29 March 2006

road trip

road trip

This past weekend I drove out to a conference in Ohio, about a seven hour trip. The journey out there I broke up into two legs and stayed overnight in central Pennsylvania. Since I wasn't in a hurry to get all the way to Ohio in one fell swoop, I made a slight detour through several smaller towns.

In Chambersburg, Franklin County, I visited Falling Springs Presbyterian church, which was founded in 1734. (This year 2006 is, by the way, the 300th anniversary of the founding of the first Presbytery in America, here in Philadelphia.) The present Falling Springs church building dates from 1803.

What makes this interesting to me is that my mother's McWilliams ancestors emigrated from the north of Ireland in the late 1700s and settled, at first, in Chambersburg and this was their parish. After the death of George McWilliams, they relocated to the area of Forks of the Brandywine parish in Chester County where they remained until 1929.

Nevertheless, the Chambersburg church building is old enough that these ancestors would have worshipped there. Moreover, while I couldn't find his headstone among the mouldering older bits of the graveyard, that first ancestor in America is supposed to be buried somewhere out there, along with much of the Chambers family after whom the town is named.

From Chambersburg I drove on to Mercersburg and visited the campus of what is now Mercersburg Academy, but was once Mercersburg Seminary and Marshall College, an organ of the German Reformed Church.

The school was founded in 1836, joining together with an already existing seminary that moved there from the town of York, Pennsylvania. Frederick Augustus Rauch, who came from Switzerland to take up the role, was its first president, serving until 1841.

In 1840 John Williamson Nevin joined the campus in order to teach at the seminary. He also ended up serving as the president of Marshall College from 1841 until 1853 when the college merged with a sister institution in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to form Franklin and Marshall College. The years that Nevin was at seminary also saw the publication of the Mercersburg Review and the most theologically productive phase of his career.

After a somewhat harrowing drive over narrow, twisting mountain roads in the dark, with a light snow falling, I did make it safely to my hotel, having enjoyed a bit of Pennsylvania's Presbyterian and Reformed heritage.

rupert sheldrake

rupert sheldrake

I have to admit my gut-feeling is that the controversial biologist Rupert Sheldrake is something of a quack and provocateur with his notions of "morphic fields" and "morphic resonance" and the like. Very roughly, he seems to think that organized matter (and especially living matter) produces shared fields of resonance so that an effect in one place can affect other members of the field, even at a distance. He suggests we see this in some kinds of migratory behavior on the part of birds or even in a dog's sense that his owner is on the way home.

At any rate, until there's more substantial evidence, I'm inclined to think that most of this is bunk. Nonetheless, I heard this interesting report yesterday on NPR's "All Things Considered." It was about the sole surviving example of an otherwise extinct kind of coffee plant.

The plant was discovered on the island of Rodrigues, in the middle of the Indian Ocean. A cutting from the plant was taken to the UK and cultivated in Kew Labs in London. In order to propogate the species they wanted to try to get the plant to seed, but without any luck. The plant back in Rodrigues hadn't seeded in anyone's living memory and they were making no progress with the bit of the plant that had been taken to the UK.

Now here's the interesting, Sheldrakian part:

They decided to treat the plant in the UK with a fertility hormone to sort of jump-start its seed production and they were successful. But at the same time they did this in the UK, the original plant back in Rodrigues, 1000s of miles away, spontaneously began to seed as well.

Morphic resonance? Freak coincidence?

28 March 2006

i'm still here

i'm still here

I haven't dropped off the face of the earth or anything. But I have been preoccupied with matters besides blogging: finishing a presentation and traveling to a conference, preparing for another conference presentation this coming Saturday, mid-term grading and advising, and so on.

In the next few days I hope to get around to blogging a bit about what I've been up to and, if I have the time and inclination, perhaps making some comments on other matters. Until then, adieu.

21 March 2006

a king's delight

a king's delight

For Tuesday, March 21, 2006
Proverbs 16:13

Righteous lips are the delight of a king,
and he loves him who speaks what is right.

In Shakespeare's Pericles, King of Troy, the king's loyal advisor, Helicanus, says to him (Act I, scene ii):

They do abuse the king that flatter him:
For flattery is the bellows blows up sin;
The thing which is flatter'd, but a spark,
To which that blast gives heat and stronger glowing;
Whereas reproof, obedient and in order,
Fits kings, as they are men, for they may err.

