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Tim Challies

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October 01, 2009

Some time ago, no doubt while I was awake in the middle of the night with one of the children, I saw a documentary about some weird disease that causes a patient’s skin to harden. This disease often sets in during childhood and causes the skin to become hard and shiny. I searched around to find the name of this condition and I think it must be “systemic sclerosis.” “Dermatology Online Journal” describes it this way: “Systemic sclerosis is a clinically heterogeneous, systemic disorder which affects the connective tissue of the skin, internal organs and the walls of blood vessels. It is characterized by alterations of the microvasculature, disturbances of the immune system and by massive deposition of collagen and other matrix substances in the connective tissue.” That doesn’t mean anything to me, but I guess it all adds up to “hard and shiny.” Though most people experience the disease only moderately (these people see hardening of the skin mostly on their hands and forearms) there are some who see the disease progress so that the skin hardens all over their bodies, leaving even their faces set in hard “masks.” Sometimes it will progress to the organs, hardening them and leading to an early death. It is a horrifying illness when it progresses past the point where it can be easily and successfully treated.

I thought of this while reading Gum, Geckos and God by James Spiegel. In this book (to borrow a line or two from Publishers Weekly) “Spiegel, philosophy professor at Indiana’s Taylor University, takes deep issues of the Christian faith and dumps them smack into real life with a little help from his children… Spiegel ponders the great issues of the faith with a light touch, thanks to the innate comedy of kids, but also to his own brand of humor.” In a chapter entitled “How Can God Fix Us” he looks at how God can overcome our sin—how He can fix what we have done to ourselves through our sinful natures. He uses The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to springboard into this conversation, explaining how his son, at only four years of age, was able to draw the connection between the death of Aslan and the death of Jesus Christ. He mentions that, when teaching a faith and culture course at Taylor University, he often asks students to raise their hands if they became Christians at the age of four or younger. Almost invariably at least a few of the hands go up. This is amazing, he says, “considering that comprehension of the gospel demands that one understand such weighty moral concepts as duty, sin, punishment, love, and forgiveness.”

“I am sure,” he says, “there are many parents who are mistaken in thinking that their kids comprehend the gospel. But the point is that many do. And given their stage of cognitive development, this suggests something supernatural is going on.” And truly something supernatural must be going on for children to understand what too often escapes many adults. A child can sometimes grasp deep spiritual truths that are lost on adults who are, in any other wise, far more wise and far more intelligent. Those who hate the Christian faith and who hate religion in general will insist that children believe because they have been indoctrinated. But we know better; we know that God can work his supernatural work of regeneration even in a child.

Here is why it is more difficult for adults than for children to come to know the Lord. “Sin causes cognitive malfunction, and this is especially so when it comes to moral-spiritual matters. The older we grow without being redeemed, the more polluted we are by our sin and the more entrenched we become in our corrupt patterns of thinking. Though by no means pure, children are less corrupted in their thinking and less hardened in faulty thinking patterns simply by virtue of their being younger. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the overwhelming majority of Christians come to faith by the time they are eighteen years old.”

Of course there is a second barrier to coming to Christ and it is a spiritual one. As Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 2:14, without the Spirit’s prior work, no one can grasp the gospel. The spiritual nature of the gospel, that part of the gospel message that transcends natural cognitive abilities, must be overcome by the Holy Spirit. “So there are two major barriers when it comes to grasping and accepting the gospel,” says Spiegel. “One is the spiritual nature of the gospel, which transcends natural reason. The other is our sin, which corrupts cognitive function. The Holy Spirit must graciously overcome both of these obstacles in order to work redemption in any human heart. This implies that all Christian conversions are doubly miraculous and doubly gracious. And given that even after conversion Christians continue to struggle with sin, the Spirit must constantly work to keep us faithful. Job really nailed it when he said that God, ‘performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted’ (Job 5:9).”

And this takes us back to systemic sclerosis. A person’s spiritual condition, it seems, is much like the condition of a patient with systemic sclerosis. While all humans are born sinful, children have less of the pollution and less of the hardening of adults. While the extent of our depravity cannot change, for from the moment of conception it encompasses all that we are, the degree will and must change. Life without God progresses much like the disease. It causes increased hardening. What was once soft becomes hard; what was once supple becomes stiff and stretched. The longer a person denies God and the more his internal pollution increases, the more hardened he becomes against God and against His gracious offer of salvation. No wonder the Bible is filled with commands and exhortations that as parents we dedicate ourselves to teaching our children what God requires of them. And what impetus this should give us to obey Him! “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise…”

September 23, 2009

A couple of years ago a friend forwarded me an amazing bit of writing. It was crafted by James Russell Miller a Presbyterian pastor who lived from 1840-1912 and who pastored churches in Pennsylvania and Illinois. I assume from the first sentence that represents the opening lines of a book geared toward young people, perhaps a nineteenth century equivalent to Don’t Waste Your Life. It is full of soul-stirring reflections on the brevity of life and the importance of living each day for the glory of God. There is practical wisdom (“Sin may seem pleasant to us now, but we must not forget how it will appear when we get past it and turn to look back upon it; especially must we keep in mind how it will seem from a dying pillow.”) and there are meditations on the person and work of Christ (“only Christ can make any life, young or old, truly beautiful or truly happy. Only He can cure the heart’s restless fever and give quietness and calmness. Only He can purify that sinful fountain within us, our corrupt nature, and make us holy.”). It is, in sum, a powerful encouragement to live a godly life always with a view to the end. Read it, and be sure to read to the end!

