Monday, December 21, 2020

Merry Christmas!

I'm taking a two-week break from blogging over the holidays. Normal posts will resume on Monday, January 4.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Saturday Synaxis

Redeemer of the nations, come!
Ransom of earth, here make Thy home!
Bright Sun, O dart Thy flame to earth,
For so shall God in Christ have birth!
How bright Thy lowly manger beams!
Down earth's dark vale its glory streams:
The splendor of Thy natal night
Shines through all time in deathless light.

- from hymn #158 of The Augustine Hymn Book, 19th century

Friday, December 18, 2020

Africa Memoir: Like a Thief in the Night

(Photo by Ahmed Rabea. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)
(Click here for earlier installments of this series)

I soon moved out of Aaron and Anne’s house, and down to the guesthouse operated by SIM (formerly Sudan Interior Mission)—one of the few avowedly Christian organizations allowed to operate in the city. I was nearer the center of the city now, in the downtown district creatively called "Khartoum Itneen" (Khartoum #2). I had a small room on the second floor of the guesthouse, arranged like an open-air motel. There was a guarded gate and a high wall around the guesthouse, as is common for such things. I didn't give the security level there a second thought, at least not for the first few weeks.

I had all the necessary amenities at the guesthouse—a cot, a fan (it was so hot that you could only sleep by lying almost completely bare, without a sheet, directly under the fan), an old computer for doing my linguistics work; and, in the common area, there was a small kitchenette and even a bathroom with a proper sit-down toilet. A small handful of foreign workers came and went during my months there, but never more than four of us at one time. The guesthouse was attached to the compound of KIC, Khartoum International Church, where many of the Christian expatriates (such as embassy staff) would come to worship, as well as hosting an Amharic-speaking Ethiopian church. The church I attended, Khartoum Christian Center, met on Fridays in a nondescript building downtown, and my times of worship there remain some of the best memories of my life. (More on my church experiences in an upcoming post.)

Even though I lived closer to the heart of the city, I was still expected to join my team’s meetings every morning in Diems. The first time I tried to navigate my own way from Khartoum to Diems was slightly unnerving. I went down to the main bus depot in the center of the city (a vast, dusty yard where hundreds of buses were parked, with not even a building, a terminal, or even a desk where one could ask questions) and I found a small van that I believed was going the right way. But they started off on a route I had never taken before, even though I thought they were driving in what was generally the right direction. I stared out the window for ten minutes, watching this city of several million roll by and hoping desperately that I could see a familiar landmark. And then, finally, I saw it—a gaudily-painted minaret that I knew was just a few blocks north of Ernest’s house. In the end, I hadn’t needed to worry—the van had taken a route that went straight down into my old stomping grounds on Sharia Wahid-wa-Arobayeen; but I can still remember that stomach-sinking sensation of being driven off into a city that I didn’t know very well, and where I couldn’t yet speak the language. 

After that, I got quite a bit better at navigating around by myself. There were still a few customs to learn—how to flag down a bus by waving one’s hand in a particular way (there were no official bus stops, so if you didn't master this skill, you'd never be able to ride one); how to snap one’s fingers to get the bus to pull over and disembark; how to read the numerals on coins so as to render the appropriate fee. There was one time I rode down Sharia Wahid-wa-Arobayeen in a motorized rickshaw, knowing that the fee was 300 dinars. When I got out, I handed the driver some coins, but he immediately rattled off a string of angry Arabic that I couldn’t follow. So I pulled out one of the most common and useful phrases of Sudanese Arabic, “Ma fih mushkila” (“There’s no problem”), to which he responded indignantly “Fih mushkila!” He drove off in a huff, after which I studied the coins in my hand a bit harder and discovered that the pieces I thought were hundreds were really only tens, so I had only offered him 30 dinars for the ride. Aside from that minor bump, though, I started feeling pretty good about getting around by myself. 

More often than not, I chose to walk rather than ride. Khartoum is generally a safe city to walk about in, so long as you're not crossing too many major roads. I would walk all the way from my room in Khartoum Itneen to Diems for the team meeting—a walk of about fifty minutes—and then over to the language institute in Amarat, a walk of another thirty minutes or so. Lucky for me, I was there in the cool season, so it only got up to about 115 degrees. I got to know the main sites on my route pretty well—the Saudi Arabian embassy near the institute, St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral, and the one and only Western-style store that I laid eyes on, no bigger than a few small rooms but with several essentials for my life there—eggs, ramen noodles, mango juice, bread, and toilet paper (the last of which had absurdly inflated prices because only foreigners used it). There was also a shop near the guesthouse that served beef-kabob sandwiches at a walk-up window, and they still seem to me about the best sandwiches I've ever had. 

