Thursday, August 30, 2012

Salvation from A to Z

Having finished A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson I was looking for another devotional type book to supplement my daily Bible reading. Providentially a friend posted on Facebook that the Kindle edition of In Christ Alone by Sinclair Ferguson was on sale for 99 cents. I quickly grabbed it (sorry it's back up to $7.69).

This is solid material from a gifted and godly pastor and expositor of scripture. The chapters are bite-sized chunks that lend themselves to daily devotional reading. In Christ Alone is animated by a quote from John Calvin that "salvation whole, its every single part is found in Christ." The book begins at the beginning with a section called "The Word Became Flesh". Here's a quote from that section on Jesus the author of our salvation (see Hebrews 2:10 and 12:2).

This title has a rich connotation. The Greek word translated as "author" is archegos. It expresses the idea of a leader, one who goes at the head of a group to open the way for others. . . . Adam was the first archegos. He was called to lead the human race in obedience, through testing, to the destination of glory. He sinned and failed, falling short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). This world became a jungle where man and God, man and Satan, man and woman, man and beast, man and his environment, and man and his brother have all become entangled in hostility (Gen. 3:8-19; 4:1-12).

Jesus came as the second archegos, the second representative man (1 Cor. 15:45-47). He entered the jungle. He broke through and subdued all its opposition to God. He dealt with God's solemn curse (Gen. 3:14, 17) and opened a way into God's presence for all who believe in and follow Him (Heb. 10:19-20).

The Son of God took our human nature and entered into our fallen, sin-ravaged environment. He lived a life of perfect obedience for the glory of God. Bearing God's judgment against our sin on the cross, He experienced the divine curse. Now divine blessing and restoration flow to us along the path of grace He has opened (Gal. 3:13).

Ferguson has the gift of communicating deep biblical truths in a simple direct manner. Here in a few short paragraphs he presents the grand scope of salvation history from first Adam to Jesus Christ the second Adam. I recommend this book. It will make you want to sing "Hallelujah! What a Savior!"

Quote from Chapter 5 of In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel Centered Life (Reformation Trust, 2007)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: the myth of cheap energy

Throughout his collection of essays The Gift of Good Land Wendell Berry directs the reader's attention to the myth of cheap energy, in particular cheap petroleum-based energy. This myth has made possible much of America's post-World War Two progress for both good and ill. In the area of agriculture this has led to consolidation which has seen the almost total demise of small farms in areas that we'd now consider marginal. Increasingly we've put all our agricultural eggs in one basket so to speak, both in terms of land and crops grown. Recently, there was an interesting piece in The New York Times on how this summer's drought in the Midwest is exposing the folly of this strategy. William Mosely writes:

We have become dangerously focused on corn in the Midwest (and soybeans, with which it is cultivated in rotation). This limited diversity of crops restricts our diets, degrades our soils and increases our vulnerability to droughts. Farmers in the central plains used to grow a greater diversity of food and forage crops, including oats, hay, alfalfa and sorghum. But they gradually opted to grow more and more corn thanks to federal agricultural subsidies and expanding markets for corn in animal feed, corn syrup and ethanol.

Of course this is the sort of thing Berry has been saying for decades. Just another confirmation that he's one of the few contemporary figures for which the word prophet is not hyperbole, and like most (all?) prophets throughout history he's largely ignored.

In his 1979 essay "Energy in Agriculture" Berry reflects on a memoir by Donald Hall of life on his grandparents' New Hampshire farm circa 1930s - 1950s. This farm was based on patterns of agriculture that have been extinguished by the methods of industrial agriculture (though thankfully these older methods are making a comeback here and there). Farms like the Hall's gave way to assumptions of "progress" that privileged the city over the country, the large-scale over the small, uniformity over diversity -- and Berry argues it was made possible by the myth of cheap energy.

