Encouragement During Failure

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John Calvin’s magisterial Institutes of the Christian Religion has a marvelously helpful section that is often republished as the Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. Here’s a section that was incredibly useful to me a few mornings ago when I read it.

3. Finally, if we do not succeed according to our wishes and hopes, we shall, however, be kept from impatience, and from detesting our condition, whatever it may be; because we shall understand that this would be rebellion against God at whose pleasure riches and poverty, honor and contempt are distributed.

In conclusion, he who retains God’s blessing in the way we have described, will not passionately pursue the things which man in general covets, and will not use base methods from which he expects no advantage.

Moreover, a true Christian will not ascribe any prosperity to his own diligence, industry, or good fortune, but he will acknowledge that God is the author of it.

If he makes but small progress, or even suffers setbacks while others are making headway, he will nevertheless bear his poverty with more calmness and moderation than any worldly man would feel when his success is average and contrary to his expectations.

4. A true Christian possesses a consolation which affords him more sweet satisfaction than the greatest wealth, or power, because he believes that his affairs are so regulated by the Lord as to promote his salvation.

This was in the mind of David who followed God and surrendered himself to his rule, and who declared, “I am as a child weaned of his mother; neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.” Psalm 131:1 and 2.

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Coronavirus Civil Disobedience

civildisobedienceOver at 9Marks, there is a helpful discussion on whether/if a church could ever civilly disobey the various quarantine/shelter-in-place orders.

There are several helpful insights in the conversation. Jamieson gives a rough ‘n’ ready nugget when he points out that Acts 5:29 (“we must obey God rather than man”) is a helpful prooftext and “warranted when Government commands what God forbids, or forbids what God commands.” Listen (even better, subscribe!) to the whole conversation.

Further, host Jonathan Leeman asks in 9Marks Journal, “When Should Churches Reject Governmental Guidelines on Gathering and Engage in Civil Disobedience?” Helpfully, Leeman gives an answer to the “when” aspect. Two criteria are proposed: the “reasonableness” of the government’s rationale, and the target of the government’s actions (“the government cannot single out religious groups”). How well do those criteria hold up? Continue reading

Is Your Good News Good? An Approach to a Reformed response

Gilbert_GospelGreg Gilbert has responded in an article entitled “‘Jesus Is King’ Is Not Good News: A Response to Scot McKnight and Matthew Bates” at 9Marks. This is his rejoinder following the response to his T4G sermon. All the relevant links can be found above.

Rather than trying to suss out whether Gilbert or Bates/McKnight is more correct, I’d like to suggest a alternative, Reformed approach. Back when the Lordship controversy was raging between Zane Hodges and John MacArthur, Michael Horton et al didn’t endorse MacArthur, but instead pointed out inadequacies with both sides, and produced Christ the Lord: The Reformation and Lordship Savlation (book). I’ve observed the usefulness of that title elsewhere. I don’t think Hodges=Bates/McKnight, or Gilbert=MacArthur. But it might be useful to consider some Reformed categories, rather than just lumping in with Gilbert, in this debate also.

Distinctio sed non Separatio

Reformed theologians constantly demanded we distinguish concepts without separating them. The persons of the Trinity, Jesus’ divine and human natures, justification and sanctification in union with Christ, and the Church as institution and organism were all concepts that needed to be distinguished as different, but could not ultimately be separated. Like the heads and tails of a coin, they were distinct but indivisible.

The Bates/McKnight camp is fond of emphasizing the Kingship of Jesus, even going so far as to equivocate “Messiah” for “anointed King.” While this is certainly true, and gloriously true!, it leaves out at least two other aspects of Jesus’ anointed work: prophetic and priestly. As Heidelberg Catechism #31 puts it, being the “Christ” or “Messiah” means that Jesus is our Chief Prophet, our High Priest, and our Eternal King. Continue reading

Pastoring In Plagues

Luther_Plague2Or, how historical theology brings hope.

Pestilence and Pastoral Ministry (at Gentle Reformation)

Plague and Providence: What Huldrych Zwingli Taught Me About Trusting God (TGC) Zwingli’s “Plague Song” helps deal with fear, especially amidst physical uncertainty five hundred years later.

Responding to Pandemics: 4 Lessons from Church History (TGC) This has Dionysius and Cyprian, but the other two are Luther and Spurgeon, who are filled out more completely below. Update: For an even deeper look at Dionysius and Cyprian, see this article “Glorifying God In the Midst of A Pandemic” from CTS.

Spurgeon’s Dangerous Mission (Challies) Not specific to plagues, but nevertheless characterizes several instances of ministry in extreme dangers.

