The Peaceful War Waged for the Peace of All Mankind

Eusebius_of_CaesareaWhile reading through Eusebius’ Church History, following the readthefathers.org plan, I read this from the introduction to Book 5, which tells of some of the martyrs in the Church in the mid-second century.

Other writers of history record the victories of war and trophies won from enemies, the skill of generals, and the manly bravery of soldiers, defiled with blood and with innumerable slaughters for the sake of children and country and other possessions. But our narrative of the government of God will record in ineffaceable letters the most peaceful wars waged in behalf of the peace of the soul, and will tell of men doing brave deeds for truth rather than country, and for piety rather than dearest friends. It will hand down to imperishable remembrance the discipline and the much-tried fortitude of the athletes of religion, the trophies won from demons, the victories over invisible enemies, and the crowns placed upon all their heads.

Others before us, and Christians in other places today, are fighting this other war, this peaceful war for the “peace of the soul,” their own and the those of the world.

Here is the Christmas letter of one (via Internetmonk), Pastor Saeed Abidini, a U.S. citizen imprisoned in Iran for his faith:

Pastor AbidiniMerry Christmas!

These days are very cold here. My small space beside the window is without glass making most nights unbearable to sleep. The treatment by fellow prisoners is also quite cold and at times hostile. Some of my fellow prisoners don’t like me because I am a convert and a pastor. They look at me with shame as someone who has betrayed his former religion. The guards can’t even stand the paper cross that I have made and hung next to me as a sign of my faith and in anticipation of celebrating my Savior’s birth. They have threatened me and forced me to remove it. This is the first Christmas that I am completely without my family; all of my family is presently outside of the country. These conditions have made this upcoming Christmas season very hard, cold and shattering for me. It appears that I am alone with no one left beside me.

The angels declared the birth of the Christ to the Shepherds:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests! (Luke 2:14)

The peace of Christmas comes at a price, the death of the Christ. And the many who have likewise suffered and even died in imitation of Jesus, have continued to wage the war of Christmas, for the Peace of Mankind. Let’s pray for those who suffer in this war, and let us be ever willing to join them.

Charles Spurgeon and Depression, part 1

Here is a great blog post on depression. Very powerful to learn about how one of the greatest and most successful preachers in history also struggled with depression. Thanks for sharing this @Sch0larly!

Making History Now

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Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) hit the headlines young and never left them. He could quote whole sections of the New Testament from memory. He had a library of 10,000 books and had read them all. In his teens he could understand deep theological points that confused many adults.  At only 19 years of age, he was invited to pastor a respected Baptist church in London.

Large crowds came to hear him. His biblical prowess was obvious but his style unorthodox, his sermons more like stories. He quoted from the newspapers and took everyday situations, making spiritual points out of them, so that anyone could understand his message. He became a sensation, becoming known as ‘the Prince of Preachers’.

Disaster was to strike, however. In 1856, when he was preaching at the 10,000-seat music hall of the Royal Surrey Gardens, a prankster shouted “Fire!”. In the stampede, 7 people were…

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It’s a War. People Die.

In the midst of every small town in the north, in a prominent spot, is a Civil War monument. Here is the one in Montrose, PA, where I attended a conference last week. A soldier stands atop a plinth, the base of which is surrounded by what look like tombstones, but are lists of the men who died in the “War of 1861-1865”, as the memorial calls it. The list is divided by county and also indicates how many men enlisted from each. This memorial was erected in 1876, when the absence of those men was still felt. They were brothers, sons, husbands, and fathers.  Montrose sent about 165 men to war, of which about 25-30 have their names on this list of the dead. Not listed, though, are the walking wounded, those who lived, but carried the marks, the injuries, the missing limbs, the lead mini balls in their bodies, who bore the sufferings of the nation in their person.

Holes were left in every town. Spaces left vacant by the deaths of men of the town. Future leaders, workers. Fellow citizens. Holes that were not filled til the whole generation joined them in death. Undoubtedly, Montrose, and every small town would have been better off with those men alive, filling those empty places. It would have been better if they had not gone to war…

But…they fought for a cause. “The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved” says the monument. Had Montrose, and every other Northern town, not sent their young men off to war, the Union would have dissolved. And slavery, which this town opposed, being a stop on the Underground Railroad, would have continued. But they did go to war. And the Union was preserved. And slavery was ended. Their sacrifice helped to exorcise the demons of this national subjugation of a race of men. How could they have not taken part in the war. Yet in war people die, even when you win.

