Sunday, January 25, 2015

Martyrdom--Angel Band

The audio of this recording of the song "Angel Band" is one of my favorite music tracks, probably one of my favorites of all time. (Lyrics here, though they are slightly different on the second verse. It looks to me like everybody does the second verse a little differently.)

If you know that you really, really hate southern gospel music and/or country music, and that your opinion will never change, don't even bother trying to appreciate this song, because it's pretty much "that" style. But if your musical tastes are somewhat more open, I suggest that you don't watch the video I just linked (minimize it or something) but that instead you crank the volume and just listen to the music.

I have had this track on a Gaither hymns CD for four years now and only just now watched the video, so I've always known it through the medium of hearing rather than sight.

To my mind this has the interesting effect of making the cheering and enthusiasm of the audience and of the homecoming group more a part of the song. When I hear all the cheering and clapping break out before the encore, what I don't primarily think is, "Okay, there are all those pretty homecoming folks cheering for Vestal Goodman and hugging on each other. How sweet." I mean, I know that's going on at some level, and that's not a bad thing in itself, but at another level it sounds more to me like rejoicing in heaven, like the saints and angels cheering someone on in the race as he crosses the finish line.

For some reason, every time I listen to this song I think of martyrdom, even though it's really about death more generally. I think of someone actually about to be martyred, even being martyred, and believing that he is beginning his "triumph." All the indecision is behind him. I think of someone like Thomas Cranmer who was so afraid of death and allowed his fear of the flames to warp his integrity, but who then repented of that and thrust his hand into the fire. Was his burning at the stake a horrible death? Certainly it was. But it seems that Cranmer had achieved a kind of mental equilibrium there and knew that what he was doing was right. What lay behind him were his "strongest trials," all the confusion and temptation.

I myself am a great coward about pain and don't even want to think of dying a painful death for the sake of Christ. But together with my vivid imagination for horror I have a vivid imagination for the varieties of human response. And I can, just barely, imagine a kind of saint who, through all the pain, feels that he is triumphing, that he has moved past the danger point and the fear, and that he now knows that the angels are coming for him. His spirit loudly sings. He cries out in his agony and his triumph, "Come, angel band. Come and around me stand. Bear me away on your snowy wings to my immortal home!" And his soul goes up, rises up to God, borne by the angels who have sustained him in his hour of trial and who now take him to where the cheering of those on the other side joins the singing of his spirit.

We certainly should not glorify horror and pain for their own sake. They are evils. Soberly speaking, many have been corrupted and led away by the mere possibility, the mere fear of suffering. Moreover, much persecution goes on and on rather than ending in death for the martyr. No doubt many who suffer for Christ do not experience any rush of confidence, any sense of joy, but must merely endure through it with no sensible consolation from God and no merciful death that takes them to His presence.

But this other possibility exists as well and is good to think of, and this song allows us to imagine it--the triumph over death by means of death. O death, where is thy victory? O grave, where is thy sting?

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The light that lightens all men

This morning, it being a Sunday in the season of Epiphany, we sang a couple of hymns that should be more widely known by Christians of all denominations. One of these is "Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning," which has a lovely tune. Here is a choir singing it, and here are the words.

The hymn I am going to write about here is "From the Eastern Mountains." I'm sorry to say that I can't seem to find an on-line recording of the music. The tune is called "Valour." A view of the hymn page with the tune used in the 1940 hymnal is here.

Here is the text as it appears in the 1940 Anglican hymnal:

From the eastern mountains
Pressing on they come,
Wise men in their wisdom,
To His humble home;
Stirred in deep devotion,
Hasting from afar,
Ever journeying onward,
Guided by a star.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

There their Lord and Saviour
Meek and lowly lay,
Wondrous Light that led them
Onward on their way,
Ever now to lighten
Nations from afar,
As they journey homeward
By that guiding Star.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

Thou Who in a manger
Once hast lowly lain,
Who dost now in glory
O'er all kingdoms reign,
Gather in the heathen,
Who in lands afar
Ne'er have seen the brightness
Of Thy guiding Star.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

Gather in the outcasts,
All who've gone astray,
Throw Thy radiance o'er them,
Guide them on their way,
Those who never knew Thee,
Those who've wandered far,
Lead them by the brightness
Of Thy guiding Star.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

Guide them through the darkness
Of the lonely night,
Shining still before them
With thy kindly light,
Until every nation,
Whether bond or free,
'Neath thy starlit banner,
Jesus, follows thee.
Light of light that shineth
Ere the worlds began,
Draw Thou near, and lighten
Ev'ry heart of man.

