Sunday, December 27, 2009

On the Feast of Stephen 2009

The Twelve Days of Christmas

Each year at Christmas I hear the same thing, usually
on what is called "Boxing Day" or very shortly thereafter:
"Well, Christmas is over for another year" ... "Well, I
guess that was Christmas for this year, time to get ready
for the New Year" ... "Happy New Year" ... etc. What this
indicates is that in the minds of most of the folks
around us, Christmas really only consists of one single
day, December 25, and nothing more. You spend several
months getting ready for that one day ... buying gifts
... making tarts, puddings, pies, etc. and then it is
all over in a quick flurry of wrapping paper, bows, toys
that needs batteries, dried pine needles, cranberry sauce,
and perhaps, painful hangovers.

Needless to say, this emphasis on a single day,
leads people to emphasize those things that culturally
have become the customary events of that day ...
the gift opening ... the turkey dinner ... the endless
dainties ... and being with the family. Of course,
none of these things are wrong in themselves,
nor the usual seasonal emphasis on being generous
and kind. All that is without any doubt good. But
such things have very clearly become the heart of
the celebration in many, many homes, even in the
homes of those who do actually make it to some
church or other on Christmas Eve or perhaps
even on Christmas Day (although church on Christmas
Day is usually pretty poorly attended in Canada,
for obvious reasons).

All this is one of the reasons why I appreciate very
much the actual season of Christmas, for it is a
season of twelve days, as we all know from the
popular traditional song, in which "my true love
gave to me" not one present but twelve. Likewise,
we know that the title of William Shakespeare's comedy
"Twelfth Night", refers to the last evening of the
last day of the Christmas season, a time when a
great deal of foolishness was traditionally permitted
in Merry Old England.

The celebration of Christmas in the early church took
some time to develop. It was not there right in the
early centuries but appeared rather later. But the
church did develop a season that is called Christmas
... not just one day ... just as we have a season
that is called Easter ... not just one single day.
This wise custom, of a season of twelve days, is
preserved in the calendar and lectionary of the English
Book of Common Prayer. It is a wise custom for us to
observe in our time because it helps us to focus on
the actual heart of the celebration, its theological
heart, the Incarnation of the Son of God.

When all the flurry of buying gifts and opening them
is over, behold, Christians are still quietly
celebrating Christmas, still singing Christmas
carols right on into the New Year, still reading
about the birth of Christ right on into early
January. Then they go on, on January 6, to
celebrate Epiphany, which is not just a single
day but also a season (of varying length depending
on the date of Easter), a kind of continuation of
the celebration of Christmas in that in Epiphany
the Incarnate Deity is manifested or shown forth
to the whole world.

What happens in Vegas may need to stay in Vegas
but what happened in Bethlehem does not
and cannot stay in Bethlehem.

Hail, thou ever bless'd morn.
Hail, Redemption's happy dawn.
Sing through all Jerusalem,
Christ is born in Bethlehem.

So, celebrating all the twelve days of Christmas
... with prayer, the reading of Scripture, and
the singing of hymns and carols (and remembering
that Boxing Day is really the feast of the first
martyr, Stephen), can help us to focus on what
God wants us to know about the birth of His Son
... the real "why" of Christmas ... and help us
to proclaim it to others. As we take the time to
reflect and wonder, we remember that this is the
One who came to "save his people from their sins"
(Matthew 1:21). He did not come just to suggest
to us that we should be nice to each other, although
He is an example of perfect charity and calls us to
the same. But rather He came primarily for the
salvation of His people, to accomplish perfectly
the salvation of His church. And He accomplished
what He came to do perfectly, so that if Christ
has died for you, you can never be lost. This is
the real message of the manger and of the twelve
days of Christmas. Thankfully, we shall have not
just twelve days but all eternity to sing of it.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Lambeth Articles

At the University of Cambridge, in the year 1595, during the
reign of Elizabeth I, a controversy developed among some of
the divines about certain points of Christian doctrine. The
matter became serious enough that it was referred to the
Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, who after
consulting with some other learned men, published the
following nine "propositions" which, in a cover letter,
he himself judged to be "true", directing that nothing
be taught at the university which would be contrary to
them. He made it clear that the nine propositions were
in complete accord with his private judgement and that
they corresponded to the "doctrine professed in this
Church of England and established by the laws of the
land". The propositions were drawn up by Dr. Whitaker
and signed by Archbishop Whitgift, by Dr. Richard
Fletcher (Bishop of London), by Dr. Richard Vaughan
(then Bishop Elect of Bangor) and others. The then
Archbishop of York, Dr. M. Hutton, affirmed that all
the propositions could be "plainly collected or
fairly deduced from the Scriptures and the writings
of St. Augustine".

