Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Cost of Discipleship

I’ve been reading a book called The Early Christians in Their Own Words edited by Eberhard Arnold. It’s a collection of letters, book excerpts, and other writings from the first three centuries of the church’s history. Included as well, are the words of their detractors; governors, prefects and prosecutors who, at best, could not understand the new religion, at worst, sought the total destruction of every believer.

It is books like this that fuel my passion for history. In it we find the personal thoughts, feelings, and meditations of people who lived and breathed nearly 2000 years ago. They, like myself, held to the beli
ef that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Son of God. But while for me the decision to become a Christian sometimes seems like some kind of lifestyle choice, for them it was in a very real sense a decision to die.

We often lose contact with the fact that for the first generation of Christians being a believer was a death sentence. The prevailing opinion of the Romans was that these Christians were a threat to the stability of the empire. Patriotism in the emp
ire was expressed in the worship of Caesar, the worship other gods was allowed, after all, Rome was polytheistic, but the worship of the emperor took precedence over all others. The Christians however, refused to submit to the worship of any deity but their own. This, by Roman definition, was treason, punishable by death. What frustrated and amazed the Roman authorities was the Christian capacity to ignore torture, imprisonment, and execution. They actually reveled in their situation.

I’d like to tell you about one such person. His name was Vincent, from the Spanish region of Saragossa, the son of one Eutricius and his wife Enola. Raised in the
church the young man impresses the local bishop, Valerius, who eventually ordained him as a deacon. Despite his young age, Valerius entrusted him with religious instruction and with most of the diocesan preaching, for the bishop himself suffered from a speech impediment.

Though Christianity was technically illegal, the church was enjoying a period of being largely ignored by Rome, until the year 303. That year, the then co-emperors Diocletian and Maximian issued decrees designed to wipe out all Christian clergy. Early the next year, another decree extended the persecution to all Christians. Tens of thousands of Christians were slaughtered as a result of this renewed persecution. In Spain the anti-Christian campaign was entrusted to the Roman governor, Dacian. He proved an efficient and even sadistic executioner.

Dacian decided to inspire fear in the Spanish church by first arresting Valeriu
s and Vincent. They were imprisoned for quite some time without sufficient food and water thinking the deprivation would break them, but when they finally appeared before Dacian’s tribunal they were still so strong in body and spirit, that the governor punished his guards for failing in their duties. As was their custom, the Bishop remained silent, allowing his young deacon to speak for him. Vincent made it clear that they had been sustained by the Holy Spirit and there was nothing Dacian could do that would cause them to abandon their faith.

Dacian’s anger was levelled squarely on the young man; in fact, so focussed was his anger at Vincent, he dismissed the bishop with the relatively minor sentence of exile. Vincent however, received a brutal scourging and was then stretched on the rack, in the presence of many witnesses, because Dacian wanted it to be an example for others. But neither torture nor blandishments nor threats could undermine the strength and courage of the deacon’s faith. Dacian offered to set Vincent free i
f he would burn a copy of his precious scriptures. The deacon responded by condemning Dacian to hell if he failed to respect the Word of God. Infuriated, Dacian ordered that Vincent be flayed alive; with much of his flesh exposed and raw, he was then roasted upon a gridiron.

Of all the tortures regularly faced by the early Christians, this is the one that shakes me to the core. There is account, after account, after account of people being scourged to within an inch of their lives and then placed upon one or another iron construct suspended over hot coals and heated high enough to sear flesh – human slabs of meat literally tossed into the frying pan. And in virtually every account the victims, strengthene
d by the Holy Spirit, refuse to yield, in many cases continuing to praise and worship God even in the midst of pain that we can’t even begin to imagine.

Vincent is no exception. According to early accounts he not only refused to abandon his faith, it is said he taunted his torturers for their inability to do get the job done. Vincent was removed from the torture chamber and thrown into a dungeon the floor of which was littered with broken pottery shards. Vincent continued to praise God and his Lord Jesus. Some reported the cell glowed as the spirit of God filled the room.

Eventually, Dacian allowed friends and supporters of Vincent to move him to a proper bed and tend to his wounds. He wanted the deacon to recover enough tha
t he would be able to face another round of torture. But God in his mercy took Vincent to be with Himself during this time, but not before he had led his jailer to faith by his courage and testimony. Surrounded by friends the valient young deacon gave up his spirit with the praise of God on his lips.

