Black Bartholomew’s Day

Today is a grim day. Reformed Christians have no true “holy-day” except the Lord’s Day (Rev 1:10), nevertheless there are seasons and days that are important.[1] Today is one of those important days to me, and it is a grim day.

St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, 1572
On August 24th, 1572, the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre was in full effect. Begun the night before with the attempted assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, many of the wealthiest French Reformed Christians were in town for the wedding of Henry of Navarre. After a few days, as many as ten thousand were dead.

In Roman Catholic France, the Reformed faith was viewed as wicked and with suspicion, a foreign infection from Frenchman Jean Caulvin (John Calvin) inserting itself from Geneva. But despite the distrust of Protestant theology in Popish France, the Reformed faith was flourishing. In 1555, there were ten churches in all of France that held to Calvin’s Reformed theology. Just seven years later, there were 2,000 churches that were Reformed Protestant strongholds. These Reformed believers went forth boldly under that name “Huguenots.”

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A Dying Man’s Prayer

and make the death of thy Son Jesus Christ effectual to my redemption at the hour of my death

Samuel Johnson (b. 1709) is an interesting figure for a number of reasons, but I wanted to post a prayer he wrote in his dying days. Having held a variety of beliefs, and only coming around to biblical orthodoxy in his later years, to see him grapple with his beliefs and end in certainty on what the Scriptures say is gratifying to behold. As his positions on God, man, Christ, and the truth became more certain, his attending physicians noticed the change in his speech – about doctrine – and in his behavior. In the last week of his life, Johnson composed the following prayer:

Almighty and most merciful Father, I am now, as to human eyes, it seems, about to commemorate, for the last time, the death of thy Son Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer. Grant, O Lord, that my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits, and thy mercy; enforce and accept my imperfect repentance; make this commemoration available to the confirmation of my faith, the establishment of my hope, and the enlargement of my charity; and make the death of thy Son Jesus Christ effectual to my redemption. Have mercy upon me, and pardon the multitude of my offences. Bless my friends; have mercy upon all men. Support me, by thy Holy Spirit, in the days of weakness, and at the hour of death; and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jeremy Larson “Samuel Johnson and Presbyterianism” Pro Rege Vol XL, No 3 (March, 2012) p. 23.

May we all go to our final moment, before our eyes close, with such clear-sighted faith!

Solzhenitsyn: Live Not By Lies

From the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Center: On the day Solzhenitsyn was arrested, February, 12, 1974, he released the text of “Live Not by Lies.” The next day, he was exiled to the West, where he received a hero’s welcome. This moment marks the peak of his fame. Solzhenitsyn equates “lies” with ideology, the illusion that human nature and society can be reshaped to predetermined specifications. And his last word before leaving his homeland urges Soviet citizens as individuals to refrain from cooperating with the regime’s lies. Even the most timid can take this least demanding step toward spiritual independence. If many march together on this path of passive resistance, the whole inhuman system will totter and collapse.

— by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney, The Solzhenitsyn Reader

There was a time when we dared not rustle a whisper. But now we write and read samizdat and, congregating in the smoking rooms of research institutes, heartily complain to each other of all they are muddling up, of all they are dragging us into! There’s that unnecessary bravado around our ventures into space, against the backdrop of ruin and poverty at home; and the buttressing of distant savage regimes; and the kindling of civil wars; and the ill-thought-out cultivation of Mao Zedong (at our expense to boot)—in the end we’ll be the ones sent out against him, and we’ll have to go, what other option will there be? And they put whomever they want on trial, and brand the healthy as mentally ill—and it is always “they,” while we are—helpless.

We are approaching the brink; already a universal spiritual demise is upon us; a physical one is about to flare up and engulf us and our children, while we continue to smile sheepishly and babble:

“But what can we do to stop it? We haven’t the strength.”

