Letter 43: A Prayer for Election Day

Almighty God-

We acknowledge that you alone are sovereign, that all power and authority are yours.  You have established governments here on earth to better order our public lives by upholding justice.

You have blessed us with the opportunity to choose our governors.  Guide us to choose wisely, seeking to do justice, not just to ourselves, but also to others.  May we consider our neighbors, the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and those yet unborn.

Help us to see past the claims, to discern the truth about our circumstances and those who would see to lead us.  May we not be swayed by honeyed lips and silver tongues, speaking words we want to hear.

For our land struggles, the abundant riches You have given us.  Too often, we yearn for a King, a man on horseback to lead us, to solve our problems, to make us great.  We forsake You.

We pray, too, for those would will govern us.  Endow them with wisdom and courage to do justly, and to love mercy.  May they be humble, knowing the limits of their power.  May they seek to unite, for the public good.

Finally, we pray for each other, that we would see our fellow citizens as our fellows, and men and women made in your image, and dearly loved by you.  May we work together for the shalom of our city an our world, until such time as You come again and claim the kingdoms of the earth for thine own, that peace would reign in our streets, and want shall be no more.

Amen.

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Letter 42: Interlude

Since Sunday, this hymn has been playing through my mind.  We live in a world that wishes to alarm us at every move.

Dear Lord and Father of mankind,
Forgive our foolish ways;
Reclothe us in our rightful mind,
In purer lives Thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.

In simple trust like theirs who heard,
Beside the Syrian sea,
The gracious calling of the Lord,
Let us, like them, without a word,
Rise up and follow Thee.

O Sabbath rest by Galilee,
O calm of hills above,
Where Jesus knelt to share with Thee
The silence of eternity,
Interpreted by love!

With that deep hush subduing all
Our words and works that drown
The tender whisper of Thy call,
As noiseless let Thy blessing fall
As fell Thy manna down.

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,
Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress,
And let our ordered lives confess
The beauty of Thy peace.

Breathe through the heats of our desire
Thy coolness and Thy balm;
Let sense be dumb, let flesh retire;
Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.

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Letter 41: Can I Get a Witness?

For the past several years, I have attempted to grow herbs for my wife to use in her cooking.  I have had mixed results.  We had some early success with basil, but then it abruptly died, and last year’s crop was wiped out, twice.  The parsley grew, but never became bountiful.  Our chives took over a year to amount to anything, and my wife often forgot that they were available for use.  I killed our first attempt at rosemary.  Our thyme flourished late last year, but has either died or gone dormant.  I am not sure which.  Only the oregano has flourished.  I am hoping for better results this year.

It has been a humbling lesson.  I have some control over the process.  I can water the plants and do my best to see that they get sufficient sun, but that’s about it.  Pests, drought, torrential rains, and cloudy days are outside my power.  Then too, the seeds might be bad.

Our pastor has been urging us to be seeking souls to win to Christ.  Echoing the prayers of one “Praying Hyde,” he has exhorted us to implore God for “Just one soul, Lord, just one soul.”  He points us to Jesus’ command to go and make disciples.  Preferably we would then prevail upon them to worship with our congregation.

But how do we do that?  I am aware that we are supposed to attest to the truth of the Gospel in our lives, and share this good news with others.  The hidden implication is that without the Gospel, those around us are condemned to an eternity in Hell.  Thus, by not winning their souls, we are damning others.  But I can’t bring myself to go out and start telling people about Jesus.  Whenever I’ve come across people with such a focus, I am generally repelled.  I try to avoid them when I can.  If I can’t stand such people, why should I wish to become one?

I wonder if I am a bad Christian for failing in this missionary mandate.  I mean I certainly don’t wish to condemn anyone to Hell.  I do believe in the life-changing power of the Gospel, but I want people to be interested in it of their own accord.  What if they’re not interested?  I will not force it down their throats.

In I Corinthians 3:5-9, Paul draws on an agricultural image to describe the process of evangelism and discipleship.  One plants, another waters, and God gives the harvest.  We are each responsible for our part in the process, but only our part.  God is ultimately responsible for the harvest.

I take great encouragement from this.  It is not incumbent upon me to bring in souls.  I am responsible for keeping my eyes and ears open for the opportunity to bear witness to God’s work in Christ.

This requires, I think, some sensitivity to the people we encounter.  The path to faith is not the same for everyone, nor do we experience God in the same way.  For example, God drew me gradually, over the