Category Archives: Special day

Giving Thanks For The Saints 2017

For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confess,
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest,
Alleluia! Alleluia!

As has become my tradition, on the First of November, celebrated in many Christian branches as the Feast of All Saints, I pause to remember and share with you those in my life who have inspired me and have joined the Church Triumphant in the past year.

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

I remember and give thanks for:

  • Adam – The son of long-time friends of ours who loved life and joined the Church Triumphant at much too young an age
  • Bill – A member of the Greatest Generation who served his country as part of a WWII bomber crew and one I enjoyed catching up with on Sunday mornings.
  • Lois – Oh where do I begin? She is one of those who lived life on her own terms and one to whom God blessed with a full measure of years, living a restricted but vibrant life much longer than many of us expected. She was a strong Christian, and devoted Presbyterian quietly volunteering in our presbytery office for many years. When visiting her in her later years she always asked me for news of the presbytery.
  • Robert – A respected, faithful, energetic and committed leader in the church. A long-time pastor and later para-church worker who had a sense of call to the disadvantaged and the outcast, and to recruiting others to help in these areas along with him. I did not always agree with him in theological matters, but I respected his views and he respected mine. He was a good friend and kindred spirit in our shared quirky sense of humor.
  • Michael – A faithful and hard worker for the church who I knew from synod work. Another who I frequently disagreed with, but in our disagreement we respected each other.
  • Edward – A faithful church worker, active with me at the synod level. His work and resources benefited many racial ethnic pastors, including some well-respected teaching elders in the PC(USA).
  • Garland – A down to earth member of our men’s group, loving husband and faithful in his religious observance
  • Don – A pastor who had to go on disability due to a degenerative illness, but who was as full of life as he could be to the end.
  • Gordon – A faithful and hard working ruling elder in my presbytery and others before he moved here. Another who I differed with on some theological and polity points, but who I worked closely with, and with great mutual respect, on a couple projects for the presbytery.

O blest communion, fellowship divine,
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

I will conclude with my uncle, Bob. Not a “religious” man and he held some strong opinions on the institutional church and its historic failings, views that were a road block to him for traditional Christianity. But he was deeply spiritual and believed in something bigger – he was just not certain what. We talked and I prayed for him, and with him, over the years, especially during his final days. He had questions about what was next, and we tried to give answers to those questions. So being the Calvinist that I am I commend his soul to God and give thanks for his life and what I have learned from him. I do hope for his salvation and that the human frailness and failings of the church are overcome and he has eternal life in Jesus Christ through the Grace of God.
[The picture below was taken at sunrise on the day he passed away.]
But, lo, there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of Glory passes on His way.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

And so on this day I give grateful thanks to the Lord of All for having each of them in my life at one time or another and the witness and encouragement they have each been to me.

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon, to faithful warriors cometh rest.
Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Teaching Young Children About The Reformation: It’s Complicated

As the magical date of October 31, 2017, rapidly approaches the opportunities around Reformation 500 abound. In particular, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has gone all-in and, as you can see from this article, has an opportunity with many of their ministries and programs to celebrate the anniversary. It may be a bit of overkill, but remember that their unofficial motto is now “We are not dying. We are reforming” so there is some sense to it.

Among these resources are curricula for every age group including “The Protestant Reformations” for adults, “The Protestant Reformation” for youth and young adults, and for ages 5-10 a one Sunday lesson as part of the “Growing in Grace and Gratitude” curriculum titled “Luther Learns from Paul.” That last one you can download and look at for free so I downloaded a copy and what follows are some of my thoughts about it.

Bottom line: Generally a nice, age-appropriate overview of Martin Luther’s journey and thinking that led to his work to reform the church. But, I have to add that in my opinion in constructing this curriculum they have missed an opportunity to more fully demonstrate Luther’s ideas and have perpetuated a common and subtle error. Back to that in a minute.

Now, before I go further it is helpful if I make two disclaimers that you should keep in mind as I go through this review. The first is that I am involved in higher education and not elementary education so I will be expressing my personal opinion about age-appropriate content which is not technically a professional opinion at this level. Second, my background in higher education manifested itself as “teaching up” to my own children as they were growing up and the bottom line I will come to at the end is predicated on my own experience with family discussions and what our children experienced and participated in. (We have a standing joke with good friends of ours, also involved in higher education, that “Other families don’t have these discussions at dinner, do they?”)

So with that, let’s dive in.

As I indicated above, this is a curriculum for ages 5-10. While there are some sections which refer to an activity or approach for the older or younger children, for the most part the material is the same across the whole age range. The lesson follows a traditional lesson plan with a welcoming and gathering activity, a brief worship section, the story with preparing and reflecting questions and discussion, and a selection of responding activities that are participatory for the children. The scripture passage for the lesson is Ephesians 2:1-10 with an emphasis on the portion that says “…God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love God has for us, saved us by grace.” The story tracks the life of Martin Luther from childhood, through his thunderstorm experience, his journey into the monastery, his challenge to the sale of indulgences and finally to his nailing the 95 theses to the castle church door.

