Revelation 7:9-17

Revelation

Revelation 7

9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. 16 They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

I still chuckle when I think about something my brother Condy told me thirty years ago. It was after a high school football game. Our team, the mighty fighting Thomas Sumter Academy Generals of Dalzell, SC, had just finished a tight game that came down to the last second. The game ended and Condy and one his friends were walking to his car behind the school when he heard a noise coming from the bushes. He stopped and looked and there was one of our star players sitting in the bushes crying. My brother said (and I will change his name here because if this guy is as big now as he was then, I do not want him to know that I talked about this!), “Bob, what is wrong? Why are you crying, man?” Bob, sitting in his football pads, his head in his hands, crying, said, “We lost! We lost! I can’t believe we lost!”

My brother said, “What?”

He said, “We lost! We lost the game!”

My brother paused and said. “Bob, we did not lose. We won! We won!”

Bob looked up. “What? We won?!”

Condy said, “Yeah, we won. Bob!” And my brother’s friend added, “You ran in the winning touchdown!”

Bob, God bless him, stood up, his face now transformed into one of joy, picked Condy up and hugged him tight and said, “We won! We won! We won!” And then ran off celebrating into the distance.

As I say, I still laugh about this. Bob was a great football player, but he was not necessarily a…well, anyway, he may hear this after all, so let us just leave it at that.

It is amazing how the knowledge of victory can pull us from sorry to joy, from despair to jubilation, from depression to happiness! I think this is a word we need to hear, and I think that this is one of the great points of the amazing interlude that is Revelation 7.

Church, lift up your heads! Stop weeping! Stop despairing! The Lamb has won! The Lamb will win! And we who are on His team will win through Him!

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Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

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Matthew 13

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

David Platt has mentioned a fascinating little story from the life of the great evangelist of yesteryear, George Whitfield.

George Whitfield, the passionate and powerful preacher of the First Great Awakening, used to preach to massive crowds numbering in the thousands, and people were greatly affected by his evangelistic message. When Whitfield was asked how many people were saved, he would say, “We’ll see in a few years.”[1]

What strikes me about this answer is (1) how very different it is from the very certain announcement of numbers that we get from many of our evangelists today and (2) how wise this response is in light of Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seeds. It is not that we should be skeptical of those who profess Christ. Rather, Whitfield’s response is, in my opinion, a simple affirmation of an abundantly evident truth: sometimes those who profess Christ end up revealing that they never truly took hold of Him.

Again, Jesus said as much in Matthew 13 in words that are sobering and critically important in our day.

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Matthew 12:46-50

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Matthew 12

46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

In an article entitled “My Family Thinks I’m Crazy,” NSight and Addiction (which “provides inpatient and outpatient treatment options for people struggling with mood disorders”) psychologist Gerald J. Grosso offers the following three pieces of advice to people whose families think they are crazy:

  • Always come from a position of love and respect. Remember that everyone typically has similar goals of compassion and agreement.  That being said, goals may be different but continued conflict is not the solution.
  • Clearly identify and state your needs, here well-developed communication skills are necessary. Ultimately it is up to each individual to get their needs met on their own but good communication and cooperation can help lessen the gap.
  • Accept that individuals are different which may include the perspective in which they see things. Emotions in their true form are not arguable, if I have certain feelings advising me not to have them doesn’t make sense.  For example, if I told you I felt physically ill and I was going to vomit telling me not to feel that way is not going to help.

Work together instead of against each other.  Focus on agreed upon outcomes and acknowledge feelings.  You may think differently but that doesn’t mean you can’t find common ground. Remain supportive with a solution focused mindset and it will bring you closer to the desired result.[1]

It is interesting to read this advice and, for all I know, it is good advice! But what do you do if you are the Son of God sent by God to save the world and your family thinks you are crazy? Well, that article has yet to be written, but we know what Jesus did when His family thought He was crazy!

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Revelation 7:1-8

Revelation

Revelation 7

After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree. Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.” And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel:

12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed,
12,000 from the tribe of Reuben,
12,000 from the tribe of Gad,
12,000 from the tribe of Asher,
12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali,
12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh,
12,000 from the tribe of Simeon,
12,000 from the tribe of Levi,
12,000 from the tribe of Issachar,
12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun,
12,000 from the tribe of Joseph,
12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.

