Category Archives: Special day

Football At Its Purest

As we reach that high holy day of American civil religion and the country stops to watch a game of catch and some hyped commercials in very expensive air time, I once again pause to reflect on this game of American Football in a wider context. One article I would point you to is a great piece by Carl Trueman, “The (Non) Religion Of Sports,” that was published on the First Things blog two days ago. Another story that caught my attention this week was a piece on NPR’s All Things Considered about “Football as a Tool in the Hands of a Master Craftsman” looking at a high school coach who focused on the athletes. But no, I have been saving a piece that is more local, and more Presbyterian, for this day.

Back in September one of the finest wordsmiths at the Los Angeles Times, Bill Plaschke, wrote a column titled “Getting a taste of football at its purest.” The premise was to consider a typical Saturday at a Division III university where the players were not on scholarship, the stadiums are small and the fans are there for the friends, family and pure fun of the game. Near the beginning of the story he writes:

The search [for good news in sports] ends at a college football game with no glitz, no glamour, no Heisman hopefuls, no first-round draft picks, nothing but bouncing players and beaming parents and lessons rooted far too deep to be beamed on television by some giant balloon. [i.e. a blimp]

“USC and UCLA aren’t playing today, so you came here, right?” says [Jan] Pfennings with a grin. “Welcome to the real thing.”

The game he visited was a match between my local institution of higher learning – the University of La Verne – against a similar, and Presbyterian opponent – Whitworth University. But fair warning for the Presbyterians, his focus throughout is on the local school.

He describes the ULV side:

The team has 111 players because nobody gets cut. None of them are on scholarship. Most of them will be playing football for the last time in their lives. They are small and fast and play with a relentless passion that results in giant hits, giant misses and constant leaping chest bumps.

“This is exciting, it’s not perfect, it’s got all the attributes professional football and big-time college football doesn’t have,” says [English Professor David] Werner. “This is what sports is supposed to be.”

Plaschke continues –

It’s football that isn’t judged by the final score, but the student journey, the lessons that lead these small-school graduates to making big impacts in society…

It’s football that isn’t surrounded by shallow hype, but safely ensconced in the warmth of neighborhoods, a truth evident in every corner of [ULV’s] Ortmayer Stadium.

One detail that is not in the story is that both schools in the game have religious heritage and affiliation – Whitworth with the Presbyterians and La Verne with the Church of the Brethren.

After the game he gets a quote from a player:

“You make the big time where you’re at,” says La Verne receiver Jon Lilly after catching six touchdown passes. “No matter what happens, this is a blast.”

and the coach:

“Our guys are learning how to be successful men,” said [Chris] Krich of his 1-1 team. “How you handle adversity is what sets you up as a man, and we handled it during the game, and we’re handling it now.”

Oh, the final score – if it matters:

Few loved Saturday’s ending, a late Whitworth touchdown followed by a desperation pass that was not answered, the Leopards losing, 50-48, despite racking up 672 yards.

But the bottom line is this:

After a couple of weeks of watching the sports world sink in violence, arrogance and callousness, Krich offers three other words.

“Our motto is simple — faith, courage and class,” Krich says.

Good news, indeed.

Something to keep that in mind today as well as the recent statistics that there were 310,465 high school football players, 15,588 college seniors in football and 254 that were drafted by the NFL. It makes the ULV football motto look a bit more relevant. So have a great Lord’s Day, however you spend it and remember…

Faith, Courage and Class

Christmas Messages From Around The Presbyterian Branches

Over the last couple of weeks I have seen the following official Christmas messages from Moderators of various Presbyterian branches.

The Church of Scotland – The Rt. Rev. John Chalmers

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland – The Rev. Dr. Michael Barry: “Presbyterian Moderator calls for people to welcome strangers this Christmas”

The Presbyterian Church of Wales – The Rev. Neil Kirkham

The Presbyterian Church in Canada – The Rev. Dr. Stephen Farris

The Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand – The Rev. Peter Cheyne

In the PC(USA) both the Moderator and the Stated Clerk get into the act

Reasons to celebrate the PC(U.S.A.) this Advent season – from RE Heath Rada

December 2014 – Link daily toil and holy quest in a deeper, earthier way this Advent – from The Rev. Gradye Parsons

And finally, a message from the Moderator-designate of the Free Church of Scotland posted on the web site which has gotten some coverage.

