Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ash Wednesday

Today is Ash Wednesday, which occurs forty days (not counting Sundays) before Easter.

Here's the wikipedia link to an overview of the holiday:

Grace and peace,

Monday, February 23, 2009

Luther's Legacy

Nobody's perfect...I was reminded of that fact last week with the celebration of Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday. In the midst of celebrating the "Great Emancipator" we were reminded from several sources that Lincoln had some very bad things to say about African Americans and their fate (for many years he wanted to deport them to Liberia).

Pastor John Piper wrote last week as well about Lincoln's failures and the fact that all earthly heroes will fail us. You can read the article here.

I was reminded of that truth again this week as I finished reading Roland H. Bainton's biography of Martin Luther, called "Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther".

Luther's legacy is truly staggering...leader of the Protestant Reformation, translator of the Bible into German, proponent of justification by faith....yet there was also a negative side to Luther as well. Unlike Lincoln who had some progression in his thinking of others, Luther's screeds became worse as he aged. Regarding the Pope, Luther was quite quick to call him the Anti-Christ. Regarding Jews, Luther had some very negative opinions. Bainton, Luther's biographer, notes that he wished Luther would have died earlier so that his anti-Semitic views would not have been known.

Regarding his positive contributions, Luther is unequaled. Here's how Bainton describes the work of Luther and his influence on Germans:

"The most profound impact of Luther on his people was in their religion. His sermons were read to the congregations, his liturgy was sung, his catechism was rehearsed by the father with the household, his Bible cheered the fainthearted and consoled the dying."

Compared to the Protestant Reformation in England, Bainton notes that there was not a similar character:
"The Bible translation in England was the work of Tyndale, the prayer book of Cranmer, the catechism of the Westminster divines. The sermonic style stemmed from Latimer; the hymnbook came from Watts. And not all of these lived in one century. Luther did the work of more than five men. And for sheer richness and exuberance of vocabulary and mastery of style he is to be compared only with Shakespeare."
I encourage you read Luther's biography...even though he was an imperfect man. He was a man who doubted, but a man who also had incredible faith...a faith that allowed him to say before the Emperor: "Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen."


Friday, February 20, 2009

Luther's Lyrics

This week I've been reading Roland Bainton's book called "Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther".

In the 1520's Luther challenged Catholic authorities on their practice of selling indulgences, arguing that it contradicted the Scriptural doctrine of justification - of being made right with God - through faith in Christ alone.

What was interesting to me was that for someone focused so much on faith instead of works, the works that Luther produced in the 1520's are truly staggering. During the course of just a few years Luther:

  • wrote three major treatises (starting in 1520) on Christian freedom, "the priesthood of all believers", Two Kingdoms and the sacraments

  • translated the New Testament into German (first published in 1522)

  • wrote "On the Bondage of the Will" (first published in 1525) on the sovereignty of God and the limitations of humans to choose good and their inability to be right with God on their own strength

  • wrote the "Large" Catechism (published in 1529), as instructions to parents and teachers

  • wrote the "Small" Catechism (also published in 1529) for instruction to children

One of the most lasting legacies during this period is his hymn "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" written between 1527 and 1529. Here's a link to the lyrics:

After nearly 500 years, the words to the hymn remain poignant and incredibly stirring.

Many Blessings,

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Luther's Courage

This week I've been reading Roland Bainton's book called "Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther".

What stuck me most over the past few days of reading Luther's biography, was the incredible courage he had when facing certain death in the 1520's for his role in the Protestant Reformation.

It is likely that Luther never intentionally set out to be the leader of the Protestant Reformation. His initial objections to the sale of indulgences were not those of a radical attacking the Church from the outside, but rather, he was an insider...a monk and a scholar within the Church, who posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Latin, intending his work to be read by a learned audience. He believed that the clerics and the Pope would reconsider the sale of indulgences after reading his reasoned arguments and examining Scripture.

What happened next in quick order was that the authorities did not reconsider their position, but rather viewed Luther as a heretic. The Pope threatened to excommunicate him if he did not recant (in June of 1520) and he was ordered to appear before Emperor Charles V in April 1521.

