28 June 2006

of muppets, floods & festivals

of muppets, floods & festivals

As you are likely aware, the city of Philadelphia is, in many respects, the nation's birthplace. Accordingly, we try to put on a big week long party each year as July 4th rolls around. This year is no different and the "Welcome America!" people have put together quite an array of events, starting yesterday and continuing through the Fourth.

This evening was our "Arts on the Avenue" festival on Broad Street, south of City Hall, along the Avenue of the Arts, which is home to Philadelphia's theater and concert hall district. The event featured three stages with live jazz performances, as well as various crafts and food vendors. Laurel, Claire, and I went down after supper to enjoy the music and people for a couple hours before returning home with a very sleepy almost four year old.

Claire hadn't taken a nap earlier in the day as she is outgrowing the whole nap routine. This means she is going to bed early in the evening, which gives Laurel and me some quiet time together in the late evening. But it also makes it more difficult to attend evening events with Claire, such as the arts and jazz event this evening or the ongoing series of summer free concerts in Pastorius Park.

Nevertheless, earlier today I had managed to lull Claire into some rest time during the afternoon by watching The Muppet Movie with her, which is a pretty mellow film and conducive to rest time. While she did ask lots of questions during the film, on the whole we were both quiet, which did her good. She was going strong until nearly 9pm. Watching the film for me was, however, a bit bittersweet.

I've always had a fondness for the muppets, having grown up watching "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show" over many years. These funny little puppets are woven deeply into the fabric of my childhood and I very nearly think of them as real characters. And I still laugh when Fozzie and Kermit enter the church where Dr. Teeth and the Electic Mayhem are jamming and Fozzie turns to Kermit and quips, "They don't look like Presbyterians to me." This was even more funny back in 1979 when the idea of a Presbyterian church with a praise band was still virtually unheard of.

But The Muppet Movie is bittersweet in its panoply of guest stars, each of whom makes his or her brief appearance on screen in the role a bar patron or cafe owner or balloon vendor, before disappearing from the film. As I watched, however, I realized that more often than not, these guest stars have exited life's stage to where there is no more curtain call: Edgar Bergen, Milton Berle, James Coburn, Bob Hope, Madeline Kahn, Richard Pryor, Telly Savalas, Orson Welles.

Over the past few months, Claire's had a keen awareness of the concept of death, realizing that living things die and understanding that, in the case of humanity, this ought not be the case, that human flourishing is one that requires that there be something more, that only through an ongoing relationship and reciprocity can the human good be found. Not, of course, that she words it in quite that way.

But the questions come: "Will you always be with me?" "Will Danny always be my friend?" "Will we live in this house forever?" "Will I ever meet your friend who lives so far away?" "When will we see those people again?" There's a recognition that human connection always reaches further than we intend, that even brief encounters point toward a greater fulfillment, a fulfillment that cannot be necessitated, but only gifted, even though fulfillment, in some sense, "requires" it.

Claire also, however, recognizes the fragility and brokenness of human life even when the present course of things is going well. Against the backdrop of the human good, such a recognition can only elicit a desire to anticipate that good in the present. And so we teach her that this is part of what it means to be "in Christ," to live in the present with an eye to God's future.

For Claire this remains very concrete: she wants, for instance, to give her unused toys to poorer children who have none. "Mommy, I don't really play with this any more," she says, handing Laurel a stuffed animal.

"Can we give it to poor children who don't have as many toys? They should have it. It's theirs." So we add it to a growing collection that, periodically, we gather together to take to a mission where the toys will find a home. This isn't to say, of course, that there aren't moments when, playing with a friend, selfishness doesn't rear its ugly head as Claire snatches away a favorite toy from a companion's hand. In many respects, it is in that context that generosity is most sorely tested, but the reminder of those children who have few toys can have an effect, especially since those are children we have sought to serve and in whose good we have some personal investment.

I find that children much more intuitively understand that justice, in its most basic sense, is not so much a matter of "rights" or something governed by a disinterested regard for each equally, though such notions have a proper place in the sphere of law. Rather justice is a virute, the cultivation of a habitual and continual will, formed by charity, in which we give to each what is due in virtue of our relationship, and in which are always ready to share with those in need, so that personal property is directed to the end of the common good.

Thomas Aquinas writes, concerning theft,
...whatever some people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor. For this reason Ambrose writes: "It is the hungry man's bread that you withhold, the naked man's cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man's ransom and freedom."
In such a way, we anticipate even now that continuous communication of goods that will characterize eternal life together in God who is himself, as Trinity, an eternal communication of love. Tracing out those connections between who God is and what we must be is part of the joy of raising a child in the Lord.

And that brings us back to our city event of music and arts, enjoyable because it anticipates in some small way that great eschatological gathering together of God's people in praise and festivity.

One of great things about Philadelphia is that, at only 1.2 million residents within the city limits (around 6 million in the metropolitan region), we almost always run into people we know at public events. This evening we ran into three, one of whom we used to be in a Bible study with and whom we hadn't seen for awhile and enjoyed catching up with. One wonders how many other people at the event ran into friends and, beyond that, how many of us, unknown to one another, are likely already connected in some small way through mutual friends, a neighborhood, a school, a workplace, a favorite park. We often find ourselves in conversations with strangers at these events, discovering these connections.

Attendance at the event was, unfortunately, a bit sparser than expected. But that was due, I think, in large part to the fact that several major arteries into Center City were shut down due to flooding. In the past week, it's rained heavily nearly every day until the ground has become saturated and our rivers are all full to overflowing. We're due another storm tonight and possibly more tomorrow. In our own neighborhood, both Main Street in Manayunk and Kelly Drive have been under water for the past day and thus closed to traffic.

On the way down and back from the festival, and as I took the dog for an nighttime walk, we approached some of the flooded areas to view the rushing waters and pause in awe at the power that God manifests in his creation and our inability to contain it. Again, human connection was visible as folks gathered to watch and worry and wonder at the scenes. I talked for a while with a young woman trying to make her way home, but finding her usual route blocked by several feet of water.

As we had returned earlier to the car from the music and vendors, we passed the park around City Hall, filled, as it often is, with teenage boys and their skateboards, sliding along concrete benches and using an overturned police barrier as a makeshift jump. We slowed and paused as Claire watched in fascination, seeing these teens trying the same trick over and over again until they could get it right.

"Does that look like fun, Claire?" I asked. The increasingly sleepy girl nodded in her stroller, hugging a plush green sea horse she had carried in her purse. A boy flew by into a perfect kickflip over the police barrier.

"Why are they all boys?" Claire looked up at me to ask.

"Umm...no real reason. Girls can skateboard too," I added. "You can learn when you get a bit older, if you want."

"Then can I come back here and do what they're doing?" Claire glared at them, her competitive nature bubbling up through her need to get home and to bed.

"Sure thing, sweetheart, though I think it'll be a different group of kids by that time." The same boy flew by again, this time not managing quite so well.

"Why do they keep doing the same thing over and over?" Claire asked.

I watched the kid skate away around the center of the square, circling to come back again. "Practice, Claire. They've got to practice. Everything worth doing takes practice."

We walked away back toward car. "The musicians we heard tonight, Claire, had to practice to learn to play their saxophones and basses. The singers have to practice their songs. The artists have to practice their art."

"Daddy, do you practice what you do?" I mused for a moment thinking how intimidating the first semester of grad school had been and, after that, how many classrooms of students I've taught over the years.

"Yes, I practice. Even philosophy and teaching take practice." We crossed the street, arriving at the car. "All of life is practice, since when we love each other and do stuff together, we're practicing being a family and being God's people."

