Thursday, December 31, 2009

U2's eschatological anthem

Farewell to the Aughts!

It's hard to believe that tonight we say hello to a new decade. What should we call it, the twenty-teens? The 21st century is reaching its adolescence. 2010 sounds so science fiction, but then so did 2001 and we quickly got over that. The future is upon us. From a personal vantage point the past decade (the twenty-aughts?) has been spectacular, the best of my life. Let's see. I married the girl of my dreams, saw the birth and baptism of my son, discovered the gospel through Reformed theology, returned to the church, and fell in love with the church despite her many flaws. Not only fell in love, but found various ministry callings in which to serve, including the joy of serving as an elder at our church for the last year and a half. It was the decade I became a Presbyterian! None of the foregoing was on my radar screen when 1999 rolled over into Y2K. Sure there was heartbreak and sorrow, but I've been the beneficiary of lavish grace. Quoting the old Caedmon's Call song, "looking back I see the lead of love."

More reasons to look back with fondness include the fact that the Gators won four National Championships in the decade (two in basketball and two in football) and came within an Alabama blow-out of playing for a fifth. Roll Tide (not really). I was fortunate to buy my house before the real estate bubble, and I've managed to hang on to the same job I had when the decade began. In ways large and small it has been the best of times. Yes, my little family continues to be backed into a corner by some of the same economic forces that many of you are -- huge increases in the cost of health insurance, stagnant wages, etc -- but at decade's end we're doing ok thank you.

How about the big picture. Does anyone doubt that the decade was defined on a September morning in 2001? As I watched those events unfold on a small television in my company's kitchen I remember remarking to a co-worker, "this changes everything." And it did. 9/11 unleashed a sequence of events that continue to bedevil our nation and our world. In many ways the last ten years were quite grim. There was a lot not to like from where I sit. In the West at least, Christianity became less and less relevant. Distortions of the faith like the "prosperity gospel" continued to damage the church's witness. In vast areas of society we continued to define deviancy down. Just when you think our celebrity-driven scandal-obsessed media culture can't go any lower, it does. Turning to economics it's hard to disagree with Paul Krugman's assessment that the aughts were The Big Zero. He writes:

What was truly impressive about the decade past, however, was our unwillingness, as a nation, to learn from our mistakes.

Even as the dot-com bubble deflated, credulous bankers and investors began inflating a new bubble in housing. Even after famous, admired companies like Enron and WorldCom were revealed to have been Potemkin corporations with facades built out of creative accounting, analysts and investors believed banks’ claims about their own financial strength and bought into the hype about investments they didn’t understand. Even after triggering a global economic collapse, and having to be rescued at taxpayers’ expense, bankers wasted no time going right back to the culture of giant bonuses and excessive leverage.

Then there are the politicians. Even now, it’s hard to get Democrats, President Obama included, to deliver a full-throated critique of the practices that got us into the mess we’re in. And as for the Republicans: now that their policies of tax cuts and deregulation have led us into an economic quagmire, their prescription for recovery is — tax cuts and deregulation.

So let’s bid a not at all fond farewell to the Big Zero — the decade in which we achieved nothing and learned nothing. Will the next decade be better? Stay tuned. Oh, and happy New Year.

Ouch! Happy New Year and pass the kool-aid. While short-term pessimism based on recent history may be warranted, long-term pessimism is not. As a citizen of heaven (Phil. 3:20) I know that history is moving in a positive direction. Appropriately I've been finishing off the year reading through Revelation. In chapters 21 and 22 John's prophetic vision weaves together the great themes of the Bible to describe the glorious consummation of God's re-creation of all things, coupled with a dire warning to those who ignore his great salvation. John's revelation, written to persecuted first-century Christians, continues to remind 21st-century Christians where this is all heading. As recent events have shown, our fallen world is not a safe place. It may get less safe in 2010, or by God's mercy, the coming year may see fresh outbreaks of reconciliation and peace. I hope so, I pray so, and God calls his church to work toward that end. But whatever happens the gospel will go forward and God's purposes will not be stopped.