*****

This may scarcely seem a fitting theme to introduce in a book meant chiefly for the young, and yet a moment’s reflection will show its appropriateness and practicalness.

Old age is the harvest of all the years that have gone before. It is the barn into which all the sheaves are gathered. It is the sea into which all the rills and rivers of life flow from their springs in the hills and valleys of youth and manhood. We are each, in all our earlier years, building the house in which we shall have to live when we grow old. And we may make it a prison or a palace. We may make it very beautiful, adorning it with taste and filling it with objects which shall minister to our pleasure, comfort, and power. We may cover the walls with lovely pictures. We may spread luxurious couches of ease on which to rest. We may lay up in store great supplies of provision upon which to feed in the days of hunger and feebleness. We may gather and pile away large bundles of wood to keep the fires blazing brightly in the long winter days and nights of old age.

Or we may make our house very gloomy. We may hang the chamber-walls with horrid pictures, covering them with ghastly spectres which shall look down upon us and haunt us, filling our souls with terror when we sit in the gathering darkness of life’s nightfall. We may make beds of thorns to rest upon. We may lay up nothing to feed upon in the hunger and craving of declining years. We may have no fuel ready for the winter fires.

We may plant roses to bloom about our doors and fragrant gardens to pour their perfumes about us, or we may sow weeds and briers to flaunt themselves in our faces as we sit in our doorways in the gloaming.

All old age is not beautiful. All old people are not happy. Some are very wretched, with hollow, sepulchral lives. Many an ancient palace was built over a dark dungeon. There were the marble walls that shone with dazzling splendor in the sunlight. There were the wide gilded chambers with their magnificent frescoes and their splendid adornments, the gaiety, the music, and the revelry. But deep down beneath all this luxurious splendor and dazzling display was the dungeon filled with its unhappy victims, and up through the iron gratings came the sad groans and moanings of despair, echoing and reverberating through the gilded halls and ceiled chambers; and in this I see a picture of many an old age. It may have abundant comforts and much that tells of prosperity in an outward sense—wealth, honors, friends, the pomp and circumstance of greatness—but it is only a palace built over a gloomy dungeon of memory, up from whose deep and dark recesses come evermore voices of remorse and despair to sadden or embitter every hour and to cast shadows over every lovely picture and every bright scene.

It is possible so to live as to make old age very sad, and then it is possible so to live as to make it very beautiful. In going my rounds in the crowded city I came one day to a door where my ears were greeted with a great chorus of bird-songs. There were birds everywhere—in parlour, in dining-room, in bedchamber, in hall—and the whole house was filled with their joyful music. So may old age be. So it is for those who have lived aright. It is full of music. Every memory is a little snatch of song. The sweet bird-notes of heavenly peace sing everywhere, and the last days of life are its happiest days—

“Rich in experience that angels might covet,
Rich in a faith that has grown with the years.”

The important practical question is, How can we so live that our old age, when it comes, shall be beautiful and happy? It will not do to adjourn this question until the evening shadows are upon us. It will be too late then to consider it. Consciously or unconsciously, we are every day helping to settle the question whether our old age shall be sweet and peaceful or bitter and wretched. It is worth our while, then, to think a little how to make sure of a happy old age.

We must live a useful life. Nothing good ever comes out of idleness or out of selfishness. The standing water stagnates and breeds decay and death. It is the running stream that keeps pure and sweet. The fruit of an idle life is never joy and peace. Years lived selfishly never become garden-spots in the field of memory. Happiness comes out of self-denial for the good of others. Sweet always are the memories of good deeds done and sacrifices made. Their incense, like heavenly perfume, comes floating up from the fields of toil and fills old age with holy fragrance. When one has lived to bless others, one has many grateful, loving friends whose affection proves a wondrous source of joy when the days of feebleness come. Bread cast upon the waters is found again after many days.

I see some people who do not seem to want to make friends. They are unsocial, unsympathetic, cold, distant, disobliging, selfish. Others, again, make no effort to retain their friends. They cast them away for the slightest cause. But they are robbing their later years of joys they cannot afford to lose. If we would walk in the warmth of friendship’s beams in the late evening-time, we must seek to make to ourselves loyal and faithful friends in the busy hours that come before. This we can do by a ministry of kindness and self-forgetfulness. This was part at least of what our Lord meant in that counsel which falls so strangely on our ears until we understand it: “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, that when you fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations.”