Giving away toys, spending quiet time together, getting caught up into the festivity of music and art, running into friends and reconnecting, gathering with others in concern and awe as God's power rushes by carrying tree limbs and debris -- in everything we are called to be people who even now practice the patterns of Christ's kingdom, anticipating who we will someday be together.

25 June 2006

civitas dei

civitas dei

In his extraordinary work, City of God, St. Augustine unfolds the history of humanity and redemption in terms of two cities - the city of man and the city of God - locked in ongoing struggle. The eschatological goal of human history is the building and final appearance of the great city of God, the new Jerusalem, victorious at last, resplendent as a Bride, embodying the harmonious and joyous life of the redeemed together in God through Christ.

Recently I've been reading Eric O. Jacobsen's Sidewalks of the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos 2003). The book is, in many respects, an extended meditation upon what this vision of the new Jerusalem means here and now for how Christ's kingdom might begin to manifest itself in our present earthly cities. Jacobsen eschews generalized talk of "claiming our cities for Christ," instead attempting to outline a Christian perspective on the life of cities and towns in all their geographical and architectural particularity and specifity.

At one point Jacobsen recounts an adult Sunday School class he was teaching in Missoula, Montana, where he is a Presbyterian pastor. He asked the question, "What would a redeemed city look like?" He set aside the question of what percentage of the population would have to be Christian, instead asking a set of questions ranging "from the individualistic and behavioral to the social and institutional and, finally, to the physical and cultural" (48).

The list of questions included the following:
· Would we notice a difference in how people treated one another when they passed on the street?

· Would people be more joyful in their demeanor?

· Would there be different traffic patterns on Sunday?

· Would there be less litter in the streets?

· Would there be more or fewer food banks?

· Would there be an increase or decrease in social services?

· If there were savings from reduced police and social services, would the savings go toward more parks or tax breaks?

· Would there be a flourishing or diminishing of the arts?

· Would people spend more or less time at work?

· Would houses tend to be closer together or farther apart?

· Would out public buildings (courthouse, library, and post office) be more grand or more plain?

· Would there be public celebrations of Christian holidays? (48-49)
Jacobsen notes that, while there was significant agreement on the answers to some of these questions, other questions led to division and some "left us in absolute confusion" (49).

The exercise was, of course, a matter of speculation and perhaps trying to envision answers in an a priori is wrong-headed from the get go. Nevertheless, as Jacobsen suggests, "how we answered these questions revealed some of our basic assumptions regarding salvation, redemption, and the nature of God" (49).

That is to say, whether or not we can come to definite answers to any or all of these questions, the process of thinking through how we might formulate answers uncovers a lot about how we understand what it is to bear God's image, the eschatological end of human life, the nature of God's mission in the world, the character of salvation, the value of material creation, the contours of redeemed community, and so on. Architecture and urban planning, interestingly, can open a window on the whole panaroma of God's deliverance and renewal of his world.

I guess the practical question arising from this is, given a particular understanding of redemption, what does that mean for how we live, where we live, what kind of community we try to foster, what choices we make as consumers, and how we make choices about the nitty-gritty details of everyday life: transportation, groceries, gardening, and the like?

In the midst of the already-not yet of a world still awaiting its ultimate redemption, there is always the danger of an over-realized eschatology that holds up one's own prudential choices or good advice as a legalistic requirement for a superior spirituality. But there is also the equal and opposite danger of so deferring redemption to the eschaton, that God's future doesn't impinge at all upon our here and now, or at least not beyond some narrow and arbitrarily defined arena of "private" spirituality.

In light of that tension, I would commend Jacobsen's book as a useful, practical, and at times provocative tool in the Christian practice of everyday life.

24 June 2006

what is the "federal vision"?

what is the "federal vision"?

For the past few years - since Auburn Avenue PCA in Monroe, Louisiana sponsored a conference with the title - there's been a growing discussion of a theological conversation that critics call the "Federal Vision."

As with most labels, the name has stuck. But as with many labels, it also tells us very little about the supposed content of the view (or constellation of views) in question. In fact, given the meaning of "federal theology" within the Reformed tradition, the label may in fact be misleading.

I've sometimes been identified by others as part of this "Federal Vision" (I'm told that this is the case with a new book on the topic). Others have said that I'm clearly not part of it. So that raises the question: what exactly is the "Federal Vision"?

One could, presumably point to the speakers at the original conference or contributors to the subsequent book, but that really doesn't get at what I'm interested in. I want to know the substance of the views in question: what makes one a "Federal Visionist" as opposed to a run-of-the-mill Reformed thinker within the broad diversity of the tradition?

Now, admittedly, theological trends are often more a matter of family resemblances than a determinate set of specified doctrines (e.g., "evangelicalism," "emerging church," "the social gospel," "complementarianism," etc.). So, I wouldn't expect anyone to be able to give a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that define the "Federal Vision."

Nevertheless, one should be able to say something. Perhaps one could propose evaluative criteria analogous to those sometimes used in making medical and other diagnoses: if the patient persistently exhibits four or more of the following nine features over a period of more than 6 weeks, then...

Any diagnostic criteria should be of the sort that they include all the people who are regularly associated with the so-called "Federal Vision," while not including any others who are generally not associated with it, even if there might be some superficial affinities in some areas.

So, go for it. Leave your suggestions for diagnostic criteria in the comments.

I'd only ask that if you read my blog and are someone prominently associated with the "Federal Vision," that you refrain from commenting. I want the impressions of outside observers. I'd also ask that people who want to make wisecracks find somewhere else as an outlet. I want to have a discussion here that engages the question constructively.

19 June 2006

prayers for the church

prayers for the church

This is the time of year in North America for church conventions and national meetings.

The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church USA is already meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. And later this week General Assemblies are meeting for the Presbyterian Church in America (in Atlanta, Georgia, starting June 20), the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (in Rome, Georgia, starting June 21), and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (in Palos Heights, Illinois, starting June 21).

The following prayers may be useful as we pray for our presbyters assembling together among these sister denominations that have a common heritage and, in their sad divisions, have developed their own specific characters and gifts, strengths and problems.

From the PCUSA Book of Common Worship:

Almighty God,
in Jesus Christ you called disciples
and, by the Holy Spirit,
made them one church to serve you.
Be with members of these, our General Assemblies.
Help them to welcome new things
you are doing in the world,
and to respect the old things you keep and use.
Save them from empty slogans or senseless controversy.
In their deciding,
determine what is good for us and for all people.
As these General Assemblies meet,
let your Spirit rule,
so that our church may be joined
in love and service to Jesus Christ,
who, having gone before us,
is coming to meet us in the promise of your kingdom.

And from the Church of Scotland's Book of Common Order:

Almighty God,
your Son promised his disciples
that he would be with them always.
Hear the prayer we offer for your servants
meeting in General Assemblies.
May your Holy Spirit rest on them:
a spirit of wisdom and understanding,
a spirit of counsel and power,
a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord.
Grant them vision and courage;
unite them in love and peace;
teach them to be trustworthy stewards
of your truth.
And so guide them in all their doings
that your kingdom may be advanced,
your people confirmed in their most holy faith,
and your unfailing love
declared to all the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Our brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Church in the USA also need our prayers as they struggle to be a witness and find a way forward while their church appears determined to further rend the fabric of the Anglican Communion.

jury duty

jury duty

I had jury duty today and ended up on a criminal trial. Not sure when I'll be back here blogging again. Probably not much until the trial is over.