So friends, let's go have a party. Here's to a joyful 2010!

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The cosmic D-day

The story of the Incarnation, indeed the story of Christmas, is the story of the beginning of the end. I think it was Chuck Colson who compared it to D-day. He may not have been the first to use the metaphor, but it's a great one. Once the Allies established a beachhead on the continent it was only a matter of time before Nazi Germany was finished. Likewise, now that the Son of God has "landed" it's only a matter of time until the ultimate demise of the dark prince of this world. We live in enemy-occupied territory, but the decisive battle has already been won in the progression from the manger to the cross to the empty tomb.

Here's how C.S. Lewis put it:

Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening-in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.

Vive la résistance!

Quote from Lewis, Mere Christianity (Macmillan, 1952), p. 40

Monday, December 28, 2009

The uprising continues

An Iranian opposition protester holds stones as he stands opposite security forces during clashes in Tehran on Dec. 27. (AFP/Getty Images)

Details @

Marilynne Robinson interview

Michael Horton talks with Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Marilynne Robinson about many of the themes she explores in her writings, such as the dehumanizing affects of Darwinism, the significance of John Calvin, and the complexity of grace. Robinson is the author of Home, Gilead, and The Death of Adam. This is a fascinating and wideranging conversation! She likes Dietrich Bonhoeffer too. Robinson is an author I'll be reading in 2010.


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Twelve days of Christmas

Millions of Americans are waking up this morning with a hangover. I don't mean the kind that comes from having too many libations, I mean that empty feeling that often comes after the presents have been opened and the turkeys and pies eaten. The "day after" can also be a time of sadness as families brought together by the holiday say their goodbyes and head for home. All of this leads to what's come to be known as the "post-holiday blues." Google it and you'll come up with all kinds of suggestions on how to cope. Gabe Huck writes, "We take our Christmas with lots of sugar. And we take it in a day." After the sugar rush comes the inevitable crash.

It doesn't have to be that way though, especially for Christians. For centuries believers of various traditions have celebrated Christmas, not as a one-and-done blow-out, but a 12-day festival leading up to Epiphany on January 6. For those of us accustomed to cramming everything into one day there's great value in getting back to this venerable notion of keeping Christmas as a longer period of celebration, feasting and reflection.

This year I've been enjoying Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross, director of graduate and faculty ministries for InterVarsity. Gross was raised in an evangelical church that placed all the emphasis on Christmas Day and Easter, but for whatever reason ignored the rest of the church calendar. He's written a helpful book that explains the origin of the liturgical calendar to those of us who didn't grow up with it and offers practical suggestions for making it part of our daily lives, including suggested scripture readings and devotionals.

During this time of the year we hear a lot about "keeping Christ in Christmas" but how many of us actually challenge the dominant cultural assumptions about how Christmas should be celebrated? An example of how not to challenge those assumptions is the campaign mounted this year by a prominent Christian organization to rate major retailers on how "Christmas-friendly" they are. Gross argues that orienting our lives around the church calendar, instead of the secular calendar, is a way for Christians to enter more fully into God's drama of creation and redemption. And it's a way to be truly counter-cultural.

Our commercialized culture will quickly move on now that December 25 has come and gone, but the church doesn't have to follow. Gross writes, "We can treat these twelve days differently. We can live as if we have arrived on a spiritual island after a long and arduous trip. Take a deep breath now and settle in for the time being. Let yourself relish where you are in the year—and in the Story." (pp. 71-72) In other words, be counter-cultural. Stay in the Christmas mode.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Glory to the newborn King

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

Luke 2:10-14

The following comes from a sermon John Calvin preached at Cathedral St-Pierre sometime in 1559 or 1560. Calvin preached straight through the Bible so it's hard to say if this was actually delivered at Christmas-time. In any case I've been edified by reading through it as part of my Advent devotions the past few days. As always Calvin faithfully exposits the text and then draws out an encouraging, pastoral application for his hearers.

