What’s your daily routine?

I love reading biographies. It’s a virtue and a vice–one third intellectual curiosity, one third gossip, and one third comfort that there are people out there weirder than me. Anna gave me a fascinating book for Christmas, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. Written by Mason Curry, the book is an anthology of vignettes about how creatives have ordered their lives for work.

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It’s a quick and enjoyable read, especially if you’re interested in how other writers and artists managed to be productive in the midst of the other things that occupied their lives–work, family, chores, and cooking. Writers and other creatives have always had a reputation for some degree of eccentricity. Mason’s book demonstrates that this stereotype is rooted in reality. Not all eccentricities are created equal. For example, Thomas Wolfe’s penchant for standing nude in front of his window while fondling his genitals (eccentric in a rather perverse sort of way) is rather more extreme than Ben Franklin’s rather pedantic attempt to account for every minute of the day by creating a rigorous daily routine.

Patricia Highsmith basically ate breakfast (bacon and eggs) for a every meal. Voltaire wrote from bed most of the day. Kierkegaard tools his coffee in a way that would set your teeth on edge. He took a cup and saucer and then proceeded to fill the cup to it’s top with sugar. Adding the coffee, he then stirred and drank.

The accounts are widely varied yet the thing that holds them together is that highly creative and accomplished people create a routine that works for them and then stick to it.

The curious case of the praying valedictorian

My Facebook feed has recently started to light up with editorial responses to the young man in South Carolina who, as valedictorian of his graduating class, set his prepared remarks aside and elected to recite the Lord’s Prayer in violation of the school district’s prohibition of religious observance.

Here’s the video.

Your response to this act of defiance will likely differ based on your religious convictions, your political persuasion, and where you live in the country. Clearly those in the audience at the commencement exercise appreciated the gesture. From the video, it’s hard to tell what the faculty are thinking. Plausibly, “oh crap” is one possibility.

The decision to do this raises many questions…

  • About the student: is he brave or stupid? Heroic or reckless?
  • About the audience: how would they have responded to a muslim student doing something similar? Is applause a sign of belligerence rather than the appropriate reaction to the worship of God?
  • About us: how is our response conditioned by our prejudice? Against Southerners? Against Christians? Against fundamentalists?
  • About the act itself: is it really an exercise more of devotion to our Constitution and our conception of freedom in a liberal democracy than it is one of devotion to God? How does this relate to the biblical admonition to honor the civil magistrate?

This young man, I’m sure, intended that his act be one of positive witness to our Lord. I hope that in the lives of many it will be received as just that and that perhaps some will incline themselves to God in a new way. However, many will see this as something akin to an act of defiance by a dwindling majority.

It may be both.

What do you think?

What is a pastor (cont’d)?

I’m on something of an intellectual journey to understand the essence of ordained ministry (the presbyterate and deaconate). I’m doing this for a couple of reasons. The first is that, by nature, I’m an inquisitive person and the challenge of exploring this sort of topic is really exciting to me. Second, there seem to be as many models or understandings of ordained ministry out there as there are ministries and individuals in ministry. Was there ever consensus about the pastoral office? Third, I have a suspicion that we evangelicals are missing something in the way we understand and communicate about ordained ministry. I wonder, frankly, whether we’re losing something of the soul of our leadership. In short, are we putting the cart before the horse by talking about leadership in isolation from discipleship. Leaders who aren’t disciples are, at least in spiritual leadership terms, not effective leaders.

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Let me state my concerns about the evangelical theology of ministry that marks so many churches today in four theses. I hope I’m wrong about this or that, at least, I’m going too far:

Thesis 1: In our desire to affirm the gifts of non-ordained Christians, we have unnecessarily degraded our understanding of the ordained offices of the church.

Thesis 2: We evangelicals–as a people inclined to value experience in the first instance–have unwittingly accepted the claim that religious knowledge is not a legitimate form of knowledge that has bearing beyond first person experience. As a result we are increasingly incredulous of any claim by clergy or the church to interpret religious experiences.

Thesis 3: Since the interpretation and understanding of religious knowledge/experience has become privatized, clergy are increasingly understood as professionals who facilitate religious experiences.