Again, we must live a pure and holy life. Every one carries in himself the sources of his own happiness or wretchedness. Circumstances have really very little to do with our inner experiences. It matters little in the determination of one’s degree of enjoyment whether he live in a cottage or a palace. It is self, after all, that in largest measure gives the color to our skies and the tone to the music we hear. A happy heart sees rainbows and brilliance everywhere, even in darkest clouds, and hears sweet strains of song even amid the loudest wailings of the storm; and a sad heart, unhappy and discontented, sees spots in the sun, specks in the rarest fruits, and something with which to find fault in the most perfect of God’s works, and hears discords and jarring notes in the heavenliest music. So it comes about that this whole question must be settled from within. The fountains rise in the heart itself. The old man, like the snail, carries his house on his back. He may change neighbors or homes or scenes or companions, but he cannot get away from himself and his own past. Sinful years put thorns in the pillow on which the head of old age rests. Lives of passion and evil store away bitter fountains from which the old man has to drink.

Sin may seem pleasant to us now, but we must not forget how it will appear when we get past it and turn to look back upon it; especially must we keep in mind how it will seem from a dying pillow. Nothing brings such pure peace and quiet joy at the close as a well-lived past. We are every day laying up the food on which we must feed in the closing years. We are hanging up pictures about the walls of our hearts that we shall have to look at when we sit in the shadows.

How important that we live pure and holy lives! Even forgiven sins will mar the peace of old age, for the ugly scars will remain.

Summing all up in one word, only Christ can make any life, young or old, truly beautiful or truly happy. Only He can cure the heart’s restless fever and give quietness and calmness. Only He can purify that sinful fountain within us, our corrupt nature, and make us holy. To have a peaceful and blessed ending to life, we must live it with Christ. Such a life grows brighter even to its close. Its last days are the sunniest and the sweetest. The more earth’s joys fail, the nearer and the more satisfying do the comforts become. The nests over which the wing of God droops, which in the bright summer days of prosperous strength lay hidden among the leaves, stand out uncovered in the days of decay and feebleness when winter has stripped the branches bare. And for such a life death has no terrors. The tokens of its approach are but “the land-birds lighting on the shrouds, telling the weary mariner that he is nearing the haven.” The end is but the touching of the weather-beaten keel on the shore of glory.

September 21, 2009

Americans are debating the future of their nation’s health care and as they do so, they keep looking beyond their borders to the systems in place in other countries. And, very often, their attention rests on Canada. More often than not, at least today, it is conservatives focusing on Canada, telling stories of woe, describing the utter breakdown of health care. You hear of people who have been forced to mortgage their homes and travel to the United States in order to receive basic care; you hear of people forced south of the border by hospitals that have no free beds; you hear of people who are utterly unable to find even a family doctor. Believe the press and you’ll think the Canadian system is in utter disrepair.

Now I am not much of one for politics, and especially so when those politics span two nations. Neither am I an economist who can talk about how Canada’s health care system impacts the nation financially (though obviously it’s a significant burden on the taxpayer). But what I do want to say is this: the truth about Canadian Health Care is that it’s really stinkin’ good. As a nation we are hard-wired to complain and we do tend to complain about our health system as we grumble about our politicians, hockey players and donuts. But we also like to boast and when we talk to Americans, one of the things we like to boast in most is the health care system (or the beer, depending on your personality type).

And it is good (the health care, that is—I’m not qualified to comment on the beer). When I hear Glenn Beck talking about the Canadian system as if it is hand-in-hand with Cuba, well, my blood boils a little bit. Of course I have little to go on beyond personal experiences and those of friends and family. But my experience is uniformly good. If I need to see my family doctor, I can call him and get an appointment usually the same day and, if not, shortly after. If I don’t care to wait, I can go to a walk-in clinic where, depending on the day, I may be seen immediately or after a couple of hours of waiting (there are at least four of these clinics within a fifteen minute drive of my home). Hospital emergency rooms, especially in cities, tend to be a little busy, but only if you have been triaged and determined not to need immediate care. If you need a couple of stitches, you may be waiting a little while; if you have a heart attack, you’ll receive much higher priority. I have only known one person who has gone to the US for treatment and, in her case, she chose not to wait a week for a mammogram. Living within minutes of the border and wishing to free her mind from worry, it was an easy choice for her to expedite things by driving to the US. When I speak to friends and family I generally hear the same things. Sure, we might like wait times to be a little shorter here and there; elective surgeries can come with long waiting times and in some locales there are just not enough doctors to go around. But overall, I do not know of a single Canadian who would trade our system for that of our neighbors to the south. I know of many more people who travel from the US to Canada to receive health care than vice versa. In fact, I hear there is a bustling business in forging health cards so Americans can pose as Canadians and be treated as them. If the health care is that bad, why would people be crossing the border to enjoy it?

