Thursday, March 31

"For the Mahometans" by Charles Wesley

Hymn #443 in the 1875 Wesley Hymnal (or #431 in the Collected Works of John Wesley) is a remarkable call for faithful intercession for the lost:

1. Sun of unclouded righteousness,
With healing in thy wings arise
A sad, benighted world to bless,
Which now in sin and error lies,
Wrapped in Egyptian night profound,
With chains of hellish darkness bound.

2. The smoke of the infernal cave,
Which half the Christian world o'erspread,
Disperse, thou heavenly Light, and save
The souls by that impostor led,
That Arab-thief, as Satan bold,
Who quite destroyed thy Asian fold.

3. O might the blood of sprinkling cry
For those who spurn the sprinkled blood!
Assert thy glorious Deity,
Stretch out thy arm, thou triune God,
the Unitarian fiend expel,
And chase his doctrine back to hell!

4. Come, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Thou Three in One, and One in Three,
Resume thy own for ages lost,
Finish the dire apostasy;
Thine universal claim maintain,
And Lord of the creation reign

Monday, March 28

Jon Amos Comenius

Pioneering educator, John Comenius was born in Prague on this day in 1592. Like most of the other followers of John Hus, he was forced into exile during the Thirty Years War. He and most of the members of his small covenant community settled in Leszno, Poland. There Comenius wrote several textbooks on education. These were so original in their conception of classical and covenantal discipleship that they won him the name "Father of Modern Education."

Sunday, March 27

So, Which Will It Be?

N. D. Wilson, author of Leepike Ridge and 100 Cupboards, has a new novel due out this summer. According to the Random House online press release, the new book promises "an imagination-capturing adventure that inventively combines the contemporary and the legendary." Hoo boy, can't wait. Just my cup of tea from one of my favorite authors.

The only trouble is that the site suggests two entirely different titles and two altogether different covers for the same book. At first, I thought that these might be volumes one and two of a new series. But then, I noticed that the two alternatives have the exactly same plot description:

For two years, Cyrus and Antigone Smith have run a sagging roadside motel with their older brother, Daniel. Nothing ever seems to happen. Then a strange old man with bone tattoos arrives, demanding a specific room. Less than 24 hours later, the old man is dead. The motel has burned, and Daniel is missing. And Cyrus and Antigone are kneeling in a crowded hall, swearing an oath to an order of explorers who have long served as caretakers of the world's secrets, keepers of powerful relics from lost civilizations, and jailers to unkillable criminals who have terrorized the world for millennia.

Having read his previous books, I have a good hunch that in this one, Wilson is once again queueing up a rollicking ride through ancient mythology and modern Americana, through arcane mysteries and topsy-turvy paradoxes.

So, which is it? Ashtown or Dragon's Tooth? I dunno. What I do know is this: whatever the title and whatever the cover, this one immediately goes to the top of my summer must-read list.


At the Final Four: Underdog Is Here

Just thinking about the VCU and Butler match-up in the NCAA Final Four brings a smile to my face--and these lyrics to mind:

There's no need to fear! Underdog is here!

When criminals in this world appear,
And break the laws that they should fear,
And frighten all who see or hear,
the cry goes up both far and near,
For Underdog! Underdog! Underdog! Underdog!

Speed of lightning, roar of thunder,
Fighting all who rob or plunder.
Underdog! Underdog!

When in this world the headlines read,
Of those whose hearts are filled with greed,
Who rob and steal from those who need,
To right this wrong with blinding speed,
Goes Underdog! Underdog! Underdog! Underdog!

Speed of lightning, roar of thunder,
Fighting all who rob or plunder.
Underdog! Underdog!

There's no need to fear! Underdog is here!

Friday, March 25

Arthur St. Clair

Born on this day in 1734 in Edinburgh, Scotland during the tumultuous days of the final Jacobite Rising and the Tartan Suppression, Arthur St. Clair (1734-1818) was the only president of the United States born and bred on foreign soil. Though most of his family and friends abandoned their devastated homeland in the years following the Battle of Culloden—after which nearly a third of the land was depopulated through emigration to America—he stayed behind to learn the ways of the hated Hanoverian English in the Royal Navy. His plan was to learn of the enemy’s military might in order to fight another day.

During the global conflict of the Seven Years War—generally known as the French and Indian War—he was stationed in the American theater. Afterward, he decided to settle in Pennsylvania where many of his kin had established themselves. His civic-mindedness quickly became apparent: he helped to organize both the New Jersey and the Pennsylvania militias, led the Continental Army’s Canadian expedition, and was elected Congress. His long years of training in the enemy camp were finally paying off.

He was elected President in 1787—and he served from February 2 of that year until January 21 of the next. Following his term of duty in the highest office in the land, he became the first Governor of the Northwest Territory and the founder of Cincinnati.

Though he briefly supported the idea of creating a constitutional monarchy under the Stuart’s Bonnie Prince Charlie, he eventually became a strident Anti-Federalist—believing that the proposed federal constitution could someday allow for the intrusion of government into virtually every sphere and aspect of life. He even predicted that under the vastly expanded centralized power of the state the taxing powers of bureaucrats and other unelected officials might eventually be able to confiscate as much as a quarter of the income of the citizens—a notion that seemed laughable at the time but that has proven to be ominously modest in light of our current governmental leviathan.

