Skip to content

Be Not Dismayed, Thou Little Flock

My poem of the week this week, is this bold hymn by Johann Michael Altenberg, 17th century German pastor. He wrote this hymn during the turbulent times of war which followed the Reformation, and they seem pertinent today.

Be Not Dismayed, Thou Little Flock

Be not dismayed, thou little flock,
Although the foe’s fierce battle shock,
Loud on all sides, assail thee.
Though o’er thy fall they laugh secure,
Their triumph cannot long endure;
Let not thy courage fail thee.

Thy cause is God’s–go at His call,
And to His hands commit thine all;
Fear thou no ill impending:
His Gid’on shall arise for thee,
God’s word and people manfully,
In God’s own time, defending.

Amen, Lord Jesus, hear our cry;
Stir up Thy power, come from on high,
Defend Thy congregation;
So shall Thy church, through endless days,
Give thanks to Thee and chant Thy praise
In joy and adoration.

Author: Michael AltenburgTranslator: Elizabeth Rundle Charles

Tune: KOMMT HER ZU MIR

Mockingbird & Bible Reading

We were just minding our own business discussing How to Kill a Mockingbird this morning when biblical theology reached up and grabbed us!

In school with my older boys, we’ve been reading and discussing Harper Lee’s classic novel. We have enjoyed so many humorous scenes, insights into a bygone era, and powerful portraits of humanity- and we’ve only just finished Part One! This morning, though, one of my sons made the comment that the story jumped around a lot, that, while enjoyable, the book seemed to be a collection of a lot of different stories. I acknowledged the fact, especially at this early stage in the book, but suggested that what we needed to do was ask what seemed to be the main story and then see how the other smaller stories contributed to it. They recognized that Boo Radley and the impending court case seemed the primary threads. I pointed out how the Mrs. Dubose story contributed to the narrative of the court case by demonstrating the county’s scorn and by defining courage in the face of almost certain defeat. Then, without having thought of it ahead of time, I said, “This is a lot like the Bible isn’t it. The Bible is a collection of stories, even spread out over a longer period of time. And many people fail to see any overall connection. But in the Bible, as in How to Kill a Mockingbird, we must ask what the central story is and then see how the other stories support and carry along the central story.”

We talk about the central storyline of Scripture a good bit, but I think this- unplanned- example helped bring it home. It also reminded me that reading the Bible this way is consistent with reading of good literature. It isn’t forced or unnatural. This is the way literature works.

I also decided to assign them Kevin DeYoung’s The Biggest Story in addition to the next couple of chapters of Harper Lee for tomorrow (see my review of this book here)! Reading good literature regularly sends me back to the Bible as a better reader.

Welcome to the New Barbarism

OK. I like humor, and I think most people around me would say I can take a joke without being too uptight. But this video is way over the line. Sadly, I think this is yet another example of the results of loosing the moorings to any moral order in our culture. Welcome to the rise of the new barbarism, cloaked in humor.

Any parent knows the challenges of child-rearing. But the need here is not chloroform for the kids but a swift kick in the butt for the parents.

The video starts off humorously but begins descending into creepiness. Tired of tantrums? Then step up and provide serious, controlled discipline. (I wonder how many of the people who find this funny recoil at the thought of spanking). It’s interesting that they specifically refer to “embarrassing” tantrums. The concern is for how you look to others, not the training of kids. With all the reports of child abuse are we going to joke about putting a child’s foot in a garbage disposal? Children are “wallet-draining crap factories”? Chloroforming a girl on an awkward blind date? Really? It seems the guy’s point is to get away, but with sex trafficking such an issue, is this something to play with?

How about the parents who regretted almost immediately having their first child because she cried so much. Is this portrait of narcissistic parents who have now unwittingly killed their child- and are just happy she’s quiet- is this funny? What we laugh at may tell us more about ourselves than anything else.

Then, a man punching his wife (or “partner”?) in the stomach to end a pregnancy since children are so bad? Maybe if he’s put his remote down, get off his rear end and help things would be different. Then the closing scene seems to show an adult woman’s body being shut up in a car trunk.

I can’t find this humorous. I find it disgusting. But if sexual activity is all about personal, individual fulfilment then children can be seen as an unfortunate byproduct. If they are an unfortunate byproduct, then this video can be seen differently. Which is another way of saying that barbarism isn’t surprising or offensive to barbarians.

Jesus received children and blessed them (Matt 19:13-15; click for a great exposition of this text). The people of Jesus must show another way. Parenting is work- hard, yet rewarding, work. You ought not engage in sexual activity unless you are prepared to enter the realm of parenting. Yes, we will be tired, and, yes, children will misbehave. And we might joke about this and laugh at ourselves. But never in a way which demeans life. Joy will be found not in selfishness but in loving and caring for one another, including the little ones God gives us.