It is hard for us in this day and age to fully appreciate what it meant to “come to Christ” at this time in history. For the first three centuries of the church’s history people knew even before they became Christians that to do so would likely mean a death sentence at the hands of the state. Martyrdom was not a remote possibility, it was a very great likelihood; it was part of the what it meant to believe in Jesus C
hrist as Lord and Saviour. I’ve thought about this a great deal and it puts the paltry sacrifices we make into perspective. The cost of our faith is small.

Vincent’s story is well known throughout churches in Europe, not so much in North America. He is depicted at right in a 15th century altar-piece from Lisbon (click for larger image). Every year, on the date regarded as the anniversary of his death, special services are held in remembrance of the example he set for us all. According to that tradition, Vincent of Saragossa gave his life in the service of the Kingdom of God on January 22, 304 – 1,703 years ago this week.

Other events that took place this week: Jan.21-27

January 21, 1525: In a secret, illegal meeting of six men in Zurich, Conrad Grebel (Ulrich Zwingli's former protege) re-baptizes George Blaurock, a former monk. This was done in defiance of the law that required all citizens, including new-born babies, to be baptized into the Reformed Church. Grebel and his associates were of the belief that the state could not legislate religious adherence, and that baptism required a conscious decision babies were not capable of making. This meeting is considered by many to be the birth of the Anabaptist movement.

January 23, 1893: Episcopal minister Phillips Brooks
dies. As bishop of Massachusetts, a fervent abolitionist, frequent substitute evangelist for D.L. Moody, and the author of "O Little Town of Bethlehem," he was considered by many to be one of America's the most important preachers.

January 24, 1573: John Donne is born. Who is he? The English preacher and poet who would become dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in London. He was one of the most prominent preachers of his day and one of the greatest English poets. It was he who authored such oft quoted lines as "No man is an island," "For whom does the bell toll? It tolls for thee," and "Death be not proud."

January 25, 98: Upon the sudden death of Emperor Nerva, Trajan takes the throne. It is Trajan who will, two years later, ask Pliny the Younger to investigate a new superstition known as "Christianity." Even though Pliny's report considers the “cult” to be relatively harmless, it will lead to moderate persecution. It will also mark the first time Christians are recognized as being distinct from Jews.

January 26, 1564: The decrees of the Council of Trent are
accepted and confirmed by Pope Pius IV . A product of the Counter Reformation, the decrees improved church organization, strengthened the powers of the papacy, and blocked any chance of reconciliation with the Protestants.

January 27, 1302: Dante Alighieri, after facing
false charges of corruption, is heavily fined and excluded from political office permanently. He would eventually be driven out of Florence in April, after which Dante began writing The Divine Comedy, the epic poem in which he travels through hell, purgatory, and heaven.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Motion passed... unanimously!

I use a Bible study program on my laptop called E-Sword. It’s a free program that lets me access dozen’s of translations of the Bible as well as commentaries, dictionaries on other aids. I love this program and use it often; there’s even a condensed version for my PocketPC.

In 1604 however, there was not as much choice. The vast majority of Bibles were printed in Latin and unreadable by many. There were a few English translations, but most were written by people with a heavy agenda and contained many erro
rs, some put there deliberately to promote a particular theological bent. To the newly crowned King James I of England, the Geneva Bible was one such translation. It had been created by a group of reformers in Geneva, Switzerland led by William Whittingham, the brother-in-law of French theologian John Calvin, and many of the margin notes were taken from Calvin’s own commentaries on the scriptures.

It was the margin notes that bothered King James the most. You see, Calvin did not subscribe to the concept of divine right of kings,
the notion that since the Bible says all earthly authority is put there by God then kings rule by God’s doing and are in the right, even when they behave badly. The margin notes in the Geneva Bible, which had been around for about 40 years and was the most popular Bible of the day, made mention of how kings had to obey the scriptures and be held accountable for their actions whenever the opportunity arose, a feature that put James off quite a bit.

At the same time he was getting a fair bit of flack from the Puritans. They were in favour of the Protestant Reformation, but were of the opinion it didn’t go far enough. Approaching things like worship from a very minimalist viewpoint, they felt the Church of England had kept way too many Catholic practises, especially where church hierarchy was concerned. Rather than bishops and archbishops the Puritans wanted church governance put into the hands of the people. This was a little too democratic for the king's liking and he made it clear that it wasn’t going to happen. His persecution of the puritans was so bad many of them left to colonize other parts of the world. (Google: Thanksgiving in America

However; when a group of 1000 Puritan leaders presented a petition to him in 1603 it was more than he could ignore, so King James called together a group of church leaders from all over the British kingdom “...for the hearing, and for the det
ermining, things pretended to be amiss in the Church.” They met at Hampton Court starting on January 14th, 1604.