It is worth nothing that in 2004 Canadians voted for the Greatest Canadian (yes, I know it was run through the liberal CBC, but still…) and winner was Tommy Douglas, the man who engineered the whole system. Though few Canadians would share his socialist political ideology (sitting as we are under a Conservative government), fewer still have any desire to dismantle the system he created. Is it a perfect system? No way. I don’t think there is a single nation we can point at as having a perfect system. But Canada’s system has to be as good as just about any of them.

Now it must be admitted that health care falls under the domain of the individual provinces, so care will differ from province-to-province. It is likely to be better in the Greater Toronto Area where I live than it is far to the north where towns are few and far between. Is it sustainable in the long term? I don’t have an easy answer. We could probably provide endless caveats. But for the average Canadian, the health care system is entirely adequate and we really have no good reason to complain. Take the time to ask Canadians and I am sure this is what you will find. There will always been exceptions, but for the majority of Canadians the majority of the time, our health coverage is exceptional.

I do not mean this as a defense or endorsement of what President Obama is proposing in the United States. Admittedly, if I were American, I’d be highly suspicious of the plan, especially when looking to the economics of it. Instead, I write all this simply to remind you, “don’t believe everything you hear.” This is as true when the rhetoric is coming from a conservative mouthpiece as when it comes from a liberal.

(For further reading, here are just a couple of useful articles: The Truth About Canadian Healthcare and Healthcare: Public vs. Private.)

September 16, 2009

Last week I met Rick Warren. I was in Los Angeles to speak at the Christian Web Conference (where my topic was “Tweeting Truth With Love: Grace in an Age of Instant Communication”) and at the conference I bumped into David Chrzan, Warren’s Chief of Staff. He and I spoke for quite some time—an hour at least—and chatted about some of the critiques I’ve made in the past regarding Warren and his books. With ministries as expansive and important as Saddleback and Purpose Driven, these people are accustomed to dealing with detractors and over the years some of my critiques have reached their ears.

The irony of my talk with David is that I had come all the way to California to speak about the importance of communicating truth with love and there I was, being challenged on doing just that. It was not David challenging me as much as my own conscience. I wondered, had I always been fair to Warren? As David and I spoke it suddenly dawned on me that Rick Warren is a real person. He isn’t a robot or a really clever computer who spits out books and sermons, but a real guy. And as a real guy, he is aware of some of the controversy that surrounds him—including reviews and articles written by the likes of me. And as I’ve often had to do in the past, I had to pause to consider whether I would say to Warren face-to-face what I’ve said about him in my reviews and articles. This is not to say that I’ve ever accused Warren of heresy or torturing kittens. But I have commented on the nature, the completeness of the gospel he preaches—surely a topic that is close to his heart.

Later that day I received a “tweet” (it’s a Twitter thing) from Warren inviting me to come and check out Saddleback. Every time I am in California I think of doing so, but it has never quite worked out. This time, though, it fit my schedule perfectly. So I set out for Saddleback with a couple of friends.

Before I got to Saddleback, I went back and read through some of what I’ve written about Warren over the years, focusing on what have undoubtedly been the three most-read articles: my reviews of The Purpose Driven Church, The Purpose Driven Life and The Purpose of Christmas. As I read them, I was actually pleased to see that I was, at least in my opinion, quite level-headed in these reviews. I think they were generally kind and rational, even while disagreeing with some of what Warren communicated. What I have not done is critique Warren to the extent that others have done. I’ve never considered him a pawn of the United Nations who is attempting to bring about one-world government and the downfall of all society. I don’t think I’ve ever accused him of deliberately trying to push a pro-New Age agenda on his readers. I have sought to focus on the message and method he advocates in his books.

My main critiques of Warren and his ministry have been:

His use of Scripture. Most notably, this involves using many translations based, at least from an outside perspective, more on what the translations say than on their faithfulness to the original text.

The completeness of the gospel. In The Purpose Driven Life he says, “Real life begins by committing yourself completely to Jesus Christ” but really goes no further than that in explaining the gospel. And this in one of the best-selling books of all-time. I have often found that the gospel he preaches stops just a little bit short. It is just a little too easy.

His view of conversion. In The Purpose Driven Life he encourages readers to pray this prayer: “Jesus, I believe in you and I receive you” and then welcomes them into the family of God. His view of conversion and his haste to baptize people and welcome them into church membership (you can do all of these in a single day at Saddleback) have often caused alarm.

The role of pragmatism. In The Purpose Driven Church he makes a blanket statement that is really startling when you pause to consider it: “never criticize what God is blessing.” This kind of pragmatism in which faithfulness is judged by our perceived results is a hallmark of the Purpose Driven model of church.

