Saturday, February 27

The Dragonslayer

George of Diospolis, patron of both England and Lebanon, was a Christian soldier of Rome's Imperium who gained fame after several daring rescues of children in distress. He was known as the "Dragonslayer" not so much because of exploits with rare and dangerous reptiles, but because of his willingness to snatch innocent life out of the jaws of death.

Eventually, he fell victim to the Emperor Diocletion's great persecution and was beheaded in Nicomedia on this day in 304. Later, innumerable legends made much of his exploits—romantically associating him with damsels and dragons—but it was his willingness to risk all for the sake of the sanctity of life that earned him his place in history.

Friday, February 26

The God Who Answereth by Orphanages

In 1821, Dr. John Rippon, pastor of the New Park Street Chapel in Southwark, London, began a ministry to the homeless poor. A complex of almshouses was erected on a property adjacent to the church and the monumental task of rehabilitation was begun. Rippon wrote, “Christian compassion is driven by a holy and zealous compulsion when sight be caught of deprived distress. Talk not of mild and gentle acts, of soft provisions and hesitant walk. Christian compassion knows only boldness and sacrifice. Lest we strike the Judas bargain and go the way of the goats, let us invite the strangers in. Let us shelter the aliens beneath a covering of charity and Christlikeness.”

When Charles Haddon Spurgeon succeeded Rippon to the pastorate of New Park Street Chapel in 1854, the work with the poor continued unabated. When the church moved to larger facilities in 1861, it was apparent to Spurgeon that the almshouses, too, would need to be moved into larger and more up-to-date facilities. Therefore, he launched the construction of a new building for them. According to press reports at the time, “no greater effort has ever been expended on behalf of the city's destitute.”

The new structure consisted of seventeen small homes which, in the manner of the times, were joined together in an unbroken row. There, in home-style fashion, the poor were not only sheltered, but also provided with food, clothing, and other necessities. In succeeding years, a school, an orphanage, and a hospital were added, each an expression of that holy and zealous compulsion: Christian compassion.

Both Rippon and Spurgeon looked upon their work of sheltering the homeless as part and parcel with the rest of their ministry. It was inseparable from their other labors: preaching, writing, praying, and evangelizing. It was inseparable, in fact, from their faith in Christ.

On this day in 1870, a renowned doubter accosted Spurgeon on a London thoroughfare and challenged the authenticity of his faith. Spurgeon answered the man by pointing out the failure of the secularists in mounting practical and consistent programs to help the needy thousands of the city. In contrast, he pointed to the multitudinous works of compassion that had sprung from faith in Christ: Whitefield's mission, Mueller's orphanage, Jamison’s hospice, Chalmers’ poor school, Bernardo's shelter, Welch’s job corps, and Martin’s hospital. He then closed the conversation by paraphrasing the victorious cry of Elijah, boisterously asserting, “The God who answereth by orphanages, let Him be God!”

Friday, February 19

The Morning Star

At the Council of Toulouse, held in 1229, the hierarchy of the Western Church determined that the laity was to be denied direct access to the Scriptures. The assumption was that the masses of people were simply too ignorant to be trusted with the Holy Writ. A century and a half later John Wyclif openly challenged that notion--and very nearly paid with his life.

After earning his doctorate in 1372 Wyclif was widely regarded as the greatest living philosopher in all of Europe. He was also an eloquent preacher. In passionate sermons, preached not in Latin, but in the English his fellows could understand, he blasted the worldliness of the clergy and the corruptions of the church.

Among the corruptions he challenged were the sale of indulgences, the worship of saints, the veneration of relics, the idleness of monks and priests, the inaccessibility of the Bible, and the empty ritual of many church services. Church authorities lashed back. They summoned Wyclif on this day in 1377, to a trial at St. Paul's Cathedral. He came with his patron and friend, the powerful Prince John of Gaunt--who was then serving as the regent of the realm during the minority of the son of his deceased brother, the Black Prince.