We also have to note that, in the history which St. Luke here recites, on the one hand we learn how the Son of God emptied Himself of everything for our salvation, nevertheless, on the other hand He did not fail to leave certain and infallible testimony that He was the Redeemer of the world promised from all time. Even though He took our condition, He was able to maintain his heavenly majesty. Both sides are here shown to us. For our Lord Jesus Christ is here in a manger and He is, as it were, rejected by the world. He is in extreme poverty without any honor, without any reputation, as it were, subject to servitude. Yet He is magnified by Angels from Paradise, who do Him homage.

In the first place, an angel bears the message of His birth. Then the same one is accompanied by a great multitude, even by an army, who are all present and appear as witnesses sent by God to show that our Lord Jesus Christ, being thus abased for the salvation of men, never ceases to be King of all the world and to have everything under His dominion.

Then the place, Bethlehem, gives proof that it was He who had been promised from all time. For the prophet Micah had spoken thus: “And thou Bethlehem, though thou be in great contempt, as a village which is not much to look at, and which is not densely populated, yet from thee shall come forth to Me He Who is to govern My people, and His goings forth will be from all eternity.” We see, then, here on the one hand how our Lord Jesus Christ did not spare Himself, so that we might have easy access to Him and that we might not doubt that we are received even as His body, since He willed to be not only a mortal man clothed in our nature, but, as it were, a poor earthworm stripped of all good. May we never doubt, then, however miserable we may be, that He will keep us as His members.

On the other hand, we see Him here marked, as it were, by the hand of God, so that He may be received without any difficulty, as Him from Whom we must expect salvation, and by Whom we are received into the Kingdom of God, from which we were previously banished. For we see that He has in Himself a Divine majesty, since the Angels recognize Him as their superior and their sovereign King. We ought not to doubt, when we shall be under His keeping, that He has all that is needed to maintain us. Let us know, however much He was abased, it in no wise takes away from His Divine power nor hinders us from being securely under His guidance.

Now we shall bow in humble reverence before the majesty of our God.

Calvin, Sermon on the Nativity of Jesus Christ

Bowing with you at the manger. Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Black Hawk Down epilogue

Robert E. Lee remarked that it's good that war is so terrible otherwise men would grow fond of it. The kind of warfare Lee was commenting on -- massed ranks of soldiers attacking each other on a battlefield where combatant and non-combatant are clearly distinguished -- is far from the type chronicled in Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden. On 3 October 1993 it seemed the entire population of Mogadishu came out for "Kill an American Day" including old women carting baskets of RPG's and children firing AK-47's. I can't imagine anyone growing fond of this type of urban carnage. Through a series of fortunate accidents Bowden was able to get access to many participants of the Battle of Mogadishu as well as reams of documentary material from Pentagon vaults. The result is an unprecedented real-time depiction of combat as it was experienced by the men on the ground and those flying the "birds" overhead. It's not an easy read. There are some incidents described that I wouldn't post here. Exploding steel does awful things to flesh and bone. Respect for the incredible bravery displayed by the Army Rangers and Delta Force is the main thing I took away from the book. Because their mission was deemed a failure back home they never got their rightful due. Bowden wrote the book to rectify that, and he closes with this eloquent epilogue.

Many of the young Americans who fought in the Battle of Mogadishu are civilians again. They are beginning families and careers, no different outwardly than the millions of other twenty-something members of their generation. They are creatures of pop culture who grew up singing along with Sesame Street, shuttling to day care, and navigating today's hyper-adolescence through the pitfalls of drugs and unsafe sex. Their experience of battle, unlike that of any generation of American soldiers, was colored by a lifetime of watching the vivid gore of Hollywood action movies. In my interviews with those who were in the thick of the battle, they remarked again and again how much they felt like they were in a movie, and had to remind themselves that this horror, the blood, the deaths, was real. They describe feeling weirdly out of place, as though they did not belong here, fighting feelings of disbelief, anger, and ill-defined betrayal. This cannot be real. Many wear black metal bracelets inscribed with the names of their friends who died, as if to remind themselves daily that it was real. To look at them today, few show any outward sign that one day not too long ago they risked their lives in an ancient African city, killed for their country, took a bullet, or saw their best friend shot dead. They returned to a country that didn't care or remember. Their fight was neither triumph nor defeat; it just didn't matter. It's as though their firefight was a bizarre two-day adventure, like some extreme Outward Bound experience where things got out of hand and some guys got killed.

