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February 03, 2011

I recently received an email from a long-time reader of this blog who asked if I could write about a week of prayer.

Your blog is the third time in the last month that I’ve heard of churches having a week of prayer once a year.  You state that you pray 2 hours a day every day during that week.  I would be curious how churches like yours conduct these week of prayers?  What are the finer details of how it is organized?

As the question indicates, my church begins each year with a Week of Prayer. Let me give a few details about how and why we do this.

The why is answered quite easily: we believe that prayer must be instrumental in the life of the church rather than being merely supplemental. The beginning of a new year seems like a perfect opportunity to dedicate as much time as possible to prayer, to seeking God’s will and God’s blessing for the year to come. When thinking about this I’m always drawn to a story from the life of Charles Spurgeon.

Five young college students were spending a Sunday in London, so they went to hear the famed C.H. Spurgeon preach. While waiting for the doors to open, the students were greeted by a man who asked, “Gentlemen, let me show you around. Would you like to see the heating plant of this church?” They were not particularly interested, for it was a hot day in July. But they didn’t want to offend the stranger, so they consented. The young men were taken down a stairway, a door was quietly opened, and their guide whispered, “This is our heating plant.” Surprised, the students saw 700 people bowed in prayer, seeking a blessing on the service that was soon to begin in the auditorium above. Softly closing the door, the gentleman then introduced himself. It was none other than Charles Spurgeon.

Let me say a few words about the how of it all.

February 02, 2011

I had something I wanted to say today. But then I looked out the window and saw that we had received the big snowfall that everyone had been fussing about for the past 3 or 4 days. I went outside to begin to shovel out (I am so out of shape) and saw something I’ve noted in the past: Mom always shovels the driveway.

ShovelIt’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed time and again. We live in a neighborhood that has a lot of single moms. I suppose the statistics dictate that most neighborhoods have more than their fair share of single moms. But ours seems to have an unusual amount. I think it is related to the housing prices here. We live in (quite literally) the most affordable housing in town. It is one of the very few neighborhoods in the area where a single income can support a mortgage. It is one of the few neighborhoods that is nice, that is safe and where the homes are small enough to be affordable. And so we have many young couples, many elderly couples, and many single parents. The single moms may have one child, they may have two or three. In most cases the children are teenagers, in their twenties or even in their early thirties. In every case there is at least one boy thirteen or older who is able-bodied. Yet in almost every case, mom is the one who shovels the driveway.

I remember being a rebellious, listless teenager. I remember how little I wanted to do much of anything for anyone else. I remember our elderly next-door neighbor had a heart attack and was unable to do any strenuous labor. We had a good snowfall one day and I was enjoying the day in the refuge of my basement bedroom, lying across my bed reading a book and listening to some music. My father came down and told me in no uncertain terms that I was to go upstairs, get my winter gear on and get outside to shovel the neighbor’s driveway. He gave me a figurative (and perhaps literal—my memory is a little hazy) kick in the rear-end and sent me on my way. I went outside and there was my neighbor’s wife, shoveling the drive. I pitched in and soon had it cleared. The lesson has stuck.

January 26, 2011

The Christian FaithI recently received a copy of Michael Horton’s massive new systematic theology. It’s a big, heavy hardcover that weighs in at around 1050 pages. Several people have asked me if I would offer a review. I wish I could, but honestly, to review this book would be far beyond my capabilities. Not only would it take me weeks to read (though they would be profitable weeks, I’m sure) but I just do not have the theological background to offer anything more than the most cursory review. I’m aware of my limitations.

Having said that, I’ve looked through it enough to conclude that it seems likely to be the Presbyterian equivalent of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology—the contemporary go-to for those seeking to learn about a particular point of doctrine coming from a defined point-of-view. It is laid out in a very attractive and useful way and in that way it removes some of the intimidation factor that comes through its topic and its bulk.