Over those months, I managed to get around largely on my own, to feed myself, and to get my work done in a fairly efficient manner. But there were still surprises, to be sure. While my guesthouse had a basic level of security, I put more faith in it than I should have. One night a thief broke in. I had left my room door unlocked that night, perhaps assuming the walled compound and the guard were sufficient. I started suddenly awake around one or two AM to see someone open my door, poke his head in, and then, when I sat up, quickly close it again. In my half-asleep state, and dressed only in boxers, I just rolled over and went back to sleep, but discovered in the morning that it hadn’t been a dream—several electronic gadgets had been plundered from the common room of the guesthouse. After that, I locked my door. Just as in Jesus' parable of the thief in the night, if I had known he was coming, I would have been better prepared for the threat. It didn't really rattle me, but it did remind me to stay watchful--not only for my personal safety, but to be ready for whatever attacks of spiritual warfare the enemy might try to launch our way. 

Over the next few weeks, I would see firsthand the oppression under which the churches of Khartoum labored and strove. The greatest threats came not from thieves in the night but from persecutors in the highest levels of government--indeed, within a decade of my time in Khartoum, all three of the institutions I mentioned--the SIM guesthouse, Khartoum International Church, and Khartoum Christian Center--were each forcefully seized by the government and shut down. It was not a matter of wolves sneaking into the sheepfold: here we were sheep walking in the shadow of the wolves' own den.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: John Wesley & George Whitefield

“When I preach the Gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!....Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible….I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”  – 1 Corinthians 9: 16, 19, 22

“Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him….And who is equal to such a task? Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, like men sent from God.”  – 2 Corinthians 2: 14, 16b-17

John Wesley: Basic Facts

- John Wesley (1703-1791) was the fourteenth child of Samuel and Susanna Wesley (they had 19 children, but only 7 survived). John’s younger brother, Charles, would become a co-leader of the Methodist movement and one of the greatest hymn-writers in church history.

- Wesley was a minister in the Anglican Church, but by the end of his life he had become the leading figure of what was quickly becoming a new denomination—the Methodist movement. Today the Methodists and the Wesleyans both claim direct descent from Wesley’s ministry.

- Wesley’s ministry was characterized by some new innovations: (1) a targeted ministry to non-churchgoers (especially the poor); (2) open-air preaching; (3) an emphasis on cleanliness, thrift, and human dignity; (4) an emphasis on social ministries; (5) religious societies centered around a small-group format; and (6) circuit-riding preachers who kept up the network of the denomination. His theological work centered on ideas of holiness and “perfection.”

Timeline of Wesley's Early Life & Ministry

- 1709 – Six-year old John is saved from a fire; for the rest of his life he would consider himself a “brand plucked from the burning” and set aside for a special work of God. 

- 1725 – ordained to ministry as a deacon after studying at Oxford University

- 1729 – returns to Oxford to lead the “Holy Club” with his brother Charles

- 1735 – John and Charles go to Georgia as missionaries; on the crossing over the Atlantic, the ship is caught in a storm, and the two brothers are impressed by the faith and confidence of a group of Moravians who were with them.

- 1737 – After a disappointing end to their Georgia ministry, the brothers return to England

- 1738 – John Wesley has his “Aldersgate Experience” at a meeting of Moravians—he hears a reading from Luther’s Preface to Romans, and feels his heart “strangely warmed.”

- 1739 – John preaches his first open-air sermon, following the example of George Whitefield

- 1744 – After five years of itinerant preaching along with Charles, they hold the first Methodist Conference and set up the organization and network of the new movement

- During his ministry John Wesley rode over 250,000 miles on horseback (a distance equal to ten times around the globe along the equator!) and preached over 40,000 sermons (averaging more than 2 per day!). He was also a productive writer who published more than 5000 books and pamphlets. It was not uncommon for him to draw crowds of up to 20,000 when preaching.

Quotes from John Wesley

“I continue to dream and pray about a revival of holiness in our day that moves forth in mission and creates authentic community in which each person can be unleashed through the empowerment of the Spirit to fulfill God's creational intentions.”

“Give me a hundred men who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I will shake the world.”

“The world is my parish.”

Wesley’s Rule for Christian Living:
“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

George Whitefield: Basic Facts

- George Whitefield (1717-1770) was a member of the Wesleys’ “Holy Club” and remained John’s friend for life, despite a disagreement over theology. 

- He was the first to attempt the practice of gathering massive crowds for outdoor preaching, a tradition which prepared the way for evangelists like Charles Finney, D.L. Moody, and Billy Graham. He was one of the first to bring some methods of acting to preaching, and was widely regarded as the greatest preacher of his day, sometimes gathering crowds up to 30,000. He spoke to a total of 10 million people in his lifetime.

- He did massive preaching tours in the American colonies, becoming the first true “celebrity” in American history and sparking a revival known as “The Great Awakening.”

Quotes from George Whitefield

“If your souls were not immortal, and you in danger of losing them, I would not thus speak unto you; but the love of your souls constrains me to speak: methinks this would constrain me to speak unto you forever.”

“God forbid that I should travel with anybody a quarter-hour without speaking of Christ to them.”

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Photo of the Week

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse;
From his roots a Branch will bear fruit.
The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
The Spirit of wisdom and of understanding,
The Spirit of counsel and of might,
The Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—
And he will delight in the fear of the Lord.