Thesis 4: We typically understand religious experience being precipitated by events. As a result, clergy are increasingly understood to be people who facilitate, arrange, and provide religious events that serve as conduits for religious experiences to take place.

Thesis 5: Since clergy have a greater degree of control and can plausibly reach a greater proficiency in event planning, clergy are drawn to this elements of ministry. Events are concrete, demonstrable evidence of religious accomplishment. They validate the leadership of a minister.

Am I going too far? Do you worry about this too?

Which books changed your life?

What was your Hortensius? What one (or more) books had a significant influence on you early in your life?

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In Confessions Augustine recounts a significant juncture in his spiritual journey. He writes,

“…I came to a book by Cicero, whose eloquence, if not his thoughts, is admired by all. But this book of his contains an exhortation to philosophy: it is called the Hortensius. It was this book that changed my outlook, that changed my prayers and turned them to you, O Lord, and made my aspirations and desires other than they had been…..” (3.4.7)

For Augustine, Hortensius kindled within him a desire for “the immortality conferred by philosophy.” It was a turning point because he desired to read that book for it’s own value rather than as a means to increase his rhetorical ability. This shift was, according to Augustine, the beginning of his return to God.

Is there a book like that in your own life? A book whose influence changed the course of your life and made you different than you otherwise might have been?

The charity conundrum

co·nun·drum/kəˈnəndrəm/

Noun:
  1. A confusing and difficult problem or question.
  2. A question asked for amusement, typically one with a pun in its answer; a riddle.
It was dark, not particularly cold, but drizzling with rain as the four of us walked across the   parking lot last night headed for the relative comfort of a fast-food restaurant. Then it happened: “Sir, can you spare some money for gas?” I responded, in truth, that I did not have any cash in my wallet or change in my pocket. I rarely do. Like most middle class Americans I rarely use cash for my regular purchases.
My new friend responded, “could you charge me some gas?” at the gas station across the street. What to do? Frankly, I wanted to say: “Forget it pal. I don’t have any cash and I’m not about to leave my wife with the kids to cross the street in the rain to get you some gas.”
For some reason I relented and walked across the street while he drove. I prepaid for some gas and rejoined my family.
I had just ordered my food when another gentleman (who looked homeless) approached me inquiring what the former gentleman had asked me about. I told him. He responded: “Just so you know, he has an apartment and is a meth addict.”
Okay–something of a conundrum here. I was beginning to have my doubts about my first friend when he pushed me to throw in a couple of extra bucks for “me and my lady.” Uh, I was thinking, this gas *is* for you and your lady!
So what do you do when confronted with an opportunity to give to someone who claims to be in need? I don’t have any great answers to this because it is something of a riddle–you’re rarely in a position to have enough information to make a wise decision about the merits of the person’s claim.
In the end the issue may not really be the merits of the person’s claim. The issue may just be the disposition of our hearts.
  • Am I willing to acknowledge the humanity and the dignity (yes, the dignity even present in asking for help) of another?
  • Am I willing to help?
  • Am I willing to give an honest answer about why I won’t or can’t help?
  • Am I willing to help in ways other than that requested by the asker?
I have to believe that God’s providence is at work in encounters like this. God may be using experiences like the one above to bring me into contact with places in my own heart that I don’t often explore. He may be using my gift to an undeserving person as an illustration of His own supreme generosity to me in Christ.
It’s a conundrum, right? And conundrums often have to be approached by faith.

Requiescat in pace John R W Stott

Not too long ago I wrote a brief list of pastors whom I admire. I learned today that one of them, John R W Stott, has entered into the church triumphant.

Stott (1921-2011) was an amazing man who was a gift to the universal church. As David Brooks noted, “If evangelicals could elect a pope Stott is the person they would likely choose.” His influence was significant.

Learning of his death was a moving moment for me because there is so much about Stott that I admire and wish to emulate in my own life.