16 June 2006

crc approves paedocommunion

crc approves paedocommunion

While I still find myself on the "young child professor" side of the fence, I think ongoing discussion of the issue of paedocommunion among Reformed churches is a healthy development that provides a lens through which to investigate how differing varieties of covenant theology, conceptions of saving faith, and so on, play out practically speaking.

At any rate, the Christian Reformed Church's 2006 Synod appears to have approved the inclusion of baptized children in the Lord's Supper, even prior to a verbal profession of faith.

The press release states that the CRC affirms that "Baptized children are part of God’s family and should be invited to take part in the Lord’s Supper." It goes on to emphasize, "Opening communion to all baptized members is not a denial of the need for a profession of faith, synod said, but is 'a healthier understanding that such faith is expressed in many ways and at many levels … and not only through a verbal affirmation of beliefs.'"

15 June 2006

busy work

busy work

In addition to my academic roles, I'm also our department's webmaster. I've been busy the past couple of days doing a complete re-design on the department's website, adding a blog, updating information, creating an alumni survey, and so on.

I've still got quite a bit of tweaking to do, but I think the new design is an improvement and brings the department's website more in line with the aesthetic that currently characterizes much of the university's main site, with my own twists, of course.

12 June 2006

liturgy and christian formation

liturgy and christian formation

A process of biblical reformation in all that we do is one of our ongoing tasks as Christians - how we think, how we speak, how we produce, how we consume, how we live with one another. Most importantly, the process involves thinking through how we worship our triune God since, after all, we become like what we worship, so that worship is central to Christian formation.

Our recent trip to England renewed my thinking about worship.

This was, in part, due to the wonderful times of worship we enjoyed, in a variety of settings from a college chapel to a local parish to a grand cathedral, and which exhibited a remarkable diversity despite their adherence to the basic patterns of the Book of Common Prayer and the more recent updating of those patterns in Common Worship. Indeed, though I've studied Common Worship and used it in a domestic setting, our trip was the first time I was able to see it taken up in a fully congregational setting.

My thinking was also renewed through some books I was reading during our trip, both books I took with me (Newbigin in particular) and books I purchased in England at Durham cathedral's SPCK bookshop (Liturgical Worship by Mark Earey and the chapter on worship from Tom Wright's Simply Christian).

These experiences and writings underscored to me, as I noted above, the formative character of worship, but also the significance that formation has for the church's mission to the world. But we should begin with what the very notion of "worship" means.

In his recent book Simply Christian, Tom Wright explains, "Worship means, literally, acknowledging the worth of something or someone. It means recognizing, and saying, that something or someone is worthy of praise. It means praising someone or something so far superior to oneself that all one can do is to recognize their worth and to celebrate it" (124).

As those who exist out of the overflow of love among of the Persons of the Trinity and who have been redeemed by that same love, we celebrate God as creator and redeemer in our worship. And one of the main ways we do this is to tell and re-tell "the story of salvation precisely as the story of the rescue and renewal of creation," to rehearse the mighty acts of God (129). This is why Scripture, particularly in its overall narrative centered on Jesus Christ, is the fabric of the church's prayer and praise, her teaching and action.

But the Christian story that we enact in worship is central not only to our praise of God, but also for way that we, as the church, rehearse what it means to live and speak that story within the world. God's grand rescue operation, by which he intends to renew the whole creation, has at its center the renewal of humanity in and through the person of Jesus Christ. The corporate character of worship embodies the corporate character of God's salvation. As Mark Earey writes, "At the heart of liturgy is an understanding of public worship that goes beyond the personal encounter with God (without denying it) to the corporate drama of being the people of God" (18).

This requires, therefore, that we be deliberate and intentional in how we organize and carry out worship as God's people, making sure that worship is shot through with Scripture as the word of Jesus and truly remains the work of the people. And this intentional, biblically suffused, corporate action is what we mean when we speak of "liturgy."

Earey explains further:
Liturgy is the rehearsal - the many rehearsals - for the part we are called to take both in the world now and in eternity with God. We each have a part to play in God's work in the world, and liturgy reflects this, but our personal engagement with God at an individual level finds its proper place within the 'duty and joy' of the corporate event. (19)
This is not to pit the corporate against the individual, but to recognize that they mutually contextualize one another. Salvation involves not only the remission of personal sin through personal faith and repentance, but also the restoration of truly human relationship within the community of faith - and all of this for the sake of the world to which the church is called to minister as a priestly people.

Tom Wright fills out this picture of Christian formation even further, noting two rules that define how worship forms us. First, he writes, "You become like what you worship. When you gaze in awe, admiration and wonder at something or someone, you begin to take on something of the character of the object of your worship." If this is so, then, Wright asks, "What happens when you worship the creator God, whose plan to rescue the world and put it to rights has been accomplished by the Lamb who was slain?" (127).

Second, he notes, "...because you were made in God's image, worship makes you more truly human." This is the other rule of how worship forms us as Christians. Wright continues, "When you gaze in love and gratitude at the God in whose image you were made, you do indeed grow. You discover more of what it means to be fully alive...the chance, the invitation, the summons, is there before us, to come and worship the true God, the creator, the redeemer, and to become more truly human by doing so. Worship is the very centre of all Christian living" (127-8).

Again, Earey unfolds this further:
Corporate worship should engage, in a representative way, with things that matter in our daily lives: hospitality, listening to God, community, sharing the good news, serving our neighbour. This connection is not simply one-way (with worship reflecting life); nor is it an empty symbol. Because it is engagement with the living God, corporate worship, with its symbolic and representative nature, has the potential and the power to be formative; it can shape our lives in Christ and our understanding (including our unspoken assumptions) about God. (8)
We listen to Scripture being read and explained, not only because the Bible is important on Sundays, but also because listening to what God is teaching us through Scripture is important every day. We pray and intercede for various needs in the church and world not only because it's a churchy thing to do, but also to remind us that God cares about those sorts of things all the time and wants us to share in and act upon that concern. We partake together in the table of the Lord not only because we commune there with Christ by faith, but also because we learn God's own hospitality and grace that we in turn share from our own tables. And so on for everything we do as we gather in worship.

Furthermore, as Lesslie Newbigin notes in his work The Good Shepherd, "Christian worship is a protection for those who take part in it against the false standards and convictions of the world." As we are "drawn week by week into this act of adoration and self-giving to the living Lord who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ," Christian worship becomes for us "the most powerful possible antiseptic against the infection of worldiness" (31).

In addition to prayer and praise, Christian worship, from the start, has involved both the word and the sacraments - or perhaps even better, a speaking and forming word that comes to us through both preaching and sacraments. Newbigin takes up the ministry of word and sacrament in turn.

In his chapter "Preaching Christ" Newbigin addresses the central importance of preaching in the worship of the church. He writes,
We have to preach Christ. That is really our only business in the pulpit. The reason why preaching has a central place in the life of the Christian Church is that the word of God to men is Jesus Christ, and he has to be put before men. He has be put before men again and again in his flesh, in the concrete reality of his manhood - his life, his words, his deeds, above all his death and resurrection. (24)
Newbigin goes on to note that preaching Christ involves "preaching him both as Saviour and as Lord," not merely for the praise and glory of his own name, but so that our identity in Christ might overflow into mission so that God might be further praised and glorified in the salvation of the world. Newbigin explains,
It means that people go out from the church not merely comforted with the assurance that they are saved, and not merely crushed by the unbearable knowledge that they are sinners, but rather re-enlisted in Christ's army as fighters for the rule of God in this world. This means they are liberated from care about their own salvation in order to be totally at his service for the world's salvation. (25)
As Newbigin later says, proper preaching isn't simply giving a lecture, but "springs out of action and leads into action" since the word we preach is a word that was "made flesh, became part of history." And in order to engage in this sort of preaching, the preacher must have his congregation with him in prayer as he prepares. He must be "standing beside" his flock "in their battles with the world and in their trials and problems" and, in this way, his words, by the power of the Spirit, can become "vehicles of God's eternal life" (26-7).