This hymn jumped out at me because I have recently been reading Marilynne Robinson's new novel Lila. As a novel, it is very fine, though not as great as Gilead. As a work of theology, it is completely wrongheaded.

Robinson's character Lila becomes very concerned after marrying John Ames when she hears about hell. She realizes that pretty much everyone she ever knew before coming to Gilead, particularly old Doll, the woman who acted as a mother to her and is now dead, may very well be in hell according to standard Christian doctrine. Lila agonizes over this, and the theological issue provides a focal point for the overwhelming discomfort she feels in her new, respectable life as the wife of a Congregationalist minister. There are plenty of other reasons for that discomfort. Lila is portrayed as having been almost completely ignorant due to the roughness of her past life, to the point that she has never even learned to use a knife and fork. The culture shock of living in Gilead as a middle-class matron is severe, and she feels that she has lost her privacy and is in danger of losing her identity. Robinson portrays all of this extremely well and believably, and she wraps the theological issue of hell into Lila's struggle with great psychological realism.

In the end, Lila is comforted by inventing her own version of universalism. Robinson, being Robinson, writes about this version of universalism beautifully, but it's seriously wrong. It involves no repentance, no new birth, and no desire for God. It does not involve these things even at the moment of death or even after death. In fact, God is very nearly absent from the heaven Lila envisages. Rather, heaven is treated as just a happy place to which God transports everyone because God is loving and because it "wouldn't be fair" to do otherwise.

Our soteriology needs to be deeper than that, and one might think that Robinson means for Lila's soteriology to be regarded as shallow because of her lack of theological knowledge. John Ames himself is something of a crypto-universalist, both in this novel and in Gilead, but he is never quite willing to become a universalist unequivocally, presumably because he really does know his Bible and has some actual understanding of sin, repentance, and grace. On the other hand, the very end of Lila seems to suggest that Lila will be able to comfort Ames by telling him what she now knows on this subject.

What the novel does do well, as does Gilead, is to portray the genuine anguish one feels at the thought that a loved one might be eternally lost. Some of us even feel that anguish regarding people we have never met. Missionaries feel that anguish for whole people groups.

The Bible and Christian tradition tell us that we should pray for the lost. The Apostle Paul says,
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
I take Paul here to be implying that one of the things we are to pray for is that men be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Since we are told that Jesus came to seek and to save those who are lost, we know we are praying in conformity with the will of God if we pray for someone's salvation.

But as C.S. Lewis pointed out in The Great Divorce, universalism simply erases the human will. God just sweeps people up into heaven (or "heaven") whether they want to be there or not and presumably changes them magically into eternally good people even if they wanted to go on being evil. I question whether this is even a coherent picture.

So when we pray for a man's salvation, we are not, I believe, praying for something that God can bring about by a mere act of power, for to do so would be to erase the person and to substitute a robot. We are praying, then, that God would reach out and woo the person, that God would bring before that person clearly the evidence of His existence, attributes, and requirements, would give that person every opportunity to accept Him. We are praying that God would shine His light upon them so that they can be guided to the knowledge of the truth.

All of which brings us back to "From the Eastern Mountains." I like the fact that the song connects the Wise Men with God's desire that all men should be saved and God's willingness to use even extraordinary means to that end. The God who could send a star to the Wise Men can send dreams to a Muslim, for example. He can bring a David Wood or a John C. Wright to recognize that He is God, at which point they have to decide what they are going to do about that. This song is a prayer for the salvation of those who know not God. Never give up praying that.

C. H. Spurgeon, on praying for the lost:
Until the gate of hell is shut upon a man we must not cease to pray for him. And if we see him hugging the very doorposts of damnation, we must go to the mercy seat and beseech the arm of grace to pluck him from his dangerous position. While there is life there is hope, and although the soul is almost smothered with despair, we must not despair for it, but rather arouse ourselves to awaken the Almighty arm.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