But these assumptions could not accomplish much on their own. What gave them power, and made them able finally to dominate and reshape our society, was the growth of technology for the production and use of fossil fuel energy. This energy could be made available to empower such unprecedented social change because it was "cheap." But we were able to consider it "cheap" only by a kind of moral simplicity: the assumption that we had a "right" to as much of it as we could use. This was a "right" made solely by might. Because fossil fuels, however abundant they once were, were nevertheless limited in quantity and not renewable, they obviously did not "belong" to one generation more than another. We ignored the claims of posterity simply because we could, the living being stronger than the unborn, and so worked the "miracle" of industrial progress by the theft of energy from (among others) our children.

That is the real foundation of our progress and our affluence. The reason that we are a rich nation is not that we have earned so much wealth—you cannot, by any honest means, earn or deserve so much. The reason is simply that we have learned, and become willing, to market and use up in our own time the birthright and livelihood of posterity.

Quote found on p. 127 of The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Counterpoint, 1981)

Friday, August 24, 2012

Kuyper on predestination

Belief in predestination is nothing but the penetration of God's decree into your own personal life; or, if you prefer it, the personal heroism to apply the sovereignty of God's decreeing will to your own existence. It means that we are not satisfied with a mere profession of words, but that we are willing to stand by our confession in regard both to this life and the life to come. It is a proof of honesty, unmovable firmness and solidity in our expressions concerning the unity of God's will, and the certainty of his operations. It is a deed of high courage because it brings you under the suspicion of high-mindedness. But if you now proceed to the decree of God, what else does God's fore-ordination mean than the certainty that the existence and course of all things, i.e., of the entire cosmos, instead of being a plaything of caprice and chance, obeys law and order, and that there exists a firm will which carries out its designs both in nature and in history?

Quote from "Calvinism and Science," Lectures on Calvinism

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Six ways Jesus changed the world

From a terrific piece by Pastor John Ortberg at

Both President Obama and Governor Romney have had to repeatedly address their views about an itinerant rabbi who lived 2000 years ago.

But why does anyone care?

Yale historian Jeroslav Pelikan wrote, "Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western Culture for almost 20 centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull up out of history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?"

It turns out that the life of Jesus is a comet with an exceedingly long tale. Here are some shards of his impact that most often surprise people:


In the ancient world children were routinely left to die of exposure -- particularly if they were the wrong gender (you can guess which was the wrong one); they were often sold into slavery. Jesus' treatment of and teachings about children led to the forbidding of such practices, as well as orphanages and godparents. A Norwegian scholar named Bakke wrote a study of this impact, simply titled: When Children Became People: the Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity.

Keep reading for the other five shards.

Ortberg concludes:

The one predictable element of this fall's U.S. presidential campaign is that it will be called "the most important election of our time." As the last one was called, and the next one will be.

Meanwhile, the unpredictable influence of an unelected carpenter continues to endure and spread across the world.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Obedience has a history (Peterson)

Here's more wisdom from Eugene Peterson. This quote comes from Chapter 14 of A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.

Christians tramp well-worn paths: obedience has a history.

This history is important for without it we are at the mercy of whims. Memory is a data bank we use to evaluate our position and make decisions. With a biblical memory we have two thousand years of experience from which to make the off-the-cuff responses that are required each day in the life of faith. If we are going to live adequately and maturely as the people of God, we need more data to work from than our own experience can give us.

What would we think of a pollster who issued a definitive report on how the American people felt about a new television special, only to discover later that he had interviewed only one person who had only seen ten minutes of the program? We would dismiss the conclusions as frivolous. Yet that is exactly the kind of evidence that too many Christians accept as the final truth about many much more important matters—matters such as answered prayer, God's judgment, Christ's forgiveness, eternal salvation. The only person they consult is themselves and the only experience they evaluate is the most recent ten minutes. But we need other experiences, the community of experience of brothers and sisters in the church, the centuries of experience provided by our biblical ancestors. A Christian who has David in his bones, Jeremiah in his bloodstream, Paul in his fingertips and Christ in his heart will know how much and how little value to put on his own momentary feelings and the experience of the past week.