The object lesson from the story and activities seems to be well presented and has good focus on the important truth that Grace is a gift from God and that there is nothing we can do to earn it or attain it by ourselves. So it strikes me as overall a nice lesson that helps to teach the scriptural lesson and historical context of Reformation Sunday.

One good age-appropriate touch to note at this point is that in one of the activities the children are introduced to three of the solas (solae?) – faith alone, grace alone and scripture alone – while in the take-home sheet for the family all five of the solas are included for family discussion. One critical point I would mention now is that the scripture lesson is from Ephesians and while it is an appropriate passage to teach that we are saved by grace alone, it is my understanding that the breakthrough in Luther’s thinking came from studying the Letter to the Romans.

Now, as I mentioned at the beginning, there are two points in the story of Luther as the curriculum tells it that really jumped out at me where the authors and editors used some license to make the curriculum age-appropriate. To me, these two points present certain historical and theological compromises that the teacher should be aware of and maybe should be addressed with the children. I will certainly admit that this is a tricky balance when dealing with complicated topics as these are: On the one hand the material must be understandable to the intended audience within the targeted time frame of the lesson. On the other hand, the question arises whether a particular incident, while complex, presents both a teachable moment as well as should be presented in a manner that won’t need to be untaught or corrected at a later date.

The first item is the classic account of Luther in the thunderstorm. The curriculum talks of him being caught in the storm and crying out to God that if he comes through the storm all right he would become a monk. The actual account is that he cried out to St. Anne, the family patron saint since his father was in the mining business.

The editorial change is understandable since the reference to St. Anne would necessitate some introduction for the children to the concept of saints, especially patron saints, and compounded even further by the fact that her identification as the mother of Mary the mother of Jesus is based upon the apocrypha. So yes, it is a complicated concept to teach.

On the other hand, this strikes me as a teachable moment as the message of the lesson is that we are saved by grace alone and not by the good works of any other except the atoning death of Jesus. And a key component of the Reformation was that we can speak directly to God and do not need to go through intermediaries like priests and saints.

I reached our to Congregational Ministries Publishing about my concerns and received a gracious reply from Dr. Mark Hinds, the publisher. Regarding this concern he says:

As you surmised, the two questions you raised highlight intentional editorial revisions based on the supposition that, in a story for children, certain details might prove to be more problematic than helpful.

In a review of children’s stories, “God” often replaces “St. Anne” in the thunderstorm story. In our view, this is a wise choice. Praying/crying out to St. Anne in our version would have introduced a detail that would have required interpretation that we weren’t prepared to include, especially given the limits of word counts and varying abilities of children to process non-contextualized data.

The second detail that jumped out at me is admittedly even more complex and in making it age-appropriate the curriculum introduces what I see as a notable inaccuracy. This is the topic of indulgences. The curriculum says:

A monk named John Tetzel began selling pieces of paper, called indulgences, that he claimed would bring God’s forgiveness. People actually used to think they could earn God’s forgiveness by buying a piece of paper.

OK, there is a lot here to unpack – I said this was complicated – so let’s begin with the nature of indulgences themselves. According to the church dogma an indulgence does not bring forgiveness, but rather the shortening or release from purgatory. The Catholic Encyclopedia online says:

[A]n indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin, the guilt of which has been forgiven.

Now, on top of this is the question of how the papers conveying the indulgences were worded and how Johann Tetzel promoted them. There seems to be broad agreement that Tetzel did not tell people that buying an indulgence would directly grant them personally forgiveness. The limited eyewitness accounts and later researchers agree that for the living the indulgence was to be viewed in conjunction with confession and penitence. There is however some evidence that Tetzel was outside church dogma when he promoted the indulgences for forgiveness of sins for the dead and the Catholic Encyclopedia has a good summary of that. However, a paper by J. N. Lenhart presents the argument that if Tetzel was promoting forgiveness for the dead, and not just remission of the temporal punishment, it was because that is what was printed on the indulgence.

Finally, implied in the statement is that indulgences are a thing of the past. Indulgences for acts of mercy, contrition and faith are still very much around and lists can be found on web sites like this one and this one, and they have in fact made the mainstream media. And in his article Lenhart talks of indulgences that were for sale within the last 100 years.

Looking at the 95 Theses it is easy to conclude that the purchase of an indulgence might forgive sins when Luther writes “21. Thus those indulgence preachers are in error who say that a man is absolved from every penalty and saved by papal indulgences.” But also among the theses is “34. For the graces of indulgences are concerned only with the penalties of sacramental satisfaction established by man.”

Again, Dr. Hinds was kind to respond to my concerns here and said:

We did not intend to affirm anything about the Textzel [sic] encounter other than Luther saw the practice as a problem, mostly about the church’s power over the poor, illiterate Christians of that era. Nor did we intend to treat the matter of indulgences beyond the story; however, the concept of earning one’s salvation is addressed in the lesson and shown to be an error.