Horton’s book got me thinking. If I were to sit down to write this kind of a work, one that for many authors represents a magnum opus, how would I want to begin it? What words do you use to introduce a work of this magnitude and one that represents a lifetime’s study and thousands and thousands of hours of writing? I just had to know. So I went to my bookcase and pulled every systematic theology I could find. To satisfy my curiosity I turned to the first pages of each and wrote out the opening sentence. And here they are:

  • Prolegomena (lit: pro, “before,” and lego, “speak”) is the introduction to theology. (Systematic Theology by Norman Geisler)
  • In 1949, the English playwright and novelist Dorothy Sayers observed the common antipathy in her day toward doctrine: “ ‘Dull dogma,’ they call it.” (Michael Horton)
  • In this book I will introduce you to the discipline of systematic theology. (Salvation Belongs to the Lord by John Frame)
  • In every science there are two factors: facts and ideas; or, facts and the mind. (Systematic Theology by Charles Hodge)
  • Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (The Institutes by John Calvin)
  • What is systematic theology? (Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem)
  • One may rightly say Christian theology is study or organized treatment of the topic, God, from the standpoint of Christianity. (Systematic Theology by Robert Duncan Culver)
  • Works on dogmatic or systematic theology generally begin with the doctrine of God. (Systematic Theology by Louis Berkhof)
  • Humans are wondrous and complex beings. (Christian Theology by Millard Erickson)
  • Hundreds of the world’s space scientists are spending vast sums from their nations’ treasuries trying to make meaningful contact with imagined rational beings living in deep space. (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith by Robert Reymond)

Looking at that list, I don’t think there are too many conclusion we can draw, are there? Except, perhaps, that Calvin gets the prize.

January 25, 2011

Continued from yesterday…

Stonewall JacksonYesterday I began a two-parter on the life of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. I got as far as the part about slavery and ended there. I can only cover this briefly today as this is an article primarily about his life and his faith, not about his view of slavery. So forgive my brevity.

Virginia was a slave state and through his life Jackson either owned or leased at least 8 slaves. He disliked slavery and thought that it would eventually die a natural death. But he felt that for a certain time God had decreed that a race would be slaves and that this was God’s will. End of story. If God decreed it, he wasn’t going to fight it. This somewhat hard-headed view was consistent with her personality. When Civil War came he didn’t fight for the South in order to protect slavery. The slaves he had he treated very well and loved dearly. All of his slaves had to be part of family devotions (which was illegal) and most of them seem to have become believers. His biographers think that his Sunday school for blacks actually grew out of family devotions which the slaves would attend and ask their friends to attend as well. So though he was not entirely opposed to slavery, he wanted all people, slave or free, to hear and respond to the gospel. And he was determined to make sure they all heard it.

And here’s the second lesson I’ve learned from his life: love. Jackson obeyed Romans 12:16. “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” He was not too proud to work with the lowest of the low. He loved them as brothers and sisters and treated them with dignity. He was a man of his time, a person who could tolerate slavery even if he didn’t really like it. It is easy to portray him as some kind of a monster for having slaves. And yet we can’t deny his love for them, his desire to treat them well and to see them become brothers and sisters in Christ. This is probably the most difficult tension we find in his life: he owned people and yet he loved those people. It is easy to caricature slaveholders as moral monsters; the reality is not nearly so neat.

In 1852, Jackson fell in love. He suddenly began to notice a young lady in the community and was completely unaware of why this was. He went to a friend and said, “I don’t know what has changed me. I used to think her plain, but her face now seems to me all sweetness.” The friend laughed and told the shocked Jackson that he was in love. As he always did, he thought about this for a while, considered it and concluded that it must be true. And so he began to act in his own awkward way. In August of 1853 he married Eleanor Junkin or “Ellie” as he called her. He loved her dearly. Their marriage was a happy one but sadly it was also short. Eleanor became pregnant and carried the baby to full term. But the baby boy was stillborn and just an hour later Eleanor began to hemorrhage and she died as well. After just a year of marriage Jackson had his son and his wife taken from him. He had lost a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a wife, a son. The story is told that after Ellie’s funeral his friends couldn’t find him. One went to the cemetery and found Jackson lying on his wife’s grave, weeping and crying out for her.

