What makes a nation great? This is the core question we are faced with every presidential election. The party out of power claims that we are not great, and only they know how to make us great. The party in power claims that we are mostly great, and only they know how to make us even greater. After enough of these cycles, we may begin to believe that neither party has a full and rich understanding of greatness, much less a clear path to achieve greatness.

The greatest misunderstanding we Americans make about greatness is its object. True greatness is not a measure of accomplishment, but of virtue. A people may achieve many things, but absent justice, prudence, temperance, fortitude, faith, hope, and love, those achievements are hollow. It is virtue that enables achievement, giving a people the inner communal strength to persevere through tremendous difficulty and opposition. But where virtue is forsaken, the end is near.

In his book, The City of God, Augustine refutes the belief that mass conversion to Christianity led to the destruction of Rome. In the aftermath of the sack of the Eternal City, the critics of Christianity laid the blame at the feet of the Church and its extermination of the worship of the Roman gods. Augustine moves at a leisurely pace as he confronts, and demolishes, these assertions.

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Ideal Church

There is no such thing as an ideal church. Well, there used to be one. It was the last perfect church left in the whole world. Everyone treated each other with kindness and respect. No one argued. They all agreed on the music style, the mode of baptism, and the color of the carpet. But then I started attending, and now it has all kinds of problems. Sorry.

Okay, so none of that is true. But what is true is that I love the Church. Not just my church, which I love very much, but the Church – the worldwide body of Christ. I haven’t always loved the Church, and I haven’t always wanted to be a part of it, but I can no longer deny that, despite it’s many flaws, there is nothing greater on the face of the earth than Jesus Christ’s Church. We don’t always get it right. We don’t always follow Jesus well. But we are God’s plan, the way he has chosen to work in the world. For or better or worse, God loves the Church, and is committed to her. And for that reason, the Church is the hope of the world.

As I read about the life of the early church, I’m struck by how widespread the propaganda against her had become. The Romans accused Christians of atheism, cannibalism, and incest. Many able Christian writers and thinkers pled the case of the Church, refuting the false accusations, and demonstrating that Christians were the kind of people Rome should want in its empire. One of these writers was the anonymous person who wrote the Letter to Diognetus.

I’ve already written about some of the treasure I’ve found in this ancient writing, but I wanted to share what this author has to say about life in the early church. He gives us a vision for how an ideal church can live in, and relate to, an antagonistic society. This wisdom is a part of our faith heritage, and can be very instructive for us today.

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My wife and I had an encouraging conversation last night. We spent some time talking about the kind of parents, spouses, and Christ-followers we sense God calling us to be. We encouraged each other to keep surrendering to God, to let him lead more fully in our relationship, family, work, and church. We prayed together, inviting the Spirit to fill us with his graciousness and self-discipline, confessing the areas where we fall short, and committing ourselves to walking closely with the Lord.


If you read and obey the Scriptures, you will become a “Paradise of delight” to God.
Part of this life-giving conversation was inspired by something that I read recently. This year I am primarily reading the church fathers, those ancient Christian writers who have so wonderfully set the table for the generations that have followed. For too long I have neglected these important voices, impoverishing my soul by their absence. Seeking to right that wrong, I am working my way through a volume of selected ancient writings called Early Church Fathers, edited by Cyril Richardson. While much of it feels distant, like a storm on the eastern horizon long since past, there are occasional thunderbolts that strike the ground upon which I stand. The Letter to Diognetus is one such blast.

I shared from this short work this past Sunday as I called the people of Hope Church to worship, and have included a quote in a post I wrote Saturday night. My intention is to write at least two more posts to draw attention to this powerful, though anonymous, letter. There is such depth here, but perhaps nothing in the letter compares to this short excerpt I read to my wife last night.

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broken toys

My oldest son loves big cats. He knows everything there is to know about every breed of tiger, panther, or lion. When a school report is due, he will finagle his way into reporting on the sad destruction of the Siberian tigers, the fate of the endangered big cats, or the hunting patterns of African lions. He is obsessed with carnivorous beasts.

To his everlasting disappointment, we purchased a dog as our one and only pet. If he had had his druthers, we would have bought a baby tiger, raising it in our cul-de-sac to be a ferocious killing machine. “Tigers are awesome because they’re carnivores,” he reasons. “But Mocha just eats dog food.”

While his love affair with all things carnivorous can be a bit tiresome (“No, Cyrus, you are not a carnivore,” I have said on multiple occasions), I find his affection for the animal kingdom endearing. In fact, it reminds me of the first, and eventual, calling given to humanity: “God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” (Genesis 1:28) My son’s love for big cats is an echo of the task which God first gave humanity – the wise care of the earth and the tender governance of the animals.


The world was made for us, but we brought death into it.
The anonymous author of the ancient Letter to Diognetus put it like this: “For God loved men, and made the world for their sake, and put everything on earth under them. He gave them reason and intelligence, and to them alone he entrusted the capacity for looking upward to him, since he formed them after his own image.” There is a terrible beauty in the ponderance of our first, failed mission. The world was made for us, but we brought death into it. What deep sadness, simultaneously rich and empty, overcomes my soul as I reflect on this.

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Individual Autonomy

When I was in college (1996-2001), the primary cultural issue that Christians were mobilizing against was relativism. We were being called to stand for “absolute truth” in the face of a creeping postmodernism which taught that everybody’s beliefs are valid, and no one person or religion has a monopoly on truth. What’s true for you may not be true for me, but that doesn’t make your beliefs (or mine) any less true. The danger of this teaching, we were told, was that it compromised the unique place of Jesus Christ (or Scripture) as the source of all truth. Relativism reduced the majesty of Christ, robbing him of his uniqueness by placing him on the same level as other teachers of religious dogma. If Christianity was as true as, say, Buddhism, then it wasn’t really true at all.


Americans believe in Individual Autonomy like they breathe oxygen.
What I see now is that creeping postmodern relativism was not the great problem we thought it was. In fact, it was merely an aftershock of the great cultural shift that had been taking place for decades. It was the symptom of something much deeper, something more far-reaching than anything we could have possibly imagined at the time. Fighting for absolute truth, noble as it may have been, was a fool’s errand. We had lost our grip on that long before I entered college, and it was certainly never going to come back, at least not in a form by which we Christians might have recognized it.

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