We have so hopelessly ceded our humanity that for the modest handouts of today we are ready to surrender up all principles, our soul, all the labors of our ancestors, all the prospects of our descendants—anything to avoid disrupting our meager existence. We have lost our strength, our pride, our passion. We do not even fear a common nuclear death, do not fear a third world war (perhaps we’ll hide away in some crevice), but fear only to take a civic stance! We hope only not to stray from the herd, not to set out on our own, and risk suddenly having to make do without the white bread, the hot water heater, a Moscow residency permit.

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Twelve Rules for Promoting Harmony Among Church Members

From volume 5 of the works of Thomas Smyth (1808 – 1873), the following rules would help a lot of churches and Christians maintain the bond of peace. This advice is timely, even if it is around two hundred years old!

To remember that we are all subject ot failings and infirmities, of one kind or another
Matthew 7:1 – 5; Romans 2:21 – 23.

To bear with and not magnify each other’s infirmities.
Galatians 6:1

To pray one for another in our social meetings, and particularly in private.
James 5:16

To avoid going from house to house, for the purpose of hearing news, and interfering with other people’s business.
Leviticus 19:16

Always to turn a deaf ear to any slanderous report, and to allow no charge be brought against any person until well founded and proved.
Proverbs 25:23

If a member be in fault, to tell him of it in private, before it is mentioned to others.
Matthew 18:15

To watch against shyness of each other, and put the best construction on any action that has the appearance of opposition or resentment.
Proverbs 10:12

To observe the just rule of Solomon, that is, to leave off contention before it be meddled with.
Proverbs 17:14

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Witherspoon: The Spiritual Condition Is More Important Than Our Earthly Status

John Witherspoon (1723-1794) was a key Presbyterian minister during the Revolutionary War period in American history, and is regarded among the Founding Fathers. As the only active clergy to sign the Declaration of Independence, to sign the Articles of Confederation, approve the Constitution, and serve as Moderator of the General Assembly for American Presbyterians, Witherspoon established himself in sacred and secular history of this nation. He has an important treatise on the doctrine of being born again, or regeneration.

Witherspoon wrote movingly about preaching the Gospel to different socio-economic groups, especially the poor. Here is a longer passage, where after addressing the unique situation the Scriptures give to those suffering in poverty, he says:

But does not the Savior of sinners beseech you to be reconciled unto God? He entreats you to come unto Him that you may have life. He regardeth not the persons of men, but values a precious immortal spirit as much in a mean cottage as in a splendid palace. Your rags and nakedness can be no hindrance to your obtaining His favor. He counsels you “to buy of Him gold tried in the fire, that you may be rich, and white rainment that you may be clothed.”

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Pleased To Print His Gospel on Our Hearts

During a research project on a different topic, I was so encouraged by Calvin’s words here:

…we have not perfect faith, and we have not given ourselves to serve God with such zeal as we are bound to do, but have daily to battle with the lusts of our flesh; yet, since the Lord hath graciously been pleased to print His Gospel upon our hearts, in order that we may withstand all unbelief; and hath given us this earnest desire to renounce our own thoughts and follow His righteousness and His holy commandments: therefore we rest assured, that our remaining sins and imperfections do not prevent us from being received of God and made worthy partakers of this spiritual food. For we come not to the Supper to testify hereby that we are perfect and righteous in ourselves; but on the contrary, seeking our life in Jesus Christ, we acknowledge that we lie in the midst of death.

The Christian life is a long war, a constant struggle, and I need reminders like the above in zealous battle against sin, and encouragement when we stumble. It reminds me of the importance of godliness, and the need for Holy Communion.

Godly Grace
Some Christians seem to get through daily faith in an almost light, easy way. That has never been my experience. But I cannot begin to describe how hopeful and thrilling it is to be reminded that God has a plan for my unbelief; for my failings… for my sins. And His plan is to print His Gospel on my heart. As Philippians 2:12 – 13 reminds us, our Redeemer is even concerned for our desires and wants, to train our wills and ways in His holy obedience. So often, my best efforts to live the Christian life remind me that “I lie in the midst of death.” I see failure and destruction all around me. But when I lift my eyes off my own efforts, but His sovereign grace Christ enables me to see the shocking ways He is continually transforming me from within to conform to His holy law.