Protection from the Pastorals

The recently published Fortress Commentary on the Bible: New Testament contains 22 pages of commentary, written by Deborah Krause, devoted to each of the Pastoral Epistles. With Fortress one expects a more critical direction from the commentary. The introduction to the whole volume makes this explicit with its endorsement of feminist, liberation and queer interpretation.

Krause begins with the assumption of non-Pauline authorship, and then most often explains why the exhortations found in these letters are not binding. She wrongly asserts that these are not proper letters but are simply vehicles for enforcing a certain church structure. These letters fit well within the models of letter writing in the first century (scholarship here has been clear). Furthermore, as the last several decades of scholarship has noted, these letters cannot be reduced to concerns about church structure.

After briefly laying out the perspective of non-Pauline authorship, Krause acknowledges, “it is important to remember that for the vast majority of the church’s history, 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus” were not seen as just one of various ways of appropriating the Pauline message. “Rather, the writings have been seen as authentic communication between Paul and his closest companions in ministry.” This is an important piece to remember, though it gives no pause to the author. She does acknowledge, though, that since the church has for so long believed these letters were actually from Paul, “these writings have been remarkably successful in achieving their original intent- to influence and direct the Pauline tradition as it has informed the life and ministry of the church” (590). Despite what we “know” now, Scripture has had its intended effect.

Of course, 1 Timothy 2 is of particular interest. While the prohibition on women teaching men “may sound antiquated, it is remarkable to see how broadly this text is cited as an authority in current manuals of church administration and polity” (595). What is remarkable to me is that one would think it remarkable for clear statements of Scripture (in keeping with the manner in which the Church has interpreted them through most of its history) to serve as authority in church polity. And, the apparent reason why this should amaze us is that this statement of Scripture sounds “antiquated.”

One might argue for a different interpretation of these letters in general and of 1 Timothy 2 in particular. But we ought not be surprised that Scripture serves as a norm for churches today no matter how “old” its teaching may sound. And we ought to be careful about so lightly and so completely disregarding the consistent witness of our forebears.

In the end, this commentary on the Pastorals seems to be concerned primarily with protecting readers from the actual message of these letters.

Are the Gospels Anonymous?

It is commonplace today to state that the four Gospels are technically anonymous since the author is not named in the text. I have made this statement myself.

Thus, the question of authorship is unclear. This statement from a recent commentary is typical:

“The Gospel does not explicitly name its author, and so it is necessary to engage in guesswork based upon evidence from the Gospel itself and from early Christian tradition.”

But is this actually true? Why should we be left to guesswork if all of the oldest manuscripts we have contain titles explicitly stating the authors? It is striking, in the typical comment just quoted, that these titles don’t even merit a mention. We are told that the titles are a later addition, but is this more than guesswork itself? I don’t see how we can know the titles are not original if they consistently are included in the manuscripts we have. One can choose to disregard the titles and to argue against their authenticity, but the documents are not anonymous. They have names attached. And, these titles, then, are significant, early witnesses.

I am not saying the case is scientifically proven, but that the evidence is actually clearer and stronger than typically stated. And, I do assert that “anonymous” is technically incorrect in reference to the Gospels. It is striking how easily these titles are dismissed and our conjectures are affirmed.

Great Deal on a Great Book

I saw this morning that Peter Hitchens’ book, The Rage Against God, is available on Kindle for $1.99 for a limited time. This is such a powerful, beautiful book on so many levels, and I fear many people have missed this book because they didn’t realize what it is. The marketers promoted it as a response to Hitchens famous brother, and it seems many people thought it was a simple argument against atheism. These assessments miss the book by far. This is a soul searching spiritual autobiography beautifully written with profound reflection humanity, the impact of the gospel on culture, the fragility of civilization, particularly as faith is eroded, all illustrated from the author’s experience in cultures around the world and in his own struggles of faith.

I have written previously about Hitchens’ comment sin this book about poetry and beauty as apologetics (with implications for art and worship) and have posted a list of my favorite quotes from the book. This book moved me and helped me see better the various ways the gospel impacts a culture. I saw more clearly how very fragile is this thing we call civilization (which we take so lightly and take for granted) as he described cultures he’d seen fall apart in Africa and Europe. Added to all that, Hitchens writing is truly beautiful. He reminded me of C. S. Lewis because the writing itself is enjoyable even beyond what he is saying.

This is a wonderful book and a great opportunity to get it at a steal.

Rocky Balboa and the Psalms

I’ve toyed with running the last few years, but the last several months I’ve gotten serious about it. I’ve started running with my 17 year old son on facing treadmills. We worked out a shared play list to listen to while we run- some old school Petra for me and some Lecrae for him. Of course there is a shared part of the canon as well, and in that shared part are songs from the Rocky movies.