Let me once again commend this book! In my opinion it's must reading for 21st century disciples of Jesus.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The household of faith

"So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith." Galatians 6:10

It's quite something to be deeply embedded in a multigenerational community of faith. On Sunday I was helping out in our church's nursery. I was a witness to the baptism of many of the little ones crawling or toddling around me, and I've made vows to share in the responsibility for their nurture in the faith. One of the toddlers was my son, Benjamin.

Today I attended the memorial service for a member of our church who died suddenly. I didn't know the woman whose death we mourned, and whose life we celebrated, particularly well, but I do know well her daughter and son-in-law. They've welcomed my wife and I into their home for meals, and they brought us meals after the births of both of our children. And their daughter is our son's favorite babysitter.

So, in an organic and tangible way the extraordinary woman who's now home with the Lord has touched our lives and the lives of our children. The blessing comes full circle. This is the Church.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Getting the rich off welfare (re-post from September 2011)

In light of today's Paul Ryan selection I thought I'd repost this. It will be interesting to see if Ryan stands by his earlier positions.

Who said this?

“We want to stop subsidizing corporations. We want to stop subsidizing wealthy individuals."

"[We should be] focusing the benefits on the people who need it and away from those who need it the least."

Was that a quote from the "socialist" Obama? More class warfare rhetoric from Nancy Pelosi? Nope, that's Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.

Here's more on Ryan from Marc Thiessen writing in The WashPo.

President Obama is campaigning for reelection by casting Republicans as the party of the rich because they oppose his plan to raise tax rates on wealthy Americans. “If you’ve done well,” Obama declared in Cincinnati last week, “then you should do a little something to give something back.”

One person who agrees with that sentiment is Rep. Paul Ryan, the Republican chairman of the House Budget Committee — though not in the way Obama means it. Ryan wants the wealthy to give something back: the billions of dollars in government benefits, taxpayer subsidies and corporate welfare they receive each year and do not need. Instead of raising taxes, which would hurt growth and job creation, Ryan told me: “We want to stop subsidizing corporations. We want to stop subsidizing [wealthy] individuals. And you can get more money for savings to reduce the deficit without damaging the economy this way.”

Call it “soak the rich” economics, GOP-style.

What government spending on the wealthy would Ryan target? “Everything,” he says. He would start with entitlements. The two biggest and fastest-growing areas of federal spending are Social Security and Medicare, both of which provide the richest Americans with growing benefits. To help stabilize both programs, Ryan wants to scale back those benefits for the wealthy. . . .

Ryan's also willing to risk antagonizing another powerful interest group that tends to vote Republican.

Ryan would also means-test farm subsidies. He points out that, while the rest of the economy struggles, the American agricultural sector is booming. Yet the government continues to make agriculture support payments to farmers with joint-incomes as high as $2.5 million. Ryan sees no reason why the federal government should be making direct cash payments to multimillionaires. He would limit agricultural support to those making less than $250,000 and has proposed cutting $30 billion over the next decade in price supports and other agriculture subsidies.

In addition to cutting cash payments to wealthy individuals, Ryan wants to end what he calls “wasteful welfare for corporations such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, big agribusinesses, well-connected energy companies, and others that have gotten a free ride from the taxpayer for too long.” He points out that the president’s stimulus spending bill allocated $80 billion specifically for politically favored renewable energy businesses, such as the now-bankrupt solar panel manufacturer Solyndra, which received $500 million in federal loan guarantees from the Obama administration. “I mean, Solyndra, that’s half a billion dollars in one company,” Ryan says. He would do away with such loan-guarantees and “stop subsidizing businesses with industrial policy and crony capitalism.”