On Marriage and Heaven

Now for something completely different. Several days ago I received some correspondence from a young pastor who has been sending his questions on this topic to a variety of Christian writers and speakers. He had seen my husband speak recently but was more readily able to find my e-mail address and wanted to know if either of us had some insights on his questions. I won't quote his questions here, but their general import was to wonder what Jesus meant when he said that we will neither marry nor be given in marriage in the resurrection. As a happily married man, he was distressed at the thought of being separated from his wife in heaven or "not married" to her anymore and wondered how Jesus' words should be taken.
He also wondered whether Jesus' death and resurrection would not be able to restore us to Adam's prelapsarian state, which clearly was meant to include marriage.
One commentary he had read had even conjectured that we might be completely a-gendered beings in heaven, while another person he had consulted was not entirely closed to the idea that there actually will be sexual intercourse in heaven, though that person nevertheless discouraged speculation along those lines.
What follows is my response, which I admitted up front would be rather a long treatise:
First of all, I want to set what I am going to say later into an overall context so that it won't be misunderstood. I think that the commentaries are wrong when they imply that, in the resurrection, we will not be male and female. Jesus says that we will be "like the angels" in that we will not be married but does not say that we will be like the angels in being neither male nor female. (In fact, we don't even know very much from Scripture about the gender of the angels beyond the fact that they are always portrayed as male when they appear on earth!) So the idea of our being recreated as, in essence, aliens rather than human beings, aliens who have no gender, is not in my opinion supported by that passage nor by any other. The prima facie case is that, if a human being dies and is resurrected, the resurrected being is also human, which means (according to God's plan) either male or female.
Moreover, I don't think that Jesus' words imply that we will not know one another or have close human relationships in heaven. Nor does he say or imply that all of our human relationships in heaven will be identical to one another and that we won't be any closer to any one person than to anyone else. Why should Jesus be taken to mean that? That the relationship we call "married" will not be represented in heaven, at least not as we presently know it, doesn't mean that no important and close human relationships, including presumably relationships with those to whom we were closest on earth, will be represented in heaven. I think C.S. Lewis says somewhere that, since heaven is portrayed as a feast, it would be very strange if the guests didn't know one another! St. Paul says to the Thessalonians that they should be "comforted" by the thought of their loved ones as going to heaven and that they should not sorrow as those who have no hope, and this would seem extremely strange if the true doctrine were that we will never see each other again after death or that we will be separated from those we love forever.
What we don't know is the positive nature of those relationships.
You can read the rest of this entry at What's Wrong With the World. Feel free to comment in either location.

No wonder Jews are leaving Paris

The situation for Jews in France and especially in Paris is dire. The recent terrorist murders at a kosher store come in a long line of daily abuse and beatings from Muslims. This interview has more. I was especially chilled by the picture of this man's mother getting beaten up, going to the police, and being told, "You're lucky to be alive." It's possible that the police were indicating that they take Muslim violence against Jews very seriously, but my impression from the way the story is told is that it indicates just the opposite. Plus, as he says, the atmosphere is so mafia-like that Jews abused by Muslims often don't go to the police because they will be found at their homes and punished if they do so.

This is what comes of Islamicization.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Divine sovereignty, David Wood, and me

If you haven't seen it yet, be sure to watch David Wood's video about his conversion. This post will be a bit of a spoiler if you haven't already seen it, so I suggest you watch it first.

I don't know to what extent I speak for others who have been Christians since early childhood, but I often feel a special kind of self-deprecating awe when I hear a story like David's. Far from feeling superior on the grounds that "I've always been a Christian," I feel rather as though I have no story to tell. All those songs out there about "the day I met Jesus" and "my life was changed that day" and so forth--That's David's story, but I sing them like dramatic monologues in which I'm pretending to be someone else.

My life has been changed only very gradually, and the spiritual process has often been phenomenologically indistinguishable from the mundane process of becoming a more mature human being over a period of decades. I was saved when I was four years old, and I remember the event quite well. But I was often a bad little girl thereafter, I was a positively nasty teen at times, and I remain a highly difficult adult. To add to all my other faults, I was the world's worst prig throughout much of my childhood and teen years. I can still remember arguing heatedly with my mother about whether I should go and buy a book at Moody Book Store, which she thought was in too dangerous a neighborhood. (There was no Amazon at the time.) We had no car; I went everywhere on the bus unless a friend gave me a ride. I got quite hoity-toity about the fact that I was planning to use this book to witness to someone. I argued that my mother had often let me take buses to highly dubious Chicago neighborhoods when doing temp agency work for the worldly purpose of earning money and that therefore I certainly ought to be allowed to take a bus to a dangerous neighborhood to buy a book for the purpose of trying to bring someone to Christ. Harrumph. As I recall, in the end I won the argument and went and bought the book without incident. (It was by Francis Schaeffer, though I don't recall which of Schaeffer's books it was.)

