Faith: December 2004 Archives

Tabloid sermon


It's not every Sunday service that you hear the pastor read a poem called "I Want to Have a Space Alien's Baby." Not only did our pastor read said poem this morning, he read it twice. In a day or two you'll be able to find out for yourself what that had to do with the rest of his sermon, by going here and listening to the sermon.

In the meantime, you can read the poem here.

When he read this line:

"I spent a night beyond the moon
one time. Aliens are wonderful lovers.
You know that old song about slow hands?
They have six of them."

I nearly let out a belly-laugh, but no one else laughed (we're Presbyterian), so I held it in.

Believe it or not, the poem really is appropriate to the season. And here's something about the man who wrote the poem.

Lessons and Carols


With everyone else exhausted and in bed, and me exhausted but not yet in bed, as I cleared away some dirty dishes, I treated myself to the Christmas Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King's College Cambridge. The service, held annually (with a few war time exceptions) on Christmas eve since 1917, is a gift from the college to the City of Cambridge. The nine lessons are nine readings from the Bible which set the incarnation in the context of redemptive history, beginning with the fall of man in Genesis 3, the promises made to Abraham, the prophecies of Isaiah, the nativity narratives from Matthew and Luke, and concluding with the first chapter of the Gospel according to John, about the mystery of the incarnation. Interspersed are Christmas hymns, carols, and anthems, mostly traditional, some new but composed after the traditional style.

For many years, Holland Hall School held such a service at Trinity Episcopal Church downtown. As a student I was required to attend the service, grudgingly the first time, but gladly thereafter, and as a member of the Concert Chorus and Madrigal Singers I performed at two services.

As far as I can determine, the tradition was introduced to Tulsa by Father Ralph Urmson-Taylor, a Lancashire-born Anglican priest who came from Yorkshire to Tulsa in 1962 to be a chaplain at Holland Hall. I first encountered Father Taylor when I came to Holland Hall as a third grader, in 1971. For chapel, Father Taylor read to us from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and planted in my heart the seed of an openness to hear more of what C. S. Lewis had to say, a seed that bore fruit eight or nine years later, when I casually pulled The Abolition of Man down from a B. Dalton bookshelf.

(Fr. Taylor is also responsible for bringing another English seasonal tradition to Tulsa -- Trinity's annual Epiphany Procession, patterned after the annual service at York Minster. God willing, I'll be one of the singers at this year's service, January 2nd, at 5 p.m., at 5th & Cincinnati in downtown Tulsa.)

At the beginning of the service, after the processional, Father Taylor would read the bidding prayer. Confessing Evangelical has it as I remember it:

Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmastide our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.

Therefore let us read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God from the first days of our disobedience unto the glorious Redemption brought us by this Holy Child.

But first, let us pray for the needs of the whole world; for peace on earth and goodwill among all his people; for unity and brotherhood within the Church he came to build, and especially in this our diocese.

And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us remember, in his name, the poor and helpless, the cold, the hungry, and the oppressed; the sick and them that mourn, the lonely and the unloved, the aged and the little children; all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.

Lastly, let us remember before God all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore, and in a greater light, that multitude which no man can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom in the Lord Jesus we are one forevermore.

These prayers and praises let us humbly offer up to the Throne of Heaven, in the words which Christ himself hath taught us: Our Father, which art in heaven...

That's a beautiful prayer, and I get goosebumps thinking about that next to last paragraph, and think of people like my Uncle Bud Hunt, who passed away earlier this fall -- a man with zeal for God's Word, for God's spirit, and a love for his fellow man that compelled him to proclaim the gospel to others -- now free from pain and delighting in the presence of the Savior he loved so dearly in this life. I think of the last verses of the Epiphany hymn, "As with Gladness, Men of Old":

Holy Jesus, every day Keep us in the narrow way; And, when earthly things are past, Bring our ransomed souls at last Where they need no star to guide, Where no clouds Thy glory hide.

In the heavenly country bright,
Need they no created light;
Thou its Light, its Joy, its Crown,
Thou its Sun which goes not down;
There forever may we sing
Alleluias to our King!

The King's College version of the bidding prayer is a bit different, as one would expect, with references to Mary, the patron saint of the chapel, to the college and city, and to the Monarch. As I listened, I noticed a difference that can't be attributed to differences in local conditions. Dealing with politics as I do, I tune in to what is said and what is carefully left unsaid. There's a difference in the fourth paragraph above. Here's the current Cambridge version:

And let us at this time remember in his name the poor and the helpless, the cold, the hungry and the oppressed; the sick in body and in mind and them that mourn; the lonely and the unloved; the aged and the little children; and all who know not the loving kindness of God.