I wrote this book for them. (pp. 345-346)

Below is the only known photo from during the battle. If you look closely you can see Rangers taking cover.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Bonhoeffer: Advent in prison

Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other — things that are really of no consequence — the door is shut, and can be opened only from the outside.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Eberhard Bethge - 21 November 1943, Letters and Papers from Prison

Friday, December 18, 2009

George Bailey: victim of circumstances

Originally posted in December 2007

Shannon and I returned home late last night after spending the evening with some friends. I wasn't ready to call it a night so I put It's a Wonderful Life in the DVD player thinking I'd watch the first 45 minutes or so. Guess what? We ended up watching the entire movie until the wee hours of this morning. No matter how many times you've seen it, the story draws you in and makes it impossible to turn off. I think this quality must be the main reason IAWL remains a perennial holiday favorite. However, let me offer a few fresh observations that may help you appreciate this picture even more.

First, and most importantly, Frank Capra was a great filmic storyteller. He co-wrote the script and directed his actors in such a way that the pacing and structure of the film, well, pulls you in. He never let style get in the way of the story, but at the same time he wasn't afraid to use innovative cinematic techniques to serve the story. The most obvious example is the non-linear structure of the film, which few directors of that era would have been comfortable with, or able to pull off. A few more examples...

1) Capra used freeze-frame (remember the early scene when college-bound George Bailey is buying a suitcase?). This is a technique we're accustomed to, but not so for audiences of the day.  2) Capra's editing made liberal use of "fade to black" and "wipes" to transition between scenes. "Fade to black" tends to heighten the emotional impact of a scene and "wipes" (when the next scene transitions in from left to right across the screen) creates a dreamlike or storybook quality (remember that most of IAWL is an extended flashback in the "mind" of Clarence). Again, routine stuff today but not for mainstream films of the 1940's. 3) Capra's use of sound, particularly source music (music that originates from a location within the movie), was very effective. For instance, during George's "vision" we see Pottersville (now filled with taverns and dance halls) from his point of view. As he walks down Main Street, and each marquee slides by, we hear the various music and voices wafting out onto the sidewalk just as he's hearing it.

These are all relatively minor contributions to the greatness of the film (I haven't even mentioned the cast!), but they show that Capra wasn't afraid to use the cinematic tools at his disposal to serve the story he wanted to tell. Many have been the overly self-indulgent directors that would have benefitted from studying in the Frank Capra school of movie-making.

The story of George Bailey is about how "life happens when you're making plans." He's a victim of circumstance over and over again -- his father's death, Harry getting married and getting the good job, the bank panic on his wedding night, the war. Things keep happening just when George is on the cusp of something big. But is he a victim? His best laid plans are constantly frustrated, and it all finally comes to a boil on that snowy Christmas Eve. But It's a Wonderful Life believes that there's a divine providence at work, and that George really isn't a victim. Indeed, there's a meaning to life greater than our own plans, aspirations and circumstances. That's a worthy message to hear in a time when individual choice and personal autonomy are held up as ultimate values.

In his moment of crisis out there on the snowy bridge George Bailey of Bedford Falls throws up a desperate cry for help.

God, if you're up there. Show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope.