Roni and I were recently traveling and, during our vacation, we had a lazy day where we did not feel like doing anything in particular. We had had our fill of museums and statues and paintings and, well, history. We were sitting in a restaurant in Washington, D.C., and were talking about how we were very happy to be where we were but we did not really want to walk around anymore that day or do anything per se. But we had some more hours of daylight. I pulled my phone out and said, “Hey, there is a theater 3/10ths of a mile from where we are. Want to see a movie?” And she did. However, the only movie showing at that time was a scary movie called “The Conjuring.”

So I warned Roni: “This is going to be scary. Are you sure you want to see this?” And she said she did. “Why not!” We decided to see the scary movie. And so we went to Regal Gallery Place & 4DX theater in Chinatown in Washington, D.C.

Now, we are movie people, but I must say that I was unprepared for what happened next. I did notice that the ticket seemed more expensive than usual, but I figured that was just because we were in D.C. And then we noticed that the chairs in the theater were really unusual, but we figured it was just a really nice theater with updated chairs. But then the previews started and suddenly it dawned on me what “4DX” meant in “Regal Gallery Place & 4DX.”

The chairs began to move in synchronization with the screen. They would lurch this way and that. Lights flashed around us. Then I saw the nozzles in the plastic bar in front of me and realized, “We are going to be sprayed and wind-blasted and jerked around and jostled and jolted through this whole movie!”

Roni looked at me and said, “I do not like this.” Now you must understand that Roni was already on edge because this was a scary movie, but she had determined to watch it. Watching a scary movie is one thing. Actually being in a scary movie is another!

So we left and went into the lobby and asked the lady if we could possibly see “The Conjuring” that started 30 minutes later in a normal theater. I explained to the lady that I was unfamiliar with “4DX” and we did not know it would be such an immersive experience. I finally told her: “Ma’am, we’re from Arkansas. Our chairs don’t move in Arkansas.” We all had a good laugh and we saw the later movie.

It is one thing to know that something scary is coming. It is another thing to think that you are going to be a participant in the scary thing that is coming.

I think this helps us understand what is happening with the reticence that a lot of people feel with the book of Revelation. They know there are some scary things in Revelation. But what really jars people is the thought that they will be forced to be a participant in the scary things, that they might be the victim of the scary things.

I want to show you this morning a wonderful chapter that helps us understand this rightly. Revelation 7 tells us that, yes, we will be in the theater when the scary things happen, and we will go through some difficulties ourselves, but, ultimately, the scary things are not aimed at the people of God and God will protect us and see us through the scary things that are coming! Yes, some scary things will happen in the events leading up to the culmination of all things, but the people of God are driven by an assurance of victory and the presence of God with His people through the darkest moments of tribulation to come.

Revelation 7 is oftentimes referred to as an “interlude.” We are between the breaking of the sixth and seventh seals. Before the seventh seal is broken, however, we are shown a powerful and beautiful image and vision of a truth that we most need to know. G.K. Beal puts it well when he writes of this interlude that “[t]he section stands as a kind of parenthesis explaining how God will keep believers safe during the tribulations of the church age.”[1] In other words, chapter 7 is here to show us how God will be with His people in the tribulation and how the scary things going on around us will not conquer and overwhelm us.

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Some Resources for Further Study on the Historic (Post-Tribulational) Pre-Millennial Position

I unpacked last Sunday why I lean toward this position (while qualifying my support a bit), and thought I might offer a few random resources in no particular order here. Again, I do not want to drink the koolaid on any system: they all have strengths and weaknesses. But I do believe that Historic Premillennialism is a helpful system and makes good sense of the text, overall.

Here are some resources:

Probably the one book to read on this system if you only have time for one. Exhaustive, persuasive, and well-written.

Probably the one book to read on this system if you only have time for one. Exhaustive, persuasive, and well-written.

This book was pretty important in introducing Historic Premillennialism to me and has had a profound impact on my own thinking about these questions.

This book was pretty important in introducing Historic Premillennialism to me and has had a profound impact on my own thinking about these questions.

Blomberg's own essay in this volume is quite helpful.

Blomberg’s own essay in this volume is quite helpful.

Revelation 6:9-17

Revelation

Revelation 6

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. 12 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, 13 and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. 14 The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. 15 Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, 16 calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, 17 for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

When we first began our journey through Revelation in February of this year, I made to you all a number of promises. I would like to review those promises again now. They are:

  1. I will preach what Revelation says, not what any system of prophecy says.
  2. I will not forget the original audience who received this book.
  3. I will not engage in forced efforts of identifying prophesied events, people, or entities today, though I will point out where our culture seems to be evidencing what was prophesied.
  4. I will not overly-stress the differences between prophetic systems, though I will mention them for context.
  5. I will refuse to miss the forest for the trees.