Where yesterday's proverb promised that the throne of a righteous ruler would be established, today's proverb specifies one of the ways in which righteous ruling is manifest: a love for words spoken in wisdom, truth, and charity.

We are all tempted to listen to the words of a flatterer and to gather around us those who will say what pleases our ears. How much more is this true of those who find themselves in positions of leadership or power. But as the proverb shows, the words of Helicanus aptly express the readiness with which we should hear godly reproof.

And Shakespeare's Pericles is wise to keep such a trusted advisor, for such a man will evidently speak with discretion and good purpose in the king's service. Likewise, a wise leader will entrust plans only to those who speak what is best and right.

As those in service to the King of kings, let us always take care to speak the truth in love, in ways that will advance his kingdom, will not shy away from godly rebuke, and will make our King's delight and love our highest joy.

20 March 2006

throne of righteousness

throne of righteousness

For Monday, March 20, 2006
Proverbs 16:12

It is an abomination to kings to do evil,
for the throne is established by righteousness.

In his infamous political treatise, The Prince, the Florentine official and humanist, Machiavelli wrote,

A wise lord cannot and ought not keep faith when such observance may be turned against him, and when the reasons that led him to pledge faith no longer exist...But it is necessary to know well how to disguise this characteristic and to be a great pretender and dissembler.

For Machiavelli, a ruler must always calculate carefully, preferring his subjects' fear over their love, and acting only in those ways that will sustain and shore up his power.

The biblical picture of government, however, is different, refusing any continual maneuvering that seeks power apart from the constraints of righteousness and simply for power's sake. And though we ourselves may not hold political office, as a royal priesthood in Jesus Christ, we are seated with him in heavenly places and are stewards of his kingdom on earth.

Jesus himself teaches us the pattern of godly governance, cruciform love lived upon the throne of the cross: "He who wishes to rule, must become the servant of all." The biblical paradox is that the truly human dominion for which Adam was created (and which he lost in asserting his own will over against God's), is one that loses itself in love for others. That is the kind of righteousness by which God establishes thrones, whereas power schemes like those of Machiavelli are doomed from the start.

Let us, then, abominate doing evil in order that good might come of it and let us seek to serve one another in love. Even though, humanly speaking, we may see little progress or fruit from our loving labors, today's proverb nonetheless promises us that in such service God reigns through his people.

17 March 2006

measures of justice

measures of justice

For Friday, March 17, 2006
Proverbs 16:11

A just balance and scales are the LORD's;
all the weights in the bag are his work.

According to the Larger Catechism, Scriptural justice requires "rendering to every one his due" and thereby refraining from all "unjust or sinful ways of taking or withholding from our neighbor what belongs to him" (Q&A 141 and 142). The virtue of justice, moreover, extends also to our "own estate." Thomas Aquinas would add that the genuinely just person acts as a matter of "constant and perpetual will" (Summa Theologiae II-II.58.1).

In the wider context of today's proverb, dealing with kingship and rule, it is likely that "a just balance and scales" refers not simply to weights and measures within the marketplace, but stands in also for the entire carriage of justice within a society. If so, the point seems to be that when a human community, in all its various relations, is characterized by true justice, then this is a expression of God's own work, the very presence of Yahweh himself.

Few of us likely have much say in the weightier issues of monetary policy or the conduct of our court system, both of which, in any case, may lie beyond our competency. We do, nonetheless, have ample opportunity each day to render to others what is due to them, especially fellow believers: attentively listening to their needs, thanking others for their hard work, showing respect and kindness, giving generously to those in poverty, encouraging faithful diligence, praising a job well done, rebuking the errant in love, and granting responsibilities to capable individuals.

Moreover, with regard to our "own estate," we ought graciously and humbly to recognize the gifts and talents God has granted us, accept thanks from others, take up responsibilities given over to us, receive the blessings that others shower upon us, concede our own faults and shortcomings, and share in the joys and sorrows of those around us.

In all these ways, we are knit together in Christ as the people of God and bring God's blessing to our wider communities. When we weigh ourselves and our relationships in justice, we liberally measure out the gracious presence of God.

16 March 2006

a kingly oracle

a kingly oracle

More from the "A Proverb a Day" blog:

For Thursday, March 16, 2006
Proverbs 16:10

An oracle is on the lips of a king;
his mouth does not sin in judgment.

