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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.

August 24, 2009

What makes you angry? We all have our triggers, don’t we? We all have certain things, certain situations, certain affronts to our dignity or pride that stir anger within. I know I’ve got mine. And actually, I know quite a lot about anger, as Aileen could attest (and probably will if you think to ask her!). When she and I talk about God’s grace in our lives, and evidence of it, she will often point this out—that God has mellowed me, taken away that anger that often bubbled within and occasionally boiled over. When I moved out of my parents’ home on the day I got married, I left behind a hole in the wall (hidden from their view by a strategically-placed poster) that I had smashed in a fit of anger a few months before. At one of the first homes Aileen and I lived in I cracked a door frame when I tried to smash it shut, once more in a fit of stupid anger. My immature anger just sometimes boiled over and got me into trouble. I always felt like an idiot after acting out, but in the moment my anger got the better of me; I often surrendered to it. I am profoundly grateful that God, in his mercy, has blessed me and blessed my family by taking away much of the immaturity, the irrationality, the lack of self-control that caused me to lash out like an angry toddler. I still known what it is to be angry, but no longer tend toward violent reaction.

As I sat yesterday and pondered anger I eventually turned to a dictionary to seek a definition of it. According to one, anger is a strong feeling of displeasure, a kind of belligerence aroused by a wrong. And from experience I can say it is equally likely that it is anger aroused by a perceived wrong. If someone truly wrongs me, I may well express anger and do so with some justification. If someone slights me or otherwise damages my pride, it may also cause me to act angry but with no justification at all. Anger is inherently reactive, awaiting a trigger and then waiting to react in accordance with my nature.

I think we’ve all met angry people, haven’t we? People who react to tough situations with anger and people who often act out in this anger. Such people may react in surprising, unexpected and terrifying ways. They act as they do out of emotion. And anger is not one of those enjoyable emotions. It may channel a strange, sick kind of pleasure for a moment or two, but like all sin, it very quickly loses its luster. There is something scary about seeing a person act out in anger. And the bigger that person, the more powerful his position, the greater the fear. If my three year-old gets angry and lashes out, I am bothered but not much afraid. But if I were to become angry and act out in anger, she would rightly be terrified because of what I could, I might, do to her in my emotion.

It is little wonder that man fears an angry God. If we believe that God is so much greater than we are, so much stronger, so much more powerful, and if we believe that God is capable of anger and wrath, then we have little choice but to fear him as a child may fear a parent. And, indeed, man’s history with deity, whether with the true God or with any number of idols has often been a position of terror, seeking by deed or sacrifice to appease his wrath. And so often, I think, we confuse human anger with divine wrath, imposing our own sinful, irrational, emotional anger upon God’s just, perfect, holy wrath. So no wonder, then, that we seek to appease him, to assuage our guilty consciences and to hope against hope that we may have turned aside his wrath for another day.

And here it strikes me just how different the wrath of God is from my anger, from what we see in most human anger. Charles Leiter has said it well: “God’s wrath is not a temporary loss of self-control or a selfish fit of emotion. It is His holy, white-hot hatred of sin, the reaction and revulsion of His holy nature against all that is evil.” God’s wrath is revulsion. It is not mere emotion and is not at all irrational. It is so much more than emotion. You may know what it is to be revulsed. Some time ago I heard of a woman who, upon finding out that her husband had been cheating on her, immediately vomited. It was as if her whole body was so affronted, so repulsed by her husband’s sin that it acted all on its own. Revulsion may be our reaction to a lukewarm sip of water when we were expecting ice cold or piping hot. We spew it out, repulsed. And this is sin to God. God’s wrath is a holy reaction, it is a holy and white-hot hatred of all that is evil. This is a good and just and fair reaction to something that is absolutely, fundamentally opposed to God’s very nature. For sin is against all that he is and all that he wants us to be.