George knows he's not a "praying man", but his prayer and the prayers of others in the town (heard at the beginning of the movie) bring a divine intervention that show him that his faithfulness and sacrifice haven't been in vain, indeed, in the things that matter most, George is the richest man in town. Here's hoping that Frank Capra's tale finds an audience for many more holiday seasons. Much has changed since 1946, but everyone still loves a good story, and It's a Wonderful Life is one of the best.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A libertarian on socialized health care

Matt Welch:

To put it plainly, when free marketers warn that Democratic health care initiatives will make us more “like France,” a big part of me says, “I wish.” It’s not that I think it’s either feasible or advisable for the United States to adopt a single-payer, government-dominated system. But it’s instructive to confront the comparative advantages of one socialist system abroad to sharpen the arguments for more capitalism at home.

For a dozen years now I’ve led a dual life, spending more than 90 percent of my time and money in the U.S. while receiving 90 percent of my health care in my wife’s native France. On a personal level the comparison is no contest: I’ll take the French experience any day. ObamaCare opponents often warn that a new system will lead to long waiting times, mountains of paperwork, and less choice among doctors. Yet on all three of those counts the French system is significantly better, not worse, than what the U.S. has now.

Need a prescription for muscle relaxers, an anti-fungal cream, or a steroid inhaler for temporary lung trouble? In the U.S. you have to fight to get on the appointment schedule of a doctor within your health insurance network (I’ll conservatively put the average wait time at five days), then have him or her scrawl something unintelligible on a slip of paper, which you take to a drugstore to exchange for your medicine. You might pay the doc $40, but then his office sends you a separate bill for the visit, and for an examination, and those bills also go to your insurance company, which sends you an adjustment sheet weeks after the doctor’s office has sent its third payment notice. By the time it’s all sorted out, you’ve probably paid a few hundred dollars to three different entities, without having a clue about how or why any of the prices were set.

In France, by contrast, you walk to the corner pharmacist, get either a prescription or over-the-counter medication right away, shell out a dozen or so euros, and you’re done. If you need a doctor, it’s not hard to get an appointment within a day or three, you make payments for everything (including X-rays) on the spot, and the amounts are routinely less than the co-payments for U.S. doctor visits. I’ve had back X-rays, detailed ear examinations, even minor oral surgery, and never have I paid more than maybe €300 for any one procedure.

Read on for more reasons why this libertarian free-marketeer (Welch is the editor of Reason) prefers France's single-payer system to our public/private hybrid dominated by Medicare and private insurance cartels.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Prophets, priests and kings

During Advent the people of God reenact a drama that took place over many centuries. It's a drama that makes a Charlie Kaufman script seem predictable. In many ways it's a story about prophets, priests and kings, especially the shepherd-king from Bethlehem to whom was promised an everlasting throne in a message relayed by the prophet Nathan. Later on the prophet would confront King David with a more ominous message contained in a riddle. Remember Bathsheba? The sins of this deeply flawed man after God's heart would result in a legacy of family dysfunction and civil war, but God was working still, preparing the way for the greater David and the greater Moses whose coming was prophesied all the way back at Sinai.

I've been reflecting on Advent this year through the prism of Shorter Catechism Question 23: "What offices doth Christ execute as our Redeemer?" Answer: "Christ, as our Redeemer, executeth the offices of a prophet, of a priest, and of a king, both in his estate of humiliation and exaltation." Even at his lowliest Jesus never relinquished his offices. The baby in the food trough was heralded by heavenly hosts fit for a king -- for that's what he was. Prophets, priests and kings aren't much of a big deal these days, but they were everything to the Old Testament people of God. Starr Meade explains in her excellent book of devotionals on the WSC.

God's people waited hundreds of years for Him to send the One He had promised to send. This One would destroy Satan and his work. As they waited, God gave His people three kinds of special people: prophets, priests, and kings. These three kinds of people helped God's people know and do His will while they waited. They were also pictures of the One whom God had promised. Jesus would be the perfect prophet, the perfect priest, and the perfect king all combined in one Person.