Again, besides the problem of confusing forgiveness of sins with reduction of time or release from purgatory, is this a teachable moment? As the message of the lesson is that we are saved, and fully saved, by grace alone through Christ alone, is this an opportunity to present that message and further that no refining fire is necessary following our death?

So what are the options? On one end of the spectrum is the “all in” option and you can use the curriculum as published and figure the editorial changes are appropriate and helpful for the audience. On the other end is the option to not use the lesson, or use the lesson but drop the story. In between you have a number of options which might include using the lesson with the details more accurately conveyed with appropriate explanation for the children. Or use the story but drop those two items from the story. And for either of these latter two you could prepare a guide for the parents that goes home with the take-home sheet helping to interpret the historical and theological context of the parts that were modified.

So yes, it is complicated. I will readily acknowledge that there may not be a perfect answer to how to present this material to the 5-10 age group. I will leave it up to others to decide how they want to present it and what appropriate editorial license is useful or necessary. As you probably figured out from my thoughts above, I would lean towards an approach that, if the material were to be presented, would include some of the complexity to more tightly hold to the historical and theological details. I will leave it as an exercise for the reader to figure out the appropriate approach for your situation.

My thoughts on the topic. Your mileage may vary.

Happy Reformation 500. More to come over the next few weeks.

The World Is A Messy Place

As we settle down after Christmas dinner on this Lord’s Day I share with you a few thoughts from the last 24 hours. It was a period filled with worship at three different churches with three different styles and about as many theological perspectives. (Full disclosure: the pictures of the three churches below were all taken well before the service began.) Needless to say – considering the season – I heard the second chapter of Luke read three times.

One of the things that has always struck me about Luke’s writing is the historical details. His mention of specific figures outside of Israel lends an authenticity that was certainly intended by the author to give his audience some context for the events he narrates. In this part of the story he gives us the references to Caesar Augustus and Governor Quirinius.

But with the repeated readings I got a bit distracted and a couple of the Greek words in Luke 2:1 caught my attention so I got sidetracked into word studies. The first is the word for enrolled or registered – apographo. A technical term related to the census that conveys the official nature of it. As an interesting side-light, that word is used in only one place out side of Luke’s narrative and that is in Hebrews 12:23 where it speaks of the firstborn being registered with the assembly/church in Zion.

The second Greek word is oikoumene which is translated something like “the inhabited world.” The simple lexicon I had with me conveys the reference to the earlier Greek-speaking world and then the Roman world. The sense certainly seems to be to those considered civilized as opposed to the barbarians or to put it another way – us versus them.

Now I should be clear that I am working off my small lexicon and I look forward to exploring these words more with my more extensive ones. But for the moment I think this is enough to convey what struck me this weekend.

The idea is that Jesus was born into a messy world, in a small province of a big empire ruled from a city far away, with a governor to represent the rulers and a local king (admittedly Herod is mentioned mostly in Matthew and not Luke) who only retains power by the permission of the occupying rulers but has enough latitude to wield that power in horrific ways among the local population. The terms discussed above suggest official control, taxation and a sense of who is controlled, maybe even welcome, and who are the outsiders and not being controlled. Furthermore, we know from archaeology and hints later in the Gospels that there are multiple factions within the region that cooperate with the occupying forces to various extents to keep hold of power. And factions who want to get rid of the foreign powers by various levels of violence and terrorism. Yes, into this messy world God became incarnate in the form of a new born baby.

Why at that time we can not be certain – that is a matter for God’s sovereignty. But at this time, in this world we still have a lot of messy situations. Some of these situations are in places mentioned in the second chapter of Luke. Some of them are where others of us live. Some are messy in the sense of physical violence, some political turmoil, some racial discord, some due to corrupt institutions… the list goes on. The world is still a messy place, and we would be hard pressed to say if it is any more or less messy than the one Jesus was born into.

And yet, into our mess the Word is still with us. Born once in human form and subject to the social, economic and political forces of his time he overcame them not by force or political power as the world expected but by his spiritual and divine power exercised in the context of a messy world.

And so we find ourselves in a similar situation this Christmas: Much pain and hurt, much political uncertainty and frustration, much economic unevenness, and much social tension. And yet, the message of Christmas is that God was and is with us, gave his life for us and will come again.

Even so, Come, Lord Jesus

 

Presbyterian Presidents

While it was very tempting today to riff on Chesterton (“Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.”) or Psalm 20 (“Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”) I decided on a different path. Instead, we have the potential for another self-identified Presbyterian to be elected the head of the executive branch of the U.S. government so I thought I would take a brief look at other Presbyterians in that position.

There are a number of lists of the religious affiliations of Presidents, including Wikipedia, Pew Research Center, and Adherents.com. From these lists, it is clear that the largest single group is the presidents who were Episcopalian with about eleven total. This is closely followed by the ten-ish Presbyterians. And coming to a fixed number is a bit challenging because of switching in their lifetimes.