I'd like to think that the Holy Spirit has been working in me since then and that I've gradually improved with age, but the point is that it is nothing like David's dramatic conversion story. There is nothing at all in my life that corresponds, or so it seems to me, to that darkness to light reversal.

But as I was reflecting on this fact I came upon a more fundamental similarity between my own life story and David Wood's. I'm adopted. It may be that somewhere, at some time, I will tell that story as I've learned it more in full, but for now there are details that I will leave obscure. Suffice it to say that what I have learned about my biological father, in particular, has made me grateful beyond words for having been placed for adoption as an infant. It is nearly certain (to my mind) that I would not be a Christian believer today had I not been placed for adoption. As it was, my adoptive parents, though fallible human beings, of course, raised me "in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" at great cost to themselves. My father--that is to say, the only father I have ever known, my adopted father--was a good and gentle man who loved me and my brother. He could not have been more different from the man who biologically brought me into existence and who might have had influence over my life had I not been adopted.

All of that, the whole back-story of my whole life, happened when I was a tiny baby. It began even before I was born with my birth mother's difficult decision to get in touch with an adoption agency. My life, my whole life, is a gift from God.

The Bible says, "For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly." (Romans 5:6) Also,

And you hath he quickened, who were dead in trespasses and sins; Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience:... But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved;) And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1-10)
The point is that I, like David, was sovereignly cared for by God and brought to a place where I could come to know Him, and that God did this for both of us when we could do nothing for ourselves. David was trapped in his own twisted mind as a psychopath. I was a helpless infant and knew nothing about the decisions that were being made around me that would profoundly affect my future. To both of us, in very different ways, God came. Both of us, though for very different reasons, can say, "My whole life is a gift."

It is not in the phenomenology of my life since I have been old enough to be self-conscious that I should look for dramatic evidence of God's personal working. God does not deal in made-to-order dramatic, personal evidence. His gifts are far more personalized than that.

Nothing that I have said here actually means that I am a Calvinist, I hasten to add. In the end, I had to make a choice. Indeed, I'm afraid it's still true on a daily basis that I am making crucial choices all the time that influence who I am and what I am becoming. But God has poured out the riches of His grace upon me in innumerable ways, even farther back at the very beginning in making me alive and conscious at all.

In the end, when we get to heaven, Calvinist and Arminian alike, lifelong Christian and adult convert alike, will be able to agree and join in saying, "My whole life is a gift. For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To whom be glory for ever, world without end, Amen."

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The light shineth in darkness

The Bible is not afraid of simple metaphors and images. In fact, the Bible is all about simple metaphors and images: The Father, the Son, the mother and child. The light and the darkness. The man and the woman.

It is for that very reason that those who hate reality hate the Bible. Sometimes their hatred takes a direct form, and sometimes it takes the form of twisting Scripture to their own ends.

This Christmas, I have very little to say in the blogosphere, except these ancient, simple truths, which are not mine but were given to all of us. We could not have created these truths ourselves, and we cannot make them come true, but God can, God did, and God will:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. The Child Christ was weak and helpless, but he was the king of all the world. One day he will come in his majesty and rule with truth and grace, and in his kingdom, there will be no more falsehood. God is light, and Jesus said that we are the light of the world. A very small light shines a long way on a dark night.

Merry Christmas to my readers.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The inestimable privilege of singing to Mrs. K.

Every year since 2001 my family has organized a Christmas caroling potluck at our house. Mostly attended by home schooling families (some quite large families), joined by Christian college students and various other friends, the caroling parties can get quite large. I believe our record is eighty, counting unborn children. I did not count this year so would only be guessing, but my guess would put the total this year somewhere around forty.

We eat first then go out into the neighborhood. This year we stopped at ten houses, most of whom were expecting us, but four of those families were not home, so we sang at only six. On a Saturday evening in December, many families are simply not at home. It's amazing how much energy it takes to sing at just six houses, but despite that, I would like to raise the number of houses we go to. I prefer to go where we have been previously announced and expected rather than knocking at random doors. Perhaps in future years I will put my caroling letter into the mailboxes of more neighbors. My voice was about shot by the end of this year's caroling, but then, my voice had been entirely gone just two days before the party, so I was grateful to be able to sing at all.

For all of those thirteen years and fourteen caroling parties we have sung to the elderly Mrs. K. She lives nearby in her own home, cared for by the frequent visits of her adult children, whose assiduous help has allowed her to continue to live on her own with her small dog. With each year she has grown more frail, and now she is, quite literally, bent double due to spinal problems. She is very much all there. She told me a story this last summer of going to the doctor and being asked what medications she was on. She said she listed all twenty-six from memory, with their doses.