Training Hearts, Teaching Minds (P&R, 2000), p. 77

In 1 Peter chapter one the Apostle holds up the prophets of old as an example to us. They had only a piece of the puzzle, but looking back we have the full picture. Even the angels were blown away by the Incarnation! Yet we too now live as exiles waiting for a second Advent. "Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ." (v. 13)

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

A serious man

Readers of this blog will know that I profoundly disagree with Barack Obama in a couple of areas. But one of the things I appreciate about him is that he's a serious person. What do I mean? It's evident that he's read widely and thought deeply about big issues. He has a sense of history. He's serious without taking himself too seriously. I'm sure being the father of two young children helps in that regard. This is a refreshing change. Contra the rhetoric from the right, Obama is no raving revolutionary, but a cautious realist whose first instinct is to build bridges not lob Molotov cocktails. The first year of his presidency has lacked (thankfully) the messianic overtones that characterized his campaign.

David Brooks had an interesting column yesterday on how Obama's engagement with the 20th-century Christian thinker Reinhold Niebuhr has informed his approach to foreign policy. Incidentally, another of Niebuhr's students was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, though Bonhoeffer criticized Niebuhr for lacking the Christocentric focus which he found in his other mentor Karl Barth. I wonder if Obama has read Barth or Bonhoeffer? But back to Brooks. He traces the influence of Niebuhr on Cold War liberals like George Kennan. Unlike later generations of Democrats these men had a healthy appreciation for the limits of human virtue and the persistent effects of the evil within -- what a theologian would call original sin. What Alexander Solzhenitsyn described as the line running through every human heart.

Brooks writes:

As the cold war strategist George F. Kennan would put it: “The fact of the matter is that there is a little bit of the totalitarian buried somewhere, way down deep, in each and every one of us.”

So as you act to combat evil, you wouldn’t want to get carried away by your own righteousness or be seduced by the belief that you are innocent. Even fighting evil can be corrupting. . . . But after Vietnam, most liberals moved on. It became unfashionable to talk about evil. Some liberals came to believe in the inherent goodness of man and the limitless possibilities of negotiation. Some blamed conflicts on weapons systems and pursued arms control. Some based their foreign-policy thinking on being against whatever George W. Bush was for. If Bush was an idealistic nation-builder, they became Nixonian realists.

Barack Obama never bought into these shifts. In the past few weeks, he has revived the Christian realism that undergirded cold war liberal thinking and tried to apply it to a different world.

Obama’s race probably played a role here. As a young thoughtful black man, he would have become familiar with prophetic Christianity and the human tendency toward corruption; familiar with the tragic sensibility of Lincoln’s second inaugural; familiar with the guarded pessimism of Niebuhr, who had such a profound influence on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

You can read the whole column here. It's interesting that Obama has a better grasp of the doctrine of original sin than some of the politically conservative Christians that despise him.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Newbigin: revelation is personal and communal

In a preliminary consideration of the subject we may fairly say that the central importance ascribed to revelation in Christianity depends upon two beliefs about the nature of the world and of man. Firstly the belief that the meaning of the world is personal. For if the final meaning of the world is less than personal, then it [is] best understood by those methods of scepticism and experiment which are the requisites of scientific enquiry, but which would be the complete destruction of any personal understanding. For we know a person only as he chooses to reveal himself, and only as our own spirit is sensitive and trustful to respond to his revelation, and if the meaning of the world is personal then revelation is the only path by which it can be made known to us.

Secondly the belief that the meaning of man's life is in fellowship: if it were otherwise, we should not only expect that every man would be able to achieve for himself, apart from co-operation with his fellows, the necessities of physical existence and culture, and that pain and pleasure would always be distributed in mathematical accordance with sin and merit; but also that every man would be able to receive by direct revelation from God - apart from human telling - the knowledge necessary for blessedness. But if it be true that man was made for fellowship then we can understand not only the meaning of the co-operation which economic facts make necessary, and the strange incidence of pain and pleasure, so monstrously unjust by the standards of the law courts; but we can also understand the immensely significant fact that the revelation which is the key to our highest blessedness does not descend to us straight from heaven, but has to reach us passed from hand to hand of our fellow men along the chain of a historic community. (pp. 18-19)

Quotes from Newbigin, "Revelation" (1936) from Lesslie Newbigin, Missionary Theologian: A Reader ed. Paul Weston

Wow! If true (as I believe it is) Newbigin's insight has far reaching implications for just about everything.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

From the interweb

I turn my head for a few months and Radiohead goes and releases a new track on the web.