God’s reaction to sin is the good and the necessary, the absolute best and perfectly just reaction. He will not act rashly in anger but will act justly in wrath. He will express this wrath against all sin. He must express this wrath against sin, for sin opposes all that he is as the perfectly holy creator of all that is. And how good it is, when we ponder God’s wrath, to know that his wrath has already been satisfied for those who trust in him. For there on the cross, Jesus Christ took that wrath upon himself on behalf all those who were his own. There God required the just penalty due for that sin. And there the Father found perfect, eternal satisfaction for his wrath. And there you and I can turn our eyes and turn our hearts and trust and believe and know that Jesus Christ has paid it all and has paid it for us if only we cast ourselves upon him.

August 19, 2009

A couple of years ago I decided that I’d try to read through the works of historian David McCullough (a project that continues). I eventually came to Brave Companions, a book that offers “Portraits in History”—brief glimpses of people and incidents that helped make America what she is today. One of the chapters deals with “The American Adventure of Louis Agassiz.” Agassiz was a French zoologist and geologist who settled in the United States in the mid nineteenth century. He began a distinguished career as a professor at Harvard. He revolutionized the way this field was taught, focusing far more on observation than rote learning. Agassiz utterly rejected Darwinism, believing to his dying day that to study nature was to study the works of God. He worked tirelessly to see a zoological museum built at Harvard and when it was finally opened in 1860, Harvard’s President declared it was appropriate that the museum stood face-to-face with the theological school, “God’s word and God’s works mutually illustrating each other.” Now I posted this about a year ago, I believe, but was reflecting on it again recently and felt it would be worth sharing again. It is, I think, a very powerful illustration.

Here is how McCullough describes the Agassiz teaching style.

Most unorthodox of all, and crucial as time would tell, was his manner of teaching. He intended, he said, to teach students to see—to observe and compare—and he intended to put the burden of study on them. Probably he never said what he is best known for, “Study nature, not books,” or not in those exact words. But such certainly was the essence of his creed, and for his students the idea was firmly planted by what they would afterward refer to as “the incident of the fish.”

His initial interview at an end, Agassiz would ask the student when he would like to begin. If the answer was now, the student was immediately presented with a dead fish—usually a very long dead, pickled, evil-smelling specimen—personally selected by “the master” from one of the wide-mouthed jars that lined his shelves. The fish was placed before the student in a tin pan. He was to look at the fish, the student was told, whereupon Agassiz would leave, not to return until later in the day, if at all.

Samuel Scudder, one of the many from the school who would go on to do important work of their own (his in entomology), described the experience as one of life’s turning points.

In ten minutes I had seen all that could be seen in that fish. … Half an hour passed—an hour—another hour; the fish began to look loathsome. I turned it over and around; looked it in the face—ghastly; from behind, beneath, above, sideways, at three-quarters view—just as ghastly. I was in despair.

I might not use a magnifying glass; instruments of all kinds were interdicted. My two hands, my two eyes, and the fish: it seemed a most limited field. I pushed my finger down its throat to feel how sharp the teeth were. I began to count the scales in the different rows, until I was convinced that that was nonsense. At last a happy thought struck me—I would draw the fish, and now with surprise I began to discover new features in the creature.

When Agassiz returned later and listened to Scudder recount what he had observed, his only comment was that the young man must look again.

I was piqued; I was mortified. Still more of that wretched fish! But now I set myself to my task with a will, and discovered one new thing after another. … The afternoon passed quickly; and when, towards its close, the professor inquired: “Do you see it yet?”

No,” I replied, “I am certain I do not, but I see how little I saw before.”

The day following, having thought of the fish through most of the night, Scudder had a brainstorm. The fish, he announced to Agassiz, had symmetrical sides with paired organs.

Of course, of course!” Agassiz said, obviously pleased. Scudder asked what he might do next, and Agassiz replied, “Oh, look at your fish!”

In Scudder’s case the lesson lasted a full three days. “Look, look, look” was the repeated injunction and the best lesson he ever had, Scudder recalled, “a legacy the professor has left to me, as he has left it to many others, of inestimable value, which we could not buy, with which we cannot part.”

The incident of the fish marked the end of the student’s novitiate. At once Agassiz became more communicative, his manner that of a friend or colleague, now that the real work could begin.