Pandemics And Public Worship Throughout History (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship) Twelve instances of plague from the patristic period to the Ebola outbreak to 2015

 Luther: Whether One May Flee From A Deadly Plague (The Davenant Institute) A fourteen page pamphlet Luther composed when the Black Plague hit Wittenburg. A magisterial treatment from the magisterial Reformation.

5 Lessons from Spurgeon’s Ministry in a Cholera Outbreak (TGC) Spurgeon’s life is simply amazing.

Francis Grimke sermon: “Some Reflections Growing Out Of The Recent Epidemic Of Influenza That Afflicted Our City” (IX Marks) When the Spanish Flu hit America in the early twentieth century, African American pastor Grimke penned this sermon.

Spurgeon: “What Is God Doing?” (Bethlehem College & Seminary) A sermon from the Prince of preachers on God’s aims in a plague. (Bonus: “Lessons from Spurgeon on the Coronavirus” from Christian Concern

“Glorifying God In the Midst of A Pandemic” (CTS)

Do you know of other excellent historical theological perspectives on plague and disease? Share them in the comments below.

The Lorica

A lōrīca in the Latin world was armor, often the breastplate. As Christianity grew in the Roman empire, a lorica increasingly referred to a protective prayer, often recited as the soldier equipped and strapped on his armor. Celtic Christianity, which I’m noting today on St. Patrick’s Day, especially continued this tradition, and I list three loricas below.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me

A few things stand out from these prayers for protection. First, these prayers within the Protestant, Reformed tradition are noted for their reference to the Triune Lord, and not angels or saints (as most loricae were). Second, the prayers are very tactile and sensory; no Gnosticism here, they drip and hum from living in the Creator’s world. Third, notice how ancient these prayers are; our piety did not begin in the 1950’s, or at the Reformation. As Belgic Confession article 27 reminds us, the Church of Christ has existed from “the beginning of the world.” Fourth, there is an unmistakable desire for holiness and sanctity. Whether it is heavenly conversation (no Gaelic filth here!), or desires aligned by Divine power and vision, these prayers are not talismans of power, but instruments for sanctification. Especially in what would become “Be Thou My Vision,” there is an obvious (albeit unnamed) understanding of our union with Christ.

Fifth, I would concede there is something lacking in the piety of these prayers. I believe that what is lacking is an emphasis (certainly not the absence) of the Cross, and the Spirit’s power to make us cruciform, to make us Christ-like. It might be a quibble, or it might be a matter of emphasis, but the prayers of something like The Valley of Vision or Rutherford’s letters show (in my opinion) a maturation of piety.

Without further ado, three prayers of protection:

Lorica of St. Fursey (c. 650)
The arms of God be around my shoulders
The touch of the Holy Spirit upon my head,
The sign of Christ’s cross upon my forehead,
The sound of the Holy Spirit in my ears,
The fragrance of the Holy Spirit in my nostrils,
Continue reading

My Enemy Is An Emissary From the Lord

Gilead2
I first read Robinson’s Gilead on the road from California to Iowa as we were moving to serve our congregation in the home state of Robinson’s protagonist Rev. Ames. Finishing the novel in IA – and then getting my hands on the subsequent Home and Glory – was pure joy. The following quote has had a personal impact on me, I think I’ve used it as an illustration from the pulpit, and shared it with friends. We often ask ourselves, “How should I deal with difficult people?” But I think Robinson has it right. The real question, is “What opportunity is before me every moment?” (and I would add, “opportunity to live coram Deo for the purpose of soli Deo gloria). Here’s the quote:

This is an important thing, which I have told many people, and which my father told me, and which his father told him. When you encounter another person, when you have dealings with anyone at all, it is as if a question is being put to you. So you must think, What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation? If you confront insult or antagonism, your first impulse will be to respond in kind. But if you think, as it were, This is an emissary sent from the Lord, and some benefit is intended for me, first of all the occasion to demonstrate my faithfulness, the chance to show that I do in some small degree participate in the grace that saved me, you are free to act otherwise than as circumstances would seem to dictate. You are free to act by your own lights. You are freed at the same time of the impulse to hate or resent that person. He would probably laugh at the thought that the Lord sent him to you for your benefit (and his), but that is perfection of the disguise, his own ignorance of it.

Gilead p. 124

I have often been underwhelmed by Robinson’s “Calvinism” as little more than a historical curiosity or aethestic. But notice the strong theological assumptions here. A robust providence is responsible for this encounter, with real, beneficent, sovereignty bringing purpose and meaning. Human responsibility and spiritual obedience empowered by grace are highlighted. And yet, there is a simple (though not simplistic), integral truthfulness of how the voice of Ames conveys these truths.

Like so many of favorite authors – Flannery O’Connor, Annie Dillard – Robinson is a voice I love to return to over and over again.