Newbigin, however, doesn't stop with the importance of preaching, though that is important. He also goes on to speak of the sacramental life of God's people. As the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus teaches us, the exposition of Scripture, though it may cause our hearts to burn within us, is only fulfilled when we know Jesus in the breaking of bread.

As Newbigin rightly notes, part of the burden of the Protestant Reformers was to transform the eucharistic liturgy from a spectacle into something in which "the whole congregation would be involved" (33). Unfortunately, "because of the partial failure of the Reformation, Christians became accustomed to a kind of worship which was robbed of its central element - the breaking of bread and the sharing of the cup." As Newbigin notes, medieval spectators were transformed into modern hearers who went to church to hear the pastor pray and preach. He comments, "In some places even the last vestiges of congregational participation were eliminated, and the preacher had to say Amen to his own prayers - the ultimate limit of morose sacerdotalism" (34).

This sort of Protestant sacerdotalism, according to Newbigin, "cannot be called true Christian worship." Rather, "Christian worship is the corporate act of the whole body, in which everybody right down to the last man standing at the back of the church has a part to play" (30). Again, if Christian worship is to be formative of who we are as God's church, his new creation people, then worship should involve the concsious, active participation of the congregation in a variety of ways.

Newbigin, however, reminds us that this kind of liturgical involvement is never for the sake of that particular congregation alone or unto itself. Rather, proper Christian worship is always catholic and missional in character. He writes, "it is not only the congregation present which is involved" in Christian worship, but it is also "the act of the whole universal Church in earth and in heaven" (30).

Moreover, our worship must therefore "reflect the catholicity of the whole Church." This doesn't mean that local and immediate concerns and expressions are ignored or suppressed. Nonetheless, they "must be seen within the context of the whole fellowship" of the church universal, so that what we do in worship should be "recognisable as the worship of the universal Church" (30). This sort of catholicity is, of course, difficult since all manner of patterns and styles have grown up among Christian churches worldwide. Still, some basic patterns of prayer, word, sacrament, creed, and the like have a certain weight and priority given their ancient origins and ecumenical usage.

Christian worship, however, is not merely catholic, but is also missional in character. Newbigin writes, "true Christian worship is an offering on behalf of the whole of mankind" since the "Church as a whole is called to be God's holy priesthood for all of the human family" (30). Therefore, the church should never turn into a "self-enclosed community" that shuts itself to the wider world.

Instead, our worship has what Newbigin calls "an evangelistic dimension," since in our worship the convictions and standards by which we live as Christians "stand out in the sharpest possible contrast and challenge men with the question of truth" (31). As those who sometimes find ourselves becoming cynical and hopeless, worship helps us to see "things as they really are." When Christian worship is authentic, therefore, we will be able to go out from church every Sunday with a true testimony upon our lips and in our hearts of God's transforming love.

The pattern of Christian liturgy is the pattern of the biblical narrative, the story of God's pursuing love to rescue his fallen world. It is the tale of the Emmaus disciples, found by Jesus in their sadness and confusion, but changed by his word and table in order to go tell others of their encounter with the living Lord. It is the story of God's provision for Noah on the ark, of Israel's exodus from bondage, of the building of God's temple under Solomon, of exile and return.

In Jesus Christ, God seeks us out in our fallenness and brokenness, reaching out by his Spirit to draw us to himself. We can only respond with a confession of our own failure to be and do all that God intended for us as human beings and then, receive in faith, God's word of forgiveness in Jesus. God speaks to us, teaching us who we are in Christ and what how he wants us to live as his renewed people. As we offer ourselves up through and with Christ to his saving mission, God feeds us by his Spirit with the transformed and transforming life of Jesus. Then we are sent on our way to tell others what we have heard and witnessed: "Go in peace to love and serve the Lord."

We continually need to learn, then, how we might better worship in Spirit and truth in order that our liturgy more and more forms us into the people God would have us be and equips us for his saving mission to our world.

11 June 2006

thoughts on presbyterians together

In the midst of preparations for our trip to England I was unable to follow all of the discussion that arose around "Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together" (PPT), which now has around 250 signatures (you are still welcome to sign it, by the way). Much of what discussion I did see was encouraging as people wrestled with and discussed the issues raised by the document, and for the most part attempted to do so in a way consistent with its aims and commitments.

Since I had a hand in writing it, I thought it might be useful, at this point, to say a few things about the aims and intentions of PPT, though in the cyberworld, the document is already "old news." What follows here is simply my own personal perspective and shouldn't be taken to represent the views of any others who signed PPT or had a hand in it. And forgive the verbiage, but I thought it would be better to set matters out at some length rather than in a cursory way.

First, those of you who have known me for any extended time, either face-to-face or through my online presence, know how concerned I have been and continue to be concerning Christian unity in general, and the witness of our Reformed churches in particular. I am convinced that the Spirit of Christ is present whereever his name is confessed in faith by those he has gathered to himself through his word and sacraments.

Therefore, despite differences and disagreements within the church (and some of these are legitimate and exceedingly important, not to be readily glossed over), I am committed to learning from others in the Body of Christ who share with me in his one Spirit and to whom that Spirit has given a diversity of gifts and insights. Though I am not uncritical (as is evident from my own writings), nonetheless my first question when reading a Christian author or hearing a Christian speaker is, "What can I learn here? What does God's Spirit have to teach us through this person?"

This commitment is one that arises from a wide range of my own life experiences, especially as I have worked together closely in ministry alongside, studied Scripture with, and read the writings of brothers and sisters from a wide variety of traditions, from charismatic to Roman Catholic. In the mysterious providence of God and whatever the dangers, the sad and often sinful divisions within the church can teach us a great deal about what it means to appreciate and embrace a diversity of gifts in one Body. Christian charity is not risk-free living. We're not called simply to play it safe, avoiding and distancing ourselves from those who, theologically speaking, we might regard as "tax collectors and sinners."

Second, in light of that larger perspective, the differences that co-exist within the Reformed tradition seem rather less important and pressing, especially given our basic shared understanding of God's loving providence and the absolute priority of grace in salvation. Nevertheless, I love the Reformed tradition, consider it a privilege to have been raised within it, and find the issues internal to it to occupy my own doctrinal reflections. The Westminster Standards, for better or worse, are woven into how I think theologically and how I understand and interpret Scripture.

Moreover, my appreciation for and love of the Reformed tradition has grown deeper and been further enriched as I have interacted with those from other traditions. But as a person of Reformed convictions, I can only be humbled by my own limitations, blindspots, and (often happy) inconsistencies with regard to my understanding of the mystery of Christ, knowing that whatever I understand I have only received as a gift.

All of that, taken together with the pressing mission of our triune God to seek and rescue humanity from our sin and brokenness, forces me to evaluate the significance of various differences in light of the vital center of the Gospel - the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for our deliverance and the renewal of creation.

There are multiple ways of fleshing out that Gospel and speaking it to our contemporary world - no doubt some better and some worse - and our stuttering and faltering lips always run the risk of losing something in translation. But it seems to me more important that we try to speak in a way that others might hear and that is faithful to what we understand of Scripture, than it is to make sure we always get everything right or to speak a specialized language only known to others within our own tradition.