But some presidents were life-long Presbyterians and easily identifiable with that denomination. These include:

  • Andrew Jackson, raised and self-identified as one his whole life, although he technically did not join a church until after he was president.
  • James Buchanan, raised and educated (Dickinson College) in a reflection of his Scots-Irish Presbyterian roots, but like Jackson did not officially join until later in life.
  • Grover Cleveland, a son of the manse but with age is reported to have become less devout
  • Benjamin Harrison, a lifelong and active Presbyterian. More on him a but further below.
  • Woodrow Wilson, a son of the manse often held up as a model of Presbyterian presidents. However, being politically and academically active during the fundamentalist/modernist debates, he came down on the modernist side at a time when the PCUSA was still dominated by the conservatives.

Two presidents became notable Presbyterians later in life:

  • Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose upbringing and earlier life included family participation with the River Brethren sect of the Mennonites and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In his presidential years and especially in retirement at Gettysburg Presbyterian Church he was an active member.
  • Ronald Reagan, was raised in his mother’s Disciples of Christ church but after moving to southern California was associated with Bel-Air Presbyterian Church much of his adult life.

And three presidents drifted towards the Methodists:

  • James Knox Polk, whose middle name Knox reflects his mother’s Scottish roots and descent from John Knox’s brother. While raised Presbyterian, later in life he would identify with the Methodist church, although he would regularly attend Presbyterian services with his wife.
  • Ulysses S Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, I am lumping together as, at least according to Adherents.com, their paths are about the same. While accounts are not entirely consistent they both may have had Presbyterian connections early in their lives but they were not the most religiously active later and generally were more visible with their wives’ Methodist traditions.

It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln, while not an adherent to a religious institution, did regularly attend Presbyterian services with his more devout wife Mary.

Another interesting note is that Jame Madison, while never identifying as a Presbyterian, was a student of that great colonial-era Presbyterian scholar and theologian, John Witherspoon, at the College of New Jersey.

And speaking of the College of New Jersey, it is probably worth mentioning that the son and namesake of clergyman and second president of that institution, Aaron Burr, Sr., was a vice-president of the U.S., but these days is better known for a particular incident.

Let me return to Benjamin Harrison and his Presbyterian faith. While Wilson is held up as the Presbyterian scholar and academic, I enjoyed finding out more about Harrison and in the humble, day-to-day faith associated with the Calvinists he may be a better representative for what it means to be an active member of the church. For an interesting read on his faith there is an article by William C. Ringenberg, “Benjamin Harrison: The Religious Thought and Practice of a Presbyterian President.” While his grandfather, President William Henry Harrison, is typically counted as a nominal Episcopalian, it was his grandmother, a strong Presbyterian, who helped raise him and left her mark. Upon graduation from college he considered a career in the ministry and while widely acknowledged as having the gift of oratory, his innate interpersonal skills were lacking and pastoral work would have been more challenging. He chose law, and politics, instead.

Throughout his life he was active in the local church, serving as a ruling elder, Sunday school instructor and other positions. Maybe the most telling statement in that article about his church activity is this:

A long-time usher, Ben passed the collection plate on both the last Sunday before going to Washington for his inauguaration [sic] and the first Sunday after he left office

Need I say more?

So as the first polls are about to close, will we have another self-identified Presbyterian become president? The experts say no, but it ain’t over until the voters have their say. We shall see.

Stay tuned
Postscript:

Reading through some of this stuff, it seemed to me that another interesting path to chase down could be Presbyterians who served as U.S. Secretary of State including such interesting political and Presbyterian names as William Jennings Bryan, John Foster Dulles and Condoleezza Rice. But I will leave that for another day.

Giving Thanks For The Saints 2016

By all Thy saints still striving,
for all Thy saints at rest,
To Thee, O blessed Jesus,
All praises be addressed:
Thou, Lord, didst win the battle
That they might conquerors be;
Their crowns of living glory
Are lit with rays from Thee.

It is the first of November, a day set aside on many liturgical calendars as the Feast of All Saints. And while I do not observe it in the sense of a liturgical feast day, I do use the occasion to remember and give thanks for those I have known who in the past year have joined “all Thy saints at rest.”

Apostles, prophets, martyrs,
And all the sacred throng
Who wear the spotless raiment,
Who raise the ceaseless song;
For these, passed on before us,
Saviour, we Thee adore,
And, walking in their footsteps,
Would serve Thee more and more.