This gives someone like myself hope that the Republican party hasn't gone completely off the deep end when it comes to fiscal and tax policy. You have to wonder when you see Republicans arguing with a straight face that low and moderate-income people aren't paying their fair share of taxes. The truth is that wealthy individuals and big business have been getting a virtual free ride. While many of us have seen our financial futures going up in smoke they have prospered even more during these recessionary times. Fairness and shared sacrifice are conservative values. Paul Ryan seems to get that.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Wednesday Wendell: on affection and Howards End

Earlier this year Wendell Berry gave the loftily named Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. He took as his title a line from E.M. Forster's novel Howards End. It's a line spoken by Margaret Schlegel, the novel's pivotal character, in one of the novel's pivotal scenes as described by Berry.

The climactic scene of Forster’s novel is the confrontation between its heroine, Margaret Schlegel, and her husband, the self-described “plain man of business,” Henry Wilcox. The issue is Henry’s determination to deal, as he thinks, “realistically” with a situation that calls for imagination, for affection, and then forgiveness. Margaret feels at the start of their confrontation that she is “fighting for women against men.” But she is not a feminist in the popular or political sense. What she opposes with all her might is Henry’s hardness of mind and heart that is “realistic” only because it is expedient and because it subtracts from reality the life of imagination and affection, of living souls. She opposes his refusal to see the practicality of the life of the soul.

Margaret’s premise, as she puts it to Henry, is the balance point of the book: “It all turns on affection now . . . Affection. Don’t you see?”

Berry argues in "It All Turns on Affection" that without imagination, sympathy and affection for the people, places and things that surround us in our daily lives we'll succumb to the assumptions of corporate industrialism in which everything is valued according to the "supposed authority of market price." Without affection, Berry warns, "the nation and its economy will conquer and destroy the country."

Towards the end of his jeremiad Berry turned to a broader discussion of the book. Here Berry the English teacher meets Berry the critic of industrial capitalism.

In thinking about the importance of affection, and of its increasing importance in our present world, I have been guided most directly by E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, published in 1910. By then, Forster was aware of the implications of “rural decay,” and in this novel he spoke, with some reason, of his fear that “the literature of the near future will probably ignore the country and seek inspiration from the town. . . . and those who care for the earth with sincerity may wait long ere the pendulum swings back to her again.” Henry Wilcox, the novel’s “plain man of business,” speaks the customary rationalization, which has echoed through American bureaus and colleges of agriculture, almost without objection, for at least sixty years: “the days for small farms are over.”

In Howards End, Forster saw the coming predominance of the machine and of mechanical thought, the consequent deracination and restlessness of populations, and the consequent ugliness. He saw an industrial ugliness, “a red rust,” already creeping out from the cities into the countryside. He seems to have understood by then also that this ugliness was the result of the withdrawal of affection from places. To have beautiful buildings, for example, people obviously must want them to be beautiful and know how to make them beautiful, but evidently they also must love the places where the buildings are to be built. For a long time, in city and countryside, architecture has disregarded the nature and influence of places. Buildings have become as interchangeable from one place to another as automobiles. The outskirts of cities are virtually identical and as depressingly ugly as the corn-and-bean deserts of industrial agriculture.

What Forster could not have foreseen in 1910 was the extent of the ugliness to come. We still have not understood how far at fault has been the prevalent assumption that cities could be improved by pillage of the countryside. But urban life and rural life have now proved to be interdependent. As the countryside has become more toxic, more eroded, more ecologically degraded and more deserted, the cities have grown uglier, less sustainable, and less livable.

Forster's novel is inseparable in my head from the 1992 film adaptation by Merchant & Ivory, starring Anthony Hopkins as Henry Wilcox and Emma Thompson as Margaret Schlegel, along with a veritable Who's Who of British acting talent. I vividly recall the first time I saw it on a rainy Saturday afternoon at the old Carefree Theatre in West Palm Beach. It made such an impression I went back the next Saturday and saw it again! In a way it's surprising my 23-year-old self responded so positively to a story that was subversive of my then rigidly ideological view of the world (I suspect if I had encountered Wendell Berry in those days I would have written him off as an "environmentalist wacko"). Having lived a little I've discovered that things are rarely as simple as they appear on the surface, and I hope I've learned a little about the importance of affection, sympathy and forgiveness as epitomized by the character of Margaret.