Luther was aware that he was likely to be found guilty and killed. Here's what he wrote just before appearing before the emperor:

"You ask me what I shall do if I am called by the emperor. I will go even if I am too sick to stand on my feet. If Caesar calls me, God calls me. If violence is used, as well it may be, I commend my cause to God. He lives and reigns who saved the three youths from the fiery furnace of the king of Babylon, and if he will not save me, my head is worth nothing compared to Christ. This is no time to think of safety. I must take care that the gospel is not brought into contempt by our fear to confess and seal our teaching with our blood." (pg. 135)

When he did appear before the Emperor at Worms, his words were equally courageous:

"Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason--I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other--my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise." (pg. 144)

The courage that Luther was able to express, in the face of certain death is truly miraculous. Luther was able to rest and have confidence in the Lord...believing that the God who had helped his faithful servants in the Old and New Testament would help him.

May we find the same courage from God, being confident not in our own strength but in His as we continue our life's journey,

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Indulge me for a moment...

I was interested in reading the following article in our local paper about the revival of the Catholic tradition of indulgences:

According to the newspaper article, these indulgences are designed to "hasten" one's "journey to heaven" and "avoid punishment in the afterlife".

I have great respect for the Catholic Church. I am thankful that the Church has stood for the cause of Christianity for so many centuries in the midst of incredible, often difficult, circumstances. Personally, I've found a great number of Catholic authors helpful (especially St. Augustine, Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton). But this area regarding indulgences is one where we sharply differ.

The issuing of indulgences was a major cause of (what is known today as) The Reformation, which started in the early 1500's and birthed the Protestant Church. The initial leader of the Reformation was a German named Martin Luther, who I've been reading recently for a seminary program.

Luther had initially considered being a lawyer before feeling called by God to become a monk. While living at a monastery and serving as a pastor and teacher in the city of Wittenberg, Luther wrestled with intense feelings of guilt...knowing that he was sinful and constantly falling short of God's standards.

At the same time a man commissioned by Rome, named Johann Tetzel, traveled throughout Germany selling indulgences, to limit the punishment of purgatory for those who purchased them and for their designated recipients who had already died.

Luther eventually did finally find comfort...not in indulgences, or in changing his beliefs about God's standards, but through his study of Scripture, particularly his study of St. Paul's writing (in Romans, to be exact). There he discovered the idea of "justification by faith"...that Christians are made right with God, not by their own works of righteousness but rather through faith in the work of Christ.

If you're struggling with this concept, I'd encourage you to read Romans or Galatians in the New Testament to see Paul's passion around this concept...that it's not our work, but the work of Christ that will remit sin because Christ has taken the punishment for us.

If you're interested in learning more about Luther, I'll be reading his biography this week. The biography I'm reading is by Roland H. Bainton called, "Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther". I'll keep you posted with what I learn.

Many blessings,

Monday, February 16, 2009

In Celebration of Celebration

The 30th anniversary of the publishing of Richard Foster's book "The Celebration of Discipline" was recently celebrated.

The book is a wonderful exploration on the subject of Christian growth and covers many topics, including:

  • the inward disciplines of prayer, fasting and Christian meditation
  • the outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude and submission
  • the corporate disciplines of confession, worship and celebration.

Christianity Today has written much about the book in the past few months and recently they've published an article by Richard Foster about his priorities for the next 30 years:

The mark of a good book often for me is that I can't find it....because I've loaned it to several people and can't remember who the last person was to receive it. That's true for "The Celebration of Discipline"...I found it to be a really helpful book when I first read it in 1989 and several times since. (If you have my copy...send it back).

On a final note, another great book by Richard Foster was one published in the 1980s called "Money, Sex and Power"...a terrific look at those topics from a Christian perspective. I think it is now out of print, but if it's been reissued I'll update the post.


Thursday, February 12, 2009

Lincoln Links

Today we celebrate Abraham Lincoln's 200th Birthday. A coworker shared with me these helpful Lincoln links:

The Gutenberg Project - has free digital copies of Lincoln's writing (including the Gettysburg Address, his Inaugural Addresses, his complete speeches as President and his collected writing). Here's the link:

The Abraham Lincoln Association - has posted the 8 volume "The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln", which is hosted by the University of Michigan. Here's that link:

The Library of Congress - has posted several photographs of Lincoln and his family that are in its collection. Here's that link:


Monday, February 9, 2009

Reading Lincoln

On Friday I finished David Herbert Donald's biography, "Lincoln". I found it to be a terrific book.

I found Dr. Donald's description of Lincoln's Presidency to be the most fascinating section of the book. The way in which Lincoln navigated between the many divergent Northern political groups (the "Radical" and "Conservative" Republicans, the "War" Democrats, etc.) was incredibly interesting.