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Two Great Quotes

We had a funeral service today for a dear member, and two important quotes that were used in the service are worth remembering.

Martin Luther
In Letter no. 1610 to Justus Jonas the Elder (29 June[?] 1530, WA Briefe V, p. 409, ll. 21-23), Luther reminds us of our ability to hold our lives together, in comparison to trusting the Lord with our lives. The well-known quote (as found in the History of the Reformation) goes as follows: “I have had many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have been able to place in God’s hands I still possess.” It is a beautiful reminder of our hands versus the Lord’s. Especially in conjunction with John 10:28 – 29 (“no one can snatch them out of my hand… my Father’s hand”), the consolation of having our most precious gifts – and lives – in God’s hands is a precious truth.

Steve Pershino of Liber Locorum Communium has the original mix of Latin and German: “Ich hab ihr viel in manu mea gehabt, und all verloren, nicht eine behalten.  Quas vero extra manus meas in illum reiicere hactenus potui, adhuc habeo salvas et integras.” Here is the PDF Werke at archive.org.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
The amazing survivor of the horrors of Russian communism, Solzhenitsyn is well known for his quote regarding the line between good and evil passing through every heart. I had assumed the quote was from his stirring Harvard commencement address, but it is actually from his magnum opus that he wrote in 19, The Gulag Archipelago. Here is the quote in context:

It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains … an unuprooted small corner of evil…

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

I like the insight that Annie Homquist drew from this quote:

What strikes me most about these words is that Solzhenitsyn had every right to be a “victim.” In fact, his regular persecution gave him a much bigger claim to victimhood than the “victims” of modern culture have.

Yet Solzhenitsyn refused to claim that victimhood. He refused to blame race, or class, or gender, or political party for the evils in the world that were afflicting him. Instead, he took time to examine his own heart and recognized that he was just as much at fault for the evil problems in the world as were his persecutors.

I wonder how much the noise and confusion in today’s world would be solved if we each did the same as Solzhenitsyn. Instead of pinning the problems and chaos in our world on those of the opposing political party, or those who don’t agree with our opinions on race or gender, and then painting ourselves as the victim, what if we first recognize the part we have played in making the world and ourselves what they are?

Forgotten Lesson of Good and Evil” Fee

So much of our world – and many within the Church – are confused about being a victim, and Solzhenitsyn gives an account that gives moral strength and clarity in confusing times.

The Problem of VP Pence

Mike Pence’s presence on the Trump ticket has always been confounding to me. How someone who refers to his own wife as “Mother” can stand by the Stormy-Daniels-hush-money episodes is bewildering to me. How a Manhattan narcissist could select an Indiana governor, beleaguered by passing RFRA legislation, befuddles me.

I was especially thrown for a loop when, impeachment looming, so many conservative (and especially Evangelical) supporters preferred to see Trump come through unscathed in Jan 2020, instead of seeing impeachment as a gift that removed all the troublesome aspects of the Republican ticket (namely, POTUS himself) and put Pence in the Oval Office. This would give you all the conservative policy and judges, without the narcissism and bad tweets. But almost unanimously, the circles I traveled in preferred a dumpster fire to a sputtering candle.

Now that Pence has refused to monkey with the electoral ballots, a portion of Trump’s supporters show their true feelings for the VP.

video of Trump riot chanting “hang Mike Pence” inside the US Capitol

Now a thoughtful critic might say, “If this administration has taught us anything, words are cheap. Don’t take the mindless chanting of the mob as worth very much.” To which, I agree, and yet they brought visuals:

Do I really believe they would have lynched or executed the VP? No, because I doubt their resilience, but not because I believe in their sanity or moral character.

It is clear that on Jan 6th, 2021, VP Pence did the right thing in certifying the electoral ballots and calling for the National Guard. We will undoubtedly learn more good that he has done to be a preserving and sanctifying presence in the White House administration.