Of course, we must remain open to correction and willing to receive disagreement. That is all part of a process of discernment and growth in grace. But Scripture in general - and the book of Proverbs in particular - have a lot to say about how correction is best offered, disagreement best handled, and truth best spoken in love. If there is a besetting sin that plagues the Reformed church, it is one of censoriousness. And speaking truth with wrong intentions is, to my mind, as great (if not greater) a danger to the church's mission as speaking falsehood with good intentions.

At any rate, that provides some of the background I brought with me to "Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together" and which continues to inform my own views.

The document itself arose out of variety of similar concerns and perspectives. As with many ideas that begin in one place, evolve over time, and get passed along, I have no idea who "came up with" the concept of PPT. I know that over the past months it was being discussed among some academics, pastors, laity, and seminary students. Based on my writings, training, and experience, I was eventually asked to have a central role in wordsmithing the document, but significant bits of it were, more or less, drawn from existing documents and statements, ranging from Presbytery mission statements to church vision websites.

I and others sent drafts around to a bunch of different folks (seminary professors, pastors, students, etc.) and feedback was circulated. A number of suggested revisions and additions were incorporated. Many hands were involved, therefore, in the process and, of those folks, some dropped out and others came in, so there was no one consistent "group" behind PPT. The document emerged from a wide range of sources representing various perspectives, all in a rather ad hoc fashion.

PPT, therefore, despite rumors to the contrary, was never beholden to the agenda of any particular group or viewpoint. Furthermore, if PPT were intended more as a criticism (and less as the personal commitment that it tries to be), then there would be more than enough blame to dish out on all sides of any number of issues, without giving preference to any particular perspective. God knows that highly charged polemics, overblown rhetoric, uncharitable criticism, failure to listen, and so forth are hardly the peculiar provenance of just one viewpoint or one side of contentious subjects.

Moreover, as PPT was being written and as we began to disseminate it for signatures, I and others took care that most of those who are prominently associated with controversial viewpoints were not contacted about the document, in order to prevent any appearance of its being part of some larger ploy. Ironically enough, many such persons first learned about it through online reaction to it from individuals who have been their opponents.

The concerns of those who wrote PPT and first began to collect signatures were precisely what one finds on the "About" page and "FAQ" at the PPT website - that it's become increasingly difficult to have a fruitful conversation about a whole range of issues within conservative Presbyterian circles due to mistrust, a hermeneutics of suspicion, growing rancor, etc. Such problems have been perennial, of course, just given the human condition and our peculiar history as confessionally Reformed Christians. But these problems also seem to have grown in recent years. Moreover, they prove a barrier to the kinds of cooperation and growing relationship many of us would like to see among confessional Presbyterians of all denominations and between Presbyterians and the wider church.

Certainly the list of areas of historic diversity found in the PPT document does bleed off into a number of currently vexed areas of discussion (e.g., new perspectives on Paul, the emerging church, the nature of Scriptural inerrancy, creationism, the Auburn Avenue controversy, hermeneutics, and so on), but those are exactly the points at which the church needs, in the present moment, to exercise the most care, the most charity, the most discernment, and in which the conservative Presbyterian church's failures are, from the viewpoint of many onlookers and insiders alike, the most evident.

As you can imagine it was a difficult document to write. I think I noted on Mark Traphagen's blog that at the beginning it was a question whether or not any specific issues should be included in PPT. But it was felt by many that not to list some specifics would leave things abstract with no real accountability or traction. Having decided to include some specific issues, it was a question which ones to include.

Again, one could have stuck with matters that were all relatively "settled," but we chose to touch on some areas of ongoing dispute. This is because that's where charity is really put to the test. Some early signers wanted even more areas listed than what we included, but it was decided that it would be best to keep the document to two printed pages.

"Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together," however, isn't a church court. Thus, it isn't the job of the document, in calling for charity, to discern proper doctrinal boundaries, especially where they may not yet clearly exist. Thus PPT left matters vague. Otherwise the document could be accused of circumventing church courts or trying to stake out claims where the church has not yet made clear discernments and the historical record is one of diversity.

Yet, clearly, that's not satisfying to some folks. And that's fine. There are all sorts of legitimate reasons why one might not be comfortable with or interested in signing the document in terms of its content, its timing, one's current circumstances, and so on. I'm not sure, however, how the document could have been written in a way that would have made everyone in conservative Presbyterianism happy. Making everyone happy, however, was not the point and probably impossible. Rather, the point was for a significant number of Presbyterians to bear witness together and to commit themselves as signers to living in terms of what PPT holds out as a positive vision for mission and charity, with the hopes that this would have some kind of salutary effect.

None of this means, of course, that confessions aren't important or that some boundaries needn't been drawn. I think PPT is very clear in its scriptural and confessional commitments, its trust in proper processes of church courts, and the notion that there are appropriate boundaries to be discerned. That has all been subsequently made even more clear in the FAQ on the website.

Part of the question, I guess, is whether or not the church will be able exercise its proper roles (discernment, doctrine, mission, etc.) in a positive way when matters are highly politicized, mistrust is left unchecked, factions are permitted to thrive, and so on. The danger is for congregations and denominations to become inwardly focused, for broader catholicity to be neglected, for miscommunication to become codified as truth, for boundaries to be drawn in ways that exclude more than is necessary, and, in the midst of all of this, the church and particular leaders to send the wrong message to the world, to lose the trust of their own people, and to undermine their own moral authority.

Unfortunately, some of the reaction to PPT, particularly as propagated by those who are opposed to that constellation of viewpoints grouped together as the "Federal Vision" (FV), seems to have dominated conversation about the document, at least in some quarters. Though one could do the following with regard to a number of different positions, it might be a useful exercise at this point to go through some of the specific points of diversity listed in PPT and show how "FV" concerns might intersect with various statements, especially inasmuch as PPT has something to say to those who advocate such viewpoints.

To begin, PPT suggests that there has been historic diversity with regard to:
how we characterize the pre-lapsarian covenant, particularly as to probation, grace, merit, and reward, and its relationship to and distinction from the covenant of grace
For some followers of Meredith Kline, it is very
important to insist that the covenant of works with Adam was a matter of merit and justice and not gracious in character. Everyone is agreed that God promised some kind of transformed life to Adam and required perfect and perpetual obedience as the condition thereof. The disagreement is whether or not this is a matter of merit, exclusive of grace.

Of course, this isn't really an "FV" issue per se, but is a matter of ongoing discussion within Reformed covenant theology among a wide range of theologians. "FV" sorts, however, do fall out on the "gracious pre-lapsarian covenant with Adam" end of things. But part of what PPT is saying that people at that end of things need to be charitable towards Klineans and similar viewpoints as much as vice versa, understanding that Klineans are not speaking in terms of "strict merit" but "merit" redefined as "fulfillment of a covenant condition."

PPT notes diversity with regard to
the relative role we grant to specific experiences of conversion in relation to practices of Christian nurture and the ordinary means of grace within the covenant life of God's people
The question here goes back to the Independents in England, the Half-way Covenant folks in New England, the First Great Awakening, and Old Side/New Side disputes in the early 18th century.

The question is whether having a "conversion experience" or being able to relate some "narrative of conversion" is a necessary part of typical Christian experience, or whether we should expect a variety of different experiences of "conversion" among Christian people, some more dramatic, some more gradual, some onetime, some repeated. Moreover, there is the question of whether or not we should expect covenant children to grow up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord "never having known a time when they didn't believe" (as I myself did).