Given their extreme differences, there wasn’t very much the assemblage could agree on, except for one thing; political commentary and theological opinion did not belong in the Bible. So, when Dr. John Rainolds (Reynolds), President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, proposed " . . . that there might bee a newe translation of the Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek", James jumped onto the project with both feet. The motion was passed unanimously.

Forty-seven of England's top Bible scholars, both Anglicans and Puritans, were appointed to do the work. King James himself organized the task. The translators were counted off into six panels (three Old Testament, two New Testament, one Apocrypha). The idea was to stay as close to the Bishop’s Bible as accuracy would allow, but to take into account earlier versions. In the end, about 70% of the wording would come from William Tyndale’s translation.

By 1611, the translation was complete, and because James was so
closely involved with the work, it is often called the "Authorized Version" or the "King James Version". In time it became the most beloved English translation. Even today many consider it the most noble translation because of the powerful use of Jacobean English in its phrasing and poetry.

But it all started with John Reynold's motion, passed at Hampton Court on January 16, 1604 - 403 years ago this week.

Other things that happened this week - Jan. 14-20

January 14, 1529: Spanish diplomat and writer Juan de Valdes publishes his "Dialogue on Christian Doctrine," which paved the way for Protestant ideas in Spain. (See article on Valdes @ Java-and-Jesus)

January 15, 345: (traditional date) Paul of Thebes dies. Although his parents left him a large inheritance, he abandoned it and fled into the desert around the year 250 to escape the bloody persecution of Christians raging at that time. After walking for several days, he found an isolated cave with a large palm tree and a spring of fresh water nearby. Settling here in solitude, he gave himself up to constant prayer. For this reason he is traditionally considered the first Christian hermit and an inspiration for Antony of Egypt.

January 17, 356: (traditional date) Eleven years later and in the same week, Antony of Egypt, regarded as the founder of Christian monasticism, dies at age 105. Committed to a life of solitude and absolute poverty, he took two companions with him into the desert when he knew his death was near. They were ordered to bury him without a marker so that his body would never become an object of reverence.

January 18, 1562: The counter-reformation Council of Trent reconvenes after a 10-year break caused by the revolt of Protestant princes against Emperor Charles V. During the break, all hope of reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants had vanished.

January 19, 1086: Canute the Great, king of Denmark, is killed in church by his own subjects
while celebrating mass. Denmark was nominally Christian when Canute became king, but he decided there was a need to revitalize the faith. To do this he built and restored churches and monasteries and created laws protecting the clergy. However, his "new order" also included innovations like higher taxes and mandatory tithes. This eventually led to a revolt and the interuption of that mass in January. He was declared a martyr and saint in 1101.

January 20, 1569: Miles Coverdale, publisher of the first printed English Bible and the man who completed William Tyndale's translation of the Old Testament, dies at age 81.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Rambo vs The Darkness

I imagine for most of you, the name Rambo calls up images of Sylvester Stallone rampaging through the jungle, explosive tipped arrows in hand, winning wars single-handed against odds that would give the entire armed forces occasion to pause. Defying all odds, and over-coming all obstacles (usually by blowing them up) he always achieves the impossible goal the writers have set for him. One of my favourite lines is where the terrorist leader asks Rambo's captive commander, “Who does this man think he is? God??” To which Richard Crenna (playing the commander) responds, “No... God would be merciful!”

Well, I’d like to tell you about another Rambo, through whom God’s mercy was shown to thousands of people. He too defied the odds and battled to accomplish the seemingly impossible, only instead of an assemblage of Hollywood hacks, the writer of this screenplay was the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Victor Rambo could have been a highly successful surgeon in the United States. Instead his heart was filled with compassion for the blind in India. Victor understood the feeling of total helplessness that befell those who suffered from the likes of cataracts and glaucoma. He often told the story of one woman who, before losing her sight, was known as a hardworking and useful member of the community. But when she became blind, depression set in, to the point where she could not eat unless food was put in her mouth. She did not remember her family, the time of day, or even her own name. Then Dr. Rambo operated on one of her eyes. A week later, he took off the bandages, and by the end of the day the woman had her mind back, and her joy was so great she wept openly. Victor operated on her other eye, too, and then he told her and her family about another man who healed the blind, Jesus.

with an estimated five million blind people in India, the need was too great for one man, or one clinic. Rambo started recruiting other doctors, and when that proved insufficient, he started training students of his own to meet the need. They would set up “eye camps” travelling from region to region rather than forcing people make the arduous journey to see him.