But this episode reveals what those who voted for him (admittedly, a perhaps small minority) really thought of him. His presence in this administration will continue to be a closely scrutinized and problematic issue for the movements of conservativism and Evangelicalism for decades to come. As Michael Horton recently wrote in “The Cult of Christian Trumpism,” anyone who fails to “touch not the Lord’s anointed” will fall into the wrath of the cult. Pence’s behavior, and subsequent treatment, might be the most recent proof of this truth.

London’s Theology of the Wild

I was reading out loud to my son on Thanksgiving holiday. We were snuggled into sleeping bags and blankets by the fire. Two sentences into his 1915 legend White Fang, Jack London writes:

A vast silence reigned over the land.  The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness.  There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness—a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility.  It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life.  It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild…

On the sled, in the box, lay a third man whose toil was over,—a man whom the Wild had conquered and beaten down until he would never move nor struggle again.  It is not the way of the Wild to like movement.  Life is an offence to it, for life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement.  It freezes the water to prevent it running to the sea; it drives the sap out of the trees till they are frozen to their mighty hearts; and most ferociously and terribly of all does the Wild harry and crush into submission man—man who is the most restless of life, ever in revolt against the dictum that all movement must in the end come to the cessation of movement…

On every side was the silence, pressing upon them with a tangible presence.  It affected their minds as the many atmospheres of deep water affect the body of the diver.  It crushed them with the weight of unending vastness and unalterable decree.  It crushed them into the remotest recesses of their own minds, pressing out of them, like juices from the grape, all the false ardours and exaltations and undue self-values of the human soul, until they perceived themselves finite and small, specks and motes, moving with weak cunning and little wisdom amidst the play and inter-play of the great blind elements and forces.

Striking in its language, London employs the words of a systematic theology to describe the Incomprehensible Other of the frozen Wild: “silence,” “incommunicable wisdom of eternity,” “crushed weight,” and vast stillness. London writes of the Yukon and the Klondike as the scholastics wrote of the mysterium tremendum. The majestic immanence of the Wild reveals a horrifying transcendence.

At the end of chapter three, at a key narrative turn that could spell disaster for the protagonist before even coming into existence, London introduces a holy tautology: “But the Wild is the Wild…” Evoking the tetragrammaton of the Hebrew scriptures (“I Am is that I Am”), White Fang introduces readers to that which was, which is, and which is to come. The Wild is. The Wild is the Wild.

London is laying out his theology. The functional atheism of the Gold Rush cannot restrain the divine attributes of the frozen Wild. London’s characters are sinners in the hands of an angry Wilderness, at the mercy of its harshest elements. Where Captain Ahab faced an omnisciently cunning white whale, or Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley faced the Wholly Other of alien space, in London’s cosmos John Thornton (Call of the Wild), Weedon Scott (White Fang), and the chechaquo (“To Build A Fire”) face the most dangerous and omnipotent antagonist in the Wild. The divine presence is everywhere communicated in nature, and London writes of the eternal stillness of the frozen Wild for this purpose.

Salvation Among the Wolves
Riding the line of this boundary between divine nature and mortal tragedy are the protagonists, Buck (in Call of the Wild) and the eponymous White Fang. Early on, we discover that White Fang is actually a wolfdog, sired by a wolf father and wolfdog mother. This hypostatic union of feral wolf and domesticated dog is the main plot arc for White Fang, as the union of these two natures war for supremacy in the protagonist. Buck, who does not incarnate the two natures, tells the story of when a dog is predestined to remember its instinctual life in a wolf’s world.

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2020 In Review

You’ve probably never heard this, but this past year was unprecedented
Anyway, instead of the pleasantries and pontificating, let’s get on to what was interesting this past year.

Music
My two favorite albums this year were Wild, Free by Acceptance and What’s New, Tomboy? by Damien Jurado. Both albums show significant departure of style from previous works. I miss the power pop of Acceptance, and some of Jurado’s other albums had more singles that I loved. Nevertheless, I found myself listening to these over and over. There are a number of stand out tracks on each album. For Acceptance, “Cold Air” is an obvious single, but “Wildfires” is where its at for my money.

On the Jurado album, “Arthur Aware” is my favorite offering:

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