The way to all learning, “the backbone of education,” was to know something well. “A smattering of everything is worth little,” he would insist in the heavy French accent that he was never to lose. “Facts are stupid things, until brought into conjunction with some general law.” It was a great and common fallacy to suppose that an encyclopedic mind is desirable. The mind was made strong not through much learning but by “the thorough possession of something.” In other words, “Look at your fish.”

There were so many lessons I drew from this as I thought of my own attempts to understand God through His Word. The parallels are uncanny (but for the injunction to “study nature, not books.”) Lately, in my times of personal devotion, I’ve been studying the Minor Prophets. Admittedly I am going more for an overview than for an in-depth study, but even as I’ve been doing this, I’ve been craving some deeper study. The primary lesson for me in the Agassiz teaching style is this: like Scudder I tend to consider myself ready to move on too quickly. I move quickly from the Bible to resources that help explain them to me. I skim the Bible and then turn to commentaries and sermons to do the hard work for me. I skim the Bible and then study the supplementary material. But all the while I know I would be better off if I would just heed Agassiz and “look at your fish.”

July 31, 2009

Planet Earth is widely regarded as the greatest nature or wildlife series ever produced. Says David Attenborough in the opening moments, “A hundred years ago, there were one and a half billion people on Earth. Now, over six billion crowd our fragile planet. But even so, there are still places barely touched by humanity. This series will take you to the last wildernesses and show you the planet and its wildlife as you have never seen them before.” And it proceeds to do just that, finding and filming some of the most exquisitely beautiful locations on the planet. The scenery, the panoramas, the creatures are absolutely breathtaking.

While the producers of the series are not Christians (or do not claim to be Christians) and while the films were not meant to draw attention to God, as I watched them I was continually drawn to marvel in the greatness of the Lord. As the films provided a tour of so many beautiful locations and as they gave close-up shots of such incredible creatures, I saw the hand of a Creator. I saw it everywhere.

I’ve since often reflected on what I saw in the series and eventually wrote down a list of some of the things I learned about God through Planet Earth. And today I’ll share that list with you.

I learned that our God is…

…A God of Variety

jungle.jpgAs a web designer I know a thing or two about design. I know about the demands placed upon those who seek to design. I know that it is not nearly as easy as it may appear. Sometimes creating even just two or three variations on a similar theme taxes my creative abilities to the max. A few hours of design work on a theme can leave me tired and burned out. Design inspiration can go missing for long periods and may show up only in isolated bursts.

But God is not so limited. In Planet Earth we see stunning variety in plants, animals, and landscapes. There are animals we’ve grown accustomed to—the ones we see around us every day—and there are animals the likes of which we can barely even imagine. There are plants of every kind, every color, every size. From beginning to end, this series showcases diversity. It shows God as a lover of variety. God could easily have created just a few animals or a even just a few types of animals. But He went far beyond, creating far more creatures and plants than anyone has ever been able to count. The diversity is almost unimaginable.

God’s emphasis on variety in what He has created teaches me that He also loves variety in other areas. God has not created humans to resemble one another in gifts and talents any more than He has created all of us to look the same. God is pleased with who He has made us to be.

…A God of Beauty

God did not make a world that is drab and uninteresting. Instead He made a world that is dazzling in its beauty. Plants, animals, and landscapes can cause us to gasp in wonder. Who but God could have created such beauty? He created a world of untold beauty and created us so we could enjoy it with Him. He created this world and declared that it was very good. Planet Earth shows us the world’s beauty in ways that were previously impossible and unimaginable.

Humans are drawn to beauty, and little wonder as we are created in the image of the one who designed beauty. Beauty is something that flows from the character of God and in pursuing and enjoying beauty, we imitate the One who made us.

…A God of Detail

God overlooked no detail in creating this world. While humans like to declare that certain parts of our bodies are unnecessary or left over from some far-off evolutionary process, nature offers us no such hints. In Planet Earth we cannot help but see the beauty of God in the details—in the tiniest microbes and the largest mammals. God created this world to function perfectly, down to its tiniest and seemingly least significant parts.

whale.jpgIf God has seen fit to be involved in the tiniest details of the tiniest creatures He has made, how much more can we trust Him in the details of our lives. The same God who sees the sparrow fall is the God who is present with us as we seek to live our lives in accordance with His will. The God who has woven together this world is the same God who weaves together providence for our good and for His glory.

