Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bible Reading in 2009

It is virtually impossible to know the Bible thoroughly without reading it all regularly, and it is almost impossible to read the whole Bible regularly without a plan. Thankfully, there are many Bible-reading plans readily available. The English Standard Version website has several plans available in a variety of formats. I would fervently encourage you to take advantage of these plans. Let's be relentlessly biblical in 2009!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Virginians at Home

Virginians at Home: Family Life in the Eighteenth Century (Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg, 1952) is a sprightly little book by Edmund S. Morgan, reflecting fine scholarship without the scholarly technicalities. Morgan reconstructs the pattern of colonial family life, discussing growing up, getting married, servants and slaves, and houses and holidays. Though his survey of the times is brief, his treatment is satisfying, not the least because Morgan truly appreciates the fact that these people "enjoyed living." The families of Virginia were far from perfect, as Morgan clearly shows, yet they built and inhabited a genuine society, the likes of which we can only dream of today. Virginians at Home invites us to critically admire the wisdom of family life in the eighteenth century.

[Want to learn more about Colonial Williamsburg? Check out their attractive website here.]

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Believe that Jesus Is the Messiah

The meaning of Christmas cannot be understood or experienced apart from worship. So come, all you faithful, to worship Christ the newborn King with us!

The Father Sent the Son
O Come, All Ye Faithful (#88)
O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Still, Still, Still
Away in a Manger (#112)
We Three Kings
The First Noel
Who Is He In Yonder Stall (#120)
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing (#92)

Scripture Reading
The Savior Who Is Christ the Lord - Luke 2:1-21

Blessed Be God for Blessing Us In Christ with...Faith - John 20:31; 3:16

Please join us also for a Christmas dinner and singing Christmas carols!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Thinking Too Hard

For those of you who might have read the post "True to Our Feelings" and are a little tired of philosophical thinking, here's something for a diversion. It's a poem by Wendell Berry.


I think therefore
I think I am.

(From Given, published by Shoemaker & Hoard, Washington, D.C., 2005)


Those of you in Phil's counseling and discipleship seminar have been studying biblical forgiveness, so when I came across this story I wanted to direct you to it.

Pastor Scott and Janet Willis have been a wonderful testimony to the grace of God ever since six of their children were killed in a tragic accident (the story is available here; scroll down to read). I had the priviledge of being a guest in the Willis home one night a couple years before the accident. I was a college student at the time. I remember that we talked about wrestling and watched a video of their oldest son's state championship match. We talked about what the Lord was doing in their church. We played with the little ones - the very children that the Lord took to be with him through the accident. Because of that connection, I have always remembered the Willis family vividly, and I have always been challenged by their faithfulness in affliction.

I would urge you to read the whole post over at Between Two Worlds, and may this help all of us to practice biblical forgiveness.

True to Our Feelings

Emotions seem to lie in that vague and mysterious part of our lives that we experience all the time but have a difficult time putting into words. The recently deceased philosopher Robert C. Solomon explored this land extensively over the course of his academic career, and one of his last summations of his thought is found in True to Our Feelings: What Our Emotions Are Really Telling Us.

Solomon tries to answer the question, "How can we get what I now call emotional integrity? How can we enjoy and thrive with rather than be plagued or haunted by our passions" (x)? As he develops his argument, he wants to "defend a distinctively ethical view of our emotions" (1). He also "wants to contend that we are not merely passive victims of our emotions but quite active in cultivating and constituting them...Furthermore, I want to argue that emotions are not only intelligent but also purposive in a surprisingly robust sense...Accordingly, we are to a significant extent responsible for our emotions, something that we often deny for the most self-serving of reasons, to make excuses for ourselves" (3).

Solomon pursues his inquiry in three phases. Part I explores an existentialist perspective on emotional strategies. And in fact, Solomon sees emotions as exactly that - strategies, or ways of engaging the world. He does this by looking at anger, fear, love, compassion, grief, happiness, guilt, shame, pride, envy, spite, resentment, and vengeance.