I remember and give thanks for:

  • Alice – A friend with an incredible story and wonderful spirit who I wrote about earlier
  • “Mrs. B” – A good friend of my wife’s family whose faithfulness, enthusiastic witness, and honest faith I came to respect
  • Bill – a lifelong Presbyterian who was faithful in his participation but quiet and humble in manner
  • Lynn – Another faithful witness who suffered much at the end but knew in whom her trust lay
  • Grace – Where do I start? A daughter of the manse (Lutheran to be specific) who knew what she believed and was not afraid to tell anyone. She had the most gracious spirit, possessed the gift of hospitality and was not afraid to use it, and had a faith that was both simple and intellectual. She lived life on her terms and to the Glory of God. (And in yesterday’s post in the picture at the end the “Little Luther” is standing on a German version of Luther’s Little Catechism given to me by Grace.)
  • Norm – a gentleman and respected public safety official who in the midst of a very long battle with cancer did not lose his faith, humor, positive outlook and sense of adventure.
  • Phyllis – A gracious lady with a love of, and talent for, music – especially used for the glory of God.
  • Joe – A humble but talented minister who lived a long and faithful life in the service of God and could always work in a word of praise to the Lord
  • Jack Rogers – known to many for his faithful service to the church and one I hope to say a bit more about in a future post.

And so on this day I give grateful thanks to the Lord of All for having each of them in my life at one time or another and the witness and encouragement they have each been to me.

Then praise we God the Father,
And praise we God the Son,
And God the Holy Spirit,
Eternal Three in One;
Till all the ransomed number
Fall down before the Throne,
And honor, power, and glory
Ascribe to God alone.

[Verses from “From all Thy saints in warfare” (slightly altered) by Horatio Nelson (a nephew of the famous admiral of the same name)]

Reformation Day: How To Distract A Holy Roman Emperor

So it’s been 499 years since a crazy German monk allegedly nailed a debating document of 95 theses to the door of a castle church and started a movement that continues today.

There is no question that Dr. Luther’s efforts bore tremendous fruit, including in ways he did not imagine. But in many aspects he was, you could argue providentially, aided by a significant set of circumstances present at the time of his attempts to reform the Roman system. Where others had suffered for their attempts to challenge doctrine – like Jan Hus before Luther, or his contemporaries William Tyndale, Heinrich Moller, and Patrick Hamilton – Luther found safer ground for his thoughts. The prince ruling his region, Frederick III, Elector of Saxony, got him safe passage and provided him protection from those who sought to arrest and punish him. And it should be noted that the invention of the printing press with moveable type significantly help Luther get his message distributed quickly and widely to be read by a broader audience, thus making it harder for authorities to silence him. And certainly Luther’s force of personality in writing and speaking was a considerable advantage as well. (You can check out the Lutheran Insulter web site if you want a taste of that.)

But today I want to take a moment to look a little bit higher and consider the top political power in that part of the world at that time – the Holy Roman Emperor.

peter_paul_rubens_-_charles_v_in_armour_-_wga20378

Charles V (from Wikimedia https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/83/Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Charles_V_in_Armour_-_WGA20378.jpg)

That would be Charles V. He was a native of Spain, He was a native of Flanders from the house of Hapsburg and assumed the leadership of the house of Burgundy upon his father’s death in 1506. He ascended to the Spanish throne through his mother’s line in 1516 and was elected the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 upon the death of his grandfather. So he was not a ruler over the German states when this whole thing with Martin started, but as it progressed he became involved. He was present at the Diet of Worms and hearing Luther’s defense and possibly the famous “Here I stand” speech, rendered the verdict. He issued the formal verdict on May 8, 1521.

[Correction: Thanks for the email pointing out I got his early life wrong in my interest in focusing on 1517 and following. I think I have it corrected now and regret the error.]

But in an interesting historical coincidence it was on that same date that an offensive alliance against France was signed by representatives of Charles and the pope. This protracted conflict became the major concern for the emperor and certainly diverted his attention away from that monk in Saxony. His edict was never enforced.

The online version of the Catholic Encyclopedia tells us that Charles considered the matter more of an ecclesiastical one and settled by the papal bull of 1520. In addition, in spite of the alliance against France, the Encyclopedia also tells us that Charles was not particularly fond of the pope and had his eyes on consolidating some of his holdings in Italy. In light of that, it is not surprising that France and the pope were the major parties objecting to him becoming the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. Both the French conflict and the Italian/papal conflict were settled by treaties in the summer of 1529 on terms generally favorable to Charles. So now the coast is clear to return to the German states? Not quite…

On the eastern and southern sides of the empire the Turks were advancing and having conquered much of Hungary they reached as far as Vienna in 1529. While trying to juggle the Lutherans in Germany, Pope Clement VII in Italy and the Turks in the eastern corner, Charles made some preliminary attempts to reunify the Germans around religion at the Diet of Augsburg in 1530. Little progress was made and soon Charles was occupied with a new advance by the Turks the next year.

At this point I will not try to narrate a play-by-play of shifting European political alliances – have a look at the Encyclopedia entry if you are interested – but the bottom line is that between these shifting powers and the threats from the Turks religious unity in Germany was not a pressing concern for him. He finally had the opportunity in 1546 and 1547 to return to Germany with military power, but while taking back some measure of political control the religious situation had progressed to a point where Charles let the status quo remain and Lutheranism had established it’s foundation.

Charles died in 1558, having placed other family members to administer the parts of the empire. The shifting political alliances continued throughout his life and beyond making political solutions impossible without strong military backing. And the hoped for reforms from the Council of Trent were slow in coming and received throughout the western churches with a variety of reactions.