I would like to restate my commitment to these promises. That being said, I will take a brief moment and address a question that I believe is utterly unavoidable in our context and that I think you deserve to know.

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Matthew 12:43-45

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Matthew 12

43 “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. 44 Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. 45 Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”

Roni and I were in Washington, D.C., last month and, while there, decided to go over to Georgetown to look around. I recalled—as a movie-buff nerd—that the “Exorcist steps” were in Georgetown and after having dinner in Georgetown we put it in the maps and made our way to the location to see them. These steps are actually a landmark of the city with a plaque on the wall marking their significance. In the movie “The Exorcist” the priest, Father Karras, gets the demon who is torturing the little girl to come into him instead and then he throws himself out the window and dies on the stairs below, the “Exorcist stairs.” To this day folks go to see these high, steep stairs and, indeed, when we were there, we had to wait for some folks to take pictures of them before we could.

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It was a strange thing for us to do, I grant, but between those stairs and the Rocky steps in Philadelphia, Roni and I had a pretty fun time looking at famous movie steps!

Those stairs in Georgetown were spooky, to be sure. They are tall, narrow, steep, and ominous. Some poor stuntman had to go down those things twice when they filmed that movie in the early 1970s. Today, they stand as an oddity and a curiosity piece, and, in the context of the story, they remind the viewer of the ferocity of the devil and his demons. To be honest, the steps were kind of chilling.

In Matthew 12:43-45 Jesus speaks chilling words as well about the ferocity of the devil and his demons. They are curious words, words of caution, and, as they relate to the Pharisees and those seeking to attack Jesus, they are also a word of rebuke.

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Revelation 6:1-8

Revelation

Revelation 6

Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer. When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword. When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!” When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.

Is the story of the world an inevitably downward spiral? Must things get worse and worse?

I have mentioned before “declension narratives.” Declension narratives are stories that assume that an entity or a people or a nation began in a wonderful and beautiful place and then set about on a seemingly inevitable journey of decline and decay. Historians debate whether or not this notion is helpful or if it is even really true. But I would like to argue that the declension narrative is an important idea for helping us understanding the trajectory of the world and I would also like to argue that human beings seem to have an intuitive understanding that this is so.

Time and time again our poets and writers and artists assert that we are in a declension narrative. This idea has been around for a long long time. Consider these words from Eustache Deschamps, a poet from the Middle Ages, who wrote:

Now the world is cowardly, decayed, and weak, old, covetous, confused of speech

I see only female and male fools.

The end approaches, in sooth…all goes badly.[1]

It is likewise pervasive in our own day. Clint Eastwood, speaking through the character William Munny in the film “Unforgiven,” reflected this understanding when he responded to the Schofield Kid’s observation about killing a man (“Well I guess he had it coming.”) with the chilling line, “We all have it coming, kid.”

Bob Dylan reflected this understanding in 1963 when he sang in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”:

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

Dylan again reflected this understanding in 1965 when he sang in “Desolation Row”:

Praise be to Nero’s Neptune
The Titanic sails at dawn
Everybody’s shouting
“Which side are you on?”

And, for that matter, Dylan reflected this declension idea again in his almost-seventeen-minute 2020 song about the assassination of JFK, “Murder Most Foul,” when he sang:

I said the soul of a nation been torn away
It’s beginning to go down into a slow decay
And that it’s thirty-six hours past judgment day

And he is not alone in this. But is this kind of pessimism warranted? Is it legitimate to see human history as a declension narrative? I would like to argue that the answer is “Yes!”…but with one critically important qualification. But, first, the evidence for the declension narrative.

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Robert Elder’s Calhoun: American Heretic

91bezN9GWCLWhen you grow up in South Carolina, you know the name John C. Calhoun even if you do not know much about the man himself. As Robert Elder has aptly demonstrated in his enthralling book, Calhoun: American Heretic, there was a time when the name of Calhoun was known by most of the rest of the country as well.

This is one of the best biographies I have ever read. It is well written, very informative, has good pacing, does an amazing job of telling Calhoun’s story while also showing how his ideas impacted and continue to impact the country, is filled with fascinating anecdotes, and paints a careful and even-handed picture of post-Revolutionary/ante-bellum America.