From time to time we all find ourselves in a position of authority where we have to form a judgment, discerning the best way forward or settling a dispute: parents with children, teachers with students, managers with employees, pastors with parishoners. And we wonder how our decision will be received. With reluctance or begrudingly? Or might it be rejected entirely?

Today's proverb suggests that a wise leader will speak judgment without sin and, in doing so, his word will be received as if it were an oracle from God. Matthew Henry suggests, therefore, that the proverb can be taken as both precept and promise.

As a precept, it exhorts all who lead to seek God's will, cultivating wisdom and prudence, in order that they may truly be recognized as God's appointed servants for good and their word received in good faith as the very leading of God.

As a promise, the proverb assures leaders that, if they inquire diligently of the Lord, relying upon his wisdom and counsel, he will grant them whatever guidance they need to carry out their duties effectively and without sin.

The Lord Jesus Christ is, in these respects, a true King, for only he embodies this proverb perfectly - discerning all things without sin and whose every word remains an oracle from God. As we lead others in our various callings, we should seek to be like our Lord who ruled by becoming the servant of all. And in so doing, may we more and more be leaders worthy of those whom God has placed into our care.

13 March 2006

body worlds

body worlds

The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia has been hosting an exhibit called "Body Worlds" since October.

The exhibit involves actual human corpses that have been dissected and plastinated in order to prevent decay. They are then set in a variety of poses, along with information to educate visitors about the body, various organ systems, and so on. This particular exhibit involves 200 specimens, ranging from entire corpses to individual organs.

While ghoulish, the exhibit is also reportedly pretty cool. But is there an ethical issue here? Most of us, I suspect, would allow for the use of human cadavers in medical training, though perhaps only with the prior consent of the deceased. But we also likely believe - along with our legal system - that the intentional mutilation of a corpse is immoral.

Where does this exhibit fall? Is it sufficiently educational? Or does it transgress some boundary that pushes it into the realm of commodification of corpses for the purposes of entertainment and is that morally acceptable? Since the exhibit includes some corpses of children, what are we to make of that, particularly in terms of consent?

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a pair of editorials in the Sunday paper, one by scholar and ethicist Anita Allen, entitled "Body Ethics, Body Aesthetics," and one by the Franklin Institute's vice president of exhibit and program development Steven L. Snyder, entitled "A Singular Opportunity for Teaching - Ethically." Allen finds the exhibit ethically objectionable while Snyder, of course, does not.

What do you think? How would one approach this issue from the standpoint of Christian moral theology? What's at stake in the discussion? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.

11 March 2006

of narnia and new life

of narnia and new life

I grant that Laurel and I are probably a bit odd. When Claire asks, "Why is it nighttime?" we tend to reply with answers such as, "Because God wants us to share the sun with the other side of the world" or "So we can have a different morning every day, since God likes to give us different experiences to help us grow" or "To remind us that everything comes to an end before it can start over all new."

Of course, we've also talked about the earth turning in relation to the sun, complete with diagrams, but instead leaving that as a cold reductionism, we want Claire to understand the world as overflowing with a surplus of meaning, pointing to the God who is himself, as Trinity, an overflow of love in the eternal generation of the Word in the Spirit. And a child's imagination is fertile ground for planting the seeds of such a vision.

Reading stories with Claire is a large part of cultivating her imagination and we try to share a wide variety of literature with her: fairy tales, historical narratives, science and nature books, counting and alphabet books, classics, and so on. Late last year I attempted to read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with her, partly for my own review of the book prior to seeing the film. We read a chapter each night, but it is a somewhat difficult text for a three year old and required a lot of review each night and asking questions to make sure Claire was following.

Having read the longer version already, I've taken to reading her an abridged version with lavish color illustrations. I don't enjoy the story quite as much since it loses some of Lewis's charm, but Claire is more able to grasp the overall arc of the narrative. We read it again last night and Claire, as always, was full of questions: "Will the Witch turn Aslan into stone?" "Is the wolf going to hurt Susan?" "Is Father Christmas the same as Saint Nicholas?" and so on.

Toward the end of the book, we read of Edmund's injury and Lucy reviving him with the cordial she had received from Father Christmas. Claire turned to me.

"How did Edmund get hurt?" she asked.

"He was trying to fight the White Witch and Alsan hadn't arrived yet," I answered.

"Oh...did she try to turn Edmund into stone?"