I readily admit that this is a cursory treatment of the wider political situation at the time, but the bottom line is that in a complex world the need to contain this particular religious rebellion was not perceived as a top priority for the emperor. He was distracted with other conquests and maybe a bit ambivalent about getting political power involved in an ecclesiastical dispute. The catch on the latter point is that in a world of established churches the ecclesiastical is political. (Consider Calvin and Geneva for more on that.)

But it gave Dr. Luther and his followers the space they needed and, unlike other reformers who were not as fortunate to have that slight buffer around them, in Saxony the Reformation had the elements it needed to establish itself and spread from there to large sections of Western Europe.

So on this Reformation Day, we remember not just the hard work of Martin Luther and the risk he took to challenge the established church’s doctrine, but also the favorable ground his thoughts landed on to be able to take root. And if distracting the Holy Roman Emperor is part of that, so be it.

Happy Reformation Day. And I am not sure whether to encourage you to enjoy, or possibly cringe, at the build-up in the coming year to the 500th.

luther_kleine

 

“Forever Wild”

With a title like that you could be excused for thinking I was writing a summary piece about one, or multiple, general assemblies. No, this is a bit of a departure from the typical style for my July Fourth reflection, but please bear with me.

As I began thinking about the piece for this year my mind drifted towards the centennial of the National Park Service. In case you did not know, it turns 100 on August 25th. In a patriotic spirit it has recently gained the popular title “America’s Best Idea.” That comment alone, made by Wallace Stegner in 1983, should be patriotic enough to end the post here and go watch the parade. The complete quote is “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”

But this thought was not unique to Stegner. Franklin Roosevelt said “There is nothing so American as our national parks…. The fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process of making for the enrichment of the lives of all of us.”

Or as the first director of the Park Service, Stephen Mather, said

“The parks do not belong to one state or to one section…. The Yosemite, the Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon are national properties in which every citizen has a vested interest; they belong as much to the man of Massachusetts, of Michigan, of Florida, as they do to the people of California, of Wyoming, and of Arizona.”

“Who will gainsay that the parks contain the highest potentialities of national pride, national contentment, and national health? A visit inspires love of country; begets contentment; engenders pride of possession; contains the antidote for national restlessness…. He is a better citizen with a keener appreciation of the privilege of living here who has toured the national parks.”

(Quotes from an NPS web page of quotes)

It is sounding very Presbyterian to me actually – the availability to all and the participation of all for the greater good – but it would make sense as one of the early advocates for wild space, John Muir, was born in Scotland and exposed to Presbyterianism there. His very religious father had an early Presbyterian affiliation before drifting through a variety of leanings and activities that had ties to the Restoration movement, specifically the Campbellites. But I digress.

As regular readers know, I have a great love of the outdoors, for the recreational opportunities and inherent beauty. But on a higher level for their spiritual connection as much as for their democratizing influence. And while the area around the Yosemite is one of my favorite areas, the earliest area that was a “thin place” for me was the Adirondacks of New York.

100_4297In case you are not familiar with the Adirondack Park it might help to know that it comprises one-third of all the land area of the state – over 6 million acres and growing – making it the largest state park in the country. That makes it larger than any national park in the contiguous United States. It is larger than Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon and the Great Smokies National Parks combined. Of that area in the park, 2.6 million acres are Forest Preserve owned by the state – still an amount making it larger than any national park besides some Alaska parks and Death Valley.

100_4347But what makes the area truly unique from a public land stewardship point of view is the foresight that the leaders of the state had regarding the land. As more land was clear-cut for lumber the forest preserve was created in 1885 and the Park in 1892. In 1894 New York wrote a new state constitution and included this clause:

The lands of the state, now owned or hereafter acquired, constituting the forest preserve as now fixed by law, shall be forever kept as wild forest lands. They shall not be leased, sold or exchanged, or be taken by any corporation, public or private, nor shall the timber thereon be sold, removed or destroyed.

This was part of the constitution ratified by the citizens of New York and is known to many as the “Forever Wild” paragraph. Twenty times the voters have approved exceptions or land deals allowing sale or use of certain lands for reasonable causes from expanding a municipal cemetery to building two ski areas. But on this holiday it is notable that this must be done by an action of the citizens.

Over the years I have found a number of areas that are for me thin places. But still, for a variety of reasons there is none as thin as the New York State Forest Preserve. And I am looking forward to a return visit later this summer.

And on this Independence Day, I give thanks for civic-minded leaders and citizens that have the energy and foresight to create, maintain, care for and preserve public lands for the benefit of all.

100_4425

Sola Scriptura And A War On Christmas?

On this Fourth Day of Christmastide in the “Fools rush in” department, you might want to play along with me in a simple thought exercise.

Our starting presumption is Sola Scriptura – the good old Scripture Alone admonition of the Reformation.

Now given that let me ask “Why do we celebrate Christmas?”

