Tuesday, December 29, 2009

You thought HealthCare was pricey?

How about the cost of the Death Star?


Monday, December 21, 2009

The winner is...Once in Royal David's City

The Authoress posed an interesting question to the family over lunch the other day: "What is your favorite line from a Christmas carol?".

I have a hard enough time thinking of what my favorite carol is, but the individual line was more challenging still. I have several, among them would be this portion of the last verse of "Once in Royal David's City"

And our eyes at last shall see Him,
Through His own redeeming love;
For that Child so dear and gentle,
Is our Lord in heaven above.

The reason is it makes the marvelous connection between history and eternity, between the crib and the cross, in a lovely poetic phrase.

What about you, dear reader? Which line, and why?

Rembrandt, Adoration of the Shepherds, National Gallery, London. Note that Rembrandt uses light against the beams in the stable to illumine the manger but also to show the shadow of an angled cross Jesus will one day carry above it.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Harry Patch

The Economist (12/19/09) magazine's year in review issue arrived recently. It notes that the last two British WW1 veterans of the trenches died this year. A number of these men lived to be well over a hundred, and two of them, a British soldier named Harry Patch and a German soldier named Carol (Charles) Kuentz, had been conscripted at age 19 and served on the front lines.

I was thinking about this as I prepare to preach tomorrow on Zechariah's song (the Benedictus if you're a liturgical type of person) from Luke's Gospel, chapter 1. In it, Zechariah speaks of God visiting his people, to give them relief from their enemies and freedom from fear. He will lead them from the shadow of death into peace.

The most extraordinary thing about that song, to me, is that the first reading of it gives us a sense that God visiting means an end to war and defeat of the enemy. And in the end, it will mean that. But the salvation that is referenced by Zechariah is not a military one, but a spiritual one, as he says that his son, John the Baptist, will announce the visit of God who will give salvation "in the forgiveness of their sins".

It seems offensive at first in the face of the scale of war to say that salvation takes this form rather than relief from circumstances. I recently saw a video clip showing footage of the Battle of the Somme, in which there were 20,000 British dead and 40,000 wounded...on the first day of battle. There were 623,000 dead from that one battle alone. The scale is dreadful and dehumanizing. As Harry Patch said, "It is not something we can make up. Why should I go out and kill someone I never knew?". Yet his statement, and the meeting he had with Kuentz shows that really the change in the world comes as the human heart is transformed. In Harry Patch's case, he lost his childhood faith in the trenches. Death was a topic never mentioned in the trenches. Yet Harry Patch first cried over his wartime experiences after he was a hundred years old, never having spoken of them before then, and the same was true for Charles Kuentz, the last surviving German veteran of WW1. Patch and Kuentz met for the first time when they were 107, at a cemetery where 44,000 German soldiers were buried. Mr. Patch laid a wreath and gave a gift of an acorn from the ground to Herr Kuentz, saying "Now we are friends." Imagine carrying the sadness, bitterness and fear in your heart for so long (perhaps you can imagine it). But a considerable amount of freedom came to Harry Patch in the last years of his life, because 100 wasn't too late for him.

Zechariah, an old man, was silenced by God when he doubted the Word God spoke. But when he was given speech again, he used his voice to proclaim salvation, the forgiveness of sins.

Incidentally, Radiohead wrote a song in memory of Harry Patch, which can be heard here.

This marker (pictured above) was placed in France where Harry Patch's company fought. The text reads:

Here, at dawn, on 16 August 1917, the 7th Battalion, Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, 20th (Light) Division crossed the Steenbeek prior to their successful assault on the village of Langemarck.
This stone is erected to the memory of fallen comrades, and to honour the courage, sacrifice and passing of the Great War generation. It is the gift of former Private and Lewis Gunner Harry Patch, No. 29295, C Company, 7th DCLI, the last surviving veteran to have served in the trenches of the Western Front.

September 2008

Photograph: Parliamentary War Graves & Battlefield Heritage Group

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

David Brooks & my Cabbie on Human Nature

I had an interesting conversation with a taxicab driver some while back. He was a comically bad taxi driver, going ten miles below the speed limit, stopping at yellow lights, and unaware of the traffic direction of the main avenues in Manhattan.

We got to talking and he really is a boxer (turned out I was his first fare as a cabbie, and he hoped to make it boxing -- I encouraged him to try to do so). He is also a Muslim, as are many of the cab drivers in NYC. He was glad I knew a couple of famous boxers who are Muslims. I also told him that I was a Christian and a clergyman, and asked if I could pose some questions about his religion. He was glad to hear my questions and responded patiently (we had time, because he was driving slowly). He indicated that he needed to do more good than bad to face a final judgement with any confidence. We segued into a discussion of his lack of respect for the father of a girl he was dating, whose father opposed his marrying his (non-Muslim) daughter. Interestingly, he was sympathetic to the father's opposition to the marriage on religious grounds, but noted that he should have voiced his objections earlier. We then spoke about his responsibilities, hopes for marriage, boxing, etc. The point of all of this: at the end, I stated that Christianity takes an essentially dim view of human nature -- that while we are the crowning glory of creation, we are corrupted through and through. He could not accept this, and viewed people as essentially good but with flaws. If people knew better, they would act better, and so on.

