I'm taking a two-week break from blogging over the holidays. Normal posts will resume on Monday, January 4.
Saturday, December 19, 2020
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 nightShines through all time in deathless light.
- from hymn #158 of The Augustine Hymn Book, 19th century
Friday, December 18, 2020
|(Photo by Ahmed Rabea. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.)|
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.
Thursday, December 17, 2020
“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
- 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.”
- 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
“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.”
- 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.”
“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
Monday, December 14, 2020
Saturday, December 12, 2020
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."
Friday, December 11, 2020
(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
“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” – 1 Cor. 10:31
- 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.
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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
Monday, December 07, 2020
Saturday, December 05, 2020
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!
Friday, December 04, 2020
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
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
- 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.
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.
“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.”