Calhoun is depicted in Elder’s work as a brilliant political theoretician and tactician who yet bound himself so thoroughly to the defense of chattel slavery as a positive good (as opposed to a necessary evil—the attempted more moderate approach of others in the South) that it led him into staggering blind spots and hypocrisy and played no small part in our nation’s most bloody conflict. His hypocrisy can be seen in his defense of slavery in the South while simultaneously proclaiming America a land of unmatched liberty and freedom and while simultaneously fighting against both British interference in American life and Northern interference in Southern life. Note, for instance, how fascinating the following is in light of the fact that it came from the mouth of an ideological defender and practitioner of slavery:

But the heart of Calhoun’s speech was his accusation that the British had been trying for decades to establish what he called a “universal monopoly” over the nations of the Western Hemisphere…Calhoun denounced the “despondent and slavish belief” that “we must submit…and hug our chains,” or that forbearance in the face of naked aggression was a virtue. “It is more easy to maintain than to wrest back usurped rights,” he declared, and there was no excuse or remedy for the moral failure of submission. “Wrongs submitted to produce contrary effects in the oppressor and oppressed. Oppression strengthens and prepares for new oppression; submission debases to farther submission. The first wrong, by the universal law of our nature, is most easily resisted…Let that be submitted to; let the consequent debasement and loss of national honor be felt, and nothing but the grinding hand of oppression can force to resistance. I know not which to pronounce most guilty; the nation that inflicts the wrong, or that which quietly submits to it.” (pp. 115-116)

I read this and thought, “Yes, indeed, it is a terrible thing to submit to chains and to slavery, is it not, Calhoun?” But he would not have seen the point of such a statement or the suggestion that his argument against British interference should have rightly undercut his own defense of slavery, were he truly consistent.

Of course, as Elder points out, none of this was hypocritical to Calhoun because in his system slaves were property, after all. So Calhoun (again, in his system and operating from his premises) could say that America was a land of unfettered and unmatched freedom while personally owning numerous slaves because slaves were, to Calhoun, not mentally/ethically/morally/spiritually/intellectually capable of participating in the project of freedom which was the purview of white America. (This was, Elder explains, the paternalistic defense of slavery common in South Carolina as opposed to the bluntly industrial approach that developed in Mississippi in these years.) To Calhoun, then, slaves were not being deprived of something. They were rather being given the best and most they could handle by—as Calhoun saw it: good and caring masters. Of course, Calhoun’s premises were poison, which throws off the whole trajectory of his program, but Elder is right: Calhoun had so framed the issue that he could tell himself he was not being inconsistent in the slightest. Calhoun was ideologically wedded to slavery as a legitimate and beneficial institution, and he was wedded to this until his death a decade before the start of the Civil War.

Elder’s discussion of Calhoun’s religious ideas was likewise fascinating. Calhoun rejected evangelical Christianity, a kind of Christianity often associated with fomenting disquiet and even rebellion among the slaves when it was preached and embraced, as Elder demonstrates:

Then, in July, a supposed plot in Camden sent ripples of fear throughout the entire state and led to the execution of five alleged insurrectionaries. Instead of connecting this resistance to South America, many observers, including the editor of the Camden Gazette, blamed the spread of evangelical Christianity among the slaves for the uprisings, all the while publishing glowing reports of Bolívar’s antislavery proclamations. In early 1817 Calhoun shared with his fellow white southerners a tendency to see the South American revolutions as a hemispheric triumph of republicanism rather than a threat to slavery, but the ground underneath him was shifting. (pp. 136-137)

No, evangelicalism and revivalism were not for Calhoun. Here is a good summary of Calhoun’s approach:

He never experienced the dramatic conversions that many of his classmates at Yale underwent or that Floride prayed her children would, but in his letters to Floride he frequently acknowledged God, though in an impersonal sense that contrasted with but was sensitive to Floride’s evangelical fervor. On one occasion, after relating news of the good health of their South Carolina friends, he wrote, “How thankful we ought to be to the author of all good for this high favor.” Floride clearly worried about his religious condition, and in one letter he assured her that he was not offended by her concern for the state of his soul. “I receive with gratitude your friendly advice and anxious solicitude for my welfare on the all important subject of religion,” he wrote. But he also quickly changed the subject. His daughter Anna, his closest confidant, later recalled that her father never talked about his personal beliefs in her presence, although she insisted that he read the Bible “constantly & earnestly” and was always interested in religion. Calhoun would always be drawn to the more rational forms of Christianity that he associated with the progress of human knowledge, but he was never hostile to the evangelical Christianity that surrounded him his entire life. He was simply, and completely, without the particular spectrum of emotions in which evangelicals like Floride expressed themselves. (pp. 46-47)

Specifically, Calhoun eventually moved into Unitarianism.

