Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Photo of the Week


You, Lord, keep my lamp burning;
My God turns my darkness into light.

- Psalm 18:28

Monday, September 28, 2020

Quote of the Week

"If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him."

- C. T. Studd, famous missionary in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, who gave up a promising career as a sports star to serve God in unreached parts of Africa

Saturday, September 26, 2020

Saturday Synaxis

How happy all Thy servants are!
How great Thy grace to me!
My life, which Thou hast made Thy care,
Lord, I devote to Thee.

- Isaac Watts

Friday, September 25, 2020

Beyond the Rivers: A Memoir of My African Journeys


“From beyond the rivers of Cush, my worshipers, my scattered people, will bring me offerings.” – Zeph. 3:10

I'm going to start writing a memoir of my sojourn in Africa (2004-2006), and I thought I'd serialize it here in the Friday spot on my blog. I can't promise that I'll have a new installment every week; my doctoral research, on top of regular family and church busyness, will probably force me to continue posting less time-intensive pieces here and there. But at least once or twice a month, I'll feature the most interesting stories from my six months in Sudan and Tanzania (2004) and my six months in Angola and Namibia (2005-06).

Those journeys are now a decade and a half behind me, undertaken in my early twenties, and yet they continue to have a formative influence on my life and thought. I've often wanted to write down the stories of those days, piecing together my journals and letters into a narrative, but haven't gotten around to it until now. But with the recent regime change there, I think it is finally safe to write publicly the story of my life in Khartoum. (Nevertheless, I have still changed most of the proper names to protect the identities of those involved.)

This page will serve as the table of contents for the memoir as it takes shape, with each new post given a link in the space below.

Sudan Stories:

Most Likely to Become a Martyr

It's All Who You Know

Perhaps You Would Like a Sudanese Wife?

A Top-Secret Dictionary Project

Like a Thief in the Night

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: Ignatius of Loyola & Francis Xavier

Samuel replied: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings or sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice.”  – 1 Samuel 15:22a

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross.  
– Hebrews 12:2a

Ignatius of Loyola: Basic Facts

- Ignatius (1491-1556) was a soldier in Catholic Spain until a leg injury forced him into a long convalescence. He spent his time praying and reading devotional books, and committed himself to become a soldier for Christ. He gathered a group of friends around him and founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), who were sworn to personal obedience to the pope. 

- The Jesuits became the leading force of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, at the forefront of missions and education. They were also active in halting the spread of Protestantism in Europe.

- Ignatius’ most enduring work is his book, Spiritual Exercises, which became a classic of devotional literature.

Ignatius' Method of Making the Examen

First Point: Give thanks to God our Lord for benefits received.

Second Point: Ask grace to know your sins and cast them out.

Third Point: Ask an account of your soul from the hour that you rose up to the present Examen, hour by hour: and first as to your thoughts, then as to your words, and then as to your acts.

Fourth Point: Ask pardon of God our Lord for the faults.

Fifth Point: Make a resolution to amend your future ways, along with the grace of God.

Quotes from Ignatius

“Few souls understand what God would accomplish in them if they were to abandon themselves unreservedly to Him and if they were to allow His grace to mold them accordingly.”

“God freely created us so that we might know, love, and serve him in this life and be happy with him forever. God's purpose in creating us is to draw forth from us a response of love and service here on earth, so that we may attain our goal of everlasting happiness with him in heaven. All the things in this world are gifts of God, created for us, to be the means by which we can come to know him better, love him more surely, and serve him more faithfully. As a result, we ought to appreciate and use these gifts of God insofar as they help us toward our goal of loving service and union with God. But insofar as any created things hinder our progress toward our goal, we ought to let them go.”

“Act as if everything depended on you; trust as if everything depended on God.”

“O my God, teach me to be generous,
teach me to serve you as I should,
to give without counting the cost,
to fight without fear of being wounded,
to work without seeking rest,
to labor without expecting any reward,
but the knowledge that I am doing your most holy will.”

“Go forth and set the world on fire.”

Francis Xavier: Basic Facts

- Francis Xavier (1506-1552) was a Catholic born in the Kingdom of Navarre (current Spain/France border region) and was one of Ignatius’ initial circle of six friends—a founding member of the Jesuits. 