From the four Gospels we have four accounts of Jesus’ nativity. Yes, Mark is minimalist with the call of Isaiah to “prepare the way of the Lord.” And the account in John is more symbolic with “And the Word was made flesh and tabernacled among us.” The accounts in Matthew and Luke, while more detailed, each have very different emphases.

So, based on Scripture, what are we celebrating?

Looking a little further, we can raise the question of when was Jesus born? I won’t go into the year as that is well worn territory and there are historical landmarks for that in the texts. The date of December 25 is a bit more problematic as there are really no solid clues as to the date of birth and even the date of December 25th has multiple possible origins.

So, based on Scripture, when should we be celebrating?

Finally, if we are to be guided by Scripture in our worship, what is the pattern we find of the early church for celebrating the nativity? The New Testament gives us no mention that it was a point of worship and it is not until the late second century that the church fathers make mention of trying to put a date on it. (Hint: the date is not certain and it certainly is not in December.) And then it is not until the early fourth century that a date becomes standardized and celebrations develop around it.

So, based on Scripture, how are we to be celebrating?

Therefore, based on Scripture alone, do we have enough evidence or direction to even be celebrating it?

Now, moving on from this thought exercise, is it any wonder that our predecessors in the Reformed branch in the Reformation, who were trying to recapture the basic core of the Christian faith and throw off all the human innovations of the intervening 1500 years, decided that the Feast of the Nativity could be dispensed with? There is no question that our modern celebration of it has issues, such as the good old question about whether the three gifts from the magi mean there were three magi or why we add the magi to all the characters in the stable scene when Matthew clearly states they found Jesus in a house.

But taking the long view – a trend I seem to be on at the moment – why do we take it as seriously we do? The Scottish Reformation led to Christmas not being celebrated until 1956 in Scotland and in the U.S. it was not a formal national civic holiday until 1870 although introduced in many states before then.

The churches that have the Second Helvetic Confession as a confessional standard, such as the PC(USA), are probably covered since Chapter 24 does provide for certain special days:

The Festivals of Christ and the Saints. Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. But we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.

But if your confessional standards include the Westminster Directory for Publick Worship of God you have an appendix in there that begins:

THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.

Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.

This year the specter of the War On Christmas has been raised again. Personally, I have to chuckle a bit because my doctrinal heritage has been a long-standing war on the holy-day from the other perspective. Rather than being an attempt to remove the religion from the holiday it has been an effort to remove the holy-day from the religion. It is the view that Scripture is so important that if the event is not clearly defined in it then there is no warrant to celebrate it.

Let me take this moment to confess that I personally live in a tension about this holy-day. While I acknowledge all the difficulties and perspectives mentioned above I also recognize the importance of the fact the event did indeed occur and if we are to remember the conclusion and significance of Jesus’ earthly ministry it is also important to recognize the beginning of his earthly presence. It is not just a celebration of certain stories but a time to recognize the beginning of the Incarnation, the coming of Emmanuel – God With Us.

So, in whatever manner you celebrate this holiday, best wishes to you and yours as we remember the coming of him whose work was foretold throughout the Old Testament. And whether you celebrate this season or not, may we always remember that at one point in history God was present in this fallen world and would ultimately give up his human life as a sacrifice for us.

Postscript

First, let me acknowledge at this point that in most cases the five solas of the Reformation are considered mostly in matters of essential doctrine and are cited primarily in the matter of the doctrine of justification. As the Second Helvetic Confession passage above mentions the celebration of events from Scripture are, in the view of most, a matter of Christian liberty and not an essential. Further sola scriptura says that Scripture is the supreme authority in matters of doctrine and practice but again, as implied above, our understanding can be further informed by the subordinate standards of the creeds and confessions.

If you want other commentaries on this topic you might be interested in a through article titled The Religious Observance of Christmas and ‘Holy Days’ in American Presbyterianism or a perspective published by the OPC titled Is Christmas Scriptural? which answers the question in the negative. And yesterday it turns out that Church Norris weighed in on aspects of this topic arguing that the lack of public observance of Christmas did not mean that Colonial and early American religious and civic leaders were not religious.

Remembering All The Saints

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

Once again it is the day of the year when I look back, reflect on those around me that have joined the Church Triumphant and have been an inspiration to me. Probably the best known hymn for All Saints Day is based on the poetry of William W. How. It is commonly sung to Ralph Vaughan Williams tune Sine Nomine (Latin for “without a name”), a term sometimes used for a new hymn tune for no previous words. It also strikes me as appropriate for the association with celebrating all the saints, some of whose names we may never know.

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;
Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

In the list of those who went on to their eternal reward one of my friends may be known to some of you. I worked closely with Ruling Elder Margy Wentz for a number of years at the synod level where she served for an extended period as the stated clerk and for a while doubled up and served as the executive as well. We have sometimes been on the same side of the table and sometimes on opposite sides of the table, but always at the table and I deeply respected her faith, sincerity and faithfulness. For as much as a polity wonk as I am, Margy had me beat by a mile and sometimes in discussing synod business she would say that I was the ardor to her order. She is one of the few people who can say that of me. I will miss her.