Not surprisingly, the meeting broke up inconclusively with a violent quarrel between the bishops and the prince.

Apparently though, the confrontation made Wyclif more determined than ever before to bring the Word of God to the common people. He not only began to work on a translation of the Bible in common, vernacular English, he trained and sent forth preachers to proclaim its doctrines clearly--these were the men the prelates called Lollards, or "mutterers."

Alas, many of his followers were persecuted and killed. In Bohemia, Jan Hus became a giant of faith after reading and applying Wyclif's teaching before he was burned at the stake. In England, too, his testimony could not be stamped out. The Lollards, though harried, vilified, and punished for the next century and a half, faithfully preached the Scriptures--right up to the time of the Reformation.

Years after his death the church ordered Wyclif's bones dug up, burnt and scattered. But, it was too late to undo the good he had done.

It is no wonder then that he came to be called "The Morning Star of the Reformation."

Wednesday, February 17

The Long March of the Waldenses

The Waldenses received a guarantee of civil and religious rights on this day in 1879--it was the first time in seven centuries that they enjoyed any measure of freedom or recognition.

The little reform movement began in 1176 when the rich merchant, Peter Waldo, first truly heard the words of Christ to the rich young ruler, "If you would be perfect, go, sell what you posses and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." Immediately, Waldo sold all he had and began a life of itinerant preaching.

He and an ever-growing band of disciples were often persecuted. Many were sent into exile. For centuries, they suffered isolation and ignominy.

With the coming of the Reformation, the scattered remnant of the Waldenses gladly joined their cause with that of the Protestants. Allowed refuge in Switzerland, they nevertheless pined for their homeland and in the in 1691, they made a "glorious return." But, it was not until the Italian nationalist revolutions of the mid-nineteenth century that the remaining faithful, now dwelling in alpine valleys of northern Lombardy, were able to secure even minimal legal rights.

Unintended Consequences

The little kingdom of Portugal differed from almost every other realm at the end of the fourteenth century in that it was already a single and united whole. From Algarve in the south to Minho in the north there were no conflicting dialects, no semi-independent provinces, and no feudal lords with vassals and rear-vassals of their own. All fiefs were held directly from the king, all castles were crown property, and there were no robber barons carving out autonomous manorial estates. The four great indigenous crusading orders—Saint John, Santiago, Aviz, and Christo—were still garrisoned in their fortresses, but all their attentions had been focused on the Saracens of North Africa since the defeat of the Moors a century earlier.

Into these happy circumstances came the Infante Dom Henrique on this day in 1394—the fourth son of King Joao. Future generations would call him Henry the Navigator because of his efforts to forge nautical advancement. At Cape St. Vincent, he built a marine laboratory that transformed the enterprise of discovery from happenstance into science. There, he gathered the greatest pilots, navigators, cartographers, ship builders, geographers, astronomers, mathematicians, and mariners in the worldr. He accumulated a vast library of sailing charts and portolanos.

He investigated the ancient tales of St. Brendan, of the norsemen, of the Antipodes, of Prester John, and of Marco Polo with the objectivity of an academician. He sponsored the discovery and colonization of innumerable far flung isles—including Madeira, Porto Santo, the Verdes, and the Azores. And he advanced the design of ocean going vessels by building the caravel.

As progressive as Henry may appear—a medieval anomaly of purposefulness, logic, and moderation—it is clear enough that he was very much a man of his day. The great and overriding motivation behind his enterprise was the simple desire to carry the crusading sword over to Africa in Christendom's holy war against Islam. He ultimately led three crusades—in 1415 against Mauritania, in 1436 against Tangier, and in 1458 against Fez.

North Africa had once been a jewel of Christian civilization. It produced some of the finest minds of the early church—Augustine, Tertullian, Anthony, Clement, Cyprian, Origen, and Athanasius. But during the seventh and eighth centuries it was put to the scimitar and vanquished. Almost every trace of Christianity was swept away. Henry wanted more than anything to remove that shame.