Still from Howards End (dir. James Ivory, 1992) via DVD Beaver

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Good news for stay-at-home moms (and everyone else)

Trevin Wax has written a wonderful letter to a stay-at-home mom at his Kingdom People blog, though I think any Christian parent of young children will be able to relate. And all believers need to be reminded of the good news of God's grace!

Here's an excerpt:

The last thing you consider yourself to be is a “good mom.” And you think to yourself, It’ll be a miracle if my kids turn out okay.

And – surprisingly – that’s right where God wants to meet you. The place where you admit your powerlessness and your need for Him.

It’s only by God’s grace that any kid grows up to be a force for the kingdom.

You see, there are no perfect kids and no perfect mothers. No matter what you read in blogs, see in magazines, and learn in books. There are sinful kids and sinful moms and dads.

And the only thing greater than both is the grace of God. The God who says “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The God who loves to forgive, to transform, and empower.

God loves you – not because you are a good mother but just because you are His precious child.

God loves you – not because you’ve mastered all the skills of parenting but because He has.

It’s divine grace that will transform your parenting – not guilt.

Click here to read the whole thing.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

John Ford: "all around us in the dark"

John Ford biographer Scott Eyman manages to do to me what Ford did to many of those who knew him in real life: inspire conflicted feelings of admiration and loathing. I've been living with Eyman's book for several months. As mentioned in an earlier post Print the Legend is massive, but not unduly so. I agree with the blurb on the back that praises Eyman for giving us "a 600-plus-page book without an ounce of fat." In addition to educating me on the facts of Ford's life and career it left a far deeper appreciation for his art. I've gradually been revisiting -- as well as watching for the first time -- Ford's vast output of American film classics. Thanks to this book I've been doing so with new eyes.

Eyman serves his subject well without sugarcoating the considerable dark side. If in some alternate life I'd ever met John Ford I probably wouldn't have found him likeable (and he probably wouldn't have liked me!) and I definitely wouldn't have wanted to walk in his famous shoes. The final chapters of Print the Legend are among the saddest things I've ever read, as Ford in his last years is brought low by professional obsolescence and cancer. Most tragic are the broken relationships Ford left in his wake, especially with his children -- one of Ford's last spiteful acts was to disinherit his son Patrick. Yet despite all that I fought back tears reading the account of Ford's death. Say what you will, the man's artistic achievement endures, and will endure as long as there are any humans left to watch movies.

From the Epilogue here is Eyman's eloquent attempt at summing up that astonishing body of work.

Faced with the eternal question framed by Yeats ("The intellect of man is forced to choose/Perfection of the life or the work"), Ford chose the work. He devised a belligerent, deceitful carapace to protect an inner man on the run from insoluble inner tensions, largely revolving around the gap between what he really wanted to be—a naval hero—and what he actually was—a poet. Like Ethan Edwards, he drove all before him with the force of his fierce personality.

John Ford transcended the imprisonment of his anger, insecurity, and disfiguring alcoholism, and cast his imagination outward, transmuting his deep flaws into a profounder form. His films are about the search for a place we can never find, and form an album of America as it was meant to have been, as well as of the place it really is. His films have the power to burn through space to a place inside us, an art about memory that makes our own lives more vivid.

He shaped a vision of America for the twentieth century every bit as majestic and inclusive as the one Jefferson crafted in the eighteenth century. It's made up of soldiers and priests, of drunks and doctors and servants and whores and half-crazed men driven by their need to be alone, even as they journey toward home, toward reconciliation.

Like Tom Joad, he's all around us in the dark.


Print the Legend is available in paperback and a Kindle edition. John Ford's pictures (he didn't like to call them films) are widely available on home video and television.

Quote from pp. 567-8 of Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999)