…A God of the Big Picture

While God has overlooked no detail, he has not done so at the expense of the big picture. The way the world works is so clearly seen as the tiniest creatures in the ocean become food for the larger creatures, who in turn become food for larger creatures still. Life begins in the oceans and filters out throughout the earth. Even with the advent of sin into the world, everything functions so well in the big picture. Planet Earth shows us the big picture in action.

As God watches over the sparrow and even the smallest details of our lives, so He weaves together the big picture. The big picture of creation and of history shows us a God who created us and, despite our sin, has redeemed a people for Himself. The big picture shows that everything in the world is unfolding exactly as God planned for it to. In the big picture as much as the small God will be glorified.

…A God of Pleasure

God takes pleasure in His creation; He takes pleasure in beauty. There are some places in the world and some plants and creatures that seem to exist primarily to display their beauty. Planet Earth takes the viewer to the deepest recesses of the world and there shows beauty almost unmatched in the world above. What purpose does such beauty serve except to allow God to reflect His glory through what He has made. The beauty is unmatched.

God is not a cruel taskmaster who wants only to push His people to do things they do not want to do. On the contrary, God takes pleasure in what He has made and He wants us to take pleasure in it as well. As we look at the world He has made, we can stop and look and ponder and delight in what He has done. We find pleasure in creation and ultimately in the One who made it all.

…A God of Laughter

Bird of ParadiseGod takes pleasure in His creation, to be sure. But He must also sometimes enjoy what He has made for the humor it displays. Who can but laugh as he watches Planet Earth and sees the bizarre and hilarious mating displays of the ridiculous birds of paradise? Surely God must have a sense of humor to create something so entertaining and something so funny.

God does not wish for His people to go through life solemn and sour. Laughter is a gift from God and when we laugh at the sublime and the ridiculous we honor the God who made us to be people who laugh. And He made certain aspects of His creation funny so that we could join Him in laughter and delight.

…A God of His Word

The Bible tells us that God reveals Himself in what He has made. He reveals His existence, His power, His authority. He also reveals His wrath. In nature we see glimpses of what God created this world to be and glimpses of what it has since become. And we learn that God is a God of His Word. As Tennyson wrote so long ago, nature is red in tooth and claw. In Planet Earth we see the results of the fall into sin. We see animals destroying one another; we see humans destroying the creation. We see that God is not One to be trifled with. What He says is true. What He says will come to pass. God warned man of the consequences of sin, and man ignored the Creator. The world has been suffering ever since.

seal-shark.jpgCreation testifies to the truth of what God tells us about sin and its consequences. If this is the case, we can also trust God when He tells us how we can avoid the eternal consequences of sin. The same God who saw man plunge this world into sin is the God who has provided salvation to those who would believe in Him. He is a good and a kind and a trustworthy God. He is worthy of our trust.

…A God of Redemption

Nature cries out for redemption—for release from its bondage. We cannot even begin to fathom the amount of death and destruction upon this planet—this planet where death was once entirely foreign and unnatural. Every day countless millions of animals are torn apart, suffering in agony as they fall prey to one creature or another. No creature is immune. Some may live for centuries, but sooner or later they go the way of all the earth; they die and decay and pass away. In every glimpse of a baby animal being torn to pieces and in every scene of terror and bloodshed our hearts cry out that this is wrong, this is unnatural. Somehow we know that death is a foreign state. And we ask, “when will the last drop of blood be shed?” We long for the final redemption of this world and its return to a state of perfection. Nature attests to the fact that death is wrong; and it testifies to the end of all that is unnatural.

cave.jpgPlanet Earth vividly shows that the world groans as it awaits redemption. And as we watch we, too, cry out for someone who can stop all of the suffering and destruction. Our hearts long for a redeemer!