But, in the process, he launched the world's greatest adventurers, discoverers, and mariners. And thus, was born the great age of navigation and exploration.

Tuesday, February 16

Snow Day Reading

The Origins of Mardi Gras

The historical origins of Mardi Gras are much debated, but many of its traditions seem to have their roots in early Celtic Christian rituals in ancient Gaul, Ireland, and Scotland—which, in turn, seem to have even earlier Greek antecedents.

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is a celebration of life’s excesses before the austere self-sacrifices of the Christian season of Lent. It receives its name from the tradition of slaughtering and feasting upon a fattened calf on the last day of the Winter Carnival that followed the Twelfth Night, or Epiphany.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, forty days before Easter, and includes a much more proscribed lifestyle for faithful Christian families—traditionally a season of concerted fasting and asceticism. The day prior to Ash Wednesday, is thus, the final hurrah and excesses frowned upon at any other time of the year are all too often embraced or even exulted.

The ancient Mardi Gras tradition was first brought to the New World by the French, and it became a vital component of the culture settlers established along the Gulf Coast. Though it is most often associated with the city of New Orleans, all throughout the region, festive carousers celebrate during the two weeks before the beginning of Lent with parades, balls, masquerades, street dances, concerts, amusements, jocularity, and merry banquets.

On April 9, 1682, French explorer Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle, claimed the region from where the Mississippi drained into the ocean all the way to Pensacola Bay in the name of King Louis XIV of France. Spanish explorers had already discovered the region, but abandoned it when they failed to discover gold.

La Salle attempted to return to the region two years later, but ended up in Texas instead. He spent the next two years searching for his discovery—a search that ended when his men finally murdered him.

War prevented France from continuing its colonization efforts until 1697. King Louis XIV then commissioned a Canadian, Pierre le Moyne, Sieur D’Iberville, to secure a colony and French interests in the region. Iberville’s flotilla finally landed in February on Ship Island, twelve miles off the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and established his headquarters on the site of present-day Ocean Springs, Mississippi. The following spring, he built a fort near present-day Phoenix, Louisiana—the first permanent French colony on the Gulf Coast.

But ongoing wars and other concerns kept the attentions of King Louis away from the New World. When he died in 1715, he was succeeded by his five-year-old great grandson in name, and in practice by Philippe, Duke of Orleans, who served as Regent for the young king. One of the Regent’s friends was John Law, who devised a get-rich-quick strategy of promoting Louisiana’s riches. The scheme virtually bankrupted France, but not before the dramatic expansion of the colony, and the founding of New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile, and Pensacola in the spring of 1718.

Progress in the new towns was slow, but Mardi Gras festivities are believed to have begun in their earliest days. It provided them with a sense of cultural cohesion and identity. Indeed, it seemed that early on the Mardi Gras of the colonies took on a character and a flavor it never had back in France.

In 1760, France lost its Canadian colonies to Britain. Disheartened by their failures in the New World—for its lands in Louisiana had never shown a profit, and had been plagued with troubles—King Louis XV and his ministers decided to focus their attention on their colonies in the West Indies. Even though thousands of French Canadians were exiled to the region by the British, in 1762, France signed the secret Treaty of Fountainbleau, granting New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile, Pensacola, and much of the rest of Louisiana to King Louis XV’s cousin, King Carlos III of Spain.

Spain’s control had an immediate effect on the Mardi Gras festivities that were presumably as old as colonies themselves. Although Spain, like France, was also rooted in a Celtic Christian tradition, the influence of the Church was far stricter than that in much of the rest of Europe. Parties and street dancing were immediately banned.

Even so—and despite nine months of open rebellion in 1768—under Spanish rule, many local traditions were allowed to remain, and New Orleans actually thrived, rather than merely survived as it had under French control.