Part II builds off of these explorations of specific emotions toward a general theory of emotions. He says that an emotion theory should help us to understand why people have the emotions that they have, which helps us both to understand ourselves and to respond to other people appropriately. But in order to get to this kind of a theory, he wants to eliminate several myths about emotions. These myths are "excuses, misinterpretations, or one-sided understandings" which enable us to "evade both responsibility and understanding" (127). These are the myths he challenges:

1. Emotions are ineffable. Rather, he says, although emotional experience is very complex, it can be articulated, analyzed, and refined.

2. Emotions are feelings. "Feeling," Solomon argues, is a much broader term than "emotion." Feeling is anything which registers in the consciousness. Emotion, on the other hand, always has an "aboutness" or intentionality.

3. Emotions are like hydraulics, "a psychic fluid filling up the mind or the body." This outdated mechanical metaphor, Solomon says, is inadequate to explain the desires and processes of emtional experience.

4. Emotions are "in" the mind. Solomon blames this way of thinking on Cartesian dualism. Instead, he says we should reclaim what Aristotle and the Stoics already knew so long ago - that our emotions are in the world in social space.

5. Emotions are stupid (i.e. have no intelligence). Emotions are actually engagements in and with the world. They require knowledge and evaluation, Solomon argues.

6. Emotions are either positive or negative, good or bad. Instead, any given emotion can be good or bad, positive or negative according to the situation.

7. Emotions are irrational. By challenging this myth Solomon wants to argue against the idea that emotions are nonrational. He is not claiming that they cannot be irrational in terms of seriously missing their target. They can be irrational in the sense of being poor strategies for engaging the world. However, they always involve judgments.

8. Emotions happen to us (they are "passions"). Solomon believes that emotions are always our doing to some extent, and not merely something that happens to us. He says that this is especially the case when we consider that the most significant emotions are processes over time. There are choices involved, often multitudes of choices. We can best deal with our emotions by taking responsibility for them.

Part III crowns Solomon's quest for emotional integrity with a discussion of the ethics of emotions. Since emotions are constituted by evaluative judgments (which is not the same thing as saying that they are always deliberative), they are value laden. They are thus ethically significant. Our emotional experiences, Solomon says, are intricately complex, involving sensations, our awareness of the world, of ourselves, and of our intentions, as well as thoughts and reflections on our emotions. Because emotions are structured by evaluative judgments, it is very difficult to assert that there are properly basic emotions common to all people. An emotion is basic if it is central to a certain way of life. So, an emotion such as anger might be more basic to some societies than to others. But even in this emotions differ between societies because particular circumstances call for differing evaluation, which structure the emotions differently.

Solomon's closing chapter applies the perspective he has laid out in the book to ultimate issues: happiness, spirituality, and emotional integrity. He averrs that "a happy life with emotional integrity is...a life in which one wisely manages emotional conflicts in conjunction with one's most heartfelt values" (268). This is a kind of existentialist authenticity. But happiness applies only on an personal level, so Solomon moves up to the "meta-emotion" spirituality. This, to him, is "the thoughtful love of life" (269). This requires gratitude, the philosophical emotion of appreciating the bigger picture and having a chance to play a role in it. It is "expanding one's that one comes to appreciate the beauty of the whole as well as be absorbed in our own limited projects and passions. That is spirituality. It is, perhaps, the ultimate happiness, and it is an ideal expression of emotional integrity" (270).

Having summarized Solomon's work, what is my evaluative judgment about it? How could a Christian benefit from his ruminations? Without going into too much detail, let me just note a few opportunities for engaging the world that this book offered me.

As a Christian, I feel glad for one central theme of the book - emotions are ethical judgments for which we are responsible. This is certainly in keeping with God's revelation. For one thing, it helps us to see how culpable we are as sinners before God. For another, it helps us to see how radical the transforming work of the Spirit is in sanctification.

As a Christian, I also feel enriched by the expansive view of the emotions observed and described in the book. This is helpful as I apply the Bible. Many times we circumscribe the meaning of the Scripture according to our preconceived notions, and so we struggle with how to apply it to our lives. For example, have you ever wondered if it is hypocritical to do what is right even when you don't feel like it? Any pastor who deals with the souls of men is likely to find his thinking challenged to look at the Scripture with fresh eyes after reading this book.