- Isaiah 11:1-3

Monday, December 14, 2020

Quote of the Week

"Afflictions are but the shadows of God's wings."

- George MacDonald, nineteenth-century Scottish pastor and author who had a great influence on G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Saturday Synaxis

Spare us, O Lord, aloud we pray,
Nor let our sun go down at noon:
Thy years are one eternal day,
And must Thy children die so soon?
Yet in the midst of death and grief
This thought our sorrow shall assuage:
"Our Father and our Savior live;
Christ is the same through every age."

- from a hymn by Isaac Watts

Friday, December 11, 2020

The Vaccine of Gratitude

(Note: this piece was written a couple weeks ago as a Thanksgiving devotional column for my local newspaper)

In a year like this, Thanksgiving presents a challenge. And I don’t just mean the travel advisories and requests from governing authorities to give up meeting with large groups of friends and family. It’s clear that many of our traditional holiday practices come with risks of furthering the spread of Covid-19. But I’m actually talking about a different challenge. In a year like this, even just the act of giving thanks can feel like a challenge. After all, we’ve lived for months now without being able to go about our lives as normal, and that has had a major effect on people’s emotions, finances, education, safety, and mental health. And now, the pandemic has come knocking on our doorstep in a significant and sobering way, and some of our dearest neighbors are struggling to hold onto hope, health, and even life. Across the nation, the picture is even darker: with more than a quarter million lives lost to the pandemic, we are a nation locked in mourning even while we try to plow ahead into uncertain waters. It’s hard enough to stop and catch a breath, to say nothing of finding things to give thanks for.

One of the hopes on the horizon is the promise of a vaccine. If it’s effective and well-distributed, a vaccine has the potential of reining in the pandemic and giving us back a sense of normalcy. As I was reading through some Thanksgiving reflections this week, I stumbled across an old quote that also talks about vaccines—not a physical inoculation, though, but one for the heart. The great British pastor J. H. Jowett once said, “Gratitude is a vaccine.” Another writer, expanding on the quote, added, “When trouble has smitten us, a spirit of thanksgiving is a soothing medicine.”

The current pandemic brings with it a host of physical dangers, including the threat of death in the most severe cases. We need to take those dangers seriously, and strive by our behavior to do our best to protect those around us. But there are other dangers, too—the danger that our fear will lock us into an attitude of despair rather than courageous resolve; the danger that our fault-finding and scapegoating of others will destroy what makes our communities special; and the danger that our impatience with this long, difficult year will sour into a rut of discontentment that will steal away our joy for good. For these dangers—these symptoms of a very real spiritual disease—gratitude can indeed be the vaccine that we need. It won’t solve all of our problems, and it won’t make the virus go away, but gratitude can give us a perspective that may begin to help us get past the catastrophic emotional effects of this year.

So how do we give thanks at a time like this? Start small. When so many comforts and daily practices have been taken from us, it’s a good time to think about what remains. And the truth is, having some of the rest of it taken away might actually help us see more clearly just what an abundance of little blessings we truly have. While we wait for the return of unmasked shopping trips, baseball games, eating out, going to the movies, traveling, and even hugging and handshakes, let’s not forget to give thanks for the basic blessings of food, shelter, faith, and a supportive community. The truth is, we still have a lot to be thankful for. This may be a season of waiting, of watchfulness, and of mourning, but as Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us, there will be times of joy and laughter yet to come. So be willing to take the vaccine of gratitude this week, and let the hope and peace of little blessings carry you through to better days.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: Jonathan Edwards & David Brainerd

“You have made known to me the path of life; You will fill me with joy in Your presence, with eternal pleasures at Your right hand.” – Psalm 16:11

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” – 1 Cor. 10:31

Jonathan Edwards: Basic Facts

- Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a pastor and theologian in Massachusetts. He was an important figure in the “Great Awakening” revivals, and he is still regarded as one of the best theological minds that America has ever produced.

- He served as a pastor for more than two decades in Northampton, then as a missionary-pastor to Native Americans in the town of Stockbridge, and finally as the president of Princeton University.

- Although best-known now for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” his most important contributions came from his theological reflections in books like Religious Affections and The End for Which God Created the World. Edwards is gaining renewed interest from the “Neo-Reformed” movement in present-day evangelicalism, largely through the ministry of Calvinist pastor/authors like John Piper.

A Selection of Edwards’ “Resolutions” (first composed when he was 19):

, That I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory for the whole of my duration.

Resolved, Never to lose one moment of time, but improve it the most profitable way I can.

Resolved, Never to do anything which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.

Resolved, Never to do anything, which if I should see in another, I should count a just occasion to despise him for, or to think any way the more meanly of him.

Resolved, To study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, as that I may find, and plainly perceive myself to grow in the knowledge of the same.

Resolved, To strive to my utmost every week to be brought higher in religion, and to a higher exercise of grace, than I was the week before.

Resolved, To ask myself at the end of every day, week, month and year, wherein I could possibly in any respect have done better.

Resolved, Never hence-forward to act as if I were my own, but entirely and altogether God’s.

Resolved, Never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.