Napoleon Bonaparte’s ascension to First Consul of France marked the decline of Spanish influence in the region, now known as the western Floridas. After consolidating his strength in Europe, Napoleon turned his eyes overseas, and pressured Spain to return the Gulf Coast colonies along with the rest of Louisiana to France. New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile and the rest of the Florida parishes came under French colonial rule according to the Treaty of San Ildefonso in October, 1800. But President Thomas Jefferson of the United States viewed French control as a threat to the American ability to conduct unhindered trade. Rather than marching to war, as some members of Congress suggested, he sent Secretary of State James Madison to France to offer to buy the territories.

Napoleon had concluded even before Madison reached France that he could not hold the colonies, and that it would be in his best interest to sell it to the United States. Negotiations took about two weeks, and the territories—extending from New Orleans to the Canadian border—were sold for $15 million in 1803.

But specifically exempt from the sale was the land east of the Mississippi. And after only a year or so of French rule, those remaining parishes became independent and autonomous. Eventually, the settlers formed an independent nation extending from the Mississippi in the west to Pensacola Bay in the east and stretching as far north as present-day Montgomery, Alabama. The founders of this Gulf Coast state called their nation the Republic of West Florida and established their capital at Baton Rouge. Thomas Jefferson’s near relative, Fulwar Skipwith was elected president shortly afterward—and it was Skipwith who encouraged the adoption of the Bonnie Blue Flag, the old Celtic symbol of covenantal freedom, as the nation’s official banner.

Independence brought prosperity, liberty, and a return to open Mardi Gras celebrations. Public dancing and celebrating were allowed to return. Although costumes were worn for both, Mardi Gras was not ever confused with Halloween—another Celtic Christian celebration. Gore and mayhem were perhaps tolerated for All Hallow's Eve, but during Mardi Gras, it was glamour that was de rigour. Feathers, beads, glitter, spangles, formal attire, tuxedoes, ball gowns, and boas became a vital aspects of the jubilant tradition.

In 1810, the independence of West Florida was brought to an untimely and ignominious end when President James Madison ordered a detachment of American cavalrymen under the command of General William Claiborne to conquer the territory for the United States.

Legislators were marched out of the capitol building at bayonet-point and forced to pledge allegiance to the federal United States and its governmental emissaries. The Bonnie Blue flag was torn down and replaced by the Stars and Stripes. Despite the imposition of such seemingly blatant imperial tyranny, the region continued to prosper and Mardi Gras remained a hallmark of the distinctive region.

Such history hangs upon the Gulf Coast like the Spanish moss that drapes her live oaks. Over the course of the past three centuries, much of the region has served under seven flags: the French Fleur de Lis,Imperium, the Bonnie Blue of the Republic of West Florida, the Great Mississippi Magnolia, the Stars and Bars of the Confederate States of America, the Star Spangled Banner of the United States, and briefly during the War of 1812, the British Union Jack. But it is under the banner of Krew Rex, regent of the Mardi Gras celebration, that during this time of year, it seems most at home.

Sunday, February 14

St. Valentine's Day

Valentine was a third century pastor who was imprisoned for his faith. Legend has it that he wrote small pastoral notes to members of his congregation on the leaves he was able to pluck from a maple tree just outside his cell. These little “Valentine’s cards” expressed his love for the flock, and his desire that they demonstrate a similar selfless love toward one another. Gradually the tradition grew up for Christians to exchange notes of love and encouragement to one another on this, his birthday.

Saturday, February 13

Prophetic Alarms

On this day in 1974, Nobel Prize winning novelist, essayist, and historian, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was expelled from the Soviet Union. A prominent founding member of the Russian Samzat Movement, an underground resistance to Communist rule organized by artists, scientists, writers, and intellectuals, Solzhenitsyn was the author of several books exposing Soviet tyranny--all of which proved to be very embarrassing to the Kremlin and the Politboro. His books, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, The Gulag Archipelago, Cancer Ward, Full Circle, The Oaken Calf, and August 1914 are undeniable classics.