An advance team would arrive first to clean out and prepare the school or factory where the temporary clinic would be held. Then they would perform a kind of triage, identifying those who could be helped by surgery and tagging them as to which operation they needed. Before the operations began Victor Rambo always made sure his patients and their families understood that all this was being done for the sake of Jesus. He did all he could to calm their fears before the process began, sometimes even tap-dancing on top of a table to entertain them until the whole crowd was laughing and enjoying themselves.

Then the surgery would begin, all the teams working simultaneously, often lasting well into the night because, like his Hollywood namesake, this Rambo would not quit until everyone had been saved. After all the surgeries were done, and time came for Rambo to move on, a nurse would remain behind to make sure the bandages did not come off until the eyes had chance to heal properly. Teams also continued the gospel message, a message heard all the more because of the clear demonstration that Victor cared as much about them as he did about the preaching the gospel.

Dr. Victor Rambo clearly demonstrated that meeting people’s spiritual needs is most effective when we meet their physical needs as well. Too often in the church’s history great crusades have swept into a region preaching eternal salvation and then left their new converts to meet their saviour all too soon because they had no food for their stomachs or clothes for their backs. They fail to see the hypocrisy that exists in walking away after telling about the man who walked upon the water to a people who’s only source of drinking water is the disease infested run off from a garbage dump.

Dr. Victor Rambo had no such duplicity in his character. He knew in his heart, from the very beginning, that it would be easier for people to see Jesus, once they could see their friends and families. When Victor set out for India, he had never removed a cataract before, it was not part of his training. But he would soon learn, and make such a dent in that five million that he would become one of the most famous eye doctors in the world, winning the hearts of thousands for the Kingdom of God.

He set sail for India on January 12, 1924 – 83 years ago this week.

Other things that happened this week - Jan. 7-13

January 7, 367
Early church father Athanasius, famous for his battles against the Arian heresy (they denied the divinity of Christ), writes a letter that contains a list of what he thinks should be considered the canon of Scripture. At the Council of Hippo (Africa) in 393 his list would be accepted by the church.

January 8, 1956
Plymouth Brethren missionaries Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, and Pete Fleming are killed by Ecuadorean Indians they sought to evangelize. The story of the missionaries and their deaths along the Curaray River was publicized by Elliot's widow, Elizabeth, in 'Through Gates of Splendor', published the following year.

January 9, 1569
Philip of Moscow, primate of the Russian Orthodox Church, is murdered by Czar Ivan IV, just one of the many reasons he was called Ivan the Terrible.

January 10, 1739
George Whitefield, Anglican preacher who launched America's first Great Awakening, is ordained to the ministry. Jealous of his popularity, many ministers denied Whitefield the use of their pulpits, so he took to open-air preaching. Good choice -- his booming voice, according to reports, could be heard up to a mile away.

January 11, 1759
The first American life insurance company is incorporated in Philadelphia. Since Madison Avenue wasn’t in the advertising game yet, the company had the cumbersome title of – "Corporation of Poor and Distressed Presbyterian Ministers and of the Poor and Distressed Widows and Children of Presbyterian Ministers."

January 13, 1501
The world's first hymn book printed in the common language of a region was published in Prague. It contained 89 hymns in the Czech language. I’d love to tell you what the name of it was, but the only surviving copy is missing its title page.

Monday, January 1, 2007

Testing... Testing...

On Sunday, January 2nd in the year 1921, two radio engineers entered Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh for vespers. This might not have been considered unusual except for the fact one of the men was Jewish, the other Catholic, and even though they both donned choir robes, they weren’t there to sing. They were there because one of the choir members was an engineer for the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, and they owned KDKA, the first licenced radio station in the United States, only two months old to the day.

The two men at the church were about to do something that had never been done before. Once their equipment was set up they would broadcast the first religious service in the history of radio. (They were asked to wear the choir robes so their presence wouldn’t disrupt the service.) The service was led by the junior pastor, Rev. Lewis B. Whittemore because the senior pastor, one Rev. Edwin Van Ettin, chose not to attend as he was leery of this new technology. After all, with 1200 seats in the church, and fewer than a thousand radio sets in Pittsburgh, there were more people in the congregation than there were able to receive the broadcast. Even so, the program went ahead as scheduled.

