to 100 in a week if I manage to do everything on the checklist. 

The basic idea is that I keep these weekly checklists throughout each stage of the Cursus Honorum (with each stage lasting a year), and I'm permitted to gain a new rank if a majority of my checklists for the year have a score of 70 or higher. (It's a moderate system rather than a strict one, because my checklists aim for an idealistic high-bar: the inclusion of all possible good habits that I'd like to practice in a perfect week, such that I've never yet scored a full 100, and usually average in the 70s; besides, the monastic tradition has always recognized that it does no one any good to be too hard on oneself.) I'll be posting my weekly checklists in a link on the blog's sidebar (an example from earlier this year can be seen here), in case anyone is interested in checking out the process and working on developing a rule of life for themselves. Mine is probably unnecessarily complicated, but it works well for me, encouraging me toward more healthy and productive pursuits in my struggle for virtue and discipline.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Short Poem from My Novels

This is one of three poems that appeared as the introductions to my Hidden Kings Trilogy, representing inspired prophecies about the characters and events in the salvation-history of my fictional world.

Pathways of Mercy

Words I speak,
Words of truth,
Words of wonder for the world.
Watch the star,
Watch the end,
It comes upon us now.
The bright and fearsome circle
Of all our little lives
Will turn around again.
The Star King’s breath,
The Star King’s sword,
Will wake upon the world—
And blade for blade,
For life, for death,
For life that never ends.
Watch and wait,
And laugh with me,
When Warlent’s heirs make rise,
For the final bearer of the sword
Will be the bearer of new life.