Resolved, After afflictions, to inquire, what I am the better for them, what good I have got by them, and what I might have got by them.

Theology & Quotes of Jonathan Edwards

The themes of Edwards’ work center on the glory and sovereignty of God, the beauty of His holiness, and our love and joy evoked in response to God.

“The happiness of the creature consists in rejoicing in God, by which also God is magnified and exalted.”

“God’s purpose for my life was that I have a passion for God’s glory and that I have a passion for my joy in that glory, and that these two are one passion.”

“The enjoyment of [God] is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the ocean.”

“But it is doubtless true, and evident from [the] Scriptures, that the essence of all true religion lies in holy love; and that in this divine affection, and an habitual disposition to it, and that light which is the foundation of it, and those things which are the fruits of it, consists the whole of religion.”

David Brainerd

David Brainerd (1718-1747) was a close friend of Jonathan Edwards. Despite struggling with chronic depression, illnesses, and many other difficulties, he committed himself to a life of mission service among the Native Americans. His journals were published by Edwards after his death, and they remain a classic of missionary literature. 

“Oh, that I could spend every moment of my life to God's glory!”

“Here am I, send me; send me to the ends of the earth; send me to the rough, the savage pagans of the wilderness; send me from all that is called comfort on earth; send me even to death itself, if it be but in Thy service, and to promote Thy kingdom.”

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Photo of the Week


Wake, O wake, ye weary! Once more the angelic strain
Floating down from heaven o'er all the earth again
Sheds its benediction on human want and pain:
Glory in the highest! for Christ the Lord is born.

- from a hymn by Edwin Pond Parker

Monday, December 07, 2020

Quote of the Week

"We need to look resolutely away from the impossibilities and to the Lord.  His help will come, though often it cannot break through to us until the last moment."

– Isobel Kuhn, 20th-century missionary to China and Thailand

Saturday, December 05, 2020

Saturday Synaxis

Glory to our Lord and to his mercy and to his truth! Out of his mercy he did not fail to make us blessed, nor did he hide from us his truth. The Truth, clad in flesh, came to us and healed the eyes of our heart, that afterward we might be able to see him face to face. How great is your love toward us, kind Father!

- Augustine

Friday, December 04, 2020

Learning to See the Unseen

(Note: This article was originally written as a devotional column for my local newspaper)

It’s been an unsettling year all around, between the pandemic, drought, social unrest, wildfires, and hurricanes (not to mention the rancorous political climate in this election cycle). For many people, this has been an exceptionally hard year, and at such times it’s easy to ask questions like “Where is God in all this? Why would he allow such things to happen?” One of my great passions is the study of religious philosophy, which seeks to wrestle with questions just like these. Such questions are certainly not unique to our own time—previous generations (which, incidentally, were far more familiar with pandemics, plagues, and famines than we are) asked the same questions, and more often than not, came away with answers that strengthened their faith, rather than diminished it.

You see, serious seekers of the truth invariably come up against the fact that the evidence of reason points strongly toward our universe being carefully designed. This was obvious to the pre-Christian philosophical giants of ancient Greece, most of whom abandoned belief in the pagan gods because they had reasoned out the logical necessity for there to be an all-powerful divine Creator, far above any other gods: Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover.” Nowadays, many people have the idea that scientific discoveries have disproven such antiquated notions. Far from it—many physicists and cosmologists, from the best universities in the world, will regularly attest to the fact that the evidence they’re discovering strangely seems to indicate that our universe was deliberately calibrated to support life.

Some skeptics, though, have started taking a different tack in recent years: exploring neuroscience to try to find explanations for why religious believers are the way they are. If only there were some kind of mental flaw or deficiency that was statistically correlated to religious belief, then they could feel vindicated in the superiority of their own beliefs. Well, as it turns out, the results are in for one such study, recently published in the academic journal Nature Communications: it shows a correlation between a neurological tendency and the likelihood of religious belief. However, it’s not a deficiency or a flaw—rather, it’s a strength. The study found that people who are better at implicit pattern recognition are more likely to be religious believers. That is to say, people who are better than average at perceiving underlying patterns in the world around them tend, more often than not, to believe in God. They seem to be able to perceive, at an innate level, the rational and physical proofs for God that philosophers and cosmologists continue to discover in the world around us.

The Bible speaks very clearly as to why a belief in God can be derived from simple observation of the natural world. The disciple John calls Jesus “the Logos” in John 1:1 (the Word, meaning the divine, ordering reason behind the universe). The Apostle Paul says that “all things hold together” in Christ (Col. 1:17), and that God’s existence and attributes have been clearly displayed in the natural world for all to see (Rom. 1:19-20). Essentially, the Bible says, all that is required is to open your eyes. The intricate, beautiful, ordered world around us cries out for an explanation as to why it is intricate, beautiful, and ordered, rather than chaotic or inert. The answer is there for all to see, for any who will open their eyes to look beyond the surface. We have a loving heavenly Father who made all that is; and all of the universe, all of history, and all of our current situations are held together in the power and grace of Christ. Our current difficulties, as hard as they might be, cannot tear us away from the sovereign love of God our Maker. We don’t always know all the reasons for why hard things happen, but we do know that we have this great consolation—the presence of a loving Designer—and that whatever comes, we may trust ourselves to his goodness.

