Tag Archives: Special day

The World Is A Messy Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even so, Come, Lord Jesus

 

Presbyterian Presidents

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

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

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

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

Two presidents became notable Presbyterians later in life:

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

And three presidents drifted towards the Methodists:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Need I say more?

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

Stay tuned
Postscript:

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

Giving Thanks For The Saints 2016

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

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

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

I remember and give thanks for:

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

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

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

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

Reformation Day: How To Distract A Holy Roman Emperor

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

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

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

peter_paul_rubens_-_charles_v_in_armour_-_wga20378

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

luther_kleine

 

“Forever Wild”

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Quotes from an NPS web page of quotes)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

100_4425

Sola Scriptura And A War On Christmas?

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

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

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

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

So, based on Scripture, what are we celebrating?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript

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

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

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]