Calhoun’s gravitation toward Unitarianism seems to have been the natural result of his temperament, his devotion to reason, and his embrace of progress. Unitarians, it was said, embraced the unity of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston, and indeed they were mostly New Englanders like John Quincy Adams. It was a rational and optimistic faith that appealed to Americans, including Calhoun, who believed they were living in a unique epoch of human history marked by freedom, toleration, and progress in all areas of human understanding. Some of the first advocates of women’s rights in England, including Mary Wollstonecraft, were Unitarians, and in the years ahead the denomination would include several of America’s foremost abolitionists, such as Theodore Parker and Julia Ward Howe. In 1820 Calhoun seems to have agreed with the Unitarian belief that the dawn of an era in which reason should govern everything, including religion, was upon them. When First Unitarian Church held its first service in the new building in 1822, the Reverend Robert Little proclaimed, “Shall it be said that we have left no useful memorial behind us?… Forbid it, Gracious Father! These walls will, I trust, bear witness that our lives have not been altogether useless to mankind. Some I hope may be better and wiser for our exertions in the cause of truth.” Little’s sermon harmonized easily with Calhoun’s personal motto: “The duties of life are greater than life itself.”

If Calhoun ever attended services at First Unitarian, he was likely alone. Floride continued to attend the Episcopal Church, and in later years Calhoun usually accompanied her. Even if his religious sympathies were with the Unitarians, his political instincts kept him from proclaiming them too loudly. That would not do in South Carolina. With a fervent evangelical, a proper Episcopalian, and a Unitarian-leaning lapsed Presbyterian all living under one roof, dinner conversations at the Calhoun house in Washington during these years may have been almost as lively as the debates over Missouri and the tariff in Congress. (pp. 186-187)

Politically, Elder shows how the evolving situation in the states and the growth and spread of abolitionist sentiments in the years leading up to the Civil War led Calhoun to develop and argue for his idea of “the concurrent majority, the idea that significant interests in a society should have the power to protect themselves through a legislative veto, and that important legislation should be passed by consensus, rather than a majority.” (p. 72) Elder does a great job showing why Calhoun adhered to this idea, how he developed it and argued for it, and how this notion played no small part in laying the political groundwork for the Civil War.

Even so, Calhoun had and continues to have his admirers. In his own day, this admiration could reach truly frightening proportions, to wit:

Some in the audience certainly listened to the argument, but others only came to see the famous man. One newspaper editor who said little about the content of Calhoun’s speech could not forget his “eye—restless, watchful, and penetrating, it seemed to reach into a man’s very soul at a glance.” Another Alabamian who saw Calhoun proclaimed that, like the biblical Simeon, he could now die in peace having seen his “God.” (p. 385)

Oh my!

All of this is fascinating and, at times, unsettling stuff, and Elder unpacks it masterfully. I also very much appreciated Elder’s concluding thoughts about the meaning of Calhoun and his life and mindset for our own day.

I really cannot recommend this biography highly enough. It is a wonderfully insightful and unflinching look at a truly interesting and, in my opinion, ultimately tragic figure. Just a couple of months ago I heard on talk radio in North Little Rock a host of a show arguing for Calhoun’s notion of the concurrent majority. The ghost of Calhoun is still haunts sections of American political life. This book will help you understand why.

My Visit to a Greek Orthodox Church

logo-20190219231418-largerLast Sunday was the final Sunday of my month-long sabbatical that began on May 28th. (My sincere thanks to Central Baptist Church, North Little Rock, AR, for granting this sabbatical!) We were back in town last Sunday though I had a guest speaker scheduled at Central Baptist Church preaching for me. So Roni and Hannah and I decided to visit Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church in Little Rock. I attended church four of the five Sundays I was on sabbatical and wanted to try to go to a number of different places. I attended a Congregationalist church in Boston, a Catholic church in Dallas, a Baptist church in Columbia, SC, and the Orthodox church in Little Rock.

My dealings with Orthodoxy have been primarily through three sources. First, I remember reading Frank Schaeffer’s Dancing Alone after he converted to Orthodoxy. Second, I have tried to keep up with the work of David Bentley Hart, the Orthodox theologian. I do wonder, now, how reliable these two guides are. Schaeffer has drifted further and further into more and more shrill and angry leftist politics and I do not know about his church affiliation at this point. And David Bentley Hart is hard to think of as classically Orthodox at those times when he sounds like an outright Anabaptist…or whatever else he tends to sound like at times! (That is another topic for another day, my journey with Hart’s work.)