So these critiques were in the back of my mind as I headed to Saddleback, as David kindly gave us a thorough tour of the facilities and as I attended the Saturday evening worship service. And I suppose they were just in the back of my mind as I spent perhaps a half hour with Warren after the service.

A few people have since asked me to describe my meeting with Warren. I don’t really know how or why I would do that. How or why would I evaluate and analyze a half-hour of mostly-random conversation? We sat down with no agenda and mostly just chatted. But what I will say is this: having met Warren and having spent a few hours at Saddleback I was at once impressed with his giftedness and confirmed in some of my concerns about his ministry. As an example of the former, he reads hundreds of books per year and just this year has already completed 18 of 26 volumes of the complete works of Jonathan Edwards (whom he regards as his hero). As an example of the latter, his sermon on Sunday used at least 6 Bible translations, some of which seemed to be chosen at the expense of the true meaning. So I guess I was confirmed in seeing that Warren is a pretty normal guy in most ways and an above average guy in other ways. I can see his passion for what he does—his passion for sharing Christ with the world. At the same time, I walked away realizing that many of my concerns are fair ones.

I want to affirm here, though, that I am allowed by Scripture to disagree with him. None of my critiques or concerns indicate that I think he is unsaved or deliberately doing things contrary to Scripture. Rather, I believe it is primarily that he and I read Scripture differently at certain points. We read the same words and come to different conclusions. If I did not believe my conclusions were the proper ones and if I did not believe they were important, I would have no reason to raise my concerns. Honestly, I feel that Warren is, in a sense, better than his theology—that with his intellect and knowledge of Scripture and expansive knowledge of what others have written, he ought to see a kind of disconnect between some of what he must believe and how this theology works itself out through his church. I wonder if he has paused to ask what Jonathan Edwards would have to say about his church, his books, his methods. So having spent time with the man and his ministry, and while granting that I saw just a brief glimpse of each, I want to affirm that there is much that seems sound but much else that bears a kind of iron-sharpening-iron kind of critique. Warren has thrust himself onto an international stage and therefore he cannot be surprised when he receives critique. If he were a small-town pastor in middle America, no one would be noticing and critiquing him. But as a pastor who prays at Presidential inaugurations and who has the ear of many world leaders, he has to expect that people will dissect his words. After all, as a Christian leader there are times when he represents all of us and there are times when hundreds of thousands of people are listening to his every word.

Somehow just meeting Warren reinforced in my mind the challenge we face as we reconcile ourselves to a fast-paced, digital world in which a person can quickly dash off a missive that can severely impact another person on the other side of the continent. It seems that ethics and morality have been a bit slow to catch up to ability in this new digital world. As I read those three reviews I realized that in each case there would be things I might say just a little differently. I am too often prone to forget that the authors whose books I review are real people and I am too quick to ignore my conscience when I consider whether the things I write and post online for all the world to read are things I would also say face-to-face. I hope this will help me in the future as I seek to be fair and godly in all that I write.

In November Zondervan will release The Hope You Need, the long-awaited follow-up to The Purpose Driven Life and one that is based on the Lord’s Prayer (which, in turn, was the subject of an eight-part sermon series). I intend to review this book as I’ve reviewed each of his other titles. But I think, having met Warren and having met the people who work with him, I can honestly say that this review will be a little bit different. It will come from a new perspective and, I hope, be as fair as I know how to Warren, to Saddleback and to Scripture.

September 14, 2009

I’ve never been mistaken for Brad Pitt. Not once. Neither has anybody ever stopped me on the street only to look disappointed, apologize and say, “I’m sorry, I thought you were Johnny Depp.” It just never happens. There’s a reason for this. Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp are remarkably handsome guys. While we all know that, at least to some extent, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, there is no doubt that, at least culturally, there is some standard of what makes a person beautiful or exceptionally handsome. Depp and Pitt fit the mold quite well. I, like most others, decidedly do not. Some concerned therapist may write me concerned that I do not have healthy body image or some other pyscho-mumbo-jumbo, but I’ll assure him that I’m doing just fine, thank you.

September 13, 2009

Every now and again I like to post a prayer drawn from The Valley of Vision. Allow me to do so again. Recently I shared the prayer titled “A Minister’s Preaching.” This one is similar, titled “A Minister’s Bible.” It is geared toward pastors, obviously, but what I really like about it is the expression of utter dependency upon God that if a minister’s reading of Scripture and his preaching of Scripture are to have any effect upon the hearer, they must be empowered by God.