Thursday, December 03, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: François Fénelon

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”  – Matthew 16:24-25

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.  – Matthew 11:28-30

François Fénelon: Basic Facts

- François Fénelon (1651-1715) was a prominent Catholic clergyman during the reign of France’s King Louis XIV (“the Sun King”). He became the spiritual tutor to the heir to the throne. Towards the end of his life, he served as the Archbishop of Cambray and offered aid to refugees in the middle of a war zone. More than any of these things, though, Fénelon is remembered as a great spiritual writer. 

- Fénelon was a great friend and defender of Madame Guyon, another spiritual writer who became famous for advising a passive method of prayer. Her best known work is A Short and Easy Method of Prayer. This book, and several of Fénelon’s (Spiritual Letters and Christian Counsel) have come to be regarded as classics in Protestant circles.

- Fénelon’s spiritual advice has been summed up in two words: “Let go.” In order to advance in the spiritual life, we must learn to let go of all forms of self-love in order to become centered on the love of God alone.

Timeline of Fénelon’s Life and Ministry:

1665-1672 – At 15 years old, he was enrolled to study theology at the College du Plessis, then at the Sulpician Seminary. Though originally wanting to become a missionary to Canada or the Far East, he decided to enter the priesthood in France.

1686 – One of Fénelon’s first assignments in ministry was to try to convert France’s Protestants back to Catholicism. Louis XIV had revoked the Edict of Nantes, making it illegal to be anything but Catholic in France. Although the authorities wanted to re-convert people by force, Fénelon refused to use such methods, and always exhibited gentleness and patience.

1689-1697 – Fénelon was appointed by King Louis to become the tutor to the 7-year-old Duke of Burgundy, who would eventually become King of France.

1697-1699 – Fénelon’s old friend, Madame Guyon, came under suspicion of heretical teachings in her books on prayer. Fénelon gave a vigorous defense of his friend, but the opinion of the royal court had turned against him. Guyon was told not to write any more books, and Fénelon was told never to leave the boundaries of his new archdiocese at Cambray.

1700-1715 – This was the most fruitful period of his ministry. From his small territory in Cambray, he visited all his parish churches, mentored the local priests, wrote letters of spiritual advice to his friends, and cared for thousands of displaced people during the War of the Spanish Succession, even going so far as to fill his archiepiscopal palace with refugees.

Quotes from Fénelon: 

“The safest and shortest course is to renounce, forget, and abandon self, and through faithfulness to God think no more of it. This is the whole of Christianity—to get out of self and self-love in order to get into God.”

“Your fire of devotion does not depend upon yourself. All that lies in your power is the direction of your will. Give that up to God without reservation.”

“The directions of Christ are not: ‘If any will come after me, let them enjoy themselves; let them be gorgeously clothed; let them be intoxicated with delight.’ On the contrary, his words are: ‘If any will come after me, I will show them the road they must take. Let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me in a path beside precipices, where they will see nothing but death on every hand.’”

“Our faults, even those most difficult to bear, will all be of service to us if we make use of them for our humiliation, without relaxing our efforts to correct them. It does no good to be discouraged. Discouragement is the result of a disappointed and despairing self-love.”

“You will find by experience how much more your progress will be aided by this simple, peaceful, turning to God, than by all your chagrin at the faults that exist in you.”

“It is a false humility that acknowledges itself unworthy of the gifts of God, but does not dare to confidently expect them. True humility consists in a deep view of our utter unworthiness and an absolute abandonment to God, without the slightest doubt that he will do the greatest things in us.”

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

Photo of the Week

Now let our souls, on wings sublime, rise from the vanities of time:
Draw back the parting veil and see the glories of eternity.
Shall aught beguile us on the road, when we are walking back to God?
For strangers into life we come, and dying is but going home.

- from a hymn by Thomas Gibbons

Monday, November 30, 2020

Quote of the Week

"It is no use walking anywhere to preach unless our walking is our preaching."

- Francis of Assisi

Monday, November 23, 2020

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm taking a week off from the blog for the holiday, so new posts will resume on Monday, Nov. 30. If you'd like to follow along with my family and our church in the meantime, you can check out our calls to prayer (short, encouraging videos posted each evening) at Happy Thanksgiving!

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Saturday Synaxis

Our Helper, God, we bless Thy name,
Whose love forever is the same:
Amid ten thousand snares we stand,
Supported by Thy guardian hand;
And see, when we review our ways,
Ten thousand monuments of praise.
Let us not murmur or complain
At what Thy wisdom shall ordain;
Accept our thanks for mercies past,
And be our guide while life shall last.
Preserve us by Thy favor still,
And fit us for Thy sacred will.

- lines derived from No. 536 & 539 of the Augustine Hymn Book, 19th century

Friday, November 20, 2020

A Selection from My Poetry-Prayer Journal


Bless, O Lord, the work I must do this week.