The propositions have come to be called The Lambeth
Articles. They were accepted at the Dublin Convocation
of 1615 and became part of the articles of the Church
of Ireland (i.e. the Anglican Church in Ireland).
This is how they read:

1. God from eternity hath predestinated certain men
unto eternal life; certain men he hath reprobated.

2. The moving or efficient cause of predestination
to life is not the foresight of faith or of
perseverance, or of good works, or of anything
that is in the person predestinated,
but only the will and pleasure of God.

3. There is predetermined a certain number of the
predestinate which can neither be augmented
nor diminished.

4. Those not predestinated for salvation shall be
necessarily damned for their sins.

5. A true, living, and justifying faith and the
Spirit of God sanctifying, is not extinguished,
falleth not away, it vanisheth not away in the
elect either finally or totally.

6. A man truly faithful, that is, such a one
who is endued with a justifying faith,
is certain, with the assurance of faith,
of the remission of his sins,
and of his everlasting salvation by Christ.

7. Saving grace is not given, is not granted,
is not communicated to all men,
by which they may be saved if they will.

8. No man can come unto Christ unless it shall
be given unto him, and unless the Father shall
draw him and all men are not drawn by the Father
that they may come to the Son.

9. It is not in the will or power of everyone
to be saved.

What is, of course, compelling about this is
that Archbishop Whitgift and the other learned divines
of the Church of England were solidly Calvinist in
their understanding of salvation, and clearly saw
the above propositions as being in entire accord
with the 39 Articles of Religion which, of course,
they are.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

After Sunday liturgy

Only two religions in the whole world

This is a true saying and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 1 Timothy 1:15

There are only two religions in the world. One is that religion that wants to convince you that you are basically okay. The other is that religion that wants to convince you that, if left to yourself, you are entirely lost.

The first religion wants to tell you that, yes, there is God, but that all that he requires of you is that you should be a decent person. In other words, this religion says, “If you do this” or “If you do that”, or “If you are just a good person”, God will accept you. This religion takes many forms. But it is simply the religion of human nature. It comes quite naturally to us. We find it very easy to think that we are not so bad as all that, and that, yes, if we are just decent, upright, law-abiding people, God will accept us in the end.

This religion, therefore, is basically a religion of LAW. It emphasizes obedience, what we must DO on our own, and what we are CAPABLE of DOING on our own. It flatters us by making us think that we can, in fact, win heaven by our own efforts. It flatters us by making us think that we have the power to do all that is required of us. This is the religion of human works.

The other religion, which is the religion of the Bible, seems at first to be similiar. It tells us that, yes, there is God and it does not deny that His followers are to be good. But it goes on to tell us that this one, true God is a holy God, and indeed, perfectly so. That He requires not just a general obedience to His LAW, to His commandments, but absolute and perfect obedience to them, each and every one of them. And then this religion tells us, much to our irritation, that we are now incapable of that perfect obedience and will find it far beyond our reach.
This religion, the religion of the Bible, does not flatter us. Nor does it come naturally to us. In fact, in our natural state, we shall always find it most distasteful. Because, of course, it tells us that God will NOT accept us if we just try to be good, if we are just decent, law-abiding folks. Rather, it tells us that even the best things we do are tainted by something inside us that spoils all we do.
This religion is so far from flattering us with what we can do on our own, that it tells us that we entirely incapable of saving ourselves on account of the radical sinfulness, that moral infection of nature, that lies within us. It tells us that if any saving is going to get done, if any rescuing is going to get done, it is going to have to be done by God Himself. This is a terrible blow to our pride. But then, this religion is not for the proud.