Here’s a brief list:

  • He was a gifted writer who made Scripture and theology sing. Two of his books exerted a special influence on my: Christian Counter-Culture (1978) and Between Two Worlds (1982). I also appreciated Basic Christianity as a primer on the Christian faith.
  • He was committed to the church in the majority world. Stott was a global Christian who cared deeply that pastors and churches in the majority world were able to flourish.
  • He lived simply. I am told that Stott lived simply and never took a second helping at a meal. He was keenly aware of the privileges he enjoyed and remained connected to his sisters and brothers in Christ throughout the world.
  • He was irenic. There was a gentleness of spirit that marked him. He had firm convictions but unlike so many he never allowed vitriol to discolor the content of his case.
  • He was bookish. He is one of the handful of pastors who I look to as a role model of being a pastor without being a corporate CEO type, or a salesman, or a politician. I work in a study not an office. I aspire to be a working theologian.

O God, whose mercies cannot be numbered: Accept our prayers on behalf of thy servant John, and grant him an entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of thy saints; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

Psalm 46 Deus noster refugium

God is our hope and strength, *

a very present help in trouble.

Therefore will we not fear, though the earth be moved, * and though the hills be carried into the midst of the sea;

Though the waters thereof rage and swell, * and though the mountains shake at the tempest of the same.

There is a river, the streams whereof make glad the city of God, * the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most Highest.

God is in the midst of her, therefore shall she not be removed; *

God shall help her, and that right early.

Be still then, and know that I am God; * I will be exalted among the nations, and I will be exalted in the earth.

The Lord of hosts is with us; * the God of Jacob is our refuge.

WSJ – Modern Conversion

Christine Rosen writes an interesting opinion piece in todays WSJ on the issue of conversion among intellectuals. Read it here. My favorite section:

“This is where therapeutic Christianity, however popular, has failed to extend the legacy of converts like Mr. Lewis. The secular public can be forgiven for failing to find in a woman’s marital problems, for example, a life-changing reckoning with belief.

The most persuasive conversion narratives recount not merely emotional surrenders to faith but also intellectual grapplings with it. Although devout atheists would vehemently disagree, the conversions of men like Mr. Lewis, Dr. Collins and even, perhaps, Mr. Flew reveal that intelligent people–trained in rigorous fields such as philosophy and the hard sciences–can embrace faith and tell persuasive stories without extremes of emotional flagellation. The Road to Damascus is paved with theology not therapy.”

Oswald Chambers (Part 2)

I am about to finish a very interesting biography of Oswald Chambers (1874-1917). You may know him as the author of the perennial favorite devotional, My Utmost for His Highest. On and off for most of my life I have read this little devotional work. At points in my journey I have received great encouragement and blessing from this book. There have been times, too, when I was critical of it–for various reasons mostly stemming from my own pride.

However I never knew much about the man and the life behind the book. In his 1993 book Abandoned to God: The Life Story of the Author of My Utmost for His Highest, David McCasland does a fine job of telling the story.

Chambers really does seem to have lived an extra-ordinary life. He was born in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1874. He would die in Zeitoun, Egypt 43 years later (1917). Chambers was an artist-talented in sketching in pencil, charcoal, and pen. He was a poet. He gained admission to the Royal College of Art where he received the Art Master’s Certificate in 1895. He turned down a scholarship to study in the great artistic centers of europe and enrolled in the University of Edinburgh in 1895. His program was one that would not grant him a university degree, but would provide two years of intense studies in art and the classical humanities. He excelled in his studies and was named to the Third Prize in Fine Arts by Professor Baldwin Brown and received a First Class Certificate with high commendation for his essays.

Chambers surprised his family and friends, not least of which were his university professors, by opting to enroll in a small theological college in 1897. Dunoon College was a residential theological college devoted to the preparation of ministers for service in the non-conformist churches of the United Kingdom. It was founded by the Reverend Duncan MacGregor, a highland Scotts baptist. According to McCasland, “The Gospel training college at Dunoon grew out of [MacGregor’s] dissatisfaction with the conventional academic approach to ministerial training. On his own, he assembled a few students, set up some chairs in his small church vestry, and began to teach them from his heart and life.” (McCasland, 64).

The college was not, however, academically lightweight. All students studied Hebrew and Greek as well as homiletics and theology. The difference from the traditional theological college came in the small, intimate context. In such a small community, members of the college really knew one another and worshipped together.