This debate is alive and well in the culture, as well as the Christian Church (even though the matter was firmly settled in the early church, and also at the Reformation). Many think people are essentially good and just need to be taught to do the right thing. This is secular humanism, or sometimes Christian humanism, but it is not normal Christian belief.

I appreciate the NY Times columnist David Brooks, who has a good sense of the culture as well as an astute view of politics. In a recent column, he noted that the President believes people do need to stand against moral evil, while being aware of our own tendency to be corrupt with power we wield.
Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama’s speeches were thoroughly theological. He talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil.
My own read on the speech Brooks describes is that Obama is on the way to thinking as Brooks describes, but is not there yet. The core struggle of human nature that the President described when accepting the Nobel Prize is between different people, while wisdom sees this within the individual human heart. The view that if we only knew better, our problems would be solved is best shown, I think, in this video from Scrubs.

My cab ride ended with the driver and me glad for our conversation, but with no meeting of minds on theology.

People can do great things, but are shot through with corruption. That includes me. This makes the announcement of the angels at Christmas so helpful, because it is true -- we need a savior, that is, a rescuer, and one has come. He is Christ the Lord.

Friday, December 11, 2009

JC Ryle on Justification & Sanctification

JC Ryle was Bishop of Liverpool in the nineteenth century, and gives me hope that there can, indeed, be fine bishops who teach and contend for the faith once deliverd. He was also a rower, cricketer and had a great beard that was borrowed by ZZ Top.

I read with interest Ryle's description of Justificaiton and Sanctification in the Christian life, an excerpt of which is below:

In what, then, are justification and sanctification alike?

(a) Both proceed originally from the free grace of God. It is of His gift alone that believers are justified or sanctified at all.
(b) Both are part of that great work of salvation which Christ, in the eternal covenant, has undertaken on behalf of His people. Christ is the fountain of life, from which pardon and holiness both flow. The root of each is Christ.
(c) Both are to be found in the same persons. Those who are justified are always sanctified, and those who are sanctified are always justified. God has joined them together, and they cannot be put asunder.
(d) Both begin at the same time. The moment a person begins to be a justified person; he also begins to be a sanctified person. He may not feel it, but it is a fact.
(e) Both are alike necessary to salvation. No one ever reached heaven without a renewed heart as well as forgiveness, without the Spirit's grace as well as the blood of Christ, without a meetness for eternal glory as well as a title. The one is just as necessary as the other.

Such are the points on which justification and sanctification agree. Let us now reverse the picture, and see wherein they differ.

(a) Justification is the reckoning and counting a man to be righteous for the sake of another, even Jesus Christ the Lord. Sanctification is the actual making a man inwardly righteous, though it may be in a very feeble degree.
(b) The righteousness we have by our justification is not our own, but the everlasting perfect righteousness of our great Mediator Christ, imputed to us, and made our own by faith. The righteousness we have by sanctification is our own righteousness, imparted, inherent, and wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, but mingled with much infirmity and imperfection.
(c) In justification our own works have no place at all, and simple faith in Christ is the one thing needful.
(d) In sanctification our own works are of vast importance and God bids us fight, and watch, and pray, and strive, and take pains, and labour Justification is a finished and complete work, and a man is perfectly justified the moment he believes. Sanctification is an imperfect work, comparatively, and will never be perfected until we reach heaven.
(e) Justification admits of no growth or increase: a man is as much justified the hour he first comes to Christ by faith as he will be to all eternity. Sanctification is eminently a progressive work, and admits of continual growth and enlargement so long as a man lives.
(f) Justification has special reference to our persons, our standing in God's sight, and our deliverance from guilt. Sanctification has special reference to our natures, and the moral renewal of our hearts.
(g) Justification gives us our title to heaven, and boldness to enter in. Sanctification gives us our meetness for heaven, and prepares us to enjoy it when we dwell there.
(h) Justification is the act of God about us, and is not easily discerned by others. Sanctification is the work of God within us, and cannot be hid in its outward manifestation from the eyes of men.
I commend these distinctions to the attention of all my readers, and I ask them to ponder them well. I am persuaded that one great cause of the darkness and uncomfortable feelings of many well-meaning people in the matter of religion is their habit of confounding, and not distinguishing, justification and sanctification. It can never be too strongly impressed on our minds that they are two separate things. No doubt they cannot be divided, and everyone that is a partaker of either is a partaker of both.

The full text can be found here. (photo of Ryle courtesy of Anglican Library)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"Christmas Hymn" by Richard Wilbur

This poem by Richard Wilbur is worth recalling each time we come to Advent and Christmas...

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.

This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave His kingdom come.

Yet He shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.

But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
In praises of the child
By whose descent among us
The worlds are reconciled.