What's missing? First, the phrase, "because this of all things would rejoice his heart" -- the notion of being in the presence of Jesus, who would be pleased by our intercession for those in need. Second, the final phrase, "all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love," becomes "all who know not the loving kindness of God." Here again we have language that speaks of the Lord Jesus as one whom we owe love, one whom we may know, and one whose heart is grieved by sin. The language of the traditional prayer reminds the hearer that Jesus is not just a babe in a manger 2000 years ago, not an ancient, long-dead moral teacher, but our living Lord, to whom we owe allegiance and honor. And for what greater need can we intercede, than the need for all mankind to know, love, and obey Jesus?

Out of the mouths of babes...


On the way to Christmas Eve service tonight:

Joe: "Dad, what does PCA stand for?"

Dad: "Presbyterian Church in America."

Joe: "What are the initials of the Presbyterian church for Democrats?"

Augustine v. Pelagius


BBC Radio 4 is running a series of three historical debates -- modern scholars championing the arguments of one of the principals in an important dispute from history. The first program pits St. Augustine of Hippo versus Pelagius on the question of original sin, grace, and the possibility of human perfection. You can listen by clicking here. (Real Player required.)

Dawn Eden links to an interview about the Roman Church's view of the salvation of infants who die without baptism. In that system of doctrine, baptism is required for the washing away of original sin, and that has led their theologians to theorize variously that those dying without benefit of baptism are doomed to hell or consigned to limbo. The article reports that in October Pope John Paul II commissioned an in-depth study of the issue.

Plenty of Protestants have wrestled with this issue as well. I have wondered why it is that, given the higher rates of infant mortality that must have prevailed in Bible times, the Scriptures never deal directly with the fate of children dying in infancy or in the womb.

In looking at what great thinkers and preachers in the Reformed tradition have had to say about the subject, they consistently affirm that those dying in infancy are among God's elect, and by the saving work of Christ on the cross, they are welcomed into the presence of God. Some examples:

  • A sermon by Charles Spurgeon.
  • A section from Lorraine Boettner's Reformed Doctrine of Predesitination.
  • Thoughts from Reformed Baptist pastor John Piper.

Perhaps the clearest and most satisfying answer I've seen is this one by Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His answer seems to hinge on a key difference in the Catholic and Reformed understandings of the effects of original sin. Original sin is present in all of Adam's descendants, making us mortal and making us "utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil." (That's from chapter 6 of the Westminster Confession of Faith. That link will take you to the annotated text with proofs from Scripture.) But when the Bible speaks of eternal judgment, we will be judged according to our deeds:

For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

Although they share in the common corruption of the human race, that corruption has not come to fruition in those who die in infancy. On that ground, and on analogy with other scriptures, Mohler argues that these infants will be saved and therefore are evidently among the elect. This echoes a similar argument in a 1907 book, The Theology of Infant Salvation by R. A. Webb -- justice would not be satisfied if punishment were inflicted on one who could not understand the reason for punishment.

In the movie "Minority Report," the police determine who is going to commit a crime and arrest and punish the potential criminals before the crime is committed. God doesn't operate that way. He doesn't punish potential or likely or future disobedience, only actual disobedience. There's a passage -- can't remember exactly where at the moment -- that says that God waited until the wickedness of the Canaanites had reached its fullness before bringing the Israelites up from Egypt to conquer the land.

I've written more here than I intended, and less than I should to give this sensitive subject its due. To those who have lost a child in infancy, I offer this with a prayer that God will use these words to comfort you that your child is safe in His arms.

In response to a Seattle pastor who claims that President Bush is the Antichrist, Ace of Spades reposts his "Top Ten Mandated Changes to Make Christianity More Politically Correct and 'Inclusive'". (Warning: contains one mild vulgarity.) An excerpt:

7. Placards displaying "John 3:16" outlawed at sporting events; spectators wishing to display their spiritual beliefs may substitute oversized foam-finger bearing the corporate slogan "Dude, You're Getting a Dell!"

5. Christ's words are modified to make them less "harsh" and "hostile" to non-believers; "I am the Way and the Light" changed to "I am the Way and the Light, if you believe in that kind of thing, and assuming that's your bag"

Evangelical Christianity doesn't have a Pope or a Presiding Bishop to speak with authority on behalf of such a diverse movement, which includes entire denominations like the Presbyterian Church in America and the Southern Baptist Convention, megachurches like Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, parachurch ministries like the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Campus Crusade for Christ, and Prison Fellowship, independent seminaries and colleges like Wheaton College and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and individual congregations and individual believers who belong to denominations that are not as a whole identified with evangelicalism. While it would be tough to come to a commonly-agreed definition, groups like the National Association of Evangelicals and the Lausanne Committee on World Evangelization have made an effort.