It feels too much for me.

But it is not too much for you.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: the Early Baptists

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  – Matthew 28:19

Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.  – Matthew 22:21b

The Early Baptists: Basic Facts

- The Baptists emerged out of the Puritan movement in England in the early 1600s (and from its offshoot, Congregationalism), with a bit of influence from the Anabaptists of Holland.

- The story of Baptists is not a story of any individual “heroes,” but the story of whole congregations. The first Baptist church was a congregation from England who, because of religious pressure, fled to Holland and adopted believers’ baptism.

From Protestant to Baptist

John Smyth
- Most early Protestant traditions, including
Anglicanism, continued to hold to infant baptism, participation in sacraments as the mark of a true Christian (rather than individual piety), a parish church system (in which everybody in a geographic area was considered to be part of the local church), and authority invested in a church hierarchy. 

- Puritans emerged from mainstream Anglicanism partly by saying that individual piety, not simply participation in the sacraments, is the mark of a true Christian.

- Congregationalists emerged from Puritanism by rejecting the principle of a church hierarchy, instead investing authority in the local church.

- Baptists distinguished themselves from Congregationalists by rejecting the parish system in favor of having a church membership composed only of people who demonstrate the marks of a true Christian life, and also by rejecting infant baptism and arguing for the separation of church and state.

Prominent Early Baptists

- John Smyth, ordained as an Anglican minister, helped lead his Puritan-leaning congregation toward a Baptist position through rigorous study of the Bible. Facing religious pressure in England, they fled to Holland, where they met some Anabaptists and became convinced that infant baptism was improper. Smyth baptized himself, then his whole congregation, in 1609.

- Roger Williams was a minister who emigrated to New England and, in the 1630s, protested against the Congregationalist associations with the state in Massachusetts Bay Colony. He founded the city of Providence, Rhode Island, and built the first Baptist church in North America there. He was also an early advocate for the rights of Native Americans and African slaves.

Roger Williams
Baptist Distinctives

- The Freedom of the Believer – Baptists believe that each individual person is free to choose for themselves what they believe, and that they alone are accountable for that decision. Thus no one else can make the decision for you to be a Christian; only you can do that—hence infants are not to be baptized, only believers mature enough to make the decision for themselves. Believers are also competent to read and interpret Scripture for themselves, and they are not compelled to obey any outside authority on religious matters beyond their own conscience (as informed by the life and practice of their local church).

- The Freedom of the Local Church – Every local church is a full representation of the whole Church, with all the spiritual gifts and authority designated to the whole. Thus the local church has authority to read and interpret Scripture, to manage its own property and ministries, and to organize its own practice of faith. It is not beholden to any church hierarchy above it, though it should maintain voluntary associations with other churches for the purpose of mutual edification and for the pursuit of wider ministries. The church is also free from any interference from the state in its organization, practice, and doctrine.

The Early Baptist Movement in Maine: Isaac Case

- Rev. Isaac Case (1761-1852) was a Baptist preacher from Massachusetts who felt called by God to minister in the frontier towns of Maine. He served both as pastor and missionary throughout his career, and his preaching-tours took him all over the coast of Maine. Almost all of his travels were done solely on foot. It is said that more than 300 Baptist churches in Maine can trace their roots to his influence (including many in our own association, such as Brooklin, North Sedgwick, and Blue Hill), and that he personally baptized more than a thousand people. Although mainly concerned with evangelism, he would also try to impress the truth of Baptist doctrine on any Congregationalists he came across; on one occasion he caused an entire Congregational church to switch its affiliation and become Baptist. By the time of his death, he had spent 72 years in active ministry.

“He appeared to enjoy religion. Progress, praise, and love to Christ, and defense of the Gospel, seemed to be the happy elements of his everyday life…His general bearing bespoke the reign of peace within…When he came to Maine, he was a young man, only twenty years old. He gave his time and all his energies to the work of the ministry, without any salary from any quarter. Everywhere, among our churches, his memory is blessed.” – Adam Wilson, writing about Rev. Case

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Photo of the Week

But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me...
Though I have fallen, I will rise. Though I sit in darkness, the Lord will be my light.

- Micah 7:7-8

Monday, November 16, 2020

Quote of the Week

"If we would exercise a true fortitude, we must do all in the spirit of devotion, be valiant against the corruptions of the world, the lusts of the flesh, and the temptations of the devil. For to be daring and courageous against these enemies is the noblest bravery that a human mind is capable of."

- William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Saturday Synaxis

Great God, as seasons disappear,
And changes mark the rolling year;
As time with rapid pinions flies,
May every season make us wise.

