Category Archives: Reflection

Thank You Alice

I spent this past weekend with my family back east and when I arrived Friday night I found out that the schedule included a memorial service that my dad was planning to attend at church the next day. Initially I thought that I would probably not go but when I spoke with my dad the next morning and found out the service was for Alice Gabriels there was nothing to decide. I had to be at the service for Alice.

Alice was a friend of mine from growing up in the church. She was always around and involved with the children and youth programs and was a chaperon on our Junior High youth group trip. As I went back and visited each year with my own family Alice was there to greet us and take an interest in my kids. And I looked forward to seeing her and made it a point seek her out. She was a ruling elder, having served on session multiple times as well as many committees and groups within the church.

Professionally, she had been a social worker and upon retirement had actively volunteered in various classrooms around the city as well as for organizations of interest to her. In her spare time, when she was not volunteering one place or another, she enjoyed folk dancing.

At the service the gathered community spent a significant amount of time remembering her as there were many stories to tell. I will tell you one of mine in a minute. But as one of the speakers said, “God made each one of us unique. And then there was Alice.”

You also need to know that Alice grew up in an observant Jewish family in Holland. During the German occupation of the country the family split up and went into hiding. After the war when they reunited Alice found her two siblings had survived but their parents had been betrayed and died in Auschwitz. Alice chose not to remain in Holland but to immigrate to the States sponsored by her uncle who was already living there. While the siblings scattered geographically they remained in close touch through the years and the service included readings from letters written by her sister and nieces.

Needless to say, Alice’s personal experience made her a powerful voice when social justice and human rights issues like immigration, oppression and racism arose. She was not shy about her life story and was glad to tell you if you asked. In those classrooms she volunteered in it was said “she would tell the young children about St. Nicholas and the older children about the Holocaust.”

One of my stories about her begins with the church sponsoring an Indonesian family that immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960’s. The mother of the family spoke at the service about arriving at the airport knowing nobody and not knowing the language. But they did know Dutch, as Indonesia had been a Dutch colony, and Alice was there to greet them and provide one small piece of familiarity in what was otherwise a very confusing situation. Their oldest son was my age and was a friend of mine growing up.

Fast-forward to a few years back at the memorial service for the father of that family. I have a vivid memory of Alice getting up at the service and singing a hymn in Dutch to honor their heritage. I don’t know what she sang but I know the tune was Beecher so it could have been a Dutch version of “Love Divine, All Love’s Excelling.” While Alice had no problem speaking in front of groups, singing was a different matter. Talking with her after the service and thanking her for doing that, as she was clearly uncomfortable doing it, she acknowledged that but also expressed her respect for the gentleman being honored and felt that some tie to home should be offered.

Which brings me to the final question for today: What was the journey of an observant Jew to become a ruling elder in the Presbyterian church? From knowing Alice I was aware of two important pieces of this. The first was that when the family went into hiding they were hidden by fellow Dutch Christians and this dangerous act of sacrifice had a profound impression on her. The second was that when she found herself in Rochester, while she did have natural family in the area that had sponsored her, over the years the church became her family and in the community of faith she found support, identity and a sense of belonging. (And as a symbol of that, after the service there was no receiving line as we were all her family and we just gathered around cookies and some of her mementos to share stories.)

But during the service I found out about a third influence. As a young adult she had begun reading the New Testament and the stories of Jesus she found there also raised her interest and started to draw her in.

So on a side note, as we discuss the relative importance of the Proclamation of the Gospel, Nurture and Fellowship of the Children of God and Promotion of Social Righteousness, for Alice it was all three that combined to draw her into the Body of Christ.

Alice will be missed. I have lost a friend and a sister in Christ and look forward to being reunited before the throne of God. And in this week when Americans give thanks for what we have it is only appropriate to say “Thank you Alice” and thanks to God for her life and witness and the opportunity we had to know her.