And so it is in the church. We too are in a war. We too fight an enemy. It is a real war, even though the victory has been accomplished. And people die. People get injured. Some of the soldiers are debilitated, sometimes less, sometimes more, even when you are the victors. Are we to avoid the fight because there is danger, because some will be hurt, maybe even die? Is our safety and comfort more important than the battle that is being waged? Will we refuse to take our place on the line, and allow the forces of evil to gain a respite? No. For Jesus is Lord. And his Kingdom is come and coming. And God desires all to be saved. And he will do that through us, pushing forward his kingdom, declaring his glories.

It is a real war we are engaged in, with a real enemy. People will be hurt, be debilitated, be killed. But the Kingdom will continue. And the Kingdom is worth it.

We Really Do Need the Same Old Thing

Without knowing our own history as Christians, we are, not unlike when we stop reading the Bible, cut off from the past, doomed to reinvent it as we pursue the new.

While reformation is always possible and is the reason to change anything in the church (“reformed and always reforming”, is the Presbyterian slogan), often the new is 1) something that the Church used to do that we forgot about and were unaware of, or 2) something that Christians tried before and found wanting.

As Lisa Robinson says here, “it is really the old that we need–what God did through his Son, how the church has been established, what God has already spoken.” And, I would add, what Christians before us have already learned about this thing called ministry. Great cartoon too!

Lisa Robinson

I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. But it does seem to me as I observe the evangelical landscape today, that what is tried and trust and true gets overlooked for the ‘new’. So many in the church today are captivated by newness – new trends, new ideas, new innovations, new buildings, new predictions, new words from God, new movements, etc that the old seems irrelevant. But really its the old that we need – what God did through his Son, how the church has been established, what God has already spoken. This is how we are refreshed, by gathering according to what has already been established, by remembering what God has already said and what he has already done to gather a body of people to himself through the work of the Son. But somehow that gets too boring and we get antsy for something new. Why?

It…

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Socrates Read the Bible? Conclusions from a dubious translation.

Last week, following a reading plan of reading through the Harvard Classics, I was reading Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, where he tells of the last days of Socrates, and, characteristically, Socrates talks a lot, explaining why he is not afraid of death, to which he has been sentenced by the authorities of Athens for “corrupting” youth by teaching them to think. Frankly, I found it pretty dry reading.

But my attention was grabbed when I read the phrase Socrates/Plato uses when he is talking about the realities that lie behind all that we see. He said that we see true realities “through a glass darkly”. It was there with the quotation marks too, as if Plato/Socrates (it’s hard to say how much Plato is quoting Socrates or simply writing his own teaching) was quoting some other source. What struck me was that this phrase is from Paul, the Apostle, in 1 Corinthians 13:12. Was Paul quoting Socrates, or were Paul and Plato quoting a common source? I was in a seminary library at the time so I hit the shelves to see if I could figure it out.

But first, of course, I Googled it. I only found some blog posts that were written by people who had noticed the same thing. No one seemed to know where the phrase was from besides the New Testament, which was written well after Plato’s dialogue. Some suggested that the phrase was added by later Christian copyists who preserved Plato’s writings. Others assumed some unknown, unnamed source that both writers were quoting, or maybe that Paul was quoting Plato. A few found in this odd phrase reason to question the entire concept of revealed writing or the existence of God. I was unconvinced.

So I hit the commentaries. After looking in about dozen commentaries on First Corinthians, I was surprised that none of them addressed my question. A few of them delved into the possible Platonic background of Paul’s thought in 13:12, but did not even mention Phaedo among the references.

“Looking at them in images.” Not “through a glass darkly.” No mirrors/glasses here.

Confused about why I could find no scholarly source that addresses this shared language of Socrates and Paul, I decided to go to the Greek. I pulled out the Loeb Classics copy of Phaedo and…my question was answered. The reason I could find no scholarly source to explain the shared language, “through a glass darkly”, was that there was no shared language. Shared idea? Perhaps. Identical wording? Not at all.

Here is what Plato wrote, literally:

“he who studied realities by means of conceptions is looking at them in images“. This is the Loeb translation, by Harold North Fowler.

Here is the Harvard Classics translation, by Benjamin Jowett: “He who contemplates existence through the medium of ideas sees them only ‘through a glass darkly’“.

The emphasized words are the translating the same Greek words.

And what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:12 is, literally, “For now we see through a mirror indirectly.”

The “through the glass darkly” wording is from the King James Version of the Bible, which apparently was prominent in Mr. Jowett’s mind. “Through a glass darkly” is a nice image to express a similar idea that Socrates had, that we do not see the realities directly but indirectly, but the choice of importing a quote from the New Testament into an Ancient Greek writing causes a lot of confusion, especially in the blogosphere.