- from #547 of the Augustine Hymn Book, 19th century

Friday, November 13, 2020

Africa Memoir: A Top-Secret Dictionary Project

I was sitting in a meeting in a high-ceilinged room, with six expatriate workers gathered around me. Three agencies were represented in that room, and out of the three, only one—the Catholic Language Institute—was operating completely in the open, with the full knowledge of the Islamist government. Another was the one I worked for—an organization which had to hold its secrets tightly, and which I had been forbidden to name aloud in conversations, not even with the use of code words. The third agency was one that I knew well—one of the highest-profile linguistics organizations in the world. I knew that its partner agency, which did Bible translation work, was not a name I could mention there. But I received a bit of a shock, a reminder of just how sensitive my work was, when I dropped the name of the linguistics organization into our conversation, as I spoke of my gratitude for being able to work with them. As soon as its name slipped out of my mouth, the Catholic leader, Father Pierre, stood up and shuffled quickly over to the doors of the room, which had been standing open to the hallway outside. He swung them shut and locked them. I doubt that there were any government spies lingering about the hall, but it was a stark reminder of the risks involved in what we were doing.

~ ~ ~ 

Over my first few days in Sudan, Ernest and Aaron introduced me to the project I would be working on. As it turned out, I was going to be more independent than I had envisioned. Ernest and Aaron were hard at work setting up their medical aid and development agency, and Anne was involved with teaching English in a nearby school, but I would be on my own, doing a project for which I only felt marginally qualified. I was going to put together a bilingual dictionary that English-speakers could use to learn Sudanese Arabic. The only trouble was that I did not know Sudanese Arabic, and yet here I was being asked to write a dictionary for the language. (It’s a dialect different enough from modern standard Arabic to require some extra resources, and the only existing dictionary was an antiquated British one from the colonial days.)

But I did have a few skills I could bring to bear. The focus of my undergraduate degree was in linguistics, and I had been trained by members of the linguistics organization mentioned above—a group which pioneered the production of dictionaries, grammars, literacy resources, and Bible translations all around the world. In terms of practical, on-the-field ethnographic-linguistic research, this organization outpaces all other academic or evangelistic linguistic efforts in the world, and by a wide margin. Much of my work in Sudan would also be done in contact with the small handful of their workers based in Khartoum, all of whom were excited about the prospect of a much-needed Sudanese Arabic dictionary. I was proud to be working alongside them, since my own parents’ missionary work in Brazil had been done with the same organization.

I was given the use of two computers—the old office computer at the Catholic Language Institute, and a used desktop unit that Ernest was able to procure for me to use at home. With these, my job was to plug in a computer program that I had brought with me into the country—a basic dictionary-maker called Shoebox, which had been used by linguists and ethnographers all over the world. Then I had to figure out how to make the program run, learning Unicode computing along the way so I could manage the input of Arabic characters. Beyond the computer tasks, I was to compile wordlists from a broad circle of Sudanese contacts and expatriate workers, and then input the data, careful keystroke by careful keystroke, into the growing dictionary database.

The main characters in this work, beyond my own team, included two British Bible translators, who had spent many years in the southern parts of the country, and two workers at the Catholic Language Institute—Father Pierre, a stooped, graying old priest who exuded a sense of patient pleasure everywhere he went, and Lucia, a Dutch woman who taught Arabic classes to other expats. Most of my work revolved around the Catholic Language Institute of Khartoum, a maroon building just a stone’s throw from the Saudi embassy in Amarat, across the main road from my home area of Diems. I got used to walking back and forth between the two suburbs, making my commute by foot every day (about half an hour’s walk). It involved crossing the wildly-weaving traffic of the main thoroughfare, which was sometimes a hair-raising experience (I only almost died once), but on the whole it was a pleasant stroll. Dressed in the normal clothes of daily life—sandals, slacks, and a button-up shirt with the cuffs rolled back—I walked back and forth across the sandy streets, stopping every now and then to practice my greetings with the fuul merchants along the way.

It was there at the institute—affectionately called CLIK—that our meeting to launch the dictionary project took place. Ernest and Aaron were there, as were the two British missionaries, along with Father Pierre and Lucia. We talked a bit about word lists (they had some 2000 pieces of linguistics data already assembled for me to input), about whether to use American or British English in parallel with Sudanese Arabic, and about who else I should contact for more information. And as I was talking in that meeting, I happened to mention the name of the linguistics organization, unaware that saying it out loud would be a problem. But I felt chastened when Father Pierre popped up, rushed over, and locked the doors.

In one sense, the work I was going to do looked kind of boring—manually inputting thousands of items of linguistic data into a computer program. There certainly wasn’t anything illegal in producing this dictionary, which would likely end up being as much use to the Sudanese government as to missionaries. But in another sense, it suddenly took on shades of excitement and intrigue. I was going to spend the next few months conducting meetings with workers whose affiliations were closely-guarded, and whose patient, stalwart work for the good of Sudan was something that had to be done in the shadows. I might be walking in the bright sunlight from Diems to Amarat every day, but the work that I did was something that could not yet be spoken in the open air.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: William Bradford & the Pilgrims

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.  – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

“I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.”  – John 15:14-17

William Bradford & the Pilgrims: Basic Facts

- William Bradford (1590-1657) was one of the original settlers of Plymouth Plantation, having crossed from England in 1620 on the Mayflower, and he became the colony’s governor for over thirty years. His record of the colony’s early years, Of Plymouth Plantation, has become a classic of early American literature. It was under his leadership that the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1621, and he regularly declared additional “days of thanksgiving” throughout the life of the colony. 