As an acknowledgement of her heritage and history, a tie to her journey, the service concluded with a reading in Hebrew and then a unison reading in English of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified (Amen.)
in the world that He created as He willed.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon.
..

Amen.

[Ed. note: The title of this piece unapologetically borrowed from the title of Rev. Pat’s meditation at the service.]

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.

 

The Presbyterian Pastor Who Did Not Sign

Typically on this Fourth day of July we American Presbyterians tend to gravitate to the Rev. Dr. John Witherspoon, the only pastor to sign the Declaration of Independence, and the 11 other signers that were Presbyterian.

But near the start of the Second Continental Congress there was a second Presbyterian pastor present, the Rev. Dr. John Joachim Zubly. In the end he found himself “on the wrong side of history” as we might say today. But while branded as a loyalist and traitor, and even today not always viewed kindly, taking a closer look at his complicated position and the theology behind it is worth a few minutes of our time.

Rev. John J. Zubly [from Two Heads are Better Than One]

Rev. John J. Zubly [from Two Heads are Better Than One]

Hans Joachim Zublin was born in St. Gallen (or St. Gall), Switzerland, on August 27, 1724. (That is in the very northeast corner of Switzerland is you are curious.) His family immigrated to South Carolina in 1736 but he remained behind to complete his education. He was ordained in the German Reformed Church in London in 1744 and moved to the colonies to minister to other German and Swiss immigrants. He went first to South Carolina and then in 1760 moved to the Independent Presbyterian Church of Savanna, Georgia. His early life is well documented by Roger A. Martin in his 1977 paper “John J. Zubly Comes To America.”

In his ministry he was well regarded, the church in Savanna grew and by the end of his first decade there Nichols (2001) describes him as “the most influential minister in Georgia in pre-revolutionary America.” He later says that the congregation became “the largest and most popular in Georgia.” The New Georgia Encyclopedia tell us:

Zubly was known as a man of “lively cheerfulness” whose sermons were described as being “full, clear, concise, searching, and comfortable,” lighting the hearers’ souls, warming their hearts, and raising their affections. Zubly was known to preach in the morning in English, in the afternoon in French, and in the evening in German. His strict Calvinist theology was very suitable to life in the multicultural environment of the American colonies in the eighteenth century.

Zubly also became known for his criticism of the British government and how it was governing the colonies. He preached a sermon in 1766 in response to the then repealed 1765 Stamp Act arguing that the imposed restrictions were ill-conceived and against the natural rights of the colonists. New restrictions in 1769, including the Dependency Act, caused him to write a political tract called An Humble Inquiry.

His expressed opinions and respected position got him elected to the Georgia Provincial Congress. Perkins (1931) describes the opening of the Congress:

A Provincial Congress was organized at Tondee’s Long Room in Savannah on July 4, 1775. Every district was represented, and Dr. Zubly was one of the twenty- five from Christ’s Church Parish. After electing officers, the Congress proceeded in a body to the meet- ing-house of Dr. Zubly, who preached a sermon on “the alarming condition of American affairs,” using as his text the twelfth verse of the second chapter of James’ gospel : “So speak ye and so do as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.” His sermon made a profound impression, and he was later to be publicly thanked for it. How differently was he to be judged just one year later! How his fellow-men were to forget the judgement of any law of liberty save their own!

The Congress also declared a day of fasting and elected five representatives to the Second Continental Congress, including John Zubly. The Continental Congress had began on June 14, 1775 and Zubly arrived, presented his credentials and was seated on September 13.

However, his tenure was short-lived. As Nichols writes:

As a delegate to the Continental Congress the following month, Zubly initially cooperated fully with the Congress. However, as it became clear that the tenor of the gathering was shifting toward preparation for military offensives and ultimate separation from England, Zubly became increasingly uncomfortable. He was prepared to go along with defensive military preparation, but never entertained the idea of separation. Although Zubly never stated why he was unwilling to separate, it seems clear from his sermons and pamphlets that he believed that the rule of law dictated obedience to England even during times of oppression and that the king was the agent of God even if the king was unsympathetic to the colonists’ pleas. Zubly left the Continental Congress less than two months after its inception, although the circumstances of his departure are somewhat unclear.