O God of truth,
I thank Thee for the holy Scriptures,
their precepts, promises, directions, light.
In them may I learn more of Christ,
be enabled to retain His truth
and have grace to follow it.
Help me to lift up the gates of my soul
that He may come in
and show me Himself when I search the Scriptures,
for I have no lines to fathom its depths,
no wings to soar to its heights.
By His aid may I be enabled to explore all its truths,
love them with all my heart,
embrace them with all my power,
engraft them into my life.
Bless to my soul all grains of truth garnered from Thy Word;
may they take deep root,
be refreshed by heavenly dew,
be ripened by heavenly rays,
be harvested to my joy and Thy praise.
Help me to gain profit by what I read,
as a treasure beyond all treasure,
a fountain which can replenish my dry heart,
its waters flowing through me as a perennial river
on-drawn by Thy Holy Spirit.
Enable me to distill from its pages faithful prayer
that grasps the arm of Thy omnipotence,
achieves wonders, obtains blessings,
and draws down streams of mercy.
From it show me how my words have often been
unfaithful to Thee,
injurious to my fellow-men,
empty of grace, full of folly,
dishonoring to my calling.
Then write Thy own words upon my heart
and inscribe them on my lips;
So shall all glory be to Thee in my reading of Thy Word!

September 02, 2009

Today we take a break from our regularly scheduled programming. I had something else to post today but wanted to put it on hold for a day or two so I can draw your attention to what I consider a very important article. It comes from Carl Trueman and is titled “The Nameless One.” In the past few months I’ve sat down again and again to write out some of my thoughts about the whole Young, Restless, Reformed movement we are experiencing today. But never have I quite been able to convey my thoughts on it as clearly and succinctly as I’d like. I’ve wanted to share both praise for what God is doing and misgivings for what I think we, the church, are doing poorly. Never was I able to strike the balance, so I just left it rotting in my drafts folder.

Trueman, though, has nailed it. Here is how he begins:

Over the last few months, I have been asked in numerous contexts what I think about the young, restless and reformed (YRR) movement(s) described in Collin Hansen’s book of the same name. I did do a quasi -review of this book some time ago, in which I argued that the existence of the movement seemed to indicate that all the hype surrounding the emergent business was probably overwrought and that there was no need for complete panic in Reformed circles.

In retrospect, however, there are a number of things which should give some cause for critical reflection on this new interest in Reformed theology. Let me preface this by saying that the more people reading the Bible, the better, as far as I am concerned; the more people going to church and hearing the gospel preached, the more we should all be rejoicing; and the more people studying the writings of Calvin, Owen and company, the happier we should all be. Only the modern day equivalents of the Scottish Moderates of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries would grumble and complain that more people are spending more time hearing more sermons, reading more scripture and studying more classic Christian literature. But just because a movement has good effects does not mean that we should be blind to its shortcomings and potential pitfalls.

It’s probably best if you go ahead and read the article. You can do so right here.

In my many conversations about all things YRR, I’ve said time and again that it is, in my opinion, a uniquely American phenomenon. Sure it has spilled over to other countries, but its roots are American and its “heroes” are largely American. And still I’ve wondered if it will take a non-American to explain it. Several times I’ve spoken to non-Americans about the phenomenon and they’ve always agreed that the U.S. cult of celebrity is at least one of the root causes of what we see in the church. I think Trueman captures some of this with these words: “One striking and worrying aspect of the movement is how personality oriented it is. It is identified with certain big names, rather than creeds, confessions, denominations, or even local congregations. Such has always been the way with Christianity to some extent. Luther was a hero, both in his own time and for subsequent generations, and he is hardly alone. The names of Owen, Edwards, and Spurgeon, to list but three, also have great cachet; and, if we are honest, there are things which we all find in their writing which are scarcely unique to them but which we are inclined to take more seriously because it is these men who wrote the words on the page.” Said even stronger, “The world has Brad, Anjelina, Tom, Barack, and so on; the Christian world has - well, I am sure the reader is quite capable of filling in the blanks. All too often we’re a bit too much like the church in Corinth, with its Christian competitive equivalents to pagan Sophists.”

If we see the YRR movement as essentially built upon and around celebrities (many of them as flabbergasted as anyone by their sudden rise to prominence) we begin to see other concerns. “The supply side economics of the YRR movement is also worrying here, as it can easily foster such idolatry by building up a leader’s importance out of all proportion to his talent. Let’s face it: no preacher is so good that his every sermon deserves to be printed or his every thought published; but some contemporary leaders are heading fast in that direction, and this can only fuel their cultic significance for those needing someone to follow. Come on, chaps, everyone preaches a disastrous clunker once in a while; and many actually preach them with remarkable and impressive regularity. The world therefore does not need to read every word you ever utter from a pulpit; and not every electrical impulse which sparks between the synapses in your grey matter needs to be written down, turned into yet another expository commentary, and sold for 15% net royalties at the local Christian bookshop.”