After Chambers completed his studies, he stayed on a tutor in moral philosophy. During this time Chambers was suffering from spiritual depression. He wrote in a letter, “I determined to havel all that was going, and went to my room and asked God simply and definitely for the baptism of the Holy Spirit, whatever that meant. From that day on for four years, nothing but the overrruling grace of God and the kindness of friends kept me out of an asylum. God used me during those years for the conversion of souls, but I had no conscious communion with him. The Bible was the dullest, most uninteresting book in existence, and the sense of depravity, the vileness and bad-motiveness of my nature was terrific.” (McCasland, 71).

In 1902 this dark night of the soul gave way to a clearer sense of the proximity of God, and of the existence of God’s love. It came during an ‘after meeting’ which is (I believe) the time following a service of worship in which those convicted by God were able to linger in prayer and receive counsel. Chambers describes the experience: “I had no vision of God, only a sheer dogged determination to take God at his word and to prove this thing for myself” (MacCasland, 83). He left the meeting having experienced the beginnings of a change.

A couple of days later he was asked to speak at an evagenlistic meeting. He recounts, “…I had no vision of heaven or angels, I had nothing. I was as dry and empty as ever, no power or realization of God, no witness of the Holy Spirit…” He spoke and forty people professed faith (MacCasland, 83). Far from being encouraged by the meeting, Chambers left the converts to those working the meeting and went to his mentor, MacGregor. During his conversion, something inside of Chambers melted and the change he so longed for took place.

Oswald Chambers (Part 1)

The HABIT of RISING to the OCCASION
“That ye may know what is the hope of His calling . . .” Ephesians 1:18

The Rev. Oswald Chambers

Remember what you are saved for – that the Son of God might be manifested in your mortal flesh. Bend the whole energy of your powers to realize your election as a child of God; rise to the occasion every time.

You cannot do anything for your salvation, but you must do something to manifest it, you must work out what God has worked in. Are you working it out with your tongue, and your brain and your nerves? If you are still the same miserable crosspatch, set on your own way, then it is a lie to say that God has saved and sanctified you.

God is the Master Engineer, He allows the difficulties to come in order to see if you can vault over them properly – “By my God have I leaped over a wall.” God will never shield you from any of the requirements of a son or daughter of His. Peter says – “Think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you.” Rise to the occasion; do the thing. It does not matter how it hurts as long as it gives God the chance to manifest Him self in your mortal flesh.

May God not find the whine in us any more, but may He find us full of spiritual pluck and athleticism, ready to face anything He brings. We have to exercise ourselves in order that the Son of God may be manifested in our mortal flesh. God never has museums. The only aim of the life is that the Son of God may be manifested, and all dictation to God vanishes. Our Lord never dictated to His Father, and we are not here to dictate to God; we are here to submit to His will so that He may work through us what He wants. When we realize this, He will make us broken bread and poured out wine to feed and nourish others.

Saint Mugg


One of the most interesting stories of conversion to Christian faith I have ever read is that of Malcolm Muggeridge. Educated at Selwyn College, Cambridge and the son of a Labour MP, Muggeridge spent his early career as a member of the Fabian Socialists. He was hired by the Manchester Guardian to be their correspondent in Moscow. This was, of course, the dream job for a young liberal elite. Unfortuately Muggeridge arrived in the USSR right when Stalin was in the process of consolidating his power: not exactly a worker’s paradise. He observed forced starvation of villages and other crimes against the Imago Dei in man.

This led Muggeridge to reject socialism. He returned to England and began to write for a more conservative newspaper. Over the span of his life, he gradually was seemingly drawn to God and the mystery of faith as the only possible way to deal with the madness of life in the modern world. Eventually he was received into the Catholic Church. Given that for most of his life Mugg drank hard, lived hard, and slept with a lot of women other than his wife, he was frequently lampooned as St. Mugg (rather tongue-in-cheek). Despite the obvious “hypocrisy” of his life (someone has remarked that Muggeridge gave up the sins of the flesh just as the sins of the flesh were about to give him up), his coversion to faith was remarkable and produced a number of very significant works.

I commend Thomas Wolfe’s biography (Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography) as a good read. I especially also enjoyed Mugg’s work, Jesus: The Man Who Lives in which he traces depictions of Christ down through the received traditiion of the church. Another good book by Mugg is published by the Bruderhof entitled, A Third Testament.