No Room In The Inn For Jesus – The Rev. David Robertson

Those are the ones that I have seen and I apologize for any missed. Feel free to bring missed ones to my attention.

And with that, a Merry Christmas to all who observe this special day.

For All The Saints — All Saints Day 2014

Come, let us join our friends above
who have obtained the prize,
and on the eagle wings of love
to joys celestial rise.
Let saints on earth unite to sing
with those to glory gone,
for all the servants of our King
in earth and heaven are one.

As is my custom on All Saints Day, I remember and give thanks for those in my life who in the past year have left us in the Church Militant to join the Church Triumphant. While saddened at the loss, they remain in my memory as servants who have faithfully run the race and now have claimed their prize for faithfulness in ministry

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…

This year I remember

  • Vincenta, who suffered with much but held tight to the Gospel throughout
  • Hope, who in her own practical and direct way – that could sometimes rub you the wrong way – was nonetheless always the gracious, generous and hospitable hostess
  • Dave, who was so very generous in his time, talents, gifts and service to the local church
  • Jack, who truly laid aside noble birth to serve the Lord Jesus Christ
  • Odessa, who in her lifetime spanning more than a century spent a majority as a pastor’s wife, supporting him, their family and the church in ministry
  • Beth, who likewise counted it an honor and a calling to support her husband in his varied ministries

To God the Most High I give thanks for these saints, for their lives, their examples and the difference they made in this world and the inspiration they have been to me.

One family we dwell in him,
one church above, beneath,
though now divided by the stream,
the narrow stream of death;
one army of the living God,
to his command we bow;
part of his host have crossed the flood,
and part are crossing now.

[Text from Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above by John Wesley]

Reformation Day Thoughts On A Reforming Pope

On this Reformation Day I would like to spend a few minutes talking about a pope that is not of the traditional nationality for popes, is an outsider to the Holy See and upon taking office sets his sights on reforming the church starting at the top with the Curia and the administration in Rome and thereby raising resistance and concern from the traditional insiders. Current history? Hardly.

Some of the Reformation era popes are fairly well known. Leo X is remembered as the pope that authorized selling indulgences to finance St. Peter’s and then excommunicated Martin Luther when he complained about it (and some other stuff). Clement VII, who happened to be a cousin of Leo’s, is known for his disagreements with Henry VIII and getting Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But until I started doing the research for this post I am not sure I was ever aware of Adrian VI whose short papacy lies between those two.

Adriaan Floriszoon Boeyens was a native of Utrecht, now in the Netherlands, and was the last pontefice barbaro, that being a non-Italian pope, until – wait for it – John Paul II. He is also one of only two modern popes to keep his given name upon becoming pope. While highly regarded for his loyalty, intellect and administrative abilities much of his higher church duties were in Spain, which is where he was in January 1522 when the other cardinals elected him. They had reached the conclusion that no one in the room in Rome would receive enough votes and upon considering others Adrian was overwhelmingly elected. When he arrived in Rome to be installed it was the first time he had ever been in Italy.

Adrian had no illusions about the state of the church and immediately set about trying to reform it. One biography describes his efforts and the response like this:

History presents no more pathetic figure than that of this noble pontiff, struggling single-handed against insurmountable difficulties. Through the reckless extravagances of his predecessor, the papal finances were in a sad tangle. Adrian’s efforts to retrench expenses only gained for him from his needy courtiers the epithet of miser.

Another says:

Adrian VI. lost no time in adopting measures designed to put an end to the religious troubles agitating Europe. He rightly began with the Roman Curia, but made slow progress, because the evils which he sought to eradicate were deep seated and of long standing.

One of his immediate challenges was the Diet in Nuremberg where the German princes were gathering and the duty of trying to keep them loyal to Rome fell to the pope’s legate Francesco
Chieregati, Bishop of Teramo. Adrian prepared for him Instructions to be read to the Diet which one source says is a document “unique in the history of the Papacy” and “is of exceptional importance to an understanding of Adrian’s plans of reform, and his opinion of the state of things.” Here is the Instruction delivered to the Diet on 3 January 1523 quoted in an essay written for the 400th anniversary of the Reformation:

“You are also to say,” wrote Adrian to Chieregati, “that we frankly acknowledge that God permits this persecution of His Church on account of the sins of men, and especially of prelates and clergy: of a surety the Lord’s arm is not shortened that He cannot save us, but our sins separate us from Him, so that He does not hear. Holy Scripture declares aloud that the sins of the people are the outcome of the sins of the priesthood; therefore, as Chrysostom declares, when our Saviour wished to cleanse the city of Jerusalem of its sickness, He went first to the Temple to punish the sins of the priests before those of others, like a good physician who heals a disease at its roots. We know well that for many years things deserving of abhorrence have gathered round the Holy See; sacred things have been misused, ordinances transgressed, so that in everything there has been a change for the worse. Thus it is not surprising that the malady has crept down from the head to the members, from the Popes to the hierarchy.

“We all, prelates and clergy, have gone astray from the right way, and for long there is none that has done good; no, not one. To God, therefore, we must give all the glory and humble ourselves before Him; each one of us must consider how he has fallen and be more ready to judge himself than to be judged by God in the day of His wrath. Therefore, in our name, give promises that we shall use all diligence to reform before all things the Roman Curia, whence, perhaps, all these evils have had their origin; thus healing will begin at the source of the sickness. We deem this to be all the more our duty, as the whole world is longing for such reform. The papal dignity was not the object of our ambition, and we would rather have closed our days in the solitude of private life; willingly would we have put aside the tiara; the fear of God alone, the validity of our election. and the dread of schism, decided us to assume the position of Chief Shepherd. We desire to wield our power not as seeking dominion or means for enriching our kindred, but in order to restore to Christ’s bride, the Church, her former beauty, to give help to the oppressed, to uplift men of virtue and learning; above all, to do all that beseems a good shepherd and a successor of blessed Peter.

“Yet let no man wonder if we do not remove all abuses at one blow, for the malady is deeply rooted and takes many forms. We must advance, therefore, step to step, first applying the proper remedies to the most difficult and dangerous evils, so as not by a hurried reform to throw all things into greater confusion than before. Aristotle well says: ‘All sudden changes are dangerous to states.”’

Amazingly frank words about the state of the church coming from the very top. And apparently an admission resulting from the pressure generated by Martin Luther’s calls for change.

A few historical points should be noted about all this. First, the Instruction acknowledges the corruption in the system but the church stood by the doctrinal standards that were also at issue with Martin Luther. In fact, part of the message of the legate to the Diet was for them to stand by and enforce the decision of the Diet of Worms against Luther.

Second, the Instruction was an acknowledgement that Luther and other reformers were correct on certain points and it should come as no surprise that Adrian’s acknowledgement of the need for reform of the system was seized upon by them as validation of those claims that reform was needed.

Third, the work and stress of reforming the church took a heavy and rapid toll on Adrian and from his installation on 31 August 1522 he served barely a year until his death on 14 September 1523. The essay says of his successor, Clement VII, “Although he had given evidence of efficiency and was free from extravagance, yet he lacked decision.”

Yet the need for reform was acknowledged and while the path was not straight and the wheels turned slowly, Adrian’s naming the problems helped pave the way for Clement’s successor, Paul III, to convene the Council of Trent.

Finally, an editorial note: Lest you think that I was being selective in my sources to prove my argument and show the medieval church in a particularly bad light, I would point out that every quote, source and link in this post is from a document from the Roman church. In particular, I was excited to find that collection of essays titled The Reformation: A Series of Articles Published in The Tidings which collected in one volume 24 articles published by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in their weekly The Tidings from November 1916 to May 1917 in their  recognition of the 400th anniversary of The Reformation. I may not agree with their doctrinal interpretation of the Reformation, but I have found it a rich source of historical information from the Roman perspective. [And for my friends on Twitter and Facebook – this was the unnamed “rabbit hole” that excited me last weekend when I found it and discovered a rich source of information for my Reformation Day post.]

And so with that I wish all my Protestant and Reformed friends a very good Reformation Day. May you always be reforming according to the Word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Two Letters From The Third Of July

I have developed a significant respect for John Adams, the colonial lawyer who would serve the colonies and the new nation in many capacities including as its second president. He was not the charismatic leader like Washington or the Renaissance Man of Jefferson, but he was a hard-working, practical and principled individual and politician.

One example of his character was his agreeing to lead the defense of the the British soldiers who were tried for the Boston Massacre in 1770 because he felt that they deserved a fair trail.