- Bradford, like the rest of the Mayflower pilgrims, was a “separatist”—a small branch of the Puritan movement which thought it was better to separate completely from the Church of England than to try to purify it from within. They were thus viewed as more radical than the later Puritan settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony.

- In drafting the Mayflower Compact before leaving ship, this small church family became the first group of European settlers in America to declare themselves a self-governing body.


1602 – Young William Bradford, 12 years old, starts to attend the church meetings of a strict Puritan group near his home. He is befriended by William Brewster, one of the congregants.

1603 – King James I takes the throne of England after the death of Queen Elizabeth. Contrary to the Puritans’ hopes, not only does he refuse to push through any new reforms of the Church of England, he declares that he will deal harshly with its radical critics. This could mean fines, imprisonment, or even death for dissenters.

1607 – Under the threat of government persecution, the little church begins to meet secretly in Scrooby Manor, the home of William Brewster, led by Pastor John Robinson. After being caught, fined, and imprisoned, they decide to look for a way to leave England.

1608 – After several mishaps, including having an English sea captain betray them to the authorities, they finally manage to book passage to Holland. 18-year-old Bradford goes along.

1609 – The Scrooby congregation settles in the Dutch town of Leiden, though most are forced to do menial jobs in poor conditions. Bradford has to live in an area known as “Stink Alley.”

1613 – Bradford, now having gained an inheritance from his family, marries Dorothy May in a civil ceremony (not in a religious ceremony, because “church weddings” aren’t in the Bible).

1617 – The Bradfords have their first child, John. But the Scrooby congregation is now considering leaving Holland, distressed that their young people are growing up Dutch instead of English, and surrounded by the worldly temptations of the tolerant 17th-century Dutch society.

1620 – They make arrangements to settle the northern part of Virginia Colony, and hire two ships to take them. One, the Speedwell, has to turn back, so all 130 passengers have to cram together in the 100-foot Mayflower for a two-month journey over rough seas. The Bradfords have to leave their three-year-old son behind in Holland. They make landfall in November, but don’t come to their final spot at Plymouth until December of 1620. Realizing that they were well north of their chartered location, they drafted their own Mayflower Compact as a political constitution. Dorothy Bradford dies while William is away on an exploratory scouting mission.

– About half of the group does not survive the winter, including the first governor. Bradford, now thirty-one, is elected to replace him. It is only after making a treaty with the nearby Wampanoag tribe, and gaining their assistance in planting and fishing, that the colony begins to thrive. This partnership leads to the first Thanksgiving, though the actual event was a good deal different from romanticized later notions of the feast.

1620s and beyond – The Plymouth colony faces a number of ongoing challenges: violence from tribes opposed to the Wampanoags, disrespect from the new Puritan settlers at Massachusetts Bay, the settlement of non-religious Englishmen in their midst, and a growing rebellion among the younger generation against the values of their parents.

Quotes from William Bradford

“All great and honorable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage.”

“But though this had been a night of much hardship and danger, God gave them a morning of comfort and refreshment, as He usually doth to His children.”

“It was to the astonishment of many and almost to the wonder of the world, that from so small a beginning such great things should ensue - as in due time was manifested; and that there should be resting place for so many of the Lord's people here, when so sharp a scourge had come upon their own nation. But it was the Lord's doing, and it ought to be marvelous in our eyes.”

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Photo of the Week


Hear what God the Lord hath spoken,
"O my people, faint and few,
Comfortless, afflicted, broken,
Fair abodes I build for you.
Thorns of heartfelt tribulation
Shall no more perplex your ways:
You shall name your walls 'Salvation,'
And your gates shall all be 'Praise.'
Ye no more your suns descending,
Waning moons no more shall see;
But your griefs forever ending,
Find eternal noon in me:
God shall rise, and shining o'er ye,
Change to day the gloom of night;
He, the Lord, shall be your glory,
God your everlasting light."

- William Cowper, "The Future Peace and Glory of the Church," (vv.1, 3), Olney Hymns

Monday, November 09, 2020

Quote of the Week

Some wisdom from the ancient Stoic philosophers, on how to deal with unfair criticism:

"Does another do me wrong? Let him look to it. The disposition was his and the activity was his."      - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5:25

"If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don't try to defend yourself against the rumors; respond instead with, 'Yes, and he doesn't know the half of it, because he could have said much more!'"     - Epictetus, Enchiridion 33:9

"Remember from now on whenever something tends to make you unhappy, draw on this principle: 'This is no misfortune; but bearing with it bravely is a blessing.'"     - Epictetus, Fragment 28b

Monday, October 26, 2020

A Two-Week Break from Blogging

Due to some unforeseen circumstances, I'm taking a couple weeks off my normal blog-posting schedule. I'll try to resume normal posts on Monday, Nov. 9. In the meantime, you can check out my church's Facebook feed at, which includes a daily inspirational video post from me and my family.