Again, this isn't an "FV" issue per se, though "FV" sorts would tend to speak of "conversion" more loosely (e.g., continual conversion) and hold to more of a "nurture" model of covenant children. But part of what PPT is suggesting that more "nurture"-oriented folks need to charitably accept how others describe their own conversion experiences which may not all fit nicely into a single model.

PPT likewise notes historic differences with regard to
how we best characterize the spiritual life of covenant children prior to their coming to a maturing faith through the ministry of the Word
The question here is not whether the ministry of the Word is the means that God ordinarily uses to bring people to a self-conscious faith. That is assumed and affirmed as per WCF 14.1.

The question is how we regard covenant children prior to such time they find themselves having such a self-conscious faith through the ministry of the Word. Do we consider them devoid of all faith, unsaved "vipers in diapers" awaiting a later conversion? Do we remain agnostic about their spiritual state? Do we hope for the best and consider them "probably" the objects of God's love and the Spirit's work, making a judgment of charity until we have evidence to the contrary? Do we trust that the Spirit is ordinarily at work in them sowing the seeds of faith that will later be brought to self-conscious maturity through the ministry of the Word?

Again, some of these are "FV" concerns, since "FV" sorts would mostly fall in the last category (i.e., trusting that the Spirit is already at work, at least within the proper context of faithful churches and families). These are, however, also issues of perennial and ongoing discussion within the wider Reformed and Presbyterian tradition.

And part of what PPT is suggesting that folks who are more trusting of the Spirit's work and God's promises in our children should nonetheless charitably accept the possibility that such a view could foster presumption, as opponents would point out. Moreover, more "covenant nurture" sorts should avoid charging folks at the other end of things as sowing seeds of doubt and unbelief by expecting their children to "convert" or "close with Christ" at some point.

PPT notes diversity on the matter of
whether we regard sacraments truly to offer Christ and whether, when effectual, they confer grace instrumentally or are only occasions for the imparting or promise of grace
This is basically noting that there is a sacramental spectrum from the Zwingli/Bullinger end of things to the Bucer/Calvin end of things within the Reformed and Westminster traditions.

This could be seen, I suppose, as an "FV" concern since "FV" sorts tend to emphasize the objective presence and offer of Christ in the word and sacraments and that, when received rightly, the sacraments are efficacious instrumentally. But part of what PPT is saying is that folks who hold to more robustly Calvinian, instrumentalist views shouldn't disparage more Zwinglian sorts as "Gnostic" or "rationalist" or "modernist," since such views go back in some form to guys like Bonaventure.

On the eucharist, PPT notes differences regarding
how we interpret and enact biblical teaching on worthy participation in the Lord's Supper
This covers a variety of issues: age of first communion, but also questions about how precisely we "fence" the Table and whether or not we use "suspension" from the Table as an intermediate form of church discipline short of excommunication.

The PCA only allows folks who make some kind of credible profession of faith to partake of communion (though it's up to individual Sessions to determine how young a child can be when "credibly professing"). Some other Reformed denominations allow for paedocommunion, while it's not untypical in some Dutch circles to wait until kids are in their late teens until their first communion. And in some traditions, even adults often skip partaking of the Supper if they have any lingering doubts about their regeneration and election. Some churches invite all the baptized to the table, while others require meeting with presbyters or exclude all but those who meet certain qualifications in terms of confessional commitment or church membership.

Among "FV" sorts paedocommunion is a commonly held position, though it's not practiced where church regulations don't permit it. But certainly not all paedocommunionists would fit into the "FV" camp (e.g., Rob Rayburn, Jack Collins, and Vern Poythress are all paedocommunionists, I think, without any of them being "FV"). While some Presbyteries in the PCA take a very hard line against even holding to paedocommunion in theory or teaching it (e.g., Mississippi Valley) there are other Presbyteries where a large number of pastors hold and teach the position (e.g., Missouri). Moreover, "FV" advocates tend towards more inclusive fellowship in general, with regard to how the Table is "fenced."

Part of what PPT is commending is that we learn to live patiently with some of these differences, even if we think some of them are unhealthy, recognizing that there's a history behind these variations, things aren't going to change overnight, and the conversation needs to continue. Moreover, PPT is suggesting that convinced paedocommunionists need to lay off the rhetoric that the rest of us are "spiritually starving" our covenant children as if non-paedocommunionist positions originate in malice or stinginess.

PPT points to differences concerning
the way we apply Scriptural teaching on election to the lived experience of God's people as the church visible
The first thing to note here is that this point of diversity implicitly affirms the distinction between the church "visible" and "invisible" as per WCF 25.1-2. Moreover, it alludes to the teaching of WCF 3.8 that the "doctrine of this high mystery of predestination is to be handled with special prudence and care" and that we are to turn people towards "the will of God revealed in his Word" rather than trying to peer into God's secret decrees in some other way.

But there have been a number of different ways in which this works out practically within the Reformed tradition, regarding how we interrelate God's promises, the word and sacraments, faith, assurance, good works, election, and so on.

Among "FV" sorts there are some who would draw upon Calvin's teaching about the corporate election of God's people as a basis for speaking, under the judgment of charity, to the church visible as "God's elect" and calling them to hold onto God's promises offered to them in Christ by faith.

But part of what PPT is suggesting is that there may be a number of ways in which the doctrine of election can be applied, pastorally speaking, relative to different contexts and the temperament of different parishoners. Further, it's suggesting that those who wish more to emphasize God's objective promises to the church visible take care neither to brush away others' concern that the doctrines of grace remain clear and intact, nor to gloss over the significant pastoral problem of those tender consciences who are plagued by doubts.

So much for some of the specifics of "Presbyterians and Presbyterians Together." If one were to try to connect the dots with "FV" sorts of concerns, those are the ways in which I would do it. One could probably do a similar reading of the document relative to other sets of concerns.

But I think it should be clear, from what I've said, that PPT is as much a call to charity directed at those on the more "FV" side of things as it is directed towards other perspectives. As far as I can see, a big dose of charity - along with a concern to be clear and careful in how we speak - is necessary all around. PPT holds up a standard that cuts against pro-"FV" polemics as much as other factions in the conservative Presbyterian world.

I'm sure these remarks don't answer every question people might have and I'm not sure I can personally address every possible issue in connection with the document. But I do hope that I've helped provide some context to at least how I, personally, view the document as one individual who had a hand in it.

I also hope I've helped demonstrate that the document is just what it purports to be: a call for charity in order that Presbyterians of all sorts might learn better to talk to one another, listen to each other, and labor together, for the sake of growing cooperation among Reformed and Presbyterian bodies and, more widely, for the sake the work to which God calls his whole church.

10 June 2006

world cup 2006

world cup 2006

Have I ever mentioned how much I enjoy football? Since we don't have cable, I seldom get to see football on television (unless I watch it in Spanish), but it seems that the World Cup is getting more attention than it has in previous years. I was even able to watch England defeat Paraguay on network television, sitting here in my England jersey (if it hadn't been 9am, I'd have enjoyed a pint too). Go England! Of course, Brasil will probably win in the end.

06 June 2006

england trip, part two

england trip, part two

On Saturday, 27 May, we decided to stay in Durham itself and visit the magnificent cathedral and other historic locations in a leisurely and extended way.

Above is the sanctuary knocker on the main door of the cathedral, a reproduction of the original that dates to 1140 and is now housed in the "Treasures of St. Cuthbert" museum at the cathedral. The museum houses a variety of treasures: the coffin made in 698 and used to transport Cuthbert's remains from Lindisfarne, silk vestments presented to Cuthbert's shrine by King Athelsan in the early 900s, St. Cuthbert's pectoral cross that was crafted of gold and garnet between 640 and 670.