It was interesting to read that many people in these groups considered themselves to be Lincoln's enemies...there were a number of people that said that the Civil War was a "failure" and attacked Lincoln for going too slow/or too fast in regards to emancipation...and for being too lenient/too hard in the area of reconstruction.

In last Sunday's New York Times, William Safire reviewed a number of books published recently about Lincoln. His review can be found here.

In his review he has some very good things to say about Dr. Donald's biography. He writes, "no one-volume life published so far beats David Herbert Donald’s perceptive and lucid work (still selling in trade paperback)."

Mr. Safire also noted that a two volume, 2,000 page, million-word biography of Lincoln by Michael Burlingame called "Lincoln: A Life" will be posted online in the spring. Here's the link: I can't wait to see that.

I'm sure we'll hear more this week about books and resources on Lincoln as we approach his 2o0th birthday on Thursday the 12th. I'm looking forward to that.


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Comfort in Grief

On Friday morning I found myself finishing up work on a software project in a Christian hospital in north Georgia. Having some time on my hands at 8:30am, I took a break from my work and attended the hospital's morning chapel service.

I was greeted warmly by Chaplain Dave, who smiled warmly and shook my hand. I joined a group of three others: a maintenance worker, and two women, one of whom cried throughout most of the fifteen minute service. Chaplain Dave began by reading a passage of Scripture then told us about some of his encounters with patients and their families during the week.

He told about an incredible encounter he had earlier in the week with a woman who was in the ICU. She had stopped breathing for almost ten minutes and had been pronounced dead. After he was called in, he prayed for her and miraculously she took a gasp and began breathing again. A few days later she was transferred to a less critical care room. He said that the nurses had told him that they had never seen anything quite like that before.

Chaplain Dave also told of praying with a family earlier that morning who had just lost a young member of their family to death. He told us that the family was very upset and deep in grief at their loss. "Those cases are always so difficult." he said.

Soon we read some written prayer requests from patients and then began praying.

As we prayed, I thought about some reading that I had done earlier in the week.

I thought first about a passage that I had read in David Herbert Donald's book "Lincoln". In the book, Dr. Donald writes about the death of the Lincoln's son Willie, who died in the White House in February 1863 (he was their second son to die in childhood).

Dr. Donald explained:

"Both parents were devastated by grief. When Lincoln looked on the face of his dead son, he could only say brokenly, 'He was too good for this earth...but then we loved him so.' It seemed appropriate that Willie's funeral, which was held at the White House, was accompanied by one of the heaviest wind and rain storms ever to visit Washington. Long after the burial the President repeatedly shut himself in a room so that he could weep alone."

"During this time he increasingly turned to religion for solace. As Mary Lincoln said years later, 'He first thought...about this subject...when Willie died - never before."

Dr. Donald noted that President Lincoln turned to Rev. Phineas D. Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, where the Lincoln's rented a pew. Lincoln, we are told, had several long talks with the pastor who comforted Lincoln with the Christian belief that his son lived on in heaven.

During the morning prayer service at the hospital, my thoughts turned also to the recent death of Father Richard John Neuhaus. Fr. Neuhaus was a Catholic priest, the author of several books, a leader in the ecumenical movement and the founder of "First Things", a monthly religious journal that I have found very helpful throughout the years.

Fr. Neuhaus wrote profoundly about his thoughts on death - the article that I read earlier in the week, called "Born Toward Dying" can be found here.

In the article, Fr. Neuhaus explained how he had served as a chaplain at a large hospital where he would see two or three patients die in a 24-hour period. He also wrote about his own near-death experience several years before where he had heard "presences" (i.e. angels) near his hospital bed telling him, "Everything is ready now."

In the article Fr. Neuhaus noted that when a loved-one dies it can lead to wisdom about this life and the life to come:

"The worst thing is not the sorrow or the loss or the heartbreak. Worse is to be encountered by death and not to be changed by the encounter."

Fr. Neuhaus died on January 8th. In his final column for "First Things" he conveyed a hope in eternal life through faith in Christ...a hope that I had heard on Friday morning at the prayer service led by Chaplain Dave...and a hope that the Lincoln's heard in 1863 from Rev. Phineas D. Gurley.

Fr. Neuhaus wrote hopefully:

"Be assured that I neither fear to die nor refuse to live. If it is to die, all that has been is but a slight imitation of what is to be. If it is to live, there is much I hope to do in the interim."

May you be comforted in your grief,