To put this in perspective consider the lines from Perkins:

[Zubly] seems to have had no slightest thought of independence. Nor was this astonishing. Every school boy should know that the Revolution was not begun for independence. Witness Franklin’s statement to Pitt in 1774, “I have never heard from any person, drunk or sober, the wish for separation.” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “There is not in the British empire a man who more cordially loves a union with Great Britian than I do.” Washington was not an advocate of independence when he took command of the Continental Army. Virginia had sent her delegates to the Congress instructed to uphold the rights of Englishmen, but not to break with Britian. Only Paine, the firebrand, had first preached the doctrine of separation. No human trait is queerer than this; we change our course and then condemn all who do not change with us. Dr. Zubly was in good company when he strove for justice, not separation.

Yet Zubly was remembered by the members of the Continental Congress. In a letter John Adams wrote on July 1, 1776 to another delegate from Georgia, Archibald Bulloch, he regrets that Bulloch could not be present due to other matters but informs him:

This Morning is assigned for the greatest Debate of all. A Declaration that these Colonies are free and independent States, has been reported by a Committee appointed Some Weeks ago for that Purpose, and this day or Tomorrow is to determine its Fate. May Heaven prosper, the new born Republic,—and make it more glorious than any former Republic has been.

But at the beginning of the letter he refers to an atmosphere “enjoying the Satisfaction of Seeing a Temper and Conduct here, Somewhat more agreable to your Wishes, than those which prevailed when you was here before.” (A possible reference to Zubly’s dissent early in the term of the Congress.) Adams concludes the letter with “Tell [Mr. Houstoun] the Colonies will have Republics, for their Government, let us Lawyers and your Divine Say what We will.” The reference to “your Divine” being understood as a comment about Zubly and his non-separation arguments.

On his return to Georgia things did not go well for him. Branded a traitor he was briefly arrested and later fled to South Carolina. His house was plundered and his library thrown in the river. He was able to return when the British took control of Georgia and died there on July 23, 1781, almost two years before the end of the war. As all accounts agree, to use the words of William Pauly (1976):

Tragically, he could not or would not, alter his principles to include the possibility of political separation from the mother country. He was consistent to the end and died a broken and rejected man.

In looking at his consistent position it is important to consider his theology. Nichols considers this in detail and begins with this summary:

Zubly’s sermons and pamphlets often reveal his close theological ties to Calvin’s conceptions of the sovereignty of God, natural law, and human nature. To be sure, Zubly’s political writings clearly bear the marks of Enlightenment writers, social contract theorists, legal thinkers, and historians. But we miss the depth of the man if we overlook the role theology played in informing his political ideas concerning the democratic process and the rule of law.

Nichols goes on to show how Zubly’s arguments regarding Democracy and the Rule of Law can be traced back to Calvin’s thinking. Regarding the Rule of Law Nichols writes, in part:

For Zubly, as for Calvin, the rule of law had its foundation in the duties of rulers and subjects. Zubly’s greatest complaint against the British was that they were not acting in accordance with the British constitution-that they were not fulfilling their duties as rulers. Like many Americans, he was very critical of England’s treatment of the rights of the colonists, whether through the Stamp Act, the Declaratory Act, the Boston massacre, continued increases in taxation without representation, or other actions. Zubly proffered both theological and legal arguments in protest of British oppression.