Finally, as a Christian, I feel sad for one central failing of this book, and, apparently, of the life of the author. Repeatedly in his quest for emotional integrity, Solomon begins tracking down paths that should lead him to acknowledge that he is "fearfully and wonderfully made" (Ps 139:14). This, of course, ought to lead him to say, "Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well." In other words, Solomon (what an irony that this is his name!) is such an astute observer of mankind that he cannot help but be confronted with the One whose image man bears. And, in fact, he is.

Solomon closes his book, and his quest for emtional integrity, by coming face to face with the reality that he ought to be grateful to God. Yet he turns his face away. Here are his words.

Thus it is all the more important to feel gratitude for what is most valuable to most of us, namely, our lives....But one of the questions that has always intrigued me about such cosmic gratitude, and it certainly bothered Nietzsche as well, is to whom one should feel this gratitude. As an emotion, gratitude is defined, at least in part, by its "object," namely the reception of a gift of some kind....To whom should one be grateful for one's life? (269-70)

Solomon acknowledges that Christians have no problem with this question. "But I do," he honestly states. He continues:

Being grateful "to the universe" is a limp way out of this quandary....But does it make sense to be grateful to the universe? I can image Dr. Roberts [a Christian philosopher] saying, Isn't this really being grateful to God without admitting it?

Perhaps one could avoid God by claiming to be thankful "to chance," or perhaps "to luck"....But again the effort seems limp. The to whom question gets begged again....Are we stuck with being ungrateful about the single gift that matters most?

Clearly Solomon feels the tension of the position he is in. He feels in his bones that cosmic gratitude is essential to emotional integrity and a meaningful existence. And he is too honest of a philosopher to duck the questions that spring out of this conviction. Yet apparently he feels even more deeply, so deep it is at the core of his being, that he cannot acknowledge God. How does he try to get out of the bind?

I think the "to whom" question is misplaced here....I think that there is another solution, more radical in that it severs gratitude for one's life altogether from the interpersonal emotions...."Opening one's heart to the universe" is not so much personifying the universe as reflecting on as well as feeling and expressing a cosmic gratitude, that is, expanding one's perspective, as the Stoics insisted, so that one comes to appreciate the beauty of the whole as well as be absorbed in our own limited projects and passions. That is spirituality (270).

With this last ditch effort to avoid God Solomon has just undone his whole project, for there is no way to have both an impersonal, irrational universe and personal, rational emotions as he has painstakingly described throughout his book. With his willingness to "sever" gratitude from interpersonal emotions, he has just admitted that there is a gaping chasm in his whole philosophy. But he would rather have that than admit that he lives and moves and has his being in the God of the Bible. Unwittingly, Solomon has become a perfect illustration of Romans 1:21, "For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him...."

So, I feel sad. An exploration of emotional integrity that could have ended in the enrapturing worship of the Triune God, ended by denying the very Source of joy. What makes all of this even sadder is that before this book was even officially published, Robert C. Solomon died. He was not true to what his emotions should have told him.

Theology and Big Families

Al Mohler reports this morning on a phenomenon that has been widely noted and discussed in recent years - "those who take belief in God most seriously tend to have more babies. For many years, the conventional wisdom has held that demography determines destiny. Well, now it appears that theology determines demography." Over and over again, observers of all stripes are noticing that those who really believe that there is something to live for bigger than themselves reproduce far more than those who believe that life is all about themselves.

Makes sense to me.
(Photo courtesy of Rebecca Bernhard. You can see her website here.)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven Is at Hand

Jesus Christ saves sinners. That is the wonderful message called the gospel, literally, the good news. When Jesus was on this earth, he proclaimed that message, and his disciples continued to proclaim it after he had ascended to heaven. As Jesus and his disciples preached that message, there was one element which was repeatedly emphasized - repent. That is quite a concept, and we will search the Scriptures this Lord's Day about it. We want to hold fast to our Lord's message: Repent and believe the gospel!