So why does this matter? This odd translation choice, when simply accepted for what it appears to be, has misled people in some big ways, revealed by my brief Google search. Simply reading another translation would have indicated that something fishy was going on, but I only knew what was going on by being able to read the Greek well enough to verify what was actually written by Plato.  And this is why we bother to learn the original languages. In the Presbyterian church we learn the original languages so that we can read the Bible in the original, rather than being wholly dependent on translators. It makes a difference, and not only with the Bible.

A New Day

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We had the wonderful, yet heart-wrenching joy of taking our oldest daughter to her first year of college last week. There were a lot of tears, a lot of smiles, and both will continue for some time. But overall, it is a great move.

The Whole of Church History in Four Words (From Twenty-One Centuries.com)

I just started following a new blog, Twenty-One Centuries, by Chris Ross. One of the few specific Church History blogs I have found.

I thought I’d share an interesting post from his blog, Learn the History of the Church in Four Words. I know we are supposed to be wary of pressing history into convenient schemes, but I like what he suggests here. Simplistic? Absolutely. But helpful? Yes.

Chris says,
In teaching church history I have sometimes used the following four-word sequence to summarize the last 2,000 years:

DEFENSE – DEVELOPMENT – DECADENCE – DIVERSITY

Each word describes one of four 500-year divisions.

See his full post for what falls under each heading:
http://twenty-onecenturies.com/2014/08/15/learn-the-history-of-the-church-in-4-words/

Because My Wife Says I Should Share Some Personal Stuff…

I thought I’d share some random things today.

Every year my family and my sister’s family get together for a summer birthday bash. Instead of worrying about getting together 10 times through the year to celebrate birthdays we do it all at once. It’s kind of an All Saints Day type celebration, lumping us altogether at one time. Pretty genius I must say. This year we turned 290! We mangle the cake because everyone wants to eat their own name…except me. Mine was in the vanilla side this year. Boring!

On the Church history front, I’ve been diving into the tradition of Christian Saints for an upcoming series of posts, reading a great book on the subject: The Cult of the Saints, by Peter Brown. Good stuff. I learning some fascinating details about how death was seen by pagans and Christians in the first few centuries of the church. You will hear more on this.

A big reason I started this blog was to help me in a focused study of Church history. Just like teaching, there I nothing like committing to a blog to get you learning. And if someone else learns something too, more the better. I thought I’d share some of what I am reading these days. I read widely, reading several books at one time, a habit I learned from my father. It takes a while to get through a book, but I learn more about more things this way.

Readthefathers.org is a website that provides a 7-year reading plan through Schaff’s famous series, the Ante-Nicene, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, 37 volumes of early Christian Writings. It is in year two right now. I’ve been following it for a little over a month now. The plan is in the New Testament Apocrypha. By the way, the entire set of books is available as a $3 ebook on amazon. It’s great for reading through the series, as I am doing, but not so great as a reference collection. It is so big, at 84MB, that it takes forever to search. Is easier to read than ccel.org though. If you don’t know ccel.org, you need to. Incredible resource.

Every week I read from some other books on Church history too:

Historiography – I am really enjoying Carl Trueman’s Histories and Fallacies. Short, to the point, written with precision and wit. I’ve had the opportunity to audit a class of his at Westminster Seminary. He is a great teacher.

General Church History Survey – Finally got started on Justo Gonzalez’ much loved Story of Christianity. I read Kenneth Latourette’s survey in seminary. This is a bit brisker and more a survey.

Classic Historian – Reading Herodotus’ History. It is much more engaging than I expected. Or I am more of a history nerd than I realized. Both may be true.

In my quest to read through biographies of all the US Presidents, I am up to James Garfield. I am reading The Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard, which is fantastic. I started reading a different biography, the Garfied volume of the American Presidents series, but found it to be pretty lousy and switched up. I have been blogging about what I have learned about ministry from these biographies. I am a bit behind. I am in the midst of the obscure presidents, though: Rutherford B. Hayes, Garfield, etc. I owe you one on Grant, though.

After reading The Whole Five Feet, by Christopher Beha, the author’s story of spending a year reading through the whole 51 volumes of the turn of the 20th century series, The Harvard Classics, I couldn’t resist, but had to do it myself. It will take me a long time however. I started in late June, and started volume 2 last week. So maybe 51 months, instead of weeks, for me.

Finally, I picked up The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman. Seems like a good year to read this history of the beginning of WW1. It is a detailed book, but I am enjoying what I have read so far.