My third source is the late James Leo Garrett Jr., former Professor of Theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX, whose eight volume Collected Writings I am currently editing. In the mid-90’s Dr. Garrett presented two papers before the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul as part of the Baptist World Alliance’s “pre-conversations” with the Orthodox Church. I have written a bit about that here. Dr. Garrett’s two papers can also be accessed through that link.

Greek Orthodoxy has always had an “exotic” feel to it, if you will allow the term. The week before visiting Annunciation, I attended the service at the Cathedral Guadalupe in Dallas while I was in the area for a few days of study at Southwestern. While a Roman Catholic mass is very different, of course, from a Baptist worship service, I do at least recognize somewhat what is happening in the mass. That is to say, after visiting these two churches over the last couple of weeks I am reminded again that Protestantism is indeed a Western phenomenon. The Orthodox Church has always been something…”over there,” to most Baptists (I would venture).

Prior to visiting Annunciation, I had only attended one other Orthodox service, at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Orlando, Florida, when my family was there for vacation. I had slipped out and gone to the service while Roni and Hannah were getting ready one morning. These, then, are my encounters with Orthodoxy: the writings of Schaeffer and Hart, the presentations and reminiscences of Dr. Garrett and his ecumenical work, and two visits to Orthodox services.

Last Sunday I was struck by a number of things that I would like to share here. I offer these in no particular order and I offer them with appreciation. The intent of this post is not polemical. Suffice it to say I remain a Baptist and believe that Baptists have something to offer the Orthodox. Even so, I believe Baptists could learn much from getting to know their Orthodox neighbors and from watching and listening as we tried to do last Sunday.

With that said, some observations:

  • The people of this church were very friendly and very welcoming.
  • I recall in Orlando thinking that I felt like the only non-Greek there. I was curious to see the ethnic makeup of this congregation. It seemed more mixed. If you think this point is strange, note that one criticism of Orthodox churches in the states is that they tend to become ethnic enclaves for Greeks and do not seek to reach out to  others. This fact was addressed in one of the pamphlets we picked up last Sunday, the last point of which was that Annunciation Church was a church in which everybody was welcome. I could see that this was so, and we experienced this fact ourselves.
  • Orthodox worship is “sensual,” if you will. Meaning it involves all the senses. In this, it undoubtedly is being faithful to, say, Tabernacle and Temple worship which most certainly touched all of the senses. Baptists services, on the other hand, are disproportionally auditory. The centering of the sermon in Baptist churches along with too-frequent diminishments of the Supper contribute to this. I hasten to add that I do not think the latter to be the result of the former. We should value the word proclaimed and the word memorialized.
  • I very much enjoyed when the priest said “Let us be attentive!,” quoting the Divine Liturgy. I cannot promise I will not sing these words in a sermon at Central Baptist one of these days soon. “LET US BE ATTEEEENTIVE!”
  • I appreciated the homily (do the Orthodox call it a homily)? It was about 10-12 minutes, perhaps, and touched on being a saint and carrying our cross. It made much of Jesus and called for faith and trust in him.
  • I was intrigued that the Orthodox alone can go forward for the Supper (something I knew beforehand) but that the blessed bread is for everybody. This is something I would like to understand more.
  • I do not mean disrespect when I say this, but the humorous side of me had the thought that whereas a Baptist service is like a documentary an Orthodox service is like a musical. Almost everything is sung. It is fascinating and strangely beautiful to see and hear. Furthermore, the almost constant movement by the priests and his assistants give the service the feel of a kind of dance with holy choreography.

I am glad that Roni, Hannah, and I attended the service. It was indeed a fascinating experience. Hannah summed it up well: “I’m a bit overwhelmed.” She did not mean it as a criticism.

Let me encourage you: attend other Christian services when you are able. It is good to step out of our own customs and watch and learn and listen. It is good to expose ourselves to the rich history and liturgy and practices of Orthodoxy. Do not do so uncritically, of course, but do not do so uncharitably either.

I am grateful for the kindness shown me and my family in our time at this church. In the spirit of Dr. Garrett’s and others’ work in this area, I want to hold true to my Baptist convictions while trying to understand in a non-defensive posture the ways of other ecclesial communities.