Listen to "These Are My Twisted Words"

See a live performance

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The writers of the Bible were real authors

The incarnation is an incomparable mystery -- the Word made flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, fully God and fully man. That mystery is reflected in how the Bible came to us, and is preserved in the doctrine of organic (as opposed to mechanical) verbal inspiration of Scripture. Here's Louis Berkhof:

We cannot explain the interpenetration of the divine and the human factors in Scripture, any more than we can explain that of the two natures in Christ. Scripture presents itself to us as an organic whole, consisting of several parts, that are interrelated in various ways, and that find their unity in the central, all-controlling, and progressively unfolding, thought of God reaching out to man, in order to redeem him from sin and to bestow upon him the blessings of eternal salvation. And therefore we should not ask where the divine ends and the human begins, nor where the human ends and the divine begins. We might just as well ask where in man the soul ends and the body begins. No such line of demarcation can be pointed out. Scripture is in its entirety both the Word of God and the word of man. (Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology, pp. 154-155)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The message of Advent

My wife was looking for Advent materials to use in teaching Sunday school this morning. She came across a good article called Preparing Children for Advent on the website of Creighton University. I encourage you to read the whole thing (especially if you have kids) but here's a wonderful explanation of the storyline of Advent using clear, simple language. This is so good I think I'm going to use it when I teach our adult class next Sunday.

We can tell our children about Isaiah, the prophet. We can tell them that God has wanted to be the one who would lead and take care of his people. But they rebelled against God, and demanded kings, just like all the peoples around them had. So, God let them have kings. As it turned out, there was one bad king after another. And God sent prophets to the people and the kings to remind them of the agreement - the "covenant" - God made with them: I'll be your God and you be my people.

Now the way the people made someone a king was to pour a bit of oil on their head. The one who was "anointed" this way with oil became the king. Well, the prophets began to tell the people that God would send them "an anointed one" (the word they use to say "anointed one" in Hebrew is "Messiah.") In fact, they said that this Messiah would be called "Emmanuel", which in Hebrew means, "God is with us."

So, the message of the prophets was about a promise - that God would save his people from all that they were suffering. The prophets use such wonderful images to tell the people that they could expect and hope for a day when "every tear would be wiped away." It would be a day of great peace - "the lion would lie down with the lamb" and the people will beat their spears into hooks to prune trees with. And, the most unbelievable promise of all: "death will be no more."

We all know now that what God was preparing his people for was the coming of Jesus, the Christ (Christos in Greek means "the anointed one.")

Unfortunately the author of this isn't identified so I can't attribute it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thoughts on Romans 7:4

Romans 7:4 says: "Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God." What struck me here is the implication that dying to the law is the same as no longer belonging to the law. I now belong to the risen Christ. This is a common thread throughout Paul's writings. It's explicit in Galatians 4 where Paul uses the contrast between Isaac and Ishmael to draw out the imagery of the law as guardian or master. Paul repeatedly returns to the language of Roman slavery to remind his readers who they belong to if they are in Christ. They no longer belong to the law/sin. Now they belong to Christ/righteousness.