We are seeing as well that as Reformed goes mainstream, every publisher wants its slice of the pie. That raises this concern: “Carrying on from this danger of personality cults, part of me also wonders if the excitement surrounding the movement is generated because people see that Reformed theology has intrinsic truth or because they see that it works, at least along the typical American lines of numbers of bodies on seats (in Britain, we’d say `bums on seats’ but that phrase rather gains in translation).” “It works” (a.k.a. “it sells”) is enough of a reason for many of the publishers to make sure they are publishing books to appeal to the audience, for musicians to play up their Reformed connections, and so on.

Trueman’s final concern, the one that gave his article its name, is this: “Finally, I worry that a movement built on megachurches, megaconferences, and megaleaders, does the church a disservice in one very important way that is often missed amid all the pizzazz and excitement: it creates the idea that church life is always going to be big, loud, and exhilarating and thus gives church members and ministerial candidates unrealistic expectations of the normal Christian life.”

The article closes this way:

Ultimately, only the long term will show if the YRR movement has genuinely orthodox backbone and stamina, whether it is inextricably and inseparably linked to uniquely talented leaders, and whether `Calvinism is cool’ is just one more sales pitch in the religious section of the cultural department store. If the movement is more marketing than reality, then ten to fifteen years should allow us to tell. If it is still orthodox by that point, we can be reasonably sure it is genuine. Indeed, when torn jeans, or nose rings, or ministers talking about their sex lives from the pulpit become passé or so commonplace that they cease to be distinctive, we will see if it is timeless truth or marketable trendiness which has really driven the movement; and, even it proves to have been the latter, we should not panic. We will still be left with the boring, mundane and nameless people and culturally irrelevant and marginal churches - the nameless ones — upon whose anonymous contributions, past and present, most of us actually depend.

I do want to give glory to God for what seems to be a clear work of his hand. He is stirring people with old truths that, for so many years, had gone into serious decline. At the same time, whatever movement there is to Reformed theology seems to be driven more by personality than confession or creed. My overriding concern with YRR from the very start is that it is a kind of ecumenical Reformed Christianity, picking only the bits that appeal. So we take the soteriology and ignore the ecclesiology. We cherry pick the bits we want and put the rest aside. While there is not necessarily anything wrong with this, my sense of history is strong enough to know that this is rarely a mark of strength. What coordinates the movement, what truly holds it together, is less a common theology and more a common list of heroes and celebrities. And that is not a firm foundation; though fun while it lasts, I just do not see how it can stand the test of time.

I would love to hear your impressions of Trueman’s article once you’ve had time to read it.

August 26, 2009

A few years ago I wrote about Edwin Alden, a missionary and pastor who served in the United States in the nineteenth century. I have since updated the article and thought I’d share a little bit of what I found.

Edwin H. Alden, was born in Connecticut River Valley, on January 14, 1836, born into a line directly descended from the Pilgrims. He went to Dartmouth College and then to Bangor Seminary in Maine. After graduating, he married Anna Maria Whittemore, was ordained as a minister and enlisted in the service of the American Home Missionary Society, a ministry of the Congregational Church. A document on the website of Wheaton College provides a bit of detail about this organization:

A group of small missionary societies, the earliest of which was the Young Men’s Missionary Society of New York (formed in 1815) along with the New York Evangelical Missionary Society (formed in 1816) and other small agencies combined to make up the United Domestic Missionary Society in 1822. This group was supported by Reformed Churches and the Presbyterian Church. In May 1826, representatives from Congregational, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches met to form the American Missionary Society. During the convention, the United Domestic Missionary Society voted to merge with the American Home Missionary Society.

Its purpose was to assist congregations in the United States and its territories primarily until they could become financially self-supporting. Women’s groups within the society were recognized when a Women’s Department was formed in 1883. Operations of the Society were carried out through auxiliary societies, agents and agencies. In the 1890s the Society membership increased from 17 to 203. However, by 1893 the interdenominational character of the Society had been lost and it was renamed Congregational Home Missionary Society, which was still in existence in 1975.

Reverend Alden was pastor of a Congregational Church in Waseca, Minnesota, but as part of his missionary duties often traveled to other churches, many of which were congregations without pastors. In his travels he followed the railroad west, preaching at newly founded towns and villages such as New Ulm, Sleepy Eye, Barnston, Walnut Grove, Saratoga and Marshall where the railroad ended abruptly at the wide prairie. Where the train stopped, he would stop, attempting to gather a crowd to hear the preaching of the good news of the gospel. Wherever possible he would encourage the construction of a church building and he was often responsible personally for much of the construction. Despite the hardships of his profession, he once wrote, “So far the Lord has prospered us though it has made me many a weary walk and journey, besides many a day’s toil with hammer and saw when nothing would induce anyone to help me—it was so cold—besides many a weary night of anxiety.” Little wonder that he was much respected.