It is interesting how my middle-aged body, when feeling like there is no steam left, can automatically find new energy when the Rocky theme song or “Eye of the Tiger” comes on. In fact I hope for those songs to come on as I hit that first “wall” early in the run or as we enter the final stretch and I’m not sure I can make it.

I have reflected on why these songs affect me the way they do. Is it because I just like trumpets? No. Is it simply that this is great music, or upbeat music? Not really. I do like the sound, but there is, of course, better music and there are other sounds which appeal to me or are upbeat which do not affect me this way.

The words are a part of it. But even that does not account for the impact. I think the main reason the songs have such an effect on me is the story of which they are a part. The sounds and words take on special meaning because of the story of the movies and the role of that story in my story.  For any kid who grew up watching these films those sounds evoke images of an underdog working particularly hard and achieving great things. Those sounds today connect with the way it made me feel then and how it motivated me as I began working out as a kid. “Eye of the Tiger” not only makes me think of Rocky and Clubber Lang, but also of the time my Jr. High football coach played that scene for us before we went out on the field, using it to motivate us (successfully!). All of this personal connection is no doubt why, while the songs are appreciated by my son and me, they have more impact on me. They are more intertwined in my own experience.

So, some songs, not exactly in the realm of masterworks, have the power to help me persevere because they tell a certain motivating story and I have deep personal experience with them. Throughout the history of the church the Psalms have played a similar role in the lives of the saints. The Psalms tell the story of the people of God, recounting in some detail the history of Israel, their failure, suffering, deliverance and hope. They face squarely the depth of pain which life in a fallen world is bound to encounter and point us to hope in the living God whose steadfast love and faithfulness is our anchor. But, my reflections on Rocky reminded me- the degree to which these songs inspire and motivate us, the degree to which they empower us to persevere (as they have our forebears), depends in some measure on how much these songs enter our own experience, how enmeshed they become in our lives. Someone from another culture who knew nothing of the Rocky movies might wonder why some old songs whose trumpets seem unusual in comparison with popular music today or some song that seems to be about the vision of a large cat was meaningful to me. Sadly, it seems the contemporary church often looks that way at the Psalms. Why do these old songs matter so much when they talk about ancient places I don’t even know? Why would I want to sing songs that don’t mention Jesus? To such questions our forebears just shake their heads, saying, “You’ve never seen the story have you?” Because when you enter into these songs it becomes clear (and Jesus is there so clearly).

I want- for myself and my children- to immerse ourselves in these songs so that they resonate deeply with us because the story they tell has impacted our story at so many different places. Then, the singing of these songs will motivate us, drawing back to mind all these connections, connecting us to God, empowering us to persevere.

Frederick the Wise bio

Frederick the Wise: Seen and Unseen Lives of Martin Luther’s Protector, Sam Wellman
(Concordia Publishing House, 2015), pb., 315 pp

 

As soon as I began seeing announcements about this book I was excited to read it. From my engagement with Luther, Frederick the Wise had become a very intriguing character to me. I was interested to learn more about this prince who ended up playing such a significant role in the Reformation, without intending to do so. I was also intrigued by the questions I have heard raised as to whether his support of Luther was merely political, opportunist, or genuinely theological and religious. My interest was piqued even more when I read that this would be the first full-length biography of Frederick ever produced in English. So I was eager to read the book and very grateful to Concordia for a review copy.

Overall, I was very pleased to have read this book. Wellman makes accessible in English a lot of work that has been done in German, and it is obvious that he has done much work in primary as well as secondary sources. The research behind this volume is significant. It was very helpful to learn of the political divisions within Saxony prior to Frederick’s coming to power, and to see how prominent he became even early in his office.

Wellman demonstrates the prominence and influence of Frederick in the Empire and how much the Holy Roman Emperors looked to him. Wellman states, “Frederick’s influence was everywhere in the empire” (85). Many, including Luther, credited him with uniting the disparate German language into one language (85). Fredrick was regarded by all, it seems, as a man of integrity and principle. Fredrick was noted for inculcating an atmosphere of congeniality in a political setting so often filled with contention- “he had a remarkable ability to calm” (84). Unlike many of his influential peers, he was slow to pursue war, instead looking for peaceful avenues. But he did say, “I shall not start anything, but if I must fight, you shall see that it will be I who end it” (120). He was a patron of the arts and his court became a leading center for art and music. Throughout the book, Wellman sprinkles various proverbs which Frederick often used or had on display in his court.

Even the discussion of Frederick’s unofficial wife suggested character. He never married which was a real political loss. He had met and began a relationship with Anna, a woman about whom we know little. She was of noble birth, so political concerns made official marriage impractical. However, he refused to drop her in order to take a politically helpful marriage or to take such a marriage and keep Anna on the side.