Another place where his personality and qualities come through is in his very extensive correspondence with his wife Abagail during his many positions of public service which kept him away from home. I have come to value the extensive discussions and heartfelt emotions he shared with his partner in marriage.

To that point, on the Third of July, 1776, he wrote two letters to Abigail discussing the events of the previous day and expressing his views of them, the place of Divine Providence in them and what they would mean for the future.

Two paragraphs from the first letter:

Philadelphia, July 3, 1776

Yesterday the greatest Question was decided, which ever was debated in America, and a greater perhaps, never was or will be decided among Men. A Resolution was passed without one dissenting Colony “that these united Colonies, are, and of right ought to be free and independent States, and as such, they have, and of Right ought to have full Power to make War, conclude Peace, establish Commerce, and to do all the other Acts and Things, which other States may rightfully do.” You will see in a few days a Declaration setting forth the Causes, which have impell’d Us to this mighty Revolution, and the Reasons which will justify it, in the Sight of God and Man. A Plan of Confederation will be taken up in a few days.

When I look back to the Year 1761, and recollect the Argument concerning Writs of Assistance, in the Superiour Court, which I have hitherto considered as the Commencement of the Controversy, between Great Britain and America, and run through the whole Period from that Time to this, and recollect the series of political Events, the Chain of Causes and Effects, I am surprized at the Suddenness, as well as Greatness of this Revolution. Britain has been fill’d with Folly, and America with Wisdom, at least this is my judgment. — Time must determine. It is the Will of Heaven, that the two Countries should be sundered forever. It may be the Will of Heaven that America shall suffer Calamities still more wasting and Distresses yet more dreadfull. If this is to be the Case, it will have this good Effect, at least: it will inspire Us with many Virtues, which We have not, and correct many Errors, Follies, and Vices, which threaten to disturb, dishonour, and destroy Us. — The Furnace of Affliction produces Refinement, in States as well as Individuals. And the new Governments we are assuming, in every Part, will require a Purification from our Vices, and an Augmentation of our Virtues or they will be no Blessings. The People will have unbounded Power. And the People are extreamly addicted to Corruption and Venality, as well as the Great. I am not without Apprehensions from this Quarter.— But I must submit all my Hopes and Fears, to an overruling Providence, in which, unfashionable [ as] the Faith may be, I firmly believe.

[Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, “Your Favour of June 17…” [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.]

The second letter of that date reflects more deeply on what the actions mean. While he begins by reflecting on the timing – the advantages of an earlier declaration and the benefits of the current timing – he concludes with this:

Philadelphia July 3d. 1776

But the Day is past. The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America.

I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance by solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

You will think me transported with Enthusiasm but I am not. — I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. — Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.

[Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams, 3 July 1776, “Had a Declaration…” [electronic edition]. Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive. Massachusetts Historical Society.]

And so to my American readers a Happy Second of July yesterday and a Happy Fourth of July tomorrow. May we indeed, as Adams suggests and foresees, celebrate it with “solemn Acts of Devotion to God Almighty” as well as “with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other…”


Happy Twelfth Day of Christmas! While I initially targeted this reflection for Christmas Day – or the First Day of Christmas – I ran a few
days late and then realized that the tie-in to the end of the Christmas season was a bit more powerful. So here are some brief and selected thoughts around an issue that has gotten a lot of press and verbiage this past month.

It has been an interesting time in the American popular media this year leading up to Christmas. Certain widely-publicized comments have opened up a wide-ranging discussion of race and popular perception.

Concerning one of those points I will only touch on the cultural discussion around Saint Nicholas far enough to comment that our modern perspective is built upon several layers of tradition so that it has grown in proportion by the compounding of multiple cultural influences. Far from the third century monk in Asia Minor upon whom the legend is based, our American concept of Santa Claus today is probably shaped most by Clement Moore instead of the historical person in much the same way as our concept of the Afterlife has been shaped not by Scripture but by Dante Alighieri.

So that brings me to the second historical character up for discussion: Jesus of Nazareth. In reflecting on this and reading some of the discussion what struck me is that we have no substantial physical description of Jesus as an historical figure. We have descriptions of his cousin John the Baptist (e.g. Matthew 3:4), although that is admittedly his dress and not physical appearance. We have messianic descriptions (e.g. Isaiah 52:13-53:12) and apocalyptic visions (e.g. Revelation 19:11-16 ). But when it comes to the basic aspects of Jesus’ appearance we have almost nothing to go on.