Reverend Alden has been immortalized in the Little House books, written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, though unfortunately, more people remember him for his inaccurate role in the long-running television series loosely based on the books. Laura recalls the building of a church in their small town of Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The church had been founded in 1874 and was meeting in the home of one of the members. Being founding members of the congregation and the first two people baptized into membership at the new congregation, Laura’s parents Charles and Caroline Ingalls were eager participants in the construction of this building. Laura records that her father donated three dollars for the purchase of a bell to complete the building. Three dollars was a sacrifice for so poor a family. Later records show, though, that her father had actually donated the handsome sum of twenty-six dollars and fifteen cents! Charles served as trustee and was active in the service of this church. The bell he helped purchase now hangs in the belfry of the English Lutheran Church in Walnut Grove.

The church at Walnut Grove was not the only building constructed under the leadership of Reverend Alden. What follows is his account of attempting to build a church in Marshall during the winter of 1873. It provides just a glimpse into the hardship faced by such frontier missionaries.

The lumber was ordered in October from Winona, 250 miles off. We waited anxiously for the lumber, day after day, but it did not come. Then we heard that it is on a side track sixty miles away, will be here in the next train. Volunteers with teams hurry in from the county to unload it and haul it to the site. It does not come, and the men returned disappointed. After a few days comes—only one car; the other two not heard from. We are anxious. The beautiful October weather is almost gone. Winter is at hand. The road has more than it can do to haul material for the seventy miles yet to be built. Engines and men are taxed to their utmost. Ninety tons of iron for each mile of track must come from Chicago; bridge timber from Winona, 275 miles; ties and piling from the Big Woods, 150 miles.

Night and day they drag their immense loads, carrying back 35,000 bushels of wheat daily. What if they cannot bring our lumber at all! We go eastward eighty miles and find one car. “Can you ship the car for our church tonight?” “Very doubtful. We are obliged to leave here several carloads that have been waiting for days.” After dark, in the rain, with a lantern, we see our car coupled to the westward train and return with a light heart. How it poured, all the night, the next day and the next night, a steady torrent! But our lumber arrived.

Shortly it was framed, raised and partly sheathed. A day or two after came the first great snow-storm of the season, to be followed by others unprecedented for severity and numbers in the history of the state. The house, though held with extra braces, could not stand the fearful gale. It was prostrated soon—buried by the drifting snow. What can be done? The road is blockaded, all the trains but one snowed in, the engines dead. One conductor walks twenty-five miles and telegraphs to the Superintendent. He hastens to the rescue with snowplows, car-loads of provisions and several hundred men with shovels. In time they dig their way to Marshall.

We go by the next train. The weather is beautiful and we move rapidly for seventeen miles. The snowplow comes to a drift; the men ply their shovels; the sky is suddenly overcast; the wind rises, mercury falls, and in thirty minutes all must take refuge in the cars. We are “snowed in.” The next morning, your missionary vies with the rest in the use of the shovel. We make seven miles a day. The train can go no further; no team can be found; we dare not try forty miles on foot over that desolate waste, so we return with the train—only to be snowed in again and find our way to New Ulm as we can—most of the way on foot. Nothing daunted, we take the next train several days later, reaching Marshall at night after a four days’ journey, visit the church site.

A few boards are seen on the foundation. The rest is covered by a deep snow hard enough to bear a loaded team. Can it be dug out and raised again? The carpenter says “Yes.” So says a young lawyer, promising to work his subscription all over again. So say others, and I say “Amen!” Soon the spot is thronged with willing volunteers, shovel in hand, and in two days or so we have the building about where it was before the gale, and passed it over to the contractor for completion. Of course the disaster made us great additional expense which we have not the means to meet.

Will not individuals and churches in the East help us?

I have never know a missionary to end a speech or letter without asking for support. Missionaries who do so today are part of a long and faithful heritage!

The Ingalls family was to run into Reverend Alden again. After only a few years in Walnut Grove, the family moved to De Smet, South Dakota. One wintry evening the family was thrilled to find Reverend Alden once more upon their doorstep. He was as surprised and delighted as they were to find himself in the company of friends. What a small world! The first church service in De Smet was soon held in the Ingalls’ home with twenty-five locals attending. Reverend Alden later wrote a letter of recommendation supporting the Reverend Brown, who was to become pastor of the first church officially planted in De Smet and who officiated the marriage of Laura to her husband, Almanzo Wilder. Alden continued to move west as the frontier pushed toward the coast.

After this time we do not know much about the life of Reverend Alden, save that he married again after the death of his first wife, that he worked among the Indians and settled in North Dakota. He went to the Lord on May 6, 1911, at the age of 75, in his native Vermont.

This is, as far as I can tell, almost all of the information that has been handed down to us about this man. And that’s a pity. He sounds like rather an interesting individual and one I would love to read more about. He was a faithful servant of the Lord and one who played a unique role in a unique time.