January 24, 2011

Stonewall JacksonNot too long ago I had the opportunity to prepare a few short biographical addresses on various Christians. For one of these addresses I spoke on John & Betty Stam. For another one I spoke of the life of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. I’m sure many of you are familiar with his life, but let me tell the story again…

We’ll start the story near the end, on July 21, 1861. It was on this day that nearly 61,000 men fought in what was the first major battle of the American Civil War. Over the previous years the United States had fractured and split with many southern states seceding from the union to form the Confederate States of America. America had become two nations, the Federals or the Union in the north and the Confederates or the Rebels in the south. And these nations were at war, state fighting state, sometimes even brother fighting brother. It split a country, it split churches, it split families. On July 21 these two nations met on the plains outside a small Virginia town called Manassas.

On that afternoon a battle raged. Already thousands of men had fallen. The Federal forces pushed hard against the Confederate army until it looked as if the line might break and the battle would be lost. One of the Southern Generals, General Bee, had already seen his forces fight a long and devastating battle. He had seen many of his men die or leave the battle terribly wounded. Though he tried to rally the men who remained, they were tired and terrified and he just couldn’t convince them to follow him. He spurred his horse and rode over to Thomas Jackson who commanded the brigade next to his. Pulling to a stop near the general he called out “General, they are beating us back!” Jackson’s reply was short and calm, “Then we will give them the bayonet.” Jackson’s confidence inspired Bee. Galloping back to his troops he called to them “Look! There is Jackson, standing like a stone wall. Rally behind the Virginians!” Inspired by Jackson’s stand, Bee led his troops in a charge and was killed in the effort.

But the Confederates won the battle that day, though between the two armies nearly 5,000 men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. On that day a legend was born, the legend of General “Stonewall” Jackson. The man who had stood fearlessly like a stone wall in the middle of the battle would quickly become one of the most famous generals in American history and establish himself as one of the greatest military minds of all-time. But there was far more to Jackson than his military ability. He was also a man who loved God and sought to honor him in every part of his life.

Let’s go back to the beginning of this story.

January 18, 2011

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I enjoyed reading Eric Metaxas’ biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Actually, it’s one of my all-time favorite biographies; it’s readable, engaging and it deals with a fascinating part of history. But lately I’ve come across a few articles by experts in Bonhoeffer who say that it’s just plain wrong—it’s a portrayal of the man that is geared toward evangelicals and, in seeking to make the reader happy, it succumbs to all sorts of errors.

Richard Weikart of California State University says that Metaxas “serves up a Bonhoeffer suited to the evangelical taste” and notes with disbelief that in “an interview with Christianity Today Metaxas even made the astonishing statement that Bonhoeffer was as orthodox theologically as the apostle Paul.”

As orthodox as Paul? Metaxas does not seem to know that in his Christology lectures in 1933 Bonhoeffer claimed, “The biblical witness is uncertain with regard to the virgin birth.” Bonhoeffer also rejected the notion of the verbal inspiration of scripture, and in a footnote to Cost of Discipleship he warned against viewing statements about Christ’s resurrection as ontological statements (i.e., statements about something that happened in real space and time). Bonhoeffer also rejected the entire enterprise of apologetics, which he thought was misguided.

Weikart suggests that Metaxas simply got in over his head—that he did not take the time to properly understand Bonhoeffer’s theological context of German liberalism. “I trust that Metaxas is my brother in Christ, but unfortunately he simply does not have sufficient grounding in history, theology, and philosophy to properly interpret Bonhoeffer. This is not just my opinion. Victoria Barnett, the editor of the English-language edition of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, wrote a scathing review of Metaxas’s biography. In her opinion, Metaxas ‘has a very shaky grasp of the political, theological, and ecumenical history of the period.’ She then calls Metaxas’s portrayal of Bonhoeffer’s theology “a terrible simplification and at times misrepresentation.”