From the biblical account and genealogy we know that he was of the Tribe of Judah that his family seemed comfortably situated in Nazareth. We have no reason to think that he was not a typical first century Jew of Middle-Eastern or Mediterranean appearance. Exactly what he looked like I don’t know but I am pretty sure that in skin color and facial features he did not look like me.

The temptation we have is to see Jesus like ourselves and in one sense he is like each of us. Despite the Fall we each still carry something of the Image of God and we share that with Jesus. Taking that a step further, Jesus also suffered some of the same trials we do. In these commonalities there is a basis for our spiritual relationship as we pray and reflect upon his life and example. But there is a tension here as well — while we can see Jesus as like us as far as his being fully human, we need to avoid the trap of making Jesus in our own image. Jesus of Nazareth, as a historical figure, was a distinct individual with particular characteristics even if we don’t really know what they are.

So in this respect it is equally important to see Jesus as not like us. Just as we carry the Image of God the other members of our diverse human family do as well. If we are not careful when we make Jesus in our image we could implicitly say that he becomes exclusive and he is our own personal Jesus, not the savior of the whole world.

Which brings me to the 12th Day of Christmas…

Tomorrow is Epiphany when we remember the visit by the magi. In their visit the magi symbolically remind us of two important aspects of Jesus. The first is the role of Jesus as prophet, priest and king. The second is that in this visit he was worshiped by those who were not of his own people. The magi were gentiles from afar and in their visit two worlds collided in a variety of interesting ways. Epiphany is a celebration of Jesus as a savior of many nations and not just one people.

And so I encourage you to also let your world collide with others for the sake of the Gospel.

Merry Christmas. Happy Epiphany and best wishes for the coming year.

Feast Of All Saints 2013

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

It is once again November 1 – commemorated in some traditions as the Feast of All Saints or All Saints Day. I have traditionally observed this not as a day of religious obligation but a day of thanksgiving for the numerous Saints that I have known in my life that have guided me, influenced me, and helped me on my own spiritual journey. It is a day on which I particularly remember those who in the last year left the Church Militant and joined the Church Triumphant!

Under the shadow of thy throne
Thy saints have dwelt secure;
Sufficient is thine arm alone,
And our defence is sure.

But for me and my family this year is very different.
We remember not just the friends around us who are no longer with us, but we now remember parents who have gone to be with the Lord.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting thou art God,
To endless years the same.

Two months ago my mother lost her near decade-long battle with cancer. There is much I have said about her and much more that I could say. For some of us we wonder “what is the next ministry we should be involved in?” She was faithful in one specific ministry for many years, volunteering once a week in her church’s pastoral care office and organizing the funeral and memorial services at her church. She was a model of, among many things, how an ordained officer of the church can continue serving even when not currently serving on that board. “Once a deacon, always a deacon.” She had an impact on many people and the church honored her by dedicating the next issue of their church newsletter to her.

Thy word commands our flesh to dust,
“Return, ye sons of men:”
All nations rose from earth at first,
And turn to earth again.

We also lost my wife’s father about ten months ago. I had commented on that at the time, but today we remember not his quirkiness but his faithfulness. He and my mother-in-law were also fixtures at their church, teaching confirmation class for many, many years. He was a ruling elder and faithful in those duties as well. And he was one who was certainly “not ashamed of the Gospel” and would share it with anyone who would listen.

A thousand ages in thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
With all their lives and cares,
Are carried downwards by the flood,
And lost in following years.

I also remember three other friends we lost this year:

  • Sylvia – who lived a long and faithful life serving the church and community in so many ways
  • Susan – she was tried in many ways but had the joy of the Spirit and faith in a Sovereign God
  • Clinton – who constantly put others first and was an inspiration in the midst of his own troubles and who we lost way too soon

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the op’ning day.

Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie with’ring ere ’tis night.

So to these Saints who have touched my life, through the tears I say “Thank you.” We rejoice that you have received your eternal rest and reward but we truly miss you here. And for the rest of us, we look to God for, as the contemporary version of the hymn lyrics say, “Be thou our guide while life shall last, and our eternal home.”