The journey to revolution took different paths for different people and the two Presbyterian pastors, John Zubly and John Witherspoon, ultimately come to different conclusions. The two gentlemen knew each other and had met at least twice before the Continental Congress when the College of New Jersey had conferred honorary degrees on Rev. Zubly in 1770 and 1774. Nichols concludes with a section comparing and contrasting the two of them using their sermons. For Witherspoon it is his sermon preached in May 1776 titled The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men. Nichols says this about the two sermons:

The two sermons share many similarities. They both focus on a single passage of biblical text. They both call each listener to look inwardly to ensure “his own soul’s salvation.” They both ask their listeners to confess their sins and turn humbly to God. They both speak of the need for good government and seek freedom from oppression. They both advocate looking to God for assistance and approbation. Yet they part company on how the listeners should respond.

Zubly reminded his listeners that “our interest lies in a perpetual connection with our mother country.” He advised his listeners to “think cooly, and act deliberately,” for rash counsel and decisions are rarely good ones.” Zubly continued to advocate obeying the laws of the land; this would bear witness to the colonists’ faithfulness to Britain. “Every government must be supported, and what is necessary for the support of government, is also justly due, and ought to be given with readiness and willingly.” Zubly’s main concern still seemed to be the protection of property-which had been taken away through improper taxation without representation-and he did not at all discount the necessity of continual obedience to the magistrate by the subjects.” Thus, although Zubly did not direct his hearers how to act in response to British oppression, he fell on the side of deliberate action in response to improper taxation and remained committed to submission to the magistrate. His purpose was to call the magistrate (the Parliament) to look to the public welfare of the subjects and abide by the rule of law. Put differently, the duty of the magistrate to govern had been translated into the right of the subject to good government but Zubly did not advocate enforcing that right through force, but only through petition.

Witherspoon was more willing than Zubly to see God’s design and plan in the circumstances of the colonies. Rather than focusing only on the duty of the subject to submit to the magistrate, he juxtaposed that duty with a concomitant duty of every Christian: “In many cases it is the duty of a good man, by open reproof and opposition, to wage war with profaneness.” Witherspoon equated the current state of affairs in Britain with this “profaneness,” and his logic thus led to the need to exercise one’s duty to oppose Britain. Witherspoon rationalized that the cause of America was a cause of religion, thereby implicitly (though weakly) invoking Calvin’s “exception” to the rule against rebellion. He was thus willing to make the bold proclamation that “the cause in which America is now in arms, is the cause of justice, of liberty, and of human nature.”

Not surprisingly it is Nichols’ conclusion:

A strict reading of Calvin’s Institutes seems to support Zubly’s stance rather than Witherspoon’s. From the perspective of history, however, Witherspoon’s stance looks to be the correct one.

So what is the place of a conscientious objector, of someone with a principled, consistent and reasoned dissent? Consideration of this in the long view of history or in light of current developments – governmental and ecclesiastical – is left as an exercise for the reader or for another time. As for me, I and my family are off to a parade, barbeque and fireworks.

And may you all enjoy this fourth day of July, whether you think there is something to celebrate today or not.

Bibliography

Martin, Roger A., 1977, John J. Zubly Comes To America, The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 61, No. 2 (Summer, 1977), pp. 125-139.

Nichols, Joel A., 2001, Man True to His Principles: John Joachim Zubly and Calvinism, Journal of Church and State, Vol. 43, pp. 297-317.

Pauly, William E., Jr.,1976, Journal of Presbyterian History (1962-1985), Vol. 54, No. 1, in PRESBYTERIANS AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION: AN INTERPRETIVE ACCOUNT (SPRING 1976), pp. 61-71, 73-81.

Perkins, Eunice Ross, 1931, John Joachim Zubly: Georgia’s Conscientious Objector, The Georgia Historical Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 4 (DECEMBER, 1931), pp. 313-323.

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

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]

A Matter Of Perspective

Long-time readers of my blog probably understand that this was an exciting weekend for me. Between the increasing seismic activity beneath the glacier in Iceland the the possible volcanic eruption yesterday and then the northern California earthquake today there was a lot of active geologic activity. Yes, that is my actual profession – playing with Presbyterianism as I do on this blog is a side line.