"Probably. She turned other people of Narnia into stone. But Edmund was injured when he knocked the Witch's wand from her hand with the sword." I looked to see if this satisfied her.

"And Lucy made Edmund better with her cordial," Claire stated matter-of-factly.

"Yes, that's right."

"Hmm." I could see a slight tensing in her brow as Claire was evidently trying to construct a thought. I waited.


"Yes, sweetheart?"

"I think...I think the Aslan book is all about dying and coming back to life," she finally stated.

"Oh?" I said, "I think you might be right. Why do you say that?"

"Well...Aslan died and came back to life," she replied, evidently grasping the center of the narrative. But then she added, "and..."

"Yes?" I said, wondering what might come next.

"And Aslan breathed on the statues and they came back to life." I nodded.

"Were you also thinking about Edmund being made better with the cordial?" I asked, since that was the context in which she'd raised the topic to begin with.

"Yes," she said and then thought a moment longer. "And Narnia came back to life after the long winter the Witch had made," she concluded.

"You're absolutely right," I said a bit surprised and mentally kicking myself for not having really noticed this motif before. I'd probably always been too hung up on the allegorical dimensions to see the narrative on its own terms, missing the forest for the trees, as the saying goes.

Fortunately, in some respects, Claire hasn't picked up on the parallel with Jesus quite yet, allowing her to experience the narrative world of the story in its own categories while reserving a surplus of meaning still to be unveiled. Too often, I think, we are so caught up in the details and mechanics of living our own lives, that we seldom step back to see how, as baptized people, our own stories have been woven into that great Story, the full meaning of which is not yet revealed, but which we also already know to be divine love.

08 March 2006

city hall

city hall

No, I've not given up blogging for Lent. I've just been occupied with other work that's kept me too busy to blog.

Among those activities was a field trip we took Monday downtown to Philadelphia's City Hall in order for Laurel to get a copy of our marriage certificate in order for her to change her name on and renew her passport. We're planning a trip to the UK in late May.

The century old Victorian extravagance is located on Center Square of William Penn's original 1682 layout for the city of Philadelphia and remains the nation's largest municipal building, larger even than the US Capitol. While the interior of the building is in disrepair, the exterior in undergoing a renovation restoring it to its original gleaming luster:

The exterior of the builing is modelled, in part, after the palace at Versailles and was designed by architect John MacArthur, a deacon at Tenth Presbyterian Church in the 19th century and the designer of its exterior as well. City Hall features a variety of statues and reliefs, as well as the 37 foot high figure of William Penn that's perched atop the 510 foot tower.

Laurel, Claire, and I took a trip up the tower after getting the copy of the certificate. At the base of the tower (already 9 floors up in the building), there's a small museum and some nice views of Center City, such as the towers of Liberty Place, the first buildings built in Philadelphia higher than City Hall:

All the way at the top of the tower there is an observation deck, just below the feet of the Penn statue, from which you can get spectacular views of the city and region, on a clear day as we had easily seeing 30 miles in each direction. Here's a view northwest up the Ben Franklin Parkway to the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the distance, with the tall, reddish Verizon building to the left:

We also were able to look up at the statue of William Penn whose nose alone is three feet long under the brim of his enormous cap. I took this picture of his massive digits:

Perhaps "Talk to the hand" would be a fitting caption.

We didn't get to stay atop the tower as long as we would have liked, given that Claire seemed to be enjoying the heights and views, but a fire alarm went off somewhere in the building and we had to evacuate after a few minutes. Of course, an sirens, firetrucks, and evacuation are a lot of fun for a three year old too, though Daddy got a bit winded carrying her down all the stairs to ground level.

01 March 2006



For those who observe Lent, the season begins today, Ash Wednesday, and lasts for the weeks leading up to Pascha (or Easter). For more information on the season of Lent, its history, customs, and practices, ChurchYear.net has a helpful page.

They are also providing some solid reading in early church documents and Fathers, taking you through ten separate sources during the forty days of Lent. They include the Didache, the Letter to Diognetus, the Epistle of Polycarp, the Letters of Ignatius, Justin Martyr's First Apology, Cyprian's On the Unity of the Church, Athanasius's Life of Anthony, five of Cyril of Jerusalem's Catechetical Lectures, Ambrose's Concerning the Mysteries, and a few select works of Leo the Great.

A person who reads through this list will have a good solid (even if selective) introduction to the early centuries of the Christian church.

A blessed Lenten season to all.