Staying Afloat: Classical and Christian for Busy Families

Hudson_Banner

I was honored to have an article in the Clear Lake Classical newsletter last fall when school started, but forgot to link it. Now that we are starting a new calendar year, much of the advice seems pertinent again. You can find the original newsletter (and subscribe!) here.

Stay Afloat

In 1901, the freighter ship SS Hudson left port in Lake Superior, heading east with valuable cargo. But just a few precious hours later, they would fly distress signals, and shortly after that, succumb to a raging storm and sink beneath the waves. A vicious gale plunged the mighty freighter 825 feet down to its watery grave. After just setting out, the Hudson was already sunk.[1]

Welcome to how parents feel, just a few months into the start of another school year: a few weeks in, and we are ready to fly distress signals before we go down with the ship!

The hectic schedules, filling the children’s lunch boxes, making sure everyone gets to practice, brushes their teeth… it is enough to keep even the most disciplined family scatter brained. And when you attend a rigorous school like Clear Lake Classical, how do you keep on top of it all?

Let’s see if CLC’s twin emphases on classical education and being Christ-centered can help overwhelmed families with the busy pace of life.

Help From History

One of the blessings of a classical education is that our students glean the wisdom of the ancients. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel with “new math” or the latest teaching style. We see what has served us well in history, and we wisely borrow those timeless truths and apply them in meaningful ways to today.

To respond to the scarcity of time, wise families will want to consider the ancient Stoic practice of habitus (habits) and rhythm. The founders of classical education knew how life could easily spiral out of control, and so they fought back by practicing daily habits and rhythms. Epictetus (55 – 135 AD) once said, “every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking to running, and running to sprinting . . . therefore, if you want to do something, make a habit of it.”[2] Habits make up our routines of days, weeks, months, and years. The better the routine, the more joy we will see.

Many of us feel pressure from deadlines: the kids need to be to school on time; and piano practice on this day; and don’t forget the after-school activities. But there is wisdom in not being pulled away by the tyranny of the urgent, and instead settling into routines – rhythms of life – to guide us. Seneca (4 BC – 65 AD) famously said, “If a person doesn’t know to which port they sail, no wind is favorable.”(3) Good habits help to ground our busy schedules to get us to the best destination. Later, Seneca commented, “We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.” Time is one of our most valuable commodities. Understand habits as wise investments in your own time!

You can probably already identify several routines in your life: work schedules, after-school pick up, and Sunday worship. Carefully observe your calendar and your time. What habits or rhythms are already happening in your schedule? Are they necessary? Are there rhythms and habits you would like to include? If so, what steps would need to be taken to realize these new patterns of time in your life? A classical understanding of our schedules can help us take control of our time in a hectic and fast-paced culture.[4]

Seeing Clearly

Getting into a healthy rhythm is important, but if we don’t see life’s events through the proper perspective, we will be prone to discouragement, or being ungrateful. Great thinkers from the past encourage us to see things more clearly.

Marcus Aurelius (121 – 181 AD) wrote in his Meditations that “Man is not disturbed by events, but by the view he takes of events.”[5] In other words, it is not so much what happens to us, but how we see and respond to these events.

Suppose you have a big work presentation, but that morning your child wakes up sick, you forget your phone, the car is running on fumes, and your boss is in a foul mood. It would be easy to get discouraged or feel hopeless about what you need to get done that day.

But a classical view encourages us to look at it differently. Many things – a sick child, a grumpy boss – are outside our control. Instead of worrying or agonizing over these, we realize we have the responsibility to maintain our composure, and not let these outside, external factors overwhelm us. Rather, we have a responsibility to what the classics called the summum bonum, “the highest good.” In the face of everything we cannot control, we should strive for the highest good we can do in the situation facing us. Marcus wrote, “Just that you do the right thing. The rest is of no great matter.”

As for the things we can control – an empty gas tank, or losing your phone – we should practice premeditatio malorum, or “planning ahead for what could go wrong.” Many of the things that go wrong in life are simply due to negligence, or not planning for the worst. The Stoics were realists, and expected things might not go the way we always hope. Once we planed for the worst, and sought the highest good, then we could possess amor fati, “a love of what will come next.” We might not be able to control the future, but we can see the events in our lives in a clear light.

Do you see the year ahead clearly? What are your hopes for your children at CLC? Is it merely to get through the next year, or to thrive and flourish? Will you allow external factors dictate your joy for the year ahead, or have you looked hard at what is in your control, what is outside of it, and how you can joyfully move forward in it all? Continue reading

Prayers For the New Year

NewYearPrayerOf course, Christians are commanded to “pray without ceasing” (I Thessalonians 5:17), and that grace should be pursued all the more at the start of a new year. May the following prayers encourage you for the year ahead!