…A God of Adventure

This world will be fully and finally redeemed. And when that time comes, we will have the inestimable privilege of enjoying an eternity exploring the wonders of the world He has made for us. The wonders will only increase as the sin is removed from us and as we enjoy access to every part of this planet. We will enjoy eternal adventures exploring the deepest depths and the highest heights of this amazing planet.

While we may love to explore even today, we know that even the most committed explorers can catch only a glimpse of the world’s wonders. But the time is coming when we will have unending opportunities to see the hand of a loving creator in every part of this world. But even now we can praise Him for what He has made and what He has done.

Some time ago I reviewed Planet Earth and its predecessor Blue Planet. Click here if you want to read that.

July 30, 2009

My morning reading today took me to the fourth chapter of Ephesians. This is a chapter that deals primarily with the topic of unity within the body of Christ. Through the first three chapters of the book Paul has been laying the theological framework for the life of good works he describes in the final three chapters. The first topic he discusses in this regard is unity. He encourages believers to live together in humility and patience, bearing with one another and maintaining the unity of the Spirit. The word “one” appears seven times in only three verses, emphasizing the oneness the Lord expects of his family. Having discussed the importance of unity, Paul goes on to show how this unity will be formed and maintained.

Unity is a common theme in the New Testament, isn’t it?. Paul spoke of it in 1 Corinthians 1:10 where we read, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” Among Jesus’ final words to His apostles was a beautiful, powerful prayer for unity which is recorded for us in John 17. “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17: 20-23). Peter and other biblical writers discuss the subject as well. Unity is clearly an important component to the Christian life.

Perhaps the most clear example of this type of unity is shown to us in the book of Acts. We read in Acts 5, “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women…” (Acts 5:12-14). This unity was based on unity of doctrine, and that asserted itself in practice. In the previous chapter Luke writes, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:32-35).

Of course there are two types of unity. There is the unity from one Christian to another and there is unity from one group of professing Christians to another. While it seems clear that the biblical writers were speaking primarily of interpersonal relationships their words are surely valid as well to larger relationships between groups. Baptist and Presbyterian denominations can learn as much from Paul’s words in their relationships to each other as can two individual members of a local church who are experiencing conflict in their relationship.

Sadly in our day it seems that unity, and especially unity from one group of professed Christians to another, often comes at the cost of theology. In his masterpiece Evangelicalism Divided Iain Murray says “The ecumenical call [in the mid-20th century] was not for truth and salt; it was supremely for oneness: the greater the unity of ‘the Church’, it was confidently asserted, the stronger would be the impression made upon the world; and to attain that end churches should be inclusive and tolerant. But it has never been by putting unity first that the church has changed the world. At no point in church history has the mere unity of numbers ever made a transforming spiritual impression upon others. On the contrary, it was the very period known as ‘the dark ages’ that the Papacy could claim her greatest unity in western Europe.”

The ecumenical movement of our day continues to downplay theology. Of course none of the major players in the movement would admit this, but if we are to have unity with the Roman Catholic Church we must be willing to let go of those pesky little solas that so often get in the way. If we are to have unity with Mormons we must be willing to allow some leeway on the divinity of Jesus. And so on. But the unity that Christ prays for us to attain and that Paul exhorts us to model is not a unity based on forsaking doctrinal differences so that we can meet at the lowest common denominator. It is not a unity based on mixing “churches” with one another. The unity Christ pleaded for on our behalf is a unity of people who know and trust Christ. It is a unity in the truths of the Scripture, truths despised by the world, but loved and treasured by believers. It is a unity which, as Murray says, “binds his [Christ’s] members together in love” (Evangelicalism Divided, page 291). This truth became particularly clear to me this morning as I read Ephesians 4. In verses eleven to sixteen Paul describes the means of attaining unity. “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.”