Weikart goes on to offer a partial list of errors, saying that it “is hard to give much credence to someone writing about German history who thinks that Bonn is in Switzerland or that Hitler was democratically elected into office or that Germany was not yet a police state in August 1934.” Here is how he concludes:

January 17, 2011

Back in 2005 I wrote an article called “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy.” Anyone who knows the work of Leonard Cohen will recognize that this is also the title of one of his songs. In this article I explained the signifiance of that song in my own life. Now, nearly 6 years later, I want to post this article again as a means to introduce you to Nancy (since the majority of today’s readers were not reading the blog back in ‘05). I am anticipating that in the next few weeks or months I will have some interesting updates to this post and the story behind it. But first, the article.

In 1969 Leonard Cohen released a record entitled Songs From A Room. The fifth track on that album is “Seems So Long Ago, Nancy.” The song has become one of Cohen’s more popular ones; it has found its way onto one of his live albums and has been covered by several other artists. It is a dark, haunting song that speaks of a young woman named Nancy. The poetic words are difficult to interpret, leading many fans of Cohen’s music to speculate on what they mean.

It seems so long ago,
Nancy was alone,
looking at the Late Late show
through a semi-precious stone.
In the House of Honesty
her father was on trial,
in the House of Mystery
there was no one at all,
there was no one at all.

It seems so long ago,
none of us were strong;
Nancy wore green stockings
and she slept with everyone.
She never said she’d wait for us
although she was alone,
I think she fell in love for us
in nineteen sixty one,
in nineteen sixty one.

It seems so long ago,
Nancy was alone,
a forty five beside her head,
an open telephone.
We told her she was beautiful,
we told her she was free
but none of us would meet her in
the House of Mystery,
the House of Mystery.

And now you look around you,
see her everywhere,
many use her body,
many comb her hair.
In the hollow of the night
when you are cold and numb
you hear her talking freely then,
she’s happy that you’ve come,
she’s happy that you’ve come.

Over the years Cohen has made several references to the song during concerts and in interviews. Fans once speculated that the song was written as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe, but Cohen replied “No, it was about a real Nancy.” In his introduction to Frankfurt72 Cohen said “This is a song for a girl named Nancy who was a real girl—who went into the bathroom of her father’s house, took her brother’s shotgun and blew her head off. Age of 21. Maybe this is an arrogant thing to say, but maybe she did it because there weren’t enough people saying what I’ve been saying.” “In the song book for the Songs of Love and Hate album, there is a description of a LC concert. LC is about to start singing ‘It Seems so Long Ago, Nancy,’ but he decides to talk about her first, to get in the mood. He says that she was not adjusted to life in this world. She had a baby and they took it away from her, and she shot herself.”

Over the years I have had a fascination with this song. It is an awful song, in many ways, leaving Nancy a legacy that few would want—a legacy of promiscuity and self-loathing. I have often felt such pity for Nancy as I can almost feel her sadness and pain through the song. I have wished that someone could reach through the sadness and bring her some measure of peace.

But the peace never came. Lost in her despair, Nancy took her own life.

How do I know this? Nancy was my aunt.

January 13, 2011

I don’t know that I’ve ever done something quite like this before, so let’s try something new. A year ago, two days after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, I took a stab at suggesting what the late Neil Postman, the author, media theorist and cultural critic, might have to say about it. I suggested that this earthquake was an example of the kind of news that surrounds us today—news that elicits emotion from us, but news we can really do nothing about. In the end, news like this is often barely distinguishable from entertainment to us.

Here we are one year later. I think it’s an interesting exercise to re-read the article and see if any of what I wrote there (again, trying to channel Postman) has proven true.


Yesterday, as an aspect of researching the book I’m working on, I read (re-read, actually) Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves To Death. The timing was interesting, coming as it did just one day after the horrifying earthquake in Haiti. Postman’s book deals with media in an age of entertainment and I found many of the lessons he teaches in the book immediately applicable to the situation in Haiti. Let me summarize some of them.