Now, both of these are significant geologic events and the earthquake this morning in the Napa area is directly related to my research on California seismic hazard. But when these events occur I have to scratch my head a little bit about the perspective from here in the States (I can’t speak for readers in other parts of the world). As a specialist I see a bigger picture that is not present in the media accounts around me.

For example, where was the largest earthquake in the world this weekend? It was not Napa, but rather a 6.4 yesterday near Hacienda La Calera, Chile. Interestingly the reports so far indicate there were more injuries and more severe ones from the Napa quake than the Chile quake. Why so? If I had to make an educated judgement it would be that the population in Chile has been through enough large earthquakes over the years that building strength and population preparedness is better than for California. [Ed. Note – as I was editing this an M7.0 (preliminary) earthquake happened in Peru. See how much coverage that gets.]

But what about volcanoes, what’s up with them? Well, the most recent weekly bulletin from the Smithsonian/USGS Volcanic Activity Report lists 20 volcanoes in various stages of eruption. Some are ongoing like Kilauea which just keeps on erupting, doesn’t really explode and after a couple decades has pretty much cleared out all the structures that were in the area. But did you hear about Fuego in Guatemala? While it has rumbled for a while it had a particularly active phase earlier this month and the description in the Latin American Herald Tribune included these paragraphs:

GUATEMALA – Guatemala’s Fire volcano was spewing huge columns of ash and smoke in hourly eruptions as it came back to life after a period of moderate activity, officials reported.

and

The Insivumeh said the volcano was “belching out huge columns of grey ash” up to a height of 4,300 meters above sea level and at a distance of 12 kilometers (7½ miles).

The nearby villages of Morelia, Santa Sofia and Yepocapa were covered with ash from the eruptions.

Yes, there are people around the world that live in the shadow of perpetually active volcanoes.

And my point is…?

When I got into geology I had a professor who spoke of the “magic eyes of a geologist” and how we would never look at the scenery the same way again. He was absolutely correct – when I look at the landscape as a trained geologist I see things others don’t see and we may see the same things but I my training has me see them differently. And my family members in other disciplines are the same way as they see things through their lenses and filters.

Similarly with the news. I don’t watch a single news feed but actively seek out a variety sources of information about active geologic activity around the world. And right next to it I have my multiple sources of information regarding Presbyterians around the world for my hobby of writing this blog.

But the narrow focus of the mainstream media coverage around me this weekend reminded me of a number of things about perspective.

First, we must sometimes be deliberate in seeking out a broad range of sources to get the big picture.

Second, even with multiple sources our background, experiences and training impose on us lenses or filters that may help us see some or all of the situation more clearly or in a bigger context. In addition, at the same time we may see one part more clearly our increased focus in that area may distract us from other areas. [As a side note, this is the major strength of Presbyterianism as we bring the community together to listen to each other as we bring our own strengths to the table and then discern and decide as a group using all our collective talents and stories.]

Finally, even with deliberate effort we must recognize that we can not know everything, that we have limitations and blind spots, and graciously confess that and then look for opportunities to try to fill in those gaps.

When I originally outlined this reflection I was going to put in a case study here at the end but I will leave that as an exercise for the reader. As you have probably figured out this reflection is not really about earthquakes and volcanoes. It is about how we as the Body of Christ respond to the situations around us. There is so much going on in the world right now, so many situations where there are multiple points of view, some of which our filters and lenses let us understand and some where they get in the way. This is a challenge, maybe even a charge, to the reader to try to find a way to set filters and lenses aside, or redirect them, see another perspective in a situation, no matter how much you may not agree with it. The point is not agreement but rather understanding.

Update: Shortly after publishing this I came across a quote from Aristotle that may sum it up better – “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

May God bless your efforts at seeing things with a different perspective.

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. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/]

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. http://www.masshist.org/digitaladams/]

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…”

Incarnation


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