Joy to the World (#92)
The First Noel (#98)
Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne (#93)
As With Gladness Men of Old (#97)
Silent Night! Holy Night! (#109)
From Depths of Woe (#337)

Scripture Reading
The Birth of the Savior - Matthew 1:1-25

Blessed Be God for Blessing Us in Christ with...Repentance
Mark 1:15

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Great Titles for Children

I am nearing the end of reading three wonderful biographies for children written by Joyce McPherson. My children have enjoyed them as much as I have.

Biographies are a great means of teaching, learning history, etc. Yet I also think of these kinds of Christian biographies as an opportunity to help our children to set their hope in God and not forget his works (Ps 78:5-8). Those who understand history well (Prov 9:10) will have their eyes opened to see God at work all the time.

Life Without Limits

The modern liberal order refuses to live within God-ordained limits. This has become increasingly clear to me. This morning Albert Mohler commented on another indication of this - a 70 year old woman who gave birth thanks to IVF techniques. (You can read his perceptive critique here.) But this is not the only indication of such Icarus-like tendencies. In virtually every facet of life, the world says, "You can have it all." Or, to put it in more serpentine language, "You will be like God."

There is nothing new under the sun, and we can see from Genesis 11 that this lie has animated the aspirations of human society from ancient times. The whole earth set about to make a name for themselves. They proposed to build a great city around a great tower to accomplish this goal. Since a “name” in Scripture is often an indication of one’s character and reputation, this is a boldfaced attempt by mankind to make themselves great. This is pride on parade, and it lies very close to the heart of what sin itself is. “Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God, whether in act, attitude, or nature” (Grudem). At the heart of this is “failure to let God be God” (Erickson). This is precisely what we see mankind doing in this text. Thus we have in this passage the blossoming of “the world” (and the false religion that is at its heart – Babylon). In one sense, all the rest of Scripture can be seen as a contest between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world with its rival ruler, the devil.

The Lord's response to this pride is particularly instructive. He said, "If they are one people..., from now on nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them." In other words, humanity would be able to achieve its own purposes as opposed to God's purposes. Of course, you know the story of the Tower of Babel, and you know that God in his judgment (and mercy) did not allow this to happen. But the point here is that the world system has always tried to surpass its God-given boundaries. Our day is no different. We think that our technology will somehow enable us to play God.

I am particularly concerned for Christians who have bought into the modern liberal way of thinking. Many, many of my fellow believers consider themselves to be "conservative," but they tend to pursue the life without limits that so characterizes contemporary American society. They have some conservative instincts, but they hardly perceive the bundle of contradictions that their lifestyle presents to any genuine conservatism. Our choices in family, healthcare, communications, entertainment, economics, foreign policy, and even church practice betray that we have at least one ear cocked to the music of the pied piper of this world. We are more conformed that we even realize.

Now, I would be remiss if I stopped at critiquing the rebellious life without limits attempted by liberalism. For there is a true abundant life, actually called eternal life, to be found in Jesus Christ. Our human hearts cry out for this. The modern life without limits is simply a twisted, deformed attempt to get what we were really created for. But as Christians, we must show the world the true "life without limits" found only in Christ. And we must never forget the seeming paradox of following Christ - "whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:24). We will never gain this life by pursuing our "freedom." We will only find it as we submit, as we trust, as we obey, as we worship our Lord. Living within those limits is the way to life without limits.

Parenting for Eternity

Russell Moore helps to put parenting into eternal perspective. It will only take you two minutes to read the whole article, and you will be encouraged in the work God has given you to do.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Worthless Worldlings

In preparing for our discussion of Holiness tonight, here is an admonition that I want to take to heart.

How many clergymen work hard in their profession for a few years, and then become lazy and indolent from the love of this present world! At the outset of their ministry they seem illing to spend and be spent for Christ; they are instant in season and out of season; their preaching is lively and their churches are filled. Their congregations are well looked after; cottage lectures, prayer meetings, house-to-house visitation, are their weekly delight. But, alas, how often after beginning in the Spirit they end in the flesh, and like Samson, are shorn of their strength in the lap of that Delilah, the world! They are preferred to some rich living; they marry a worldly wife; they are puffed up with pride and neglect study and prayer. A nipping frost cuts off the spiritual blossoms which once bade so fair. Their preaching loses its unction and power; their weekday work becomes less and less; the society they mix in becomes less select; the tone of their conversation become more earthly. The cease to disregard the opinion of man; they imbibe a morbid fear of 'extreme views', and are filled with a cautious dread of giving offence. And at last the man who at one time seemed likely to be a real successor of the apostles and a good soldier of Christ, settles down on his lees as a clerical gardener, farmer, or diner out, by whom nobody is offended and nobody is saved. His church becomes half empty; his influence dwindles away; the world has bound him hand and foot. He has walked in the steps of Lot's wife. He has looked back.