Durham cathedral itself was first built between 1093 and 1133 in a Norman Romanesque style, with the addition of the Galille chapel in 1175 (which now houses the body of Bede), the two western towers in 1217 and 1226, and a Gothic-style chapel on the eastern end between 1242 and 1280. Nevertheless, the cathedral is essentially an intact Norman building, making it both rare and unique among English cathedrals.

The central tower of the cathedral, already atop a steep hill, soars 218 feet in stone, granting a spectacular view of the surrounding city and countryside, if one is willing to climb the 325 narrow, winding steps and brave the bracing winds. The view above is of the two western towers, overlooking the River Wear.

The western end of the cathedral also houses the Galilee chapel, once a worship space for women (recall that the cathedral buildings were, until 1540, also a Benedictine monastary). The chapel houses not only the tomb of the Venerable Bede, who has rested there since 1022, but also a variety of artwork, ranging from 12th century wall paintings to a couple of modern stained glass masterpieces.

It's impossible to summarize the beauty and grandeur, let alone the details, of Durham's cathedral, but I can attest that it is among the greatest cathedrals of Europe and, moreover, one that has retained its spiritual identity and the centrality of worship in a way that not all have in the face of secularism and the tourist industry.

We spent the rest of Saturday wandering around the city of Durham, the cathedral always in view, as it is in the picture above from across the Wear, with the university's museum of archaeology in the foreground. We picked up some groceries on the way back to our hosts so that I could cook them dinner - Thai red curry over jasmine rice.

The next day was Sunday, 28 May, so we attended morning eucharist at the closest parish: St. John's Neville's Cross, where the new rector we had seen installed on Wednesday now preached and presided. The service was enjoyable, a nice mix of old and new, following the liturgy as found in the Church of England's Common Worship. As we had all along since we had arrived in Durham, we found the people very friendly and welcoming.

After lunch we decided to go for a Sunday drive and visit a couple of historical sights in the vicinity of Durham, beginning with the ruins of the Roman fort at Binchester.

Most of the site remains unexcavated since it sits within working farms, but the fort, at one time, was one of the largest in this part of Britain, located along Dere Street, a Roman road running from York to Edinburgh, which was the main supply route for the building of Hadrian's wall. The fort itself was begun around AD 80, though the visible remains date from the early 2nd century and include the remains of the bath seen in the picture above.

From Binchester we travelled out to Barnard Castle, set along the River Tees on the southern border of county Durham. Though a ruin now, the castle was original built just after the Norman conquest and rebuilt in the late 12th century by Bernard de Balliol.

After visiting the castle, we returned to Durham where we enjoyed dinner at a nice Italian restaurant along the river in the shadow of Durham Castle which now, incidentally, serves in large part as dormitory space for the university.

On Monday, 29 May, we journeyed to North Yorkshire to the town of Whitby, which sits around a harbor on the North Sea. Our day in Whitby was by far the most windblown of any of our time in England, especially given the town's location atop high bluffs overlooking the whitecapped sea.

Whitby, of course, is best known as the location of the Synod of Whitby in 664, which brought the Celtic church (which, at the time, included the north of England) into conformity with Roman practices on issues such as the dating of Pascha and clerical tonsure.

We were fortunate enough (and unfortunate, given the crowds) to be visiting Whitby on a bank holiday and thus were able to see a re-enactment of a Viking encampment, including some fellows acting out a battle between the Vikings and the native Celtic population.

The main attraction, however, were the ruins of Whitby Abbey, a massive 13th century structure built upon the site of the earlier, pre-Norman abbey that had been founded by St. Hilda in 657 and which had served as the site of the Synod. The foundation outlines of the original abbey are marked out within the ruins of the later one.

St. Hilda was the powerful abbess who headed up the twin male and female communities that once occupied the site, who hosted the Synod of Whitby, and who is known also (at least to students of English literature) as the one who "discovered" the cowherd turned poet, Caedmon.

As we returned towards Durham, we made a brief detour into the heart of the North York moors (see below), to a get a good look at the desolate landscape that has so haunted certain sorts of English fiction and poetry.

The next morning, Tuesday, 30 May, we packed our bags and boarded the train back to London where we arrived mid-afternoon, in time to do some last minute shopping along Oxford and Regent Streets. Eventually we made our way down to Trafalgar Square, with the well-known facades of the National Gallery and St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

We found an absolutely wonderful Thai restaurant just off of Trafalgar and enjoyed a dinner of spring rolls, chicken panang curry, and a prawn green curry. After dinner we decided to wander around a bit and took the tube over to the old city of London where the Tower of London and Tower Bridge are located.

While both places were closed for tours by the time we got there, they were, nonetheless, quite pretty in the evening light.

On the way back to our hotel we stopped by a pub to get a drink and to celebrate England's victory over Hungary in the World Cup. We were exhausted and fell asleep almost immediately, only be awakened at 5am by a fire alarm, fortunately, a false alarm. After some shopping the next morning, we headed back to Heathrow and our flight home, though not until picking up some gin, whisky, and Pimm's in the duty free shop.

We enjoyed our trip immensely, particularly visiting various places of importance in the history of the Christian faith in early England, as well as all the kind and gracious people we got to meet and spend time with.

05 June 2006

england trip, part one

england trip, part one

I intend to set up a separate blog to function for us personally as a kind of family photo album and travel journal of our England trip, but since most folks won't want to wade through nearly 400 photos, I'm posting a (relatively) short version here in two parts.

We flew out of Philadelphia on Sunday evening, 21 May, taking an overnight flight to London. Unfortunately, I don't much care for air travel and so have never slept well on planes. Nevertheless, to my great relief, a couple of glasses of red wine afforded me 3-4 hours of fairly sound sleep.

Upon arriving in London, we invested in a daypass for the Tube, took the underground to our hotel, near King's Cross railway station, and checked in. We talked as we travelled and decided to visit the British Museum and the London Eye, fitting in whatever else we could along the way.

The British Museum is a treasure trove of wonderful artifacts: the Rosetta stone, the Elgin marbles, and so on. The inscription below is from the underbelly of an Assyrian human-headed winged bull dating from nearly 400 BC, which at one time flanked the throneroom of Sennacherib.

This inscription is the most detailed account of the tribute sent by Hezekiah, king of Judah, after Assyria had gained dominance in Palestine in 701 BC.

After the Museum, we made our way towards the River Thames near the Houses of Parliament.

Above you can see the clock tower that contains Big Ben and, in the background, the London Eye observation wheel. Before walking over to the Eye we decided to tour Westminster Abbey.

The Abbey, however, was a bit disappointing. Granted, the place is historically very important, but the admission price is steep, the crowds large even off-season, and much of the Abbey seems more nationalistic and a monument to human achievement than a place of worship. Nevertheless, we were able to find some bits of the church that were personally meaningful to Laurel and me: the tombs of Geoffrey Chaucer and Edmund Spenser, and the Henry VII chapel where the Westminster Divines first met.

From the Abbey we walked over to the London Eye, a 440 foot high observation wheel that overlooks London near Waterloo Station, with 32 enclosed passenger cars that can hold around 25 people each. The views of London from the Eye were pretty spectacular, despite the clouds and drizzle outside.

That evening we stopped by a friendly neighborhood pub for some supper and wonderful, just below room temperature, English ale. By the way, I'm not sure what folks mean when they complain about English cuisine. I find great delight in the variety of meat pies, sausages, game, Yorkshire pudding, interesting cheeses, chutneys, and so on. The food need not be "bland" when properly seasoned (as I found it to be) and, despite some of its seeming "heaviness," I must note that I saw little evidence of obesity plaguing the English as it does Americans.