- It was the age of exploration, and traders and colonists were sailing to the Americas, Africa, and east Asia. The kings of Spain and Portugal began sending out missionaries to these places, and Francis Xavier was among the first wave to volunteer for mission service. He brought to Gospel to India, Indonesia, and Japan. He died on the doorstep to China, yearning to bring the Gospel there too. He is believed to have baptized about 30,000 converts.

- He focused on teaching the basics of the faith to children and restoring a Christian lifestyle among European traders.

Quotes from Francis Xavier

“The best of news comes from Molucca: John Beira and his companions are constantly in peril and in danger of death, and the result is great progress in the Christian religion.”

On the importance of Christian education for young children: “Give me the children until they are seven and anyone may have them afterwards.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Photo of the Week

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting.
Let all the people say, “Amen!”
Praise the Lord.

- Psalm 106:48

Monday, September 21, 2020

Quote of the Week

"Our greatest cause for rejoicing tomorrow will not be that we have been spared from trial and suffering but that Christ has been present to sanctify the trials to us and comfort us in them." 

- T. J. Bach, missionary and director of The Evangelical Alliance Mission

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Saturday Synaxis

Dear Father, take this day's life into Thine own keeping. Control all my thoughts and feelings. Direct all my energies. Instruct my mind. Sustain my will. Take my hands and make them skillful to serve Thee. Take my feet and make them swift to do Thy bidding. Take my eyes and keep them fixed upon Thy everlasting beauty. Take my mouth and make it eloquent in testimony to Thy love. Make this day a day of obedience, a day of spiritual joy and peace. Make this day's work a little part of the work of the Kingdom of my Lord Christ, in whose name these prayers are said. Amen.

- John Baillie

Friday, September 18, 2020

A Selection from My Poetry-Prayer Journal

Thank you, Lord,
For the onerous beauty of my calling,
Here where I plow amid thorns and stones.
I love to serve in the teeth of the fight,
And to be useful in places
Where others may not want to go.
I don't want to be a pastor in a place
Where great pastors are a dime a dozen;
I want to be a pastor where being a man of God
Is a stark and unsettling thing.
Thank you for giving me that.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation

“All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”   - Mark 13:13

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted.”  – Romans 13:1-2b

Thomas Cranmer: Basic Facts

- Thomas Cranmer (pictured above, 1489-1556) was the Archbishop of Canterbury during one of the most pivotal periods of British history: the slow break-up between the English church and the Roman Catholic Church. Unlike other great Reformers like Calvin and Luther, Cranmer never had aspirations of being a leading figure in the Protestant movement, but he happened to be in the right place at the right time to help guide a very messy political and religious situation into a new direction.

- Cranmer’s legacy is a complex one, and he is often accused of being wishy-washy and capitulating too much to King Henry VIII (pictured at right). But he did show remarkable courage and moral fortitude on several occasions, including at his execution.

- Cranmer is best known today as the author and compiler of The Book of Common Prayer, which is still the fundamental staple of all worship services in Anglican and Episcopal churches worldwide.

Timeline of Cranmer's Life and the Course of the English Reformation:

1529 – For nearly a decade and a half, Cranmer has pursued a career as a priest and theologian at Cambridge University. There he meets the retinue of King Henry VIII, and suggests to the royal advisors that the King’s desire to be legally divorced from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, could be validated by sound theological arguments. King Henry selects Cranmer himself to research and write a treatise on the subject.

1530-32 – Cranmer is sent to Rome to argue the case for Henry’s annulment before the Pope, but to no avail. He then visits the courts of the Lutheran princes of Germany and there marries the niece of a Lutheran reformer (but their marriage would be kept secret for most of his life). Meanwhile, with his mistress Anne Boleyn pregnant, Henry VIII needs to go forward with the annulment of his marriage whether the Pope approves or not.

1533 – When the Archbishop of Canterbury passes away, Cranmer is surprisingly selected as his replacement. Although hesitant to accept the post, he eventually agrees, and then allows Henry’s marriage to be annulled.

1534 –38 – A quick series of royal decisions push England in a Protestant direction. The King is declared the “supreme head” of the English church (rather than the Pope), English Bibles are ordered to be put in every church, and the Roman Catholic monasteries are liquidated.