And this morning I realize that the teaching ministry, carried on today by the pastors of local churches, is a ministry of unity. As if the pastoral ministry was not already difficult enough! Pastors are to teach their people sound doctrine which in turn will inspire unity among true believers. The solid foundation of sound doctrine will prevent people from being tossed to and fro and being carried about by every wind of doctrine. It is a lack of doctrine that promotes false unity and a strong, biblical theology that promotes true unity. Our pastors are called to help us “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” It is from Christ that the body is joined, knit together in true unity.

So if we would have unity, we must have theology. We are to share, profess and enjoy unity with other believers, even those who do not share certain “lesser” doctrines. This is not to imply that any doctrine is unimportant, yet some are more important than others. J.C. Ryle wisely observed that believers should “keep the walls of separation as low as possible, and shake hands over them as often as you can.” But there are times when we must reject unity because of the higher importance of truth and sound doctrine. To repeat Murray’s words, “it has never been by putting unity first that the church has changed the world.” Nor will it ever be.

July 29, 2009

“The moment a person forms a theory his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory.” (Thomas Jefferson)

Last night a reader of this site took the time to send me a link to an article I had somehow missed reading. It was written by Dr. Albert Mohler and discussed the subject of “confirmation bias.” Dr. Mohler traces an article written by Michael Shermer of Scientific American as he discusses a study based on this topic. Schermer discusses “A recent brain-imaging study [that] shows that our political predilections are a product of unconscious confirmation bias.”

As a fiscal conservative and social liberal, I have found at least something to like about each Republican or Democrat I have met. I have close friends in both camps, in which I have observed the following: no matter the issue under discussion, both sides are equally convinced that the evidence overwhelmingly supports their position.

This surety is called the confirmation bias, whereby we seek and find confirmatory evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignore or reinterpret disconfirmatory evidence. Now a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study shows where in the brain the confirmation bias arises and how it is unconscious and driven by emotions. Psychologist Drew Westen led the study, conducted at Emory University, and the team presented the results at the 2006 annual conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing an fMRI bran scan, 30 men—half self-described as “strong” Republicans and half as “strong” Democrats—were tasked with assessing statements by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own candidate off the hook.

This is no great surprise, as experience shows all of us that we are much more willing to grant clemency to people whom we like and support than those with whom we disagree. What is particularly interesting about this study, though, is the source of the brain activity that formed these judgments. “The neuroimaging results, however, revealed that the part of the brain most associated with reasoning—the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex—was quiescent. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in the processing of emotions; the anterior cingulate, which is associated with conflict resolution; the posterior cingulate, which is concerned with making judgments about moral accountability; and—once subjects had arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable—the ventral striatum, which is related to reward and pleasure.” What the researchers saw “was a network of emotion circuits lighting up, including circuits hypothesized to be involved in regulating emotion, and circuits known to be involved in resolving conflicts.” In other words, when people assessed the statements made by President Bush and John Kerry, they reacted with emotion rather than reason.

Like Dr. Mohler, I am “suspicious of all efforts to reduce human consciousness and cognitive activity to measurable or observable studies of the brain. There is a connection there, no doubt, but biological reductionism (and its close cousin, biological determinism) is a woefully inadequate explanation for human thinking and behavior.” To reduce human cognitive function, thinking, feeling and believing to mere imaging results is clearly inadequate in explaining the intricacies of the brain, the will and the heart. I don’t believe that we can ever neatly map out human reason or that we can ever solve how and why humans love, feel and believe. And yet there is likely some truth in the results of this study, for we are no doubt prone to make judgments based more on emotion than reason. Michael Shermer says, “The implications of the findings reach far beyond politics. A jury assessing evidence against a defendant, a CEO evaluating information about a company or a scientist weighing data in favor of a theory will undergo the same cognitive process.” In other words, confirmation bias can show itself in any number of situations.

Dr. Mohler writes, “We are unquestionably inclined to seek evidence that confirms our bias and to discard or discount evidence to the contrary. There may be biological evidence of this fact (indeed I assume there must be such evidence), but the main factor behind this problem, from a human perspective, is the Fall. The corruption of the race involves the corruption of our cognitive abilities. Confirmation bias is just one more evidence of the Fall; one more reminder that we are fallen creatures whose minds are not only finite, but corrupted. The human mind is truly amazing, but we all have to deal with conflicted thinking, limited knowledge, fragile memory, and emotional influences.”