The event did not go unnoticed. In the following months more and more radio receivers found their way into the homes of East Pittsburgh and a nation waited to see if it was a passing fad or the shape of things to come.
By the way, in the image above-right Dr. Frank Conrad, assistant chief engineer of Westinghouse Electric, is shown with the technology he developed that made KDKA Radio possible.

The following is an excerpt from an article by L. H. Rosenberg published just six months later in an the issue of Scientific American, dated June 4, 1921 :

Not only is phonograph music transmitted from this station, but the sending out of a complete church service is the feature of each Sunday night. In the church and pulpit of the Calvary Episcopal Church of Pittsburgh are installed several transmitters. These transmitters are connected to a private telephone line which runs to the radio station seven miles from the church. When the choir sings, or the rector preaches, these transmitters respond to the sound waves and the music or sermon, as it may be, is transmitted to East Pittsburgh via the telephone line. There it is broadcast by means of the radio apparatus, thus allowing thousands of people to hear the service in their own homes. Think what this means to many people: the invalid, unable to go to church can enjoy its benefits without leaving his bed or wheel chair; the farmer, too far from town to go to church has the service brought to him; and the sick in the hospital are encouraged to get well by the wonderful words of the preacher. It is marvelous, this transmitting of church services by radio. One can almost imagine being in church. The blending music of the sixty men and boys lifted in song and the ring of the deep-set voice of the preacher all make the service seem realistic.

Rosenberg had it right.
Eventually Rev. Van Ettin over came his misgivings and led the services personally and the services from Calvary Episcopal continued until 1968. Today religious broadcasting, which includes not only radio, but television, cable, satellite and the Internet, is a multi-billion dollar industry. But more importantly, the number of people who can directly or indirectly attribute their salvation and continuing spiritual development to these broadcasts is beyond counting.

Thanks to the work of the Westinghouse engineers (Geeks?) who pioneered early radio technology and saw it’s potential for the gospel, there is no corner of the globe beyond the reach of God’s Word. Even areas were the preaching of the Bible is prohibited, the message can still be carried by these invisible electro-magnetic waves. More than ever before churches and other Christian ministries are taking advantage of every technological means available to them. And more people than ever before are responding to the message. And it all started in Pittsburgh at Calvary Episcopal Church 85 years ago this week.

Other things that happened this week - Jan. 1-6

- January 1, 379 Death of Basil the Great
. Most well-known as the founder of a monastery in Annessi, he also succeeded Eusebius as bishop of Caesarea. Among his other accomplishments is the healing of the Antioch schism in the eastern Church, a famous explanation of the Trinity and a monastic rule that remains the basis of that followed by the Eastern Orthodox religious today.

- January 2,1909 - Aimee Elizabeth Semple, 19, along with her husband Robert Semple, was ordained to the ministry in Chicago by evangelist William H. Durham. Robert Semple would die of typhoid in Hong Kong while the couple were on their way to China. After re-marrying in 1912,
Aimee Semple McPherson would go on to become a powerful evangelist, and would later found the Foursquare Gospel Church.

- January 3, 1521 - Martin Luther, the German Reformer, is excommunicated by Pope Leo X for challenging Catholic Church doctrine. Soon after that the 38 year-old Luther began translating of the Bible into the German language so that it could be read by the common people.

- January 5, 459 - Simeon Stylites
, a famous hermit who lived at the top of a 60-foot pillar nonstop for 36 years, and inspired a number of others to do the same, dies on it. According to witnesses to the event his body was brought down from the pole "dripping with vermin." During his time atop the pillar Simeon preached many sermons on the need for a pious life, blessed thousands of pilgrims who came from all over the world to see him, and negotiated a number of treaties between local waring chieftains. All this without ever moving from the top of the pole!!

- January 6, 1850 Charles Spurgeon
converts to Christianity after receiving a vision. Wrote Spurgeon, "It was not a vision to my eyes, but to my heart. I saw what a Savior Christ was, I can never tell you how it was, but I no sooner saw Whom I was to believe than I also understood what it was to believe, and I did believe in one moment." Spurgeon is regarded as one of the greatest preachers of all time, preaching thousands of sermons to congregations all over England.