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave, again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

In addition, I have lost several other friends and models this past year. For the following saints I give thanks for their witness and faithfulness:

  • David – whose wife Beth was my last entry a year ago. They were partners in ministry and an example to us all as they grew old together.
  • Pat and Jack – another couple whose faithfulness in looking after each other, and the church’s gardens, and many of the other details around the church, were an inspiration. They also had a long history of helping out in civic organizations here in town.
  • Beth – who lived to see more than a century and was a fixture in the community throughout that time. An example that Christians get out there and make things happen for the greater good.
  • Horace – a member of the Greatest Generation who saw and practiced the active linkage of his faith with community involvement.
  • Hi – Someone who did so many things quietly and with great love. He was a mentor to many, a tremendous example of faithfulness in marriage for better or for worse, and for many years the calm and knowledgeable voice hosting our church’s radio broadcasts each Sunday morning worship.
  • Wayne – another hard worker around the church with a quiet faith and a big heart.
  • Helen – who for many years faithfully attended worship, sitting across the aisle from my family, and even in her decline these past few years was regularly there in spite of the effort required to put on her Sunday best and the help she required to get her in her seat each week.

The golden evening brightens in the west;
Soon, soon to faithful warriors comes their rest;
Sweet is the calm of paradise the blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

For all these saints we give thanks to God for God’s influence in their lives and I thank and remember them for what they have done and for the inspiration and witness they have been to me. Well done good and faithful servants. May you enter into your eternal reward.

But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day;
The saints triumphant rise in bright array;
The King of glory passes on His way.
Alleluia, Alleluia!

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
And singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost:
Alleluia, Alleluia!

The Reformation Lives… At Least In Miniature

It is Reformation Day, the day on which we remember, if not celebrate, the tradition of a German monk turned university professor who is said to have nailed a debating document of 95 theses to a chapel door in Wittenberg 498 years ago. As the quincentennial approaches things are starting to ramp up. And that led to a very interesting event this past year.

luther_boxLast spring Playmobil released a special figure as part of the Luther 2017 celebration. (According to one source this was at the request of the German and Nuremberg tourist boards and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria.) Literally overnight this became the fastest selling Playmobil product with over 34,000 boxes out the door in 72 hours. Needless to say, additional stock was quickly ordered.

luther_kleineWhat are we to make of this popularity? It should be acknowledged that Luther had a tremendous impact on the secular history of Germany as well as the history of the church there and around Europe, something I reflected a bit on a few years ago. So maybe we are just seeing a recognition of that historical significance?

Maybe it is purely a collector’s rush recognizing that it is being issued in conjunction with the wider celebration of the event. It is a commercial item to mark a significant anniversary so it is worth something sentimental now and possibly commercial later. (As you can see from the picture at the right I decreased the future value of mine by opening it and putting it together.)

But maybe, just maybe, the Reformation still means something. Does this “Little Luther” as some are calling it, still stand for something? (yes, pun intended) Does he come with a quill and book, rather than a hammer and parchment, to remind us that the lasting value of the Reformation was not as much in the theological debating points as in people being able to hear and read the Holy Scripture themselves in their own language.

I like to think it is the latter, that the work Luther and so many others started continues today. And while many more were involved in the Reformation I’m not sure a Playmobil version of Calvin, Beza or Farel would be as big of hits. However, if you want a set of – how shall I say this – some of the more colorful reformers maybe there should be a set that includes Ulrich Zwingli and John Knox.

It should be noted that this is not the only commercial tie-in to the Luther 500 celebrations. One particular site I know of is the Reformation 500 special collection from Concordia Publishing where you can not only get this dashing replica of Dr. Luther but a whole line of products. Not to be missed is the “Here I Stand” dress socks. (I’ll let that sink in for a minute. 🙂 ) The real sign that this is catering to modern audiences is that there are three different containers for coffee,  but only one beer stein.

On a more cultural note it is an interesting success for Playmobil. An insightful article came out in the New Yorker last month where the author, Jason Wilson, wondered about the distinctions, and relative popularity, of Lego as compared to Playmobil. He came down on the side of the latter explaining it’s value like this:

No one would argue that Lego does not inspire creative, constructive play. But more and more Lego relies on its associations with pop culture in order to catch a child’s attention. The child may build and create, but the narrative is simply copied from the movie. It’s easy to snark, but Playmobil has quietly walked a different path over the past decade—slower, less flashy, more generic scenarios, much fewer licensing deals. This type of unscripted play is very good, for children and the culture. Playmobil may hold tighter to ideals of independent, imaginative narrative play, and it represents a less crass, less marketed, less ironic or knowing type of play.

In a sense is that not a little bit reflective of the Reformed faith – slower, less flashy but independent, imaginative and narrative? As opposed to marketed and associated with pop culture “in order to catch [the individual’s] attention.”

And so I will leave you with that.

And may you all have a merry “little” Reformation Day.