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

Text of Isaac Watts paraphrase of Psalm 90

To every action… (A Reformation Day Reflection)

…there is always an equal and opposite reaction.

That is Newton’s third law of motion as translated from the Latin of his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, often noted by the shorthand Principia.

That is the rule in Physics, so on this Reformation Day I wanted to consider the ecclesiastical reaction to the Reformation. Whether it was “equal and opposite” is left as an exercise for the reader.

The personal consequences of Martin Luther’s questioning of the Roman church that is commemorated on this day are fairly well known: The papal bull, his excommunication, his stand before the Diet of Worms, the protection by political authorities who may have had motives more or less theological versus political, and the resulting split with Rome in parts of Germany have been regularly chronicled in the popular media.

But what about broader and longer-term reactions to the Protestant Reformation?

There was a reaction in the Roman church which goes by a few different names but is commonly called the Counter-Reformation. And as I began researching this I found that the Roman church laid claim to Martin Luther in this, at least to a point…

[T]he name [Counter-Reformation] suggests that the Catholic movement came after the Protestant; whereas in truth the reform originally began in the Catholic Church, and Luther was a Catholic Reformer before he became a Protestant. By becoming a Protestant Reformer, he did indeed hinder the progress of the Catholic reformation, but he did not stop it. It continued to gain headway in the Catholic South until it was strong enough to meet and roll back the movement from the North. [from Catholic Encyclopedia]

They go on to argue that it was not a reaction but continuing process, even talking about how the movement continues today since the heresies from the time of Luther still continue. (I guess they figure that there are still Lutherans running around.)

This idea is echoed in a scholarly article from The Catholic History Review (Vol. 75, No. 3 (Jul., 1989), pp. 383-404 ) by Wolfgang Reinhard titled “Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and the Early Modern State a Reassessment.” He writes:

Traditionally, German, and to a certain extent European early modern
history as well, is divided into three periods: the “Reformation” 1517-
1555, the “Counter-Reformation” 1555-1648, and the “Age of Absolutism” 1648-1789. This division has become almost indestructible
because of the simple and convincing dialectical pattern it is based
upon: a progressive movement, the “Reformation,” as thesis, evokes a
reaction, the reactionary “Counter-Reformation,” as antithesis; their contradiction leads to extremely destructive armed conflicts, until Europe
is saved by the strong hand of the absolutist early modern state, which because of its neutrality in the religious conflict is considered the synthesis, a synthesis which opens the way to that culmination point of
world history the modern national power state. This view of history is
wonderfully convincing, but quite incorrect. If only we were able to free
ourselves from its grip, we might easily learn from recent research that
“Counter-Reformation,” if a reaction, was still not simply reactionary.
But we would also recognize that the relation between “Reformation”
and “Counter-Reformation” was not just that of action and reaction, but
much more that of slightly dislocated parallel processes.

The article goes on to talk about the modern state making this a mildly interesting article. But that is not the point today.

Returning to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, I am willing to grant that on one level these were movements in much broader developments across Europe at this point in time and that there were reform movements clearly working within the Roman church (such as the Society of Jesus). But there are two historical developments that I am not sure would have developed as they did were it not for the Protestant Reformation, leading me to see the Counter-Reformation as truly “counter” to the Reformation.

The first event occurred on 21 July 1542 when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was founded under the original name of the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. According to that web site it has the “duty… to defend the Church from heresy.” (It should be noted that Inquisitions had existed before in local or regional settings but now it was, and its successor is still, based in Rome for the whole church.)

The second event followed a couple of years later when on 13 December 1545 the Council of Trent was opened. According to the abstract of the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia the Council is described thus:

Its main object was the definitive determination of the doctrines of the Church in answer to the heresies of the Protestants; a further object was the execution of a thorough reform of the inner life of the Church by removing the numerous abuses that had developed in it.

My point is not to call the Roman church to task for defending its doctrine and correcting abuses – it has every right to do that although the methods were sometimes extreme to our modern sensibilities. The point is that even if there were certain internal reform movements already in place, the unprecedented success of Martin Luther’s challenge to the Roman church certainly got the church’s attention and the Roman church decided that a response in the form of some major and targeted action was necessary.

Equal? Maybe or maybe not. Opposite? Not entirely as it did address some of the same internal abuses that got Luther going.