I love this from John Piper:

. . . instead of belonging to the law, which demands and condemns, we now belong to Christ who demands and gives. Formerly, righteousness was demanded from outside in letters written in stone. But now righteousness rises within us as a longing in our relationship with Christ. He is present and real. By his Spirit he helps us in our weakness. A living person has replaced a lethal list. (Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came To Die, p. 81)

The corollary truth is that all those outside of Christ, who haven't experienced the new birth, are in a precarious position. Paul sets up a clear antithesis between belonging to Christ or belonging to the law. The latter means being under the law with it's perfect requirement on penalty of death. "For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life." (2 Cor. 3:6)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Coppola's best film doesn't have 'Godfather' in the title


The Conversation is one of the best films ever made. I'm not one to just throw such a statement out there. I've seen thousands of films. The accepted classics, generally agreed upon masterpieces that I likewise admire and laud. I've also seen many sleepers that sneaked up on me. Coppola's 1974 film is both, a quiet gem that, in my opinion, is as disturbing and fascinating as any of the great films of Bunuel, Ozu, Welles, Bresson, Antonioni. Such a simple scenario, explored not with grandiosity, but rather a beautifully modulated central performance by Gene Hackman (reputed to be his favorite role) and script by the director.

Intrigued? Read the rest of his spot-on assessment here.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The D-boys

As chronicled in Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down the Army Rangers of Task Force Ranger viewed the Delta Force operators in their midst with envy and awe. In ways both obvious and subtle the D-boys radiated their elite status. No guard duty or "fun" runs for these guys. They spent their down time in more creative ways.

When the force had first moved in, the pigeons had owned the hangar, crapping at will all over people, cots and equipment. When one of the D-boys got nailed while sitting on his cot cleaning his weapon, the elite force declared war. They ordered up pellet guns. The birds didn't have a prayer. The D-boys would triangulate fire and send a mess of blood and feathers plopping down on somebody's cot. Did these guys know how to kill time on a deployment or what? They all had custom-built weapons with hand-rifled barrels and such. Gun manufacturers outfitted them the way Nike supplies pro athletes. Some days Delta would commandeer a Black Hawk and roar off to hunt wild boar, baboons, antelope, and gazelles in the Somali bush. They brought back trophy tusks and game meat and held cookouts. They called it "realistic training." (pp. 59-60)

To the gung-ho Rangers, some of whom were teenagers seeing their first combat zone, hanging with Delta was just plain cool. It was a chance to learn the finer points of killing and mayhem from the best of the best. Not that the Rangers were any slouches in those departments, but the "Dreaded D" knew all the tricks. Including how to make the most of the 18-hour flight to Mog. . .

Aboard the giant C-141 Starlifter, when the air force blueshirts insisted that they all stay in their seats, the D-boys just blew them off. Right after takeoff they unrolled thermal pads (the shiny metal floor of the bird turns ice cold at altitude) and insulated ponchos, stuck earplugs in their ears, donned eye patches, swallowed "Blue Bombers" (Halcyon tablets), and racked out. They taught little tricks like wrapping tape around the pins of their grenades to make sure none accidentally snagged and pulled on a piece of equipment. They wore knee pads when they went into a fight, which made it easy to quickly drop and shoot, and stay there for hours if necessary. If it was hot, they didn't walk around in full battle gear. They wore T-shirts or no shirts at all, and shorts and flip-flops. They all had sunglasses. If they'd been up until all hours, they slept in a little in the morning. When they went out on a mission, they took the weapons they thought they'd need and left behind the stuff they didn't. With the D-boys, all of whom were ranked sergeant first class or higher, rank meant nothing. They all, officers and noncoms, called each other by their first names or nicknames. They were trained to think and act for themselves. Nothing was done by the book for its own sake; they were guided by their own experience. They knew their weapons and tactics and business better than anyone, and basically ran their own lives, which was an extraordinary thing in the U.S. Army. (pp. 151-152)

I don't know about you, but I'm glad to have a breed like the D-boys on America's side.

Excerpts from Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (Penguin, 1999)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Someone's child

This photo caught my eye because it's a view I'm familiar with when feeding my son.

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - A young girl eats some food as displaced Afghans queue to receive relief aid from the UNHCR, on December 1, 2009 in Kabul, Afghanistan. As temperatures begin to drop around the country, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Afghan government are providing relief supplies, to help some 200,000 vulnerable people cope with the harsh winter, including blankets, sweaters, plastic sheets, jerry cans and bags of charcoal. (Photo from Getty Images)