Well, time for some leftover birthday cake. Have a great weekend, whatever you are doing. And you preachers out there, may you be blessed and be a blessing, by God’s grace.

“The Thin End of the Wedge”: John Stott’s Wisdom for Everyday Faithfulness

I just finished a little book by John Stott, *Problems of Christian Leadership*, published this year by InterVarsity. It is a collection of talks Stott gave on the subject at a conference some time ago. While a good distillation of Stott’s thoughts on leadership, it was an Appendix that most struck me. It contained two remembrances of John Stott, written by Mark Labberton and Cody Widmer, both of whom worked as Stott’s assistant for a time. It was a portion of Cody’s that struck me most:

I have countless memories of my three years serving as Uncle John’s study assistant, but two anecdotes are the most prominent in my mind. The first occurred after just a few months in the very mundane pattern of our daily life together. Every morning, at 11 a.m. sharp, I would bring him a cup of coffee. I would find him hunched over some letter or manuscript at his desk, consumed with the work before him, putting his un-paralleled powers of concentration to whatever task was at hand. Not wanting to disturb him, I would quietly set the cup and saucer adjacent to his right hand, and oftentimes he would mumble a barely audible word of thanks: “I’m not worthy”.

Initially I thought this comment was amusing, but after a few months I began to find it slightly bothersome. How could someone pronounce himself unworthy of an acidic cup of instant coffee? One morning I was feeling a little cheeky, and when Uncle John mumbled his usual expression, “I’m not worthy”. I quipped back, “Oh, sure you are.”

Uncle John stopped, and I saw the powerful magnetic look of his concentration ease from the papers before him. He slowly raised his gaze, and, with a look of immense seriousness, yet boyish playfulness, he responded, “You haven’t got your theology of grace right.” I laughed, grinned awkwardly, and then said, “It’s only a cup of coffee, Uncle John.” As I turned round and headed back into the kitchen, I heard him mutter, “It’s just the thin end of the wedge.”

It took me days to figure out what he meant by that final rejoinder in our exchange. Though I never discussed it with him, I am convinced that he meant this: if our commitment to Jesus Christ and our understanding of his grace do not impact the small places in our daily lives—the “thin end of the wedge”—then we are not living integrated lives. Our commitment to Christ may be most richly expressed in the most apparently inconsequential moments.

Corey Widmer in Problems of Christian Leadership, John Stott. IVP, 2014, emphasis added

This reflection was originally published in Portraits of a Radical Disciple: Recollections of John Stott’s Life and Ministry. Ed Christopher J.H. Wright. IVP 2011. 

I get into the habit of thinking I deserve all that I have. I do not. It is all grace.

 

 

3 Tough Questions (and Lessons) for Men’s Ministry

The purpose of my foray into Muscular Christianity has been to find some guidance on how to approach Men’s Ministry. In light of the challenge of getting men more involved in the church can we present the Gospel differently? Can we have programs and ministries focused on men? Can we do something outside of the church? Perhaps a more important question: should we do these things?

A Little Humility is In Order

First off. What good did the movement do? Here we are, a century later, still asking the same questions, struggling with the same issue that Muscular Christianity was supposed solve. So, it didn’t turn the tide.  This is a warning that it’s probably over ambitious to think we can reverse the long-standing lack of greater involvement of men in the church.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t try. Our goal in the church is not really to shift history but to save the individual man and to build up the existing church, namely our own. So we try, so that someone may be saved.

The history of the Muscular Christianity movement reveals some dangers to be aware of when we try to develop ministries specifically for men. Let’s take a look at two big ones.

What Does it Mean to be a Man?

Behind the idea of Men’s Ministry is the assumption that there is something homogeneous about men, a certain ideal manliness that we can hold up as God’s call to the Christian man. What is it that we want to make men into? What behaviors do we want to see the men in our church stop and what to begin? The danger here is that we begin to press men into a certain mold that may or may not be God’s mold for them.

Muscular Christianity sought to engage men in the church again, to turn back what it saw as a tide of feminizing. But in doing so, it defined manliness in a way that seems limited and selective. It held up the ideal man as physically strong and in shape, athletic, and primitive (which had mainly to do with being able to survive in the woods; this was part of the impetus for the Boy Scouts, and the Christian Camp movement among others). Being “civilized” was not manly. While being well-rounded was desirable, it seems if you were talented academically in college, but not on the football team, you were not manly. And if you were a pastor, who wasn’t also a baseball player or boxer, or someone, like Billy Sunday, with a muscular physique, then you also were not manly. If you had to choose one or the other, being strong in mind or body, real men chose the body.