St. Clair lived to see the hated English tyrants who destroyed his homeland defeated. But he despaired that his adopted home might actually create similar tyrannies and impose them upon themselves.

Sunday, March 20

Belloc's Elegy

"When I am dead, I hope it may be said, though his sins were scarlet, his books are read." Hilaire Belloc

Thursday, March 17

Thomas Chalmers

The great Scottish pastor, social reformer, educator, author, and scientist Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847) was born on St. Patrick's Day 1780 at Anstruther on the Fife coast. During the course of his long and storied career he served as the pastor of three congregations, taught in three colleges, published more than thirty-five best-selling books, and helped to establish more than a hundred charitable relief and missions organizations. He practically reinvented the Scottish parish system as well as the national social welfare structure. He counted such luminaries as the Duke of Wellington, Sir Walter Scott, King William IV, Thomas Carlyle, William Wilberforce, and Robert Peel as his friends. Indeed, he was among the most influential and highly regarded men of his day.

In 1809, having already made his mark as a brilliant professor of mathematics at St. Andrews and serving a small rural parish, he underwent a spiritual transformation following an extended illness. Afterward, he completely abandoned himself to his little covenantal community. He married and had his first children there. He established a classical school at the heart of the parish. He set about a reform of the ministry to the poor, the widows, and the orphans. He established a pioneer missionary society and a Bible society. In addition, Chalmers began his prodigious and prolific publishing career.

Chalmers went to Glasgow at the invitation of the Magistrates and Town Council in 1815. He served first in the Tron Church until 1819, and then, he was transferred to the newly-created parish of St John’s, a poorer parish with a very high proportion of factory a workers, where he had the freedom to develop ministry to the poor and needy.

From the beginning of his ministry in the city his preaching was fully appreciated, and many attended from throughout Glasgow, but Chalmers was concerned that his ministry should first and foremost be to the parish—where some eleven or twelve-thousand people lived and worked. He commenced a program of visitation from house to house which took two years to complete. He organized the eldership to cooperate in this task and developed Sabbath evening schools. He undertook care of the poor, education of the entire community, and reform of the local political economy. In addition, he became a popular author, at times even besting his friend Walter Scott in sales.

In later years, he prepared others for a similar impact in ministry at the University of Edinburgh—always modeling mercy himself. In 1843, he led the Evangelicals in the establishment of the Free Church. And in 1846 laid the cornerstone for its New College.

Thomas Carlyle said of him “What a wonderful old man Chalmers is. Or rather, he has all the buoyancy of youth. When so many of us are wringing our hands in hopeless despair over the vileness and wretchedness of the large towns, there goes the old man, shovel in hand, down into the dirtiest puddles, cleans them out, and fills the sewers with living waters. It is a beautiful sight.” By the end of his life, Chalmers had changed his land like no other since Knox.

Sunday, March 13

A Child's Blessing

The meat and bread Thou didst supply,
The more to provoke us to rely.
From Thy blessed, bounteous coffer
We do receive, and so now offer:
All we are and all we have,
To You our Savior, King, and Path.

Isaac Watts

Thursday, March 10

Calendars and Creeds

There are about forty different calendar systems currently in use in the world. Some of these systems replicate astronomical cycles according to fixed rules, others are based on abstract, perpetually repeating cycles of no astronomical significance. Some carefully and redundantly enumerate every unit of passing time, others contain mystical ambiguities and metaphysical discontinuities. Some are codified in written laws while others are transmitted by oral tradition.

There are inevitable contradictions and variations in every calendar system—not just because people have remembered wrongly, but because they have remembered differently.

Even if all the calendar systems in the world could be regularized, there would still be difficulties in measuring the passing of time. There are three principal astronomical cycles that secular and scientific calendars attempt to measure. The first is the day which is based on the rotation of the Earth on its axis. Next is the months which is based on the revolution of the Moon around the Earth. Finally, there is the year which is based on the revolution of the Earth around the Sun. The complexity of creating a consistent calendar system arises because none of these cycles of revolution are regular. In other words, they do not comprise an integral number of days. From the vantage of earth, astronomical cycles are neither constant nor perfectly commensurable with each other. The tropical year, for instance, is defined as the mean interval between vernal equinoxes—it therefore necessarily corresponds to the cycle of the seasons. As a result, a calendar year of an integral number of days cannot be perfectly synchronized to the tropical year. Approximate synchronization of calendar months with the lunar phases requires a complex sequence of months of 29 and 30 days. For convenience it is common to speak of a lunar year of twelve synodic months, or 354.36707 days.

The common theme of any and every system is the desire to organize the calendar to satisfy the needs and preoccupations of a particular culture. Besides simply serving the obvious practical purposes, this process of organization provides a sense, however illusory, of understanding and managing time itself. Thus calendars have provided the basis for planning agricultural, hunting, and migration cycles, for divination and prognostication, and for maintaining cycles of religious and civil events. Whatever their scientific sophistication, or lack thereof, calendars are essentially social covenants, not scientific measurements. They are manifestations of a particular worldview or a creed.