Thankfully, this religion, the religion of the Bible, goes on to tell us that, even though we are incapable of making ourselves acceptable to a holy God, that same God has made a way of doing just that. Rather than leaving us in our sins, which would have been a perfectly just act on His part, He has chosen to save, out of a fallen race, a great multitude of every kindred and tongue and people and nation. And He has chosen to save them through their faith in His own Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, who became a perfect sacrifice for them, fulfilling all the demands of the LAW on their behalf. By grace, through faith, all that Christ has done is reckoned over to us. Although even the faith by which we receive the gift of the righteousness of Christ, is itself a gift.

This is the religion that says not what you must DO, but rather what has been DONE for you. To the world it is foolishness. To us, it is the highest wisdom.

Monday, May 25, 2009

As my father grew older, he began to suffer from significant
memory loss. One day I went to visit him in the care home
where he was living. I found him in the dining room sitting
in his wheelchair. He saw me as I walked in, recognized me,
said, ¨Can you help me? I can´t remember anything! I have
no past!¨

His distress was evident. There was a note of panic in his
voice. Things that had anchored him firmly throughout his
80-plus years were now somehow gone. He was cut adrift
on a dark, shapeless sea. And there seemed to be no
land in sight. It was a terrible moment for him.

Recalling that moment, I have often wondered what would
it be like to be able to remember ¨nothing,¨ to forget where
you were born, where you had lived, what you had done in
your life, whom you had known and loved? And there is
something truly frightening about the possibility of no longer
remembering your life, simply because remembering your
life has a lot to do with what it means to live in the present.
How we live today is very much guided by events we have
witnessed, people whom we have known, decisions that we
have made, manners and customs that we have learned,
in the past. Memory is an anchor that helps to keep us from
drifting lost and abandoned on a stormy sea of confusion.

Henry Ford once said, ¨History is bunk,¨ which I take to
mean that he considered history to be unimportant. But
really, that statement is ¨bunk.¨ History is very relevant.
It keeps us on track. This is especially so with regard to
our own personal histories. You are who you are, in large
part, because of your history. When you find yourself having
to say ¨I have no past,¨ you are really saying that you have
lost yourself in the present. How can I know who I am, if I
cannot remember who I was? When I cease to remember,
do I not, in some sense, cease to be myself? Who are you if
you cannot remember who your parents are, or where they
were born, or if you cannot remember where you yourself
were born, whether or not you are married, etc.?

I spent quite a bit of time that day with my father, trying
to help him remember his past. With a little bit of prompting,
he began to remember people and events from his life and
even from his childhood. I simply repeated back to him
many of the stories that he had told me and he began to
remember. His past was all still there, but it had become
very difficult to access. Once he realized that it had not
disappeared, he was once again ¨himself ¨ and we passed
a fine day together.

Human beings enter this world, ¨not in entire forgetfulness¨
but ¨trailing clouds of glory,¨ as the English poet William
Wordsworth has wisely said. We enter with certain things
already programmed into our minds and hearts and souls,
a certain amount of memory already on the hard-drive.
When those who have never heard of the Bible, of the Law
or the Gospel, of the Ten Commandments or the Letter to
the Galatians, or who have heard of it but do not believe it,
when those folks somehow find themselves feeling anger at
the injustices that they see in the world around them, or
hoping that there really is a world beyond this one, in that
moment they reveal that they have not come ¨in entire
forgetfulness.¨ Rather, they show ¨the work of the law
written in their hearts¨ (Romans 2:15). In that moment,
they are remembering something of who they really are.

God has this witness written in every human heart. In a
very real sense, there is no such thing as an atheist. At
some level, everyone knows that there is God, that He is
good, and that we are all going to be held accountable to
Him. When people, and whole cultures, begin to try
to cut themselves off from that deeper memory that
God has planted within them, they begin to drift lost
on an endless sea of confusion. Witness the palpable
moral drift of Canadian culture.

Of course, it is not just a matter of remembering.
Something very deeply rooted within us must change.
We must be given something that by nature we cannot
have. But beginning to remember, beginning to
understand that there are things hidden deep within us
that we need to access, that we need to remember, is
often the very first step on the road home. Memory,
the deepest kind of God-given memory, helps to
point the way.