1539-43 – Henry does an about-face and, while not giving up his leadership of the Church of England, tries to preserve certain Catholic doctrines and practices, including priestly celibacy and transubstantiation of the Eucharist; he now forbids reading of the Bible except by experts. Henry also has Thomas Cromwell, his supreme church advisor, executed under dubious charges (despite Cranmer’s objections), and nearly allows Cranmer himself to be done away with.

1547 – Henry dies and his nine-year-old son Edward comes to the throne, under the guidance of the Duke of Somerset. Somerset and his successor push England back into a radically Protestant direction,

1549-1552 – Cranmer publishes his Book of Common Prayer; it is put to immediate use in the churches (and is still used today). He also composes his “Forty-Two Articles,” which will eventually become the basis for the foundational declaration of Anglican theology.

1553 – After young King Edward’s death, Cranmer supports Lady Jane Grey’s claim to the throne; but within a few months she is pushed out by Henry’s Catholic daughter Mary (known in Protestant history as ‘Bloody Mary’). Cranmer is immediately arrested after the regime change.

1554-1557 – During Mary’s reign, Catholicism is aggressively reinstated, and Protestant leaders are regularly executed. Among these martyrs are Cranmer’s friends Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer; then in 1556 Cranmer’s own time comes. Under great duress, he signs a recantation of his Protestant views. But at his execution, he surprises everyone by recanting his recantation, deciding at the very end to stay faithful to the Protestant principles of which he had become convinced. While burning at the stake, he held out his hand in the flames to let it burn first, as if to atone for the writing of his false recantation.

1558 – Queen Mary dies and Elizabeth becomes queen. Through her decades-long reign, England once again swings back toward a Protestant direction, sometimes violently persecuting its Catholic citizens, before finally settling on a “middle road” between the two theological camps.


[A Prayer:] “Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility, that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.”

[Hugh Latimer, to his friend at their execution:] “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle in England, as I hope, by God’s grace, shall never be put out.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Photo of the Week

Thou lovely Source of true delight,
Whom I unseen adore!
Unveil Thy beauties to my sight,
That I might love Thee more.

- from a hymn by Anne Steele

Monday, September 14, 2020

Quote of the Week

"It would be a mistake to suppose that the highest state of inward experience is characterized by great excitements--raptures and ecstasies.... One of the remarkable results in a soul in which faith is the sole governing principle is that it is entirely peaceful."

François Fénelon, 17th-18th century archbishop and spiritual writer

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Saturday Synaxis

Forever firm Thy justice stands, as mountains their foundations keep;
Wise are the wonders of Thy hands; Thy judgments are a mighty deep.
Above the heavens' created rounds, Thy mercies, Lord, extend;
Thy truth outlives the narrow bounds where time and nature end.

- from Isaac Watts' hymnographic rendering of Psalm 36

Friday, September 11, 2020

A Selection from My Poetry-Prayer Journal

Help me, Lord,
To take joy in the simple things,
Lest I find myself unable to find it
In the rich, complex, fathomless depths
Of your divine simplicity.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: The Anabaptists

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.”  – Luke 15:12

“This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands.”  – 1 John 5:2-3a

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also….You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  – Matthew 5:38-39, 43-44

The Anabaptists: Basic Facts

- Conrad Grebel (above), 1498-1526, began as part of Zwingli’s Swiss Reformation in Zurich, but a local Bible study convinced him to start baptizing adults (instead of infants).

- Menno Simons (right), 1496-1561, helped to unify the non-resistant Anabaptists after the catastrophe of the Munster rebellion.

- The Anabaptists are usually seen as the fourth major wing of the Reformation, after the Lutherans, the Reformed churches, and the English Reformation. The Anabaptists, however, found persecution almost everywhere they went and did not ally themselves with secular authority. They are known as “the Radical Reformation,” and were originally feared as anarchists. Their direct legacy carries on today in the Mennonites, Amish, Hutterite, and Brethren in Christ churches, and indirectly in the Baptists and Congregationalists.

- “Anabaptist” means “re-baptizer,” because their practice was to baptize people as adults, even if they had been previously baptized as infants.

- The Anabaptists decided to follow the Bible as closely as they could. This led them to challenge some of the fundamental assumptions of their culture—namely, they suggested that people ought to have the right to choose for themselves what they believed, and that true Christians ought not to be involved in matters of war or secular politics. These were dangerous ideas at the time, and they led to many early Anabaptists being persecuted and martyred.