Wellman describes Frederick’s efforts to compile what became an impressive collection of relics in his new church in Wittenberg. The fact that Frederick supported Luther even as he viciously attacked the business of relics, in which he had invested so much money, suggests the genuineness of his faith. (This is captured well I think in the 2003 film, “Luther”)

The book provides a helpful glimpse into the political machinations brought about by Luther’s bursting on the scene. It is a valuable reminder of how God providentially works by turning the hearts of kings or princes wherever He wills (Prov 21:1). In this section Wellman states gives his verdict on Frederick’s motivation- and provides a nicely worded contrast between Luther and Erasmus:

“Frederick and those whose judgment he most trusted were convinced that Luther was correct in his methods. Luther based his conclusions on the deepest insight into the Holy Scriptures, the only tangible source for God’s Word. It was Erasmian, except the interpreter was not a mouse muffling his voice in a cranny, but a lion who roared” (176).

“Frederick followed Luther’s teachings more and more to great cost to his own plans, even at the risk of losing his electorate. It wasn’t Luther, moreover, that Frederick was pleasing. Pleasing God, doing God’s will, was paramount” (213-14).

This book is full of very useful information. That is its strength. Its weakness, is that it feels like it hasn’t been packed very neatly or carefully but just jammed in. The flow of thought from chapter to chapter or section to section is not always clear, nor is the connectedness of one part to another in places. It tells a fascinating story but is ponderous in doing so at times. One cannot always have history that reads like a novel, but I fear that readers who are not already committed to learning about this topic might not persevere with the work. Further editorial work is likely needed.

In the end, though, I am grateful that the book has been written, and I have benefitted from it. It will be useful to anyone studying the Reformation.

I will close with this striking evaluation of Frederick from Heiko Oberman (concerning Frederick’s role in the 1519 election of Karl V):

Historians of every stripe have found only one statesman thoroughly praiseworthy: Frederick the Wise. A German and a man of integrity, he is considered to have been a staunch representative of the interests of the empire in a sea of corruptibility and national betrayal (236-37)

“Learn to lose with God”

My poem of the week this week is a great call to perseverance, holding to faithfulness despite the immediate outcome. This, especially the last two stanzas, is a good word.

OH IT IS HARD TO WORK FOR GOD

Oh, it is hard to work for God,
To rise and take His part
Upon this battlefield of earth,
And not sometimes lose heart!

He hides Himself so wondrously,
As though there were no God;
He is least seen when all the pow’rs
Of ill are most abroad.

Ah, God is other than we think,
His ways are far above,
Far beyond reason’s height, and reached
Only by childlike love.

Workman of God! O lose not heart,
But learn what God is like,
And in the darkest battlefield
Thou shalt know where to strike.

Then learn to scorn the praise of men,
And learn to lose with God;
For Jesus won the world through shame,
And beckons thee His road.

For right is right, as God is God,
And right the day must win;
To doubt would be disloyalty,
To falter were to sin.

-          Frederick W. FaberJesus and Mary, 1849. Several variants of these lyrics have been published; this version appeared in Hymns Ancient and Modern.

 

New Verse for “Holy, Holy, Holy”

I have long appreciated the wonderful hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” It extols the majestic greatness of God in his utter holiness. Recently I was introduced to a new verse written for the hymn. I was singing this familiar hymn along with the congregation when all of a sudden, at the fourth verse, there were new words. They struck me as all together fitting and appropriate. Though I had not thought of it before I realized the hymn lacked any explicit reference to how sinful people like us are enabled to know and interact with One so holy. This new verse in that particular location in the hymn fit beautifully, and I found it quite moving there in the midst of this reflection of God’s holiness to sing as well of His redeeming work.

I wondered if this was a verse which had been lost, but then thought, “I bet this was written by Justin Wainscott.” The latter proved to be true. The hymn with the new verse (marked with an asterisk) is below in case you and your church would like to use it as well.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to thee;
Holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity!

Holy, holy, holy! All the saints adore thee,
Casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea;
Cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee,
Who wert and art and evermore shalt be.

Holy, holy, holy! Though the darkness hide thee,
Though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see,
Only thou art holy; there is none beside thee,
Perfect in power, in love, and purity.

*Holy, holy, holy! Raise our eyes to Calv’ry,
That we might behold Thy Son condemned upon the tree;
Oh, how sin has cost Thee! Oh, Thy grace and mercy!
Christ, fully punished; sinners, fully free.

Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All thy works shall praise thy name, in earth and sky and sea;
Holy, holy, holy! merciful and mighty,
God in three persons, blessed Trinity!