But a response to the action? From my reading of history there clearly was. But you can be the judge for yourself.

Happy Reformation Day. May we always be Reformed and always being reformed according to the Word of God.

Another Different Sort Of July 4th

Last year on July 4th I reflected on the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War, the three day battle at Gettysburg from the first to the third of July 1863. This year, appropriately, much is being made of that battle in recognition of its sesquicentennial anniversary.

But there is another important sesquicentennial anniversary today which Mr. Mac McCarty reminded us of last year: today is also the anniversary of the end of a very different battle — the battle for Vicksburg, Mississippi.

While maybe not as well known as Gettysburg, it’s importance in the war could be just as great, some think even greater. Vicksburg held a commanding position on the heights over the Mississippi River and was referred to as the “Gibraltar of the South.” Of its position and importance it was said by Jefferson Davis:

“Vicksburg is the nail head that holds the South’s two halves together.”

And by Abraham Lincoln:

“Vicksburg is the key. The war can never be brought to a close until the key is in our pocket.”

It was the one point that kept the Union from controlling the whole length of the Mississippi. (To be fair, there was another small garrison at Port Hudson that surrendered when they heard of Vicksburg’s fall.)

It was Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s objective to take the city and his efforts occupied over half a year from December 26, 1862 until the final surrender on July 4, 1863. During this time Grant had about a half-dozen failed attempts at attacking the city, a couple of them fairly creative, but finally on April 30 he got his army across the Mississippi unopposed using diversionary tactics. From there they fought their way to the city. By May 18 the city was surrounded but Vicksburg’s fortifications were significant and two direct attacks were repelled. So Grant lay siege to the city, shelling it with the army and the navy day and night. By July 3 no help had come and the conditions were grim. Lt. General John Pemberton, the Confederate garrison commander, asked for terms of surrender. On July Fourth their flags were stuck, the weapons stacked and the city was occupied.

Grant chose not to take the opposing forces as prisoners but to immediately parole the soldiers and release them. This did two things — first, it meant he did not have to deal with the logistics of moving and feeding about 30,000 prisoners of war and second it was a psychological weapon that would return many of these men to their homes defeated.

In reading about this battle one thing that struck me was the respect Grant showed his opponents. In response to the initial note asking to negotiate terms of surrender Grant includes this line [all these following quotes from his memoir]:

Men who have shown so much endurance and courage as those now in
Vicksburg, will always challenge the respect of an adversary, and I can
assure you will be treated with all the respect due to prisoners of war.

Of his meeting with the opposing commander he writes:

Pemberton and I had served in the same division during part of the
Mexican War. I knew him very well therefore, and greeted him as an old

Although it should be noted that the friendship did not get in the way of Grant rejecting his proposed terms of surrender.

Regarding the respect for the adversary Grant set the tone from the top. He writes of the time of surrender:

Our soldiers were no sooner inside the lines than the two armies began
to fraternize. Our men had had full rations from the time the siege
commenced, to the close. The enemy had been suffering, particularly
towards the last. I myself saw our men taking bread from their
haversacks and giving it to the enemy they had so recently been engaged
in starving out. It was accepted with avidity and with thanks.

Furthermore upon the surrender and evacuation of the city by the paroled soldiers there were to be no Union celebrations. He describes it like this:

 The prisoners were allowed to occupy their old camps behind the
intrenchments. No restraint was put upon them, except by their own
commanders. They were rationed about as our own men, and from our
supplies. The men of the two armies fraternized as if they had been
fighting for the same cause. When they passed out of the works they had
so long and so gallantly defended, between lines of their late
antagonists, not a cheer went up, not a remark was made that would give
pain. Really, I believe there was a feeling of sadness just then in the
breasts of most of the Union soldiers at seeing the dejection of their
late antagonists.

As to the significance of the day Grant writes:

The fate of the Confederacy was sealed when Vicksburg fell. Much hard
fighting was to be done afterwards and many precious lives were to be
sacrificed; but the morale was with the supporters of the Union ever after.