With all this diversity in the evangelical movement, it's disheartening to see Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson plopped in front of a camera every time the media needs a spokesman from the evangelical community, when there are far more credible and eloquent spokesmen who can communicate effectively beyond the evangelical subculture with the rest of the world. I cringed when I saw a recent talk show pitting Falwell against Al Sharpton. Our faith deserves better representation.

David Wayne, the Jollyblogger, writes about the recent column by David Brooks, in which he says the media and the Democrats should acquaint themselves with the real leaders and voices of influence in the evangelical community. As an alternative to Falwell and Sharpton, Brooks nominates John R. W. Stott, the rector emeritus of All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London:

[Stott] was the framer of the Lausanne Covenant, a crucial organizing document for modern evangelicalism. He is the author of more than 40 books, which have been translated into over 72 languages and have sold in the millions. Now rector emeritus at All Souls, Langham Place, in London, he has traveled the world preaching and teaching.

When you read Stott, you encounter first a tone of voice. Tom Wolfe once noticed that at a certain moment all airline pilots came to speak like Chuck Yeager. The parallel is inexact, but over the years I've heard hundreds of evangelicals who sound like Stott.

It is a voice that is friendly, courteous and natural. It is humble and self-critical, but also confident, joyful and optimistic. Stott's mission is to pierce through all the encrustations and share direct contact with Jesus. Stott says that the central message of the Gospel is not the teachings of Jesus, but Jesus himself, the human/divine figure. He is always bringing people back to the concrete reality of Jesus' life and sacrifice.

I have read some of Stott's books, including Basic Christianity and Baptism and Fullness, and have had the privilege of hearing him preach at All Souls, including a wonderful sermon, just before New Year's Day 1992, about living in the tension between "the already and the not yet," the reality that God's Kingdom is at hand, but has not yet been fully consummated. He has a wonderful clarity of thought and expression.

But there are other evangelical leaders, and in particular, American evangelical leaders, who are well equipped to speak intelligently to matters of faith in a cultural and political context. To name a very few: Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship, Marvin Olasky of World magazine, Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Cal Thomas. Behind giants like these is a deep bench of columnists, pastors, seminary professors, and bloggers who combine passion for the truth with wit, precision of thought and expression, and compassion.

Wouldn't it be refreshing to hear important moral issues discussed with the sophistication of thought and expression that these issues deserve?

UPDATE: Comments from readers after the jump.

L'Abri Jubilee


L'Abri Fellowship, the network of study centers founded by Francis and Edith Schaeffer, will, in 2005, celebrate the 50th anniversary of its beginnings in Switzerland.

L'Abri (the word means "shelter") was established as a place for people "to seek answers to honest questions about God and the significance of human life." The Schaeffers, sent by the Bible Presbyterian Church to Europe as missionaries, just after World War II, sought to respond effectively to the cultural and spiritual trends in an increasingly secular continent. Students come for a few months and spend their days in study, helping with the practical work of the community, and engaging in conversation with the staff and fellow students.

Here's the L'Abri philosophy in a nutshell, from the webpage of L'Abri in Rochester, Minnesota:

The centrality of L'Abri teaching is that Biblical Christianity is true, and that it offers sufficient evidence to say 'it is the Truth'. It can be proclaimed and known without committing intellectual suicide or simply having to say 'just believe'. Because Christ is Lord of all life, Christianity speaks to all areas, not to only what might be called 'religious'. True spirituality is seen in lives, which, through Christ's redemption, are free to be fully human. Therefore, Christians can and should realize the implications and relevance of a Biblical worldview in the arts, sciences, politics, etc. If Christianity is 'the Truth', it will stand up to examination and provide satisfactory answers, and on this basis your questions will be taken seriously and addressed honestly.

World Magazine has just set up a sub-blog devoted to testimonials and reminiscences from those who studied at L'Abri, particularly during the Schaeffer years. It should make for challenging reading, as the church continues to struggle with the question: "How do you confront the culture with the truth of Scripture, when the culture rejects the very notion of truth?"

I never spent any time at L'Abri, but Francis Schaeffer's books have shaped the way I view the world and my faith. If God is there and if He has spoken to mankind, those facts should affect every aspect of life. Here are a couple of sites where you can learn more about Schaeffer: The Shelter and The Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary. And here is a 1982 sermon called "A Christian Manifesto," based on the book of the same name.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Faith category from December 2004.

Faith: November 2004 is the previous archive.

Faith: January 2005 is the next archive.

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