I desire your intercession that I would not be such a man.

Classical Christian Education

One of the things I so appreciate about our church is its attitude of learning, thinking, striving, and growing. We want to know God, and this is no small task. This attitude shows itself prominently in our families through the many of you who homeschool your children. Of course, homeschooling itself is no small task, and for those who take it seriously it forces families (especially fathers) to make real decisions about important issues. So, for those who are educating themselves about how best to educate your children, I would recommend you consider reading "The New Classical Schooling" by Peter Leithart, recently published in the Intercollegiate Review Spring 2008 edition. It is a helpful overview of the history and thinking of the "classical Christian education" movement in America.

The Word Was Made Flesh

Here's something interesting you might want to follow as you turn your hearts to the Lord this Christmas season. Chuck Bumgardner is posting a quote a day from church history regarding the incarnation.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Musical Notes

A couple items I'd like to bring to your attention.

Scott Aniol, of Religious Affections Ministries, has a new book coming out this month entitled Worship in Song. I had the privilege of interacting with draft versions of this book, and I believe that Scott is making a helpful contribution to the discernment of God's people through the publication of this book. Scott and his wife have also just released a CD, God Himself Is with Us. I listened to the sample tracks, and I would like to commend Scott and Becky on their superb hymn choices for this recording.

Another new church music site just launched - Be sure to read the short article on singing psalms.

You Can Expect More of This...

Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek magazine, had this to say about those who appeal to the Bible in order to oppose sodomy.

No matter what one thinks about gay rights—for, against or somewhere in between —this conservative resort to biblical authority is the worst kind of fundamentalism. Given the history of the making of the Scriptures and the millennia of critical attention scholars and others have given to the stories and injunctions that come to us in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament, to argue that something is so because it is in the Bible is more than intellectually bankrupt—it is unserious, and unworthy of the great Judeo-Christian tradition.

This is an attempt to define any appeal to what the Bible actually says as out of bounds in the discussion. Of course, this is very convenient for those who do not want to admit biblical authority. It reminds me of when I was a child. When we would play war, and it became obvious that my opponent had a weapon that was blowing me away (such as he had the garden hose while I had a little squirt gun), then the natural thing to do was simply to declare that this war doesn't allow garden hoses. Why? Because I'll lose if we allow garden hoses, and I can't have that. So it is with the man who rejects God. Once the Bible is turned loose, his squirt gun objections don't hold much water, and he can't have that.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Technology and the Soul

I like to encourage careful and thoughtful use of technology, so here is a link to another thoughtful comment on that subject.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Did Jesus Ask for a 60 Day Trial?

From FoxNews' Hannity & Colmes, interviewing Rick Warren yesterday.

COLMES: Well, what about those people who don't — you know, I happen to be Jewish. Not everybody — and Jesus, by the way, I have a lot in common with. Same religion.
WARREN: Absolutely.
COLMES: So not everybody necessarily goes that route.
WARREN: The thing is, Alan, I believe Jesus Christ came for everybody. I don't think he came for Christians. The Bible says take this good news to the whole world.
I don't care whether you're Baptist, Buddhist, Mormon, Methodist, Jewish, Muslim, or no religion at all. Jesus Christ still loves you. You still matter to God.
COLMES: True, and I think that's a wonderful message. But if you don't accept Jesus, if you're not something who goes that route religiously...
COLMES: ... can you find your way to heaven? Can you still be — go to the same place when it's all said and done?
WARREN: I'm not the authority on that, but I believe Jesus is. And everybody's betting their life on something. Jesus said, "I am the way." I'm betting that he's not a liar. I'm betting that he told the truth.
COLMES: What about — what does it say for all those people who do not accept Christ as their personal savior?
WARREN: I'm saying that this is the perfect time to open their life, to give it a chance. I'd say give him a 60-day trial.
COLMES: Like the Book of the Month Club.
WARREN: Give him a trial. See if he'll change your life. I dare you to try trusting Jesus for 60 days. Or your money guaranteed back.
COLMES: Really? You're going to give me the money back?
WARREN: Absolutely.