“O LORD,
Length of days does not profit me except the days are passed
in thy presence, in thy service, to thy glory.
Give me a grace that precedes, follows, guides, sustains,
sanctifies, aids every hour,
that I may not be one moment apart from thee,
but may rely on thy Spirit
to supply every thought,
speak in every word,
direct every step,
prosper every work,
build up every mote of faith,
and give me a desire
to show forth thy praise,
testify thy love,
advance thy kingdom.
I launch my bark on the unknown waters of this year,
with thee, O Father, as my harbor,
thee, O Son, at my helm,
thee, O Holy Spirit, filling my sails.
Guide me to heaven with my loins girt,
my lamp burning,
my ear open to thy calls,
my heart full of love,
my soul free.
Give me thy grace to sanctify me,
thy comforts to cheer,
thy wisdom to teach,
thy right hand to guide,
thy counsel to instruct,
thy law to judge,
thy presence to stabilize.
May thy fear be my awe,
thy triumphs my joy.

—Arthur Bennett, editor. The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999 (first published in 1975), p. 112. ISBN 0-85151-228-3.

“Most Merciful Lord, the Ancient of Days,
Moved by your grace, we devote ourselves to you at the beginning of this year desiring to employ it better than we have done in the years that are past. And since this day also warns us that our years pass away like a flood, like a dream, give us grace that we may seriously number our days, that we may have a heart of wisdom, that we may discern the vanity of this life, and that we may aspire to that better life, when days and months and years shall be counted no more, forever. While we continue in the flesh, may we more and more live, not according to its desires, but according to your will. And grant, O God, that when our years shall come to an end, and the day of our death arrives, we may depart in the peace that passes all understanding and in the sure hope of life everlasting. Favorably hear us through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Personal prayer from Psalm 90 (source)
Continue reading

Theology as Passion

TheoPassion“Theology carries with it a unique mode of existence. Barth and his followers referred to this as a theologische Existenz (theological mode of existence).

This theological mode of existence involves more than acquiring a substantial amount of knowledge, more than doing theology as creatively as possible. It concerns the cultivation of a certain underlying passion.

This passion is, first, a passion for God and His kingdom. As the word indicates, a true theologian speaks about God. But his or her passion also concerns the people of God and the world of God. This dimension will perhaps not radiate from every page the theologian writes. It is a cultivated passion; that is, it lies in the background and will typically surface in a restrained manner.”

C van der Kooi & G. van den Brink Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction p. 29-30

Holiness In Christ

beeke_livingbygodspromisesA beautiful section from Living By God’s Promises:

That obedience is commanded is clear… On what basis does the apostle give such a command [from Romans 6:12 – 13, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.”]?

Surely the apostle does not believe man is able in himself to obey, for he has already given over all men to sin (Rom. 3:9 – 20) and would not contradict that truth here. Neither does he believe that we are able in ourselves to obey, for the very point of Romans 6:1 – 11 is that just as our union with Christ’s death has freed us from sin’s dominion, so our union with Christ’s resurrection has freed us to obey. Therefore, our holiness cannot even be considered outside of Christ, in whom we enjoy it. Holiness, or obedience to God’s imperatives, is not something we enjoy because of Christ, but rather something we enjoy in and from Christ (Rom 6:11 – 12). Our acceptance before God is therefore *in* Him (Eph 1:6) and not *because of* Him. The latter viewpoint suggests that Christ brings us to a place of holiness by which we can stand before God on our own, while the former states that Christ, by redemption, so unites us to Himself as the beloved of God that we stand before God in Him… We obey the imperatives of the gospel because we enjoy the indicatives of the gospel.
p. 130

One small quibble. Why distinguish between in Christ, as if it were opposed to because of Christ? Surely, Beeke et al do not mean to suggest that it is “because of” something else other than Christ. Often, “because of” can suggest the logical or causal ground, and I highly doubt Beeke thinks there can be any other ground than Christ our Lord. Further, I do not think “because of” can mean “[I] can stand before God on [my] own.” I’m perfectly happy with Beeke’s explanation (“The latter viewpoint…”), but I would have never thought to contrast in with because of.

Despite that quibble, there is so much beautiful, life-giving, truth summed up in just a few short verses! What I first learned in Owen, I see with such precise and clear wording here. Far too many Christians today have “found Jesus for forgiveness,” but then labor in their own power & person for obedience. They have not connected Gospel indicatives to the imperatives. I know what joy it has brought to my life, and the transformation He has wrought, to see myself laboring for the Lord in a power that is not my own, but His grace within (I Corinthians 15:10)! And this has come in union – abiding in, dwelling with, meditating on – with the risen Christ.