And all cultures and the peoples who comprise them, regardless of their scientific, ideological, or creedal protestations to the contrary, necessarily choose a calendar to follow. The only question is what worldview system will they yield to in that choosing. Every calendar system is ultimately a kind of profession of faith.

Wednesday, March 9

Fat Tuesday and Ash Wednesday

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 and Egyptian antecedents.

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, was a celebration of life’s excesses before the austere self-sacrifices of the Christian season of Lent. It received 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 began on Ash Wednesday, forty days before Easter, and included a much more proscribed lifestyle for faithful Christian families—traditionally a season of severe fasting and asceticism. The day prior to Ash Wednesday, was thus, the final hurrah and excesses frowned upon at any other time of the year were actually embraced and 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 Brittish, 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, 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 this, the region continued to prosper and Mardi Gras remained a hallmark of the distinctive region.

Such history hangs upon Gulf Coast towns like the Spanish moss that drapes their live oaks. Over the course of the past three centuries, the region has served under seven flags: the French Fleur de Lis, the Golden Spanish 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 at this time of year, it is under the banner of Krew Rex, regent of the Mardi Gras celebration, that they seems most at home.

Saturday, March 5

Müller's Great Faith (Against All Odds)

From the time he was a small boy, George Müller’s father had intended that he would one day become a clergyman. But Müller resisted that notion violently. As a young man, he squandered one opportunity after another in drunkeness, thieving, fornication, cheating, and lying. On several different occasions, he was arrested and jailed. Yet his father never doubted.

When he went away to study at the university, a friend introduced him to a prayer meeting. There, he came under heavy conviction and was powerfully converted. He suddenly had an insatiable hunger for Scripture. Though he found it difficult to throw off his old habits all at once, he made a valiant effort and he was eventually able to effectually renounce the evils that had such a grip on him for so long. For the sake of Christ, he burnt a novel he was writing. He even renounced the stipend his father supplied him, believing it wrong to accept it since his father opposed the various schemes for mission work he now proposed to do.

Eventually Müller became a pastor and he focused his ministry on the care of the poorest of the poor. He taught his parishioners principles of Biblical stewardship—each was to give as God laid on his or her heart. He placed an offering box at the back of the church where they could give in sight of God alone. He made it a habit to make the church’s needs known to God, and God alone. When he married, he and his wife sold all they had and gave the proceeds to the poor.

His concern for the poor led him to build a network of orphanages. And again, he determined that the work would proceed entirely on faith. He prayed for every penny, never announcing his needs. At every turn, God gave him great success.

On this day in 1834, Müller and his friend Henry Craik announced their intention to form a new missionary society. It was to be called the "Scripture Knowledge Institution for Home and Abroad." The grand name and bold vision of the new organization belied the fact that the two men had no money whatsoever and they had no visible means of raising the necessary support for the scheme. Indeed, true to form they had determined ahead of time that they would not seek out donations, would not accept donations from non-Christians, and would not incur any indebtedness.

Nevertheless, the little venture the men intended to aid inner-city Sunday Schools, circulate the Scriptures to the poor, and provide support for missionaries abroad was soon thriving. Within just a few short years it had obtained a world-wide influence and was counted among the most successful Christian organizations anywhere.

Müller always believed that his great faith against all odds was rooted in the great faith of his father—who believed that he would one day serve Christ despite all evidence to the contrary.

Tuesday, March 1

Hudson Taylor

When Hudson Taylor arrived at the port of Shanghai on this day in 1854, he did not speak the language, he did not know where to go, he did not know a soul, and he did not have a place to stay. Evening was just descending when he disembarked from his ship and he began walking alone through the bewildering alien streets. Nevertheless, he wrote in his diary, that he was exultant, “My feelings on stepping ashore I cannot attempt to describe. My heart felt as though it had not room and must burst its bonds, while tears of gratitude and thankfulness fell from my eyes.”

Though he was ultimately able to find his way to a friendly mission compound in the teeming city that night, just about nothing else seemed to go his way. The days and weeks that followed were dreary and lonely. A civil war erupted just days after he arrived and people were slaughtered before his eyes. He struggled with the language and the seemingly impenetrable cultural barriers between himself and the Chinese people he had come to serve.

Eventually though, Taylor was able to overcome every one of these difficulties and many more. He learned the language and made up his mind to adopt native dress. He went to work planting an indigenous church and English board and founded the China Inland Mission, to expand his work throughout the entire land. He never told anyone about his financial needs, trusting that the Lord would provide whatever was needed. At his death the China Inland Mission had 205 missionaries. Though Chinese Christianity grew slowly at first, and has always suffered severe persecution, the fruit of Taylor’s labors is evident. Today the Chinese church is thought by some analysts to be the fastest growing in the world.

Who could have ever imagined such an outcome on that day so long ago when Taylor stepped out in faith and into Shanghai?