When we affirm the doctrine of the fallenness of man, we affirm that through the Fall we have been corrupted in every way. The depravity of man extends to every area of his being so that nothing remains untouched. We are unable to use our minds without allowing emotion to interfere with reason. Clearly this poses a threat to intellectual integrity. “The reality of confirmation bias and its threat to intellectual integrity is one reason that Christian thinkers must read widely and think carefully.” Christians bear the responsibility of knowing their sin and thus knowing their proclivity for all manner of sin—even the sin of confirmation bias. For if we are able to admit that confirmation bias is a result of the Fall, we must also admit that it likely comes naturally to fallen men and women and that we are all likely to slip into it from time to time. I did not have to think long or hard before seeing areas where I am prone to make snap judgments and to allow emotion to override more measured reason. And, as the subject of discernment has been much on my mind in recent days, I also see how people to seek to be discerning may be particularly prone to this bias.

Here is an application Dr. Mohler drew from his reflections on the subject: In order to avoid confirmation bias “We must not limit ourselves to reading material from those who agree with us, fellow Christians who share a common worldview and perspective. Instead, we have to ‘read the opposition’ as well — and read opposing viewpoints with fairness and care.” If we are to avoid this bias, we must deliberately stretch ourselves. As I read this I thought back to the review I posted just a couple of weeks ago about the book While Europe Slept which was written by a homosexual. When I posted that review, several people questioned the validity of reading and reviewing such a book. These questions arise often when I read and review books that are written by unbelievers or by those who write from a liberal Christian perspective. Yet I think these books are important, for it is all too easy to delude ourselves, sometimes deliberately and sometimes inadvertently, into thinking that we are fair and unbiased when the reality may be far different. I believe, like Dr. Mohler, that it is important that we read the opposition. I believe that there is nothing to fear in doing so, provided that a person is well-grounded in the truths of Scripture.

John Calvin, in his Institutes wrote “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God.” We can look outside the Christian bookstores for truth. We would not look outside a Christian worldview to find eternal truths, but we may still find truths outside the church and perhaps even truths to which Christians are oblivious. To ignore or to reject these truths, especially on the basis of confirmation bias, would be to dishonor God, the very source, the fountain, of truth.

July 22, 2009

A couple of summers ago my parents paid us a rare summer visit. Usually they come to visit in fall or winter, but this year they came in summer. Because my dad is only truly resting when he is hard at work, I asked him to help me with several projects around the house. These were either projects that I had not had time to attend to, or projects for which I would have to rely upon his expertise. As always, dad was glad to pitch in and to do what needed to be done. So while my mother spent as much time as she could with Aileen and the kids, dad and I got to work. On Saturday we installed a new air conditioner, something that turned out to be far easier said than done and that quickly consumed much of the day. The end result, though, was just what we had hoped for and was just in time to carry us through a couple of days of uncomfortable heat and humidity. Having taken care of this, we decided to attack the lawns and gardens. We laid sod in the backyard and planted perennials in the flower beds. We transformed the outside of our home.

Dad is a career landscaper and has a great love for rocks, trees, plants and flowers. I have spent countless hours with my father, and used to work with him quite often when I was younger. He must have given up on me eventually because I would do a half-baked job of nearly everything he asked of me. When plants needed a soaking, I’d give them only a quick shower before finding something more interesting to do. When plants needed to be buried deep in the ground, I would leave their roots exposed to the elements. I am sure it was on a scalding hot Ontario summer day, when I was covered in dirt and dust and manure, that I resolved that I would work a desk job when I was older.

Though I had worked with dad so often, it was only recently that I realized something fundamental to his choice of vocation. We were driving along Highway 5, a highway that represents the northern border of the town of Oakville. On the south side of the highway is a bustling suburban environment. Houses reach almost to the side of the road and there are newly-built gas stations on almost every corner. There are enough restaurants, Wal-Marts and big box stores to support a thriving community. In true Canadian style, the neighborhoods are predominantly flat and boring. The trees have been torn down, the valleys have been filled in, and the houses are often so close that a person could easily leap from roof-to-roof. Sometimes a single majestic, lonely tree stands at the entrance to a neighborhood with a sign underneath reading “Oak Trails.”