After his exile, he briefly became a media darling in the West. But then in 1978, he created a firestorm of controversy when in a commencement address at Harvard, he indicted Liberals in the West with the same politically-correct tendency to impose tyranny-in-the-name-of-freedom as his former Soviet masters in the Gulag.

This morning, I re-read the speech. Published as A World Split Apart, I found it as relevant today as it was when it was first delivered. Indeed, the oft-asserted ideological parallels between the Carter administration in that day and the Obama administration in this day, become strikingly, frighteningly evident as Solzhenitsyn voices his prophetic alarms.

Wednesday, February 10

Carry On

"If we take the generally accepted definition of bravery as a quality which knows not fear, I have never seen a brave man. All men are frightened. The more intelligent they are, the more they are frightened. The courageous man is the man who forces himself, in spite of his fear, to carry on." General George Patton

Tuesday, February 9

Contra Mundum

Athanasius (300-373) was one of the giants of the church's Patristic Age. As a young deacon from Alexandria, he attended the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea where he took a leading role in shaping the Nicene Creed. His bold defense of the doctrine of the Trinity against the Arian heresy demanded his attentions throughout his life and resulted in repeated exiles from his beloved home. He was also involved in various conflicts in the arena of politics, the arts, liturgical renewal, monastic development, New Testament canonisity, and judicial reform. He wrote several important works including biographies, commentaries, systematic theologies, and devotional treatises. His short classic, On the Incarnation, is still a staple of any solid theological education.

Late in the evening on this day in 356, nearly five thousand Byzantine troops surrounded the church of St. Theonas in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Inside, Athanasius was leading an all-night prayer vigil. When the troops burst through the doors, he was reading Psalm 103, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me praise his holy name."

Amazingly, the members of his congregation, in all the confusion of the moment, managed to spirit him away. And so for the third time since the Council of Nicea, Athanasius was exiled from his beloved city. George of Kallistos, an Arian, had been sent with imperial authority to assume the bishopric. He unleashed a spate of persecution. Sixteen bishops were banished from Alexandria. Using terror and murder, George tried to force an Arian creed on the people. A price was placed on the head of Athanasius. Agents searched everywhere for him. But the Alexandrians loyally hid their beloved teacher. Eventually George was ousted. Athanasius returned—only to be forced into exile twice more.

Despite a life filled with furious activity and controversy it was for his personal piety and humble faith that he earned for himself the sobriquet "Athanasius conta mundum," or "Athanasius against the world." Long seasons of prayer and fasting punctuated his life with an air of humility and faithfulness that his opponents simply were unable to match.

Friday, February 5

Selective Morality

"Nothing is more common than for men to make partial and absurd distinctions between vices of equal enormity, and to observe some of the divine commands with great scrupulousness, while they violate others, equally important, without any concern, or the least apparent consciousness of guilt. Alas, it is only wisdom which perceives this tragedy." Samuel Johnson

Thursday, February 4

Dismal Day

Today marks the traditional "Dismal Day." Also called, the "Egyptian’s Woe," this day was associated with the plagues of Egypt during the early Christian era and thus was believed to be a day of repentance, woe, and mourning. The word “day” in the phrase is actually an etymological tautology since the word “dismal” was originally the English form of the Latin dies mali or “evil days." “Dismal” was at first used as a noun; only later did it become an adjective. Observed somberly, this occasion was intended to be a reminder of the consequences of rejecting the gracious beckoning of God.

Tuesday, February 2

Candlemas Day

Candlemas is a traditional Christian festival held in honor of the presentation of the infant Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem in accordance with Mosaic Law (Leviticus 12:6,7). When Jesus was presented, Simeon took him in his arms and called him "a light to lighten the gentiles" (Luke 2:32). Traditionally, churches would host a procession of communicants holding candles in commemoration of Christ as the Light of the World.

According to an old bit of folklore, “If Candlemas Day be fair and bright, Winter will have another flight; But if it be dark with clouds and rain, Winter is gone, and will not come again." And thus interestingly, some scholars believe Candlemas is the original source of the idea behind Groundhog Day.