(HT: Pulpit Magazine)

Called to Grace and Glory

The Bible tells us of an occasion when one of Jesus' dear friends died. Jesus was not present at Lazarus' death. He arrived after Lazarus had been buried for four days. But there was a purpose in all of this. Jesus was about to dramatically demonstrate that he is the resurrection and the life. He told the people to take away the stone covering of the cave where Lazarus was buried, and he cried out with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" And with powerful simplicity the Bible says that "the man who had died came out."

Jesus has the power and the authority to call the dead to life, because God the Father has granted him to have life in himself. That is very good news for us, for we are naturally dead in trespasses and sins. And when the Father calls us, Christ becomes to us the power of God and the wisdom of God. God gives us life in Christ, whom he makes our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption! God's call effects in us exactly what we need to enjoy eternal life with him.

Join us as we worship the God of power and love who calls us to grace and glory!

O Come, All Ye Faithful (#88)
Angels We Have Heard on High (#89)
O Come, O Come Emmanuel (#87)
Hark! the Herald Angels Sing (#90)
How Sweet and Awful Is the Place (#238)
Let Us Love (#483)

Scripture Reading
The Coming of the Lamb of God - John 1:1-34

Blessing God for Blessing Us In Christ with...Effective Calling
1 Corinthians 1:23-24

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Children and Media

Albert Mohler responds to a report that the average child in America spends 45 hours a week immersed in media. Good thoughts on using media responsibly.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Ever-Loving Family

Periodically, I read good books that I would like to share with someone, so I thought I might begin posting brief observations on the blog about a few of the works from which I have benefitted.

We are living in an era of Western history in which the family as God designed it to be is crumbling as a social institution. This is not to say that the family is becoming extinct. Mankind would have to become extinct before the family would disappear. Nevertheless, it is certainly the case that the pagan attack on the family as God intends it to be is increasingly institutionalized as the norm in our society.

Sadly, historians and sociologist who deal with the family have contributed greatly to this pagan redefinition of the family. Throughout the 1960s and 70s ideologically driven scholars worked hard to re-write history according to their assumptions, and the result is that many people have a terribly skewed notion of the natural family. Many people assume that the pre-modern family was oppresive towards women and incompetent towards children. Others believe that the family is simply an evolving form of human relationship that has no fixed identity, nature, or purpose; hence, we are free to define it and practice it as we wish.

All of these misconceptions are dealt a healthy blow by the work of Steven Ozment. Several years ago I read his When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe, and I was impressed with his even-handed and clear-sighted treatment of his subject. Recently, I had the opportunity to read Ancestors: The Loving Family in Old Europe , and once again I came away thankful for Ozment's accurate historical treatment. The blurb on the back cover expresses well the gist of the book:

Here Ozment, the leading historian of the family in the middle centuries, replaces the often miserable depiction of premodern family relations with a delicately nuanced portrait of a vibrant and loving social group. Mining the records of families' private lives - from diaries and letters to fiction and woodcuts - Ozment shows us a preindustrial family not very different from the later family of high industry....

When the history of the family is viewed accurately, it becomes increasingly evident that God's design for the family truly is best for everyone - men, women, and children.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

The Necessity of Love

Yesterday as I was reading a little from Robert Yarbrough's recent commentary on the epistles of John, I came across this excellent observation on the significance of John's letters:

Life in the Son grows out of right belief, but not right belief alone. It extends to obedient behavior too. But correct behavior, even combined with high orthodoxy, can be overrated.... True godliness in John's conception consists of a third integral element:deep-rooted devotion of the heart to God. This is love (25-26).

May God in his grace help us to develop all three!