That is the south side of Highway 5. The opposite side, the north side, is everything that the south is not. Fields of corn and wheat border the highway. Many fields that have long laid fallow, stretch as far as the eye can see, passing into the distance. There are rolling hills and small forests. The occasional valley, with a stream running through it, cuts across the landscape. Cows graze and horses run.

On one side of Highway 5 is progress. A city thrives there, a city filled with men and women who commute into Toronto, the nerve center of Canada. These people choose to live in Oakville, the wealthiest city in Canada. They run the banks and own the businesses that drive our economy. Their demand for more houses, bigger houses, push the borders of Oakville ever further north. They push the borders toward the other side of Highway 5, the side that is nothing. Or that is what most of us see. Where we see nothing, dad sees beauty.

As we were driving along the highway, making our way to an eclectic, disorganized but well-stocked garden center that you would not notice unless you where it was, I heard dad cry, “Oh, look at that beautiful chestnut! Wow! Look at it!” I turned my head and saw a tree, standing tall and proud, rising above a field of grass. I’d like to describe it in more detail, but that is all I saw. A tree. But where I saw only a tree, I knew that dad saw something so much more. A few minutes later he pointed towards the urban sprawl and said, “Right down that road there used to be the biggest poplar in all of Ontario. It was six feet across at its base. I bet it’s long gone by now.”

For dad this is a tragedy. For many of us, a huge poplar tree is an annoyance. Its roots lift our sidewalks, disturb our gardens and tear into our foundations. Its massive trunk and swaying branches block our review or shade too much of our backyard. And so we cut it down and tear it apart. After all, it’s only a tree. But to dad it is more. It is an object of tremendous beauty.

I wish that I could see beauty the way dad does. I wish that I could delight in the simple, natural beauty of a chestnut tree. But all I see, even when I look closely, is a tree. I can describe it using adjectives—big, thick, leafy, round—but not in any adjectives that really capture the essence of its beauty. And that’s because I see only a tree.

I think that when dad sees a tree, he must see the tree’s Creator. He must see something more than the color and the shape. Maybe he sees God’s providence in a tree that has stood for fifty years. A hundred years. A tree that has offered shelter to generation after generation. Or maybe that tree is simply a beautiful work of art. Maybe that tree is a manifestation of the Artist who sculpted it in such a way to tell us something about Himself. That tree stands as a reminder of the great Creator. I don’t really know what dad sees in those trees. I never thought to ask him. But I wish I could see whatever he sees.

Highway 5 seems almost a parable to me. On one side is progress and on the other is nature. On one side is ugliness and on the other is beauty. I tend towards what is ugly but progressive. I tend to see urban sprawl as a sign of Canada’s progress as our population grows and our economy strengthens. But dad prefers natural beauty, even at the expense of progress. He sees the tragedy of a great tree falling and the tragedy of beauty being torn away only to be replaced by ugliness.

There is a reason that many of the fields north of Highway 5 lie fallow. Many of those fields, perhaps even all of them, have been purchased by developers. Oakville will soon have reached the limits of its growth. With Lake Ontario removing the possibility of southward growth, and with other cities to the east and the west, there is only one way for the city to move. Already the city is beginning to leap across the highway and this “progress” will continue for the foreseeable future. Trees will be cut down and trucked away to nearby mills. Hills will be flattened and the soil will be poured into the valleys. Sewers will cut into the fields and roads will be laid. Houses, schools and stores will spring up.

That chestnut tree is going to be a casualty of progress. Perhaps it will be left standing at the entrance to a neighborhood of million dollar houses where it will languish in the hard clay. Eventually it will die. I won’t even notice. Dad will lament the loss of such beauty. I’ll wish that I could too.

I’m on vacation so you’re getting a repeat today. I first posted this back in ‘06, I believe.