This may be a bit interpretive, but in rejecting “Manichaeism” and asceticism because those ideas devalued the body, Muscular Christianity swung too far to the other side, exalting the body and devaluing the mind and the spirit. It also incorporated a very black and white view of the world. If you weren’t manly, then you were part of the feminizing of the church.

Then there was the unsettling racial side to it. American Muscular Christian leaders warned that because of its physical decline, the Anglo-Saxon race was becoming weaker, while the immigrants from European countries were more physically vigorous. The assumption seemed to be that the physically strongest would rule ( a social Darwinism perhaps?) so Anglo-Saxons better toughen up. (see note below)

manly-man

One kind of manliness…

So, Lesson #1 is: Before we develop ministries for men, we best take a close look at our assumptions about manliness. What does it mean to be a man, not in our society, but according to God? If we do not define that, we will aim at whatever our culture says, or we will react against it. And we may wind up advocating something against God’s will.

The Idol of Power

One consistent part of “manliness” as many define it, including me, seems to be a focus on the right use of a man’s strength. Men are generally physically stronger than women, and of course, through much of history, have held greater authority and power. A good part of men’s ministry focuses on the right use of that power. But by its very nature power is a difficult thing to channel and control. Power can quickly be used to justify anything and can be easily redefined.

Early on in Muscular Christianity much was made of the power and strength of men as a means to evangelize the world. It was the great century of western missions, and if the Christian Church was to send missionaries to remote countries, it needed strong, vigorous men to do it. That was why you needed to get in shape, for the cause of spreading the Gospel.

But it is interesting how that noble purpose morphed in time to the need to be stronger than other races, to dominate others. It is also interesting to see how the emphasis on sports as a means to become stronger so that you may fulfill Gods purposes didn’t take long to change into an exaltation of sport for sport’s sake. Far from holding up the missionary as the model of a man, the ideal of manhood became the professional athlete, someone who participates in sport for no other reason than to play, be paid, and entertain others. Sound familiar? The nobility of manhood soon declined as power’s sights were lowered. Man himself became the idol that worked for himself and no longer for his god.

So here is Lesson #2: Strength and power are ultimately self-serving, and, far from being something that builds up the community, left to their own devices, they become a way to exalt the self against all others. Men’s Ministry needs to change the way men view strength and power.  This is not to deny that men possess strength and power, but how can we succeed where Muscular Christianity failed? An emphasis on being a good father or husband, to take charge at home, can easily be used to dominate those who are weaker, like a man’s wife and children. It can also be very easily co opted into the superhero/Lone Ranger mentality of men. “I am strong and powerful. I need no one else. And God has called me to save the world,” is a script we men are prone to.

...and a greater kind

…and a greater kind

We need to somehow not deny the strength and power of a man, but instead to redefine it according to the Scriptural call to love, which means to do good, to serve others, all others, especially those most in need.

But to take this a little further, in Lesson #3, it is perhaps wiser, and more in accord with the Gospel, to not speak of strength and power at all, to not focus on them, but rather speak only of the call to serve and to love as Jesus served and loved us. If men do this with their whole heart, they will naturally use their strength and power to accomplish them. But to dwell on one’s strength and power leads inevitably to an over-focusing on those, which inevitably leads to misuse. Strength and power are a man’s means to achieve God’s purposes, not the ends.

 The Use of History

A knowledge of history here allows us to get a sense of the pitfalls and possibilities of a ministry. We can see the whole run of Muscular Christianity, and can see how it changed over time and how it connected with the events of the time. It allows us to chart our path with greater awareness of how easily such movements can be hijacked by other goals and fears, and derailed by events around us.

There are no doubt other “men’s movements” in history that would be instructive. We could investigate monasticism, some of the different approaches to ministry found in Roman Catholic orders as different as the gentle, loving Franciscans and the militant Jesuits, and more. But this is a blog, not a book. And I suspect these observations would hold after reflecting on these other examples.

To summarize: The story of the Muscular Christianity Movement raises some very important questions for the church that wants to start a Men’s Ministry:

1)  What is it that we want men to become? Or what does it mean to be manly?

2)  How will we call men to acts of love and service employing their strength and power without becoming too focused on that strength and power?

3)  How will we connect men to a community of faith and to the wider fellowship beyond fellow men, a fellowship that includes those who men may be tempted to view as “weaker”?

Note: There was, in the U.S., a Muscular Christian movement among the African-American Church and the Roman Catholic Church, which was largely immigrant, and among Jewish Americans. I limited my consideration to the much larger and socially dominant Anglo-Saxon Protestant movement, although it seems that Muscular Christianity went in different directions among the other ethnic and religious groups.