On Tuesday, 23 May, we took the 45-minute railway journey up to Cambridge to visit various sights there, as well as to meet up with Laurel's cousin and his family, whom the USAF has stationed at a nearby RAF base.

When we arrived the weather was pleasant, though several showers passed over in the course of the day. We dropped our bags at the guest house where we would be staying and proceeded to walk about Cambridge, visiting various churches, museums, and bits of the University's colleges. Since our trip coincided with the examination period, a number of the colleges were closed to visitors. Nevertheless, there was still more than enough to see.

The picture above is of the Round Church, an old Norman church with the round part seen here built around 1130 by the "fraternity of the Holy Sepulchre." The edifice is maintained by Christian Heritage and houses a very informative exhibit on the history of the Christian faith in Britain as well as a well-done video called "Saints and Scholars" on the Christian foundations of Cambridge University.

After a hearty late pub lunch (chicken and ham pie for Laurel, ploughman's for me), we continued to wander the town, visiting several more churches, colleges, shops, and the Fitzwilliam Museum. The picture above shows tourists enjoying a punt on the River Cam.

In the early evening we headed to King's College chapel in order to participate in and enjoy their daily choral evensong service. The west end of the chapel, completed in 1547, is seen below.

Since it was exam time, there wasn't much tourist traffic and so we were able to enjoy a relatively small, intimate evensong service, seated in the quire alongside the choristers who provided beautiful music in the English service music tradition.

After evensong we met up with Laurel's cousin Andy and his family for a brief visit at a coffee shop. Since Andy's in the military and is re-stationed every three years or so (including locations such as Greenland), Laurel's never had much personal contact with him. So it was great to catch up and have some fellowship with them. It turns out Andy has some interest in Reformed philosophy and apologetics, so we hit it off well.

We topped out the day with a nice walk (it remained light outside on a clear evening until at least 10pm), picking up some bottled pints and flavored crisps to enjoy back at the guest cottage. The English, I'll note here, have unusual taste in crisps (i.e., potato chips), including flavors such as "roast lamb and mint" and "chicken tikka masala."

On the morning of Wednesday, 24 May, the eve of Ascension Day, we caught a train back to King's Cross Station in London and, from there, a train up to Durham, about a 3 hour ride. The English countryside, though reminiscent of Pennsylvania in many respects, nonetheless has a character of its own, especially due to a landscape dotted with small tile- and slate-roofed villages, full of stone, brick, and stucco houses, centered around parish churches and the relative lack of suburban sprawl.

Arriving in Durham we glimpsed our first view of Durham's 900 year old cathedral and the nearby castle, set atop a hill overlooking a tight bend in the River Wear. Jeff Steel picked us up from the railway station, as he had offered us hospitality during our stay in Durham, where he is studying Lancelot Andrewes and serving in the Church of England.

That evening, since two of Jeff's kids were acting as acolytes, we attended an installation service for the new rector of the parishes of St. Margaret's and St. John's Neville's Cross, held at St. Margaret's, the oldest bits of which date from 1190. The service was solemn and joyous at the same time, involving various members of the parish, the Lord Mayor, and Bishop Tom Wright who provided a wonderful homily that drew upon themes from Ascension and Pentecost - the reign of Christ and the sending of the Spirit - to address Christian ministry and life these particular parishes.

The next day, 25 May (both the feast of the Ascension and, ordinarily, the commemoration of the Venerable Bede) we travelled an hour and a half north to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which is only accessible by foot or auto via causeway at low tide.

At the tip of the island stands Lindisfarne Castle, surrounded by fields of grazing sheep, built by Henry VIII in the 1550s with stones taken from the nearby monastery.

The island of Lindisfarne first came to prominence in the 7th century as a base of operations for the evangelization of northern England by St. Aidan and his monks who had migrated from Iona in Scotland to settle at Lindisfarne by the request of King Oswald. The first monastery was built in 635 and was later headed up by St. Cuthbert whose remains are now enshrined at Durham Cathedral. That monastery housed the community that produced the well-known Lindisfarne Gospels, now housed at the British Library in London.

The present ruins of the Benedictine Priory are from an 11th century Norman building that replaced the original monastery which had been repeatedly attacked by Vikings in the 8th and 9th centuries.

We returned from Lindisfarne in the evening once the tide had receded and arrived back in Durham in time to enjoy the Ascension Day liturgy at the cathedral, a beautiful service accompanied by their excellent Cathedral Consort of Singers and with an insightful and edifying homily by the Archdeacon of the diocese.

The next morning, Friday, 26 May, we made our way out to the town of Bishop Auckland, which is the site of Auckland Castle, a 12th century fortified manor house (much altered over the centuries) that had once been the country home for the Bishops of Durham and is now their official residence. The house, which overlooks the River Wear, is surrounded by some more formal gardens and, beyond that, sheep pastures.

Bishop Tom had graciously extended an invitation for us to visit with him. After chatting awhile in his study (which was decorated with cards from his grandson's first birthday party the day before!), we were treated to a personal tour of the castle, which includes a large, gorgeous private chapel built under the direction Bishop Cosin in the 1660s and in which Cosin is buried, along with Bishops J.B. Lightfoot and B.F. Westcott.

Near Bishop Auckland, in the village of Escomb, sits a Saxon parish church that dates from sometime between 670 and 690, and which remains largely unaltered.

To enter the churchyard and church, one must go to a house across the street and retrieve a set of keys from a hook on the porch. The church was built largely of stones plundered from the ruins of the nearby Roman fort at Binchester, across the Wear from Auckland Castle. Though very much off the beaten path, the church is certainly worth a look, as it is one of the few structures in the region that remains intact dating from the time of Sts. Cuthbert and Bede.

In the afternoon we took the 15 minute railway ride up to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a city that was first substantially fortified during the early Norman period, the main keep of which was rebuilt in the 13th century thereby becoming the "new" castle.

In the picture above you can see the "Black Gate" that is attached to the main keep, completed in 1250 and which served as the main entrance to the city at that time. One can also get a sense of how many times the city has been built and re-built, with the mid-19th century brick additions to the gate, a Victorian commercial building behind it, and behind that, the unusual spire of St. Nicholas cathedral, once a parish church, dating from 1448.

We spent a good part of the afternoon, however, in the University of Newcastle's Museum of Antiquities, which houses a stellar collection of artifacts from the Roman occupation of Britain, along with objects going back as far as the Iron Age up through a number of important early English Christian finds.

The main part of the city of Newcastle, however, is full of two main attractions: shopping and bars (as regards the latter, remember that the town houses two universities). In the midst of the largely Victorian shopping district stands the column seen in the picture above, which is topped by a statue of Earl Grey, famous to most folks for his addition of oil of bergamot (extracted from the rind of a variety of orange) to tea. The Earl was a native of Northumbria, an advocate of Parliamentary reform and the revocation of anti-Catholic laws, and eventually became Prime Minister.

After a terrific dinner of Indian food - Laurel had a lamb curry and I a tandoori chicken dish - we returned late to Durham on a crowded, standing-room-only train, full of students who'd come up to Newcastle to enjoy the shopping and nightlife.

(to be continued...)

02 June 2006

home again

home again

After nearly two weeks abroad in England, we're back in Philly - a bit exhausted, but having enjoyed a wonderful and relaxing trip, the gracious friendly folks of northeast England, a variety of deeply historic places, and some yummy food and ale.

I'll blog more about the trip the later, including some pictures, once we get back on top of the array of little tasks that pile up whilst one is away and once I get a chance to organize and edit the photos.