This year she was careful to call me on the evening of the caroling party to remind me that we should come to the side door of the house to sing. Why this is easier for her is a mystery to me, since it requires her to come down a short flight of stairs to open the door, while the front door is level with the main floor. But I know there is a good logistical reason, whatever it may be, and I duly assured her that we would come to the side door, which is equipped with its own doorbell.

Having had several disappointments ringing bells where people were not home, our merry band was a little nervous when Mrs. K. took a while getting to the door. They wondered if this would be another house where no one answered. I wasn't worried; I knew she was home. When she appeared and slowly opened the door, looking down at the ground and unable to lift herself up, much like the woman in the Bible whom Jesus healed (Luke 13), everyone felt, I think, just as I did: Who are we that she should go to all this trouble to come to the door and listen to us sing?

We gave her our best. I can't remember which song we started out with. Perhaps it was "Hark the Herald." Then, as I always do with the people for whom we sing, I asked her if she had a favorite carol she would like us to sing. She said "O Holy Night."

It just so happens that I've never added "O Holy Night" to our repertoire. If I'd thought of it, I probably would have said it was too hard for us. But Eldest Daughter immediately struck up the tune (in an excellently accessible key, I might add), and off we went. Fortunately, we were all gathered rather close together by the side door. A first rule of caroling outside in front of houses is, "Thou shalt bunch close together so as to be able to hear one another." My beloved band tends to straggle, however often I ask them to come closer. I think they are afraid of making the goodman or good lady of the house feel crowded with a bunch of people around the front door. But this time, we could hear each other, and I was pleasantly surprised at how good we sounded.

When we tried it again, just for fun, at the house across the street, it was definitely a thinner sound. We had already given our all to Mrs. K., in honor of her gallantry and in honor of Our Lord.

It was a very great privilege. I hope we will have the privilege for many more years.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

There are so many reasons to home school

From time to time I get drawn into a looong discussion of education with someone or other who just cannot fathom why I'm so against sending your kids to public school. One such was here. Another was here.

What will usually happen is that these discussions will start with some one thing--indoctrination into the insane transsexual agenda, sex education, an anti-Christian agenda, or some other issue. Interlocutors pretty much uniformly just do not understand how the education of the young works. Whether it is a Christian urging that we must send our kids into the schools to be "salt and light" or a non-Christian who thinks that there are a whole bunch of subjects in the normal school day into which worldview issues do not enter at all, there is a complete failure to comprehend the holism of education, especially education that takes place over a series of days, weeks, and months. Sure, there are a few subjects the content of which could in theory be taught in isolation from many other things, but so what? That's not what sending your kids to school is about.

But more: These people also don't understand that the reasons against sending your children to public school (and, I fear, increasingly not to many Christian schools) are so many and varied that whatever kicked off the discussion doesn't begin to represent the total strength of the case.

Often, even in those areas where a school might actually be able (if they wanted to) to leave out the worldview issues (math, say), the schools are messed up in some fundamental way related to teaching the subject. New fads come down the pike every other year, it seems, and now kids don't know their times tables, can't read, and are being taught basic operations like multiplication in such bizarre and counterintuitive ways that they come out mathematically illiterate.

Here is a link that gives us another of the umpteen gajillion reasons to home school: The insanity of the assessment culture, starting in early childhood. If interested, just read this carefully written, intelligently argued letter from two teachers (who are putting their names and presumably their jobs on the line) who are crying, "Enough!" It'll make you vow never to send your child to any school, public or private, that has jumped on the assessment bandwagon. I say "public or private" because it seems to me all too likely that even many of the bigger, more mainstream Christian schools have done so for reasons of keeping up with the Joneses educationally. After all, there's nothing inherently un-Christian about testing and assessing small children for hours on end until they go insane, is there? It's not a worldview issue, right?

That's right, it's not. It's just educational malpractice.

These teachers may, for all I know, be enthusiastic liberals. Maybe they are happy to be indoctrinating children into various left-wing ideas. Maybe they even believe in other wrong-headed educational methods, like look-say reading instruction. But they recognize this particular bit of blatant educational malpractice when they see it. Nor are they the only ones. (This one is about kindergarteners being tested to death.)

When you are considering how to educate your children, don't just look at one thing. There are so many things, and they all point in the same direction.