And, as one history site says

The town of Vicksburg would not celebrate the Fourth of July for 81 years

Christmas 2012 — A Different Sort Of Christmas

As we settle back from our 2012 Christmas celebrations I want to reflect on death. Yes, death, on Christmas, well, sort of, but I am getting ahead of myself…

From the time I started looking forward to Christmas a few weeks back and thinking about what I would write on today somehow death was always somewhere in the picture. At first Dave Brubeck’s passing was part of my thinking — maybe a revision of my reflection three years ago on his music. Also in the picture was Cindy Bolbach’s passing and of course the Sandy Hook shootings a bit over a week ago. And then within the past couple of days we have the shooting of first responders to a fire in Webster, N.Y.

But what occupies my thoughts right now, and the thoughts of my whole family, is the death of my father-in-law Ted this past weekend. Yes, even as we celebrate the holiday we are planning and preparing for a remembering of his life and a celebration of the resurrection a couple of days from now.

Now Ted was a character – to put it mildly – and I could go on at great length about him but that is for another day. He was a member of the Greatest Generation and a Navy Veteran. He joined the service in WW II  and served in the V12 Program but firmly believed that if the war had gone on any longer he would have been a 2nd Lieutenant leading a squad in an invasion of the Japanese Islands. Both he and his older brother were physicists and his older brother worked on one part of the Manhattan Project during the war. Ted later served a second tour of duty with the Office of Naval Research and had many stories to tell about some of his research projects that are now declassified.

Pursuant to the regular topic of this blog he was a ruling elder in the PC(USA) but I would note that as I sometimes describe myself as a life-long Presbyterian who was called to the Methodist church for a few years, he was the opposite and was a Methodist at heart who spent some years with the Presbyterians. But he had a great understanding and appreciation of the priesthood of all believers and the shared and representative leadership of the Presbyterian system.

To be honest, we thought his earthly race would end a year and a half ago, but he miraculously pulled through and we count the last 18 months as very precious “bonus time.” This time around it was not to be and he went into cardiac arrest during his most recent illness. We count it a blessing that he was a fighter and held on long enough for his whole family to be around him to tell him goodbye before joining the Church Triumphant.

While we will greatly miss him I can not tell you all the little bits of God’s Grace that were part of his final days, from the last few hours he hung on to an absolutely wonderful ICU doctor that talked to the family in the most pastoral way possible.

In the piece for Cindy Bolbach I briefly mentioned one of my favorite quotes on death from the novel Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather. At the end of the story the aging Archbishop’s assistant warns him to be careful in the rain or he might catch his death of cold. The protagonist responds “I shall not die of a cold. I shall die of having lived.” What I did not connect there was the similar thought from scripture about King David:

He [David] died at a good old age, full of days, riches, and honor; and his son Solomon succeeded him. [1 Chronicles 29:28]

Ted did indeed “die of having lived” and “at a good old age, full of days.” Between that and an assurance of his firm saving faith in Jesus Christ I don’t think we could ask for more.

So what does this have to do with Christmas? Well, several things but let me highlight two.

The first is that our family has now joined the group for which Christmas will have bittersweet memories mixed with the joyous celebration. A week ago I was talking with a wonderful spiritually and chronologically mature member of our congregation and while she was wishing us the best for the holidays and the joy of having so much family together she herself was not looking forward to the occasion. Having little family, and none on this continent, the usual festivities and the societal expectations of Christmas did not ring true to her. We must remember that this time is difficult for many for a variety of reasons.

The second has to do with putting Christmas in context. Yes, this is rightfully a joyous celebration of the incarnation, but regarding the story the other book end is the death and resurrection of Jesus. While it may not be what we want to focus on at this time of year, it is helpful to remember the context and that Jesus did come to die. For him we have more difficulty saying that he lived a life “full of days.”

But the story does not end there and it is because of the resurrection that our story does not end with death either. As scripture says:

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about
those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no
hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. [1 Thess 4:13-14]

Yes, we grieve – but we grieve as those who have hope because of what Christmas brought and began.

So in whatever state you find yourselves today and throughout this holiday season, may God’s peace be with you, may you know the salvation of the Savior, and also know the comfort of the Holy Spirit.

Merry Christmas

Postscript: One of the great blessings and small graces in this journey has been the ministry and caring of so many who are, and have come, into our lives. So many have come along side to walk part of this journey with my wife’s family. But only a few are the pastors at the churches — most are everyday people doing their jobs in very compassionate and ministering ways. They stand as a reminder that in whatever we do, we still belong to God and in whatever we do our jobs are our ministry and we do it to God’s glory. Amen.