- Anabaptists were also feared because their name became associated with several very radical sects. Foremost among these was a group led by Jan Matthys and Jan of Leiden, which took over the German city of Munster and turned it into a bizarre cult center for more than a year. Most Anabaptists, however, denounced these actions.

- They began in Switzerland, but persecution pushed them into Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands; then later into eastern Europe and Russia; then finally to the US and Canada.

Anabaptist Theology

Anabaptist doctrine highlighted a number of important themes: 

- The importance of discipleship—while they acknowledged that salvation came by God’s grace alone, through faith, they put much more stress on the matter of obedience in the Christian life than some other reformers.

- Love is the highest obligation of the Christian, an obligation which is expressed in concrete ways (i.e., in actions, not just as an emotional sentiment)—one of the foremost ways this love is expressed is by a commitment to peace.

- Religious toleration—people ought not to be coerced or forced into their faith-commitments; they should be free to choose for themselves. For Christians, baptism is the symbol of this choice.

- Separation from the state—the church is a different society altogether, set under the love-oriented law of Christ. God has instituted secular government as a means of keeping order outside of the perfect order of Christ’s kingdom. Hence, Christians ought not to serve in the military or in political offices that would require the use of force, and they ought not to take oaths.

Quotes from Menno Simons

“The regenerated do not go to war, nor engage in strife. They are children of peace who have beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning forks, and know no war....Christ is our fortress; patience our weapon of defense; the Word of God our sword. ...Iron and metal spears and swords we leave to those who, alas, regard human blood and swine’s blood of well-nigh equal value.”

“We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew of no peace, are now called to be a church of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance. They are the children of peace. Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace.”

“True evangelical faith cannot lie dormant. It clothes the naked, it feeds the hungry, it comforts the sorrowful, it shelters the destitute, it serves those that harm it, it binds up that which is wounded, it has become all things to all people.”

Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Photo of the Week


Joy is a fruit that will not grow in nature's barren soil;
All we can boast, 'till Christ we know, is vanity and toil.
But where the Lord has planted grace, and made his glories known;
There fruits of heavenly joy and peace are found, and there alone.

- from a hymn by John Newton

Monday, September 07, 2020

Quote of the Week

On judging others:

"God himself, sir, does not propose to judge a man until after his life is over. Why should you or I?"

- Dr. Samuel Johnson, 18th-century lexicographer and polymath

Saturday, September 05, 2020

Saturday Synaxis

Lord God almighty, I pray you for your great mercy, and by the token of the holy cross, guide me to your will, to my soul's need, better than I can myself; and shield me against my foes, seen and unseen; and teach me to do your will, that I may love you inwardly before all things with a clean mind and a clean body. For you are my maker and redeemer, my help, my comfort, my trust, and my hope. Praise and glory be to you now, ever and ever, world without end. Amen.

- King Alfred the Great

Friday, September 04, 2020

Does God Really Exist?

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

Does God really exist? The vast majority of people in our society, throughout its entire history, would almost certainly have answered “Yes, of course!” In recent years, however, there have been a lot of folks questioning that assumption. In the early 2000s, a spate of popular bestselling books came out from writers known as “the New Atheists,” vigorously mocking traditional religious beliefs and claiming that religion had been disproven by science. However, to anyone who paid attention to how those books were received among the writers’ colleagues in the academic worlds of philosophy, theology, and yes, even science, the widespread sense was that the books were more bluster and nonsense than anything else. Nevertheless, they seemed to hit a mark: more and more people are abandoning traditional faith-perspectives in our society (though on a global scale, the reverse is actually the case). “Nones”—that is, people who say they have no religious aspect to their lives or worldview at all—are one of the most swiftly-rising demographics in our country.

All of this is not much of a surprise to anybody who has been paying attention to social trends. Sometimes Christians might feel a certain anxiety about such things, but I generally don’t worry too much about it. Of course, I do want people to believe in the truth-claims of Christianity—there is nothing so beautiful, life-giving, and true in the world as the faith that I’ve been blessed to receive. But I don’t feel much anxiety about the attacks of atheists and agnostics, because the plain fact of the matter is that they’re bound to fall short (and that’s coming from someone who, for a while at least, counted himself an agnostic!). God does exist, he has revealed himself in history, in Scripture, and most of all in the person of Jesus. In short, Christian truth really is true, and, as Shakespeare once put it, “The truth will out.” Truth has a way of becoming known, simply because it is true, as it presents itself over and over again to honest seekers of all generations.

Let me give one rather striking example. Back in 1955, theism (a belief in God) had been almost entirely eradicated from academic philosophy departments in universities. A group of prominent atheist philosophers issued a volume of triumphant essays at that time, essentially as a statement of their triumph in their field. The book had as its editors two of the rising stars and leading lights of those atheist philosophers: Anthony Flew and Alasdair MacIntyre. Now fast-forward the clock sixty years, and guess what you see? Both Anthony Flew and MacIntyre reversed course and became convinced of God’s existence because of the evidence for it from science, logic, history, and philosophy. Flew (once called “the pope of atheists”), issued a book before his passing titled simply “There Is a God.” And MacIntyre became not only a theist, but a Christian, and is now one of the leading theologians in the world. The tide of God-believing philosophers has risen substantially in university departments all over the world, to the point where a significant majority of experts in the field of the arguments for whether God exists or not (philosophy of religion) are of the opinion that he does. There is powerful and compelling evidence that not only does God exist, but also that the biblical story stands up to scrutiny: this creator-God loves us to such an extent that he has called us, redeemed us, and entered our story to attain our salvation on our behalf. I truly believe that “the truth will out,” the tide of faith will turn again, as it always has before, and the great Christian revival that is sweeping through the most unlikely corners of the world right now will one day soon return to our shores.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Heroes of the Faith: John Calvin & the Swiss Reformation

“Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the vessels of the Lord.”  – Isaiah 52:11

“For [God] chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace….In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.”  – Ephesians 1:4-6a, 11

“What then shall we say? Is God unjust? Not at all! For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy….Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden.”  – Romans 9:14-16, 18

Basic Facts: John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and the Swiss Reformation:

- The Swiss Reformation refers mostly to the reforms begun by Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531) in Zurich and John Calvin (1509-1564) in Geneva. Zwingli was a contemporary of Martin Luther, and Calvin was the leading light of the second wave of great reformers. The Swiss Reformation went even further than the Lutherans by adjusting the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, by getting rid of the arts in church, and by trying to go back even closer to New Testament Christianity (i.e., whatever was not explicitly allowed in Scripture was not allowed in church). 

- The Christian tradition that comes from the Swiss Reformation (particularly the tradition shaped by Calvin) is known as the “Reformed” tradition, and it emphasizes the priority of Scripture and the sovereignty of God. Several current denominations, like the Presbyterians, Dutch Reformed, and Church of Scotland, are direct offshoots of the Reformed tradition; it also played a major role in the growth of the Baptists.

- Zwingli was a pastor by choice and profession; Calvin was first and foremost a scholar and writer who was pressed into service (almost against his will) as a pastor.

Major Aspects of the Swiss Reformation:

- Social concern: Both Zwingli and Calvin believed that the Kingdom of God should make an impact on how we live, and especially in politics; and they took great interest in reforming the practice of civil government as well as the church.

- Church practice: A new kind of worship service was introduced, stripped of liturgy and vestments and icons, and centered instead around the teaching of the Bible. The Lord’s Supper was now seen to be a symbol of Christ’s spiritual presence rather than the actual, physical presence of the body and blood of Jesus.

- Doctrine: Calvin’s teaching on predestination focused many of the debates in Christian theology onto the interaction between God’s sovereignty and human free will; these debates continue to this day.


“True and solid wisdom consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” 

“In the cross of Christ, as in a splendid theater, the incomparable goodness of God is set before the whole world. The glory of God shines, indeed, in all creatures, but never more brightly than in the cross, in which there was a wonderful change of things - the condemnation of all men was manifested, sin blotted out, salvation restored to men; in short, the whole world was renewed and all things restored to order.”

“Zeal without sound doctrine is like a sword in the hands of a lunatic.”

“There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.”

“God preordained, for his own glory and the display of His attributes of mercy and justice, a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.”

“One of the most remarkable renewals brought by the Reformation was a shift in the whole idea of what it meant to be worthy and do good. The very purpose of life was redirected. Preoccupation with acquired virtue and earned status was displaced by confidence in friendship freely received and permanently guaranteed by God’s unearned love.” – Raymond K. Anderson

Tuesday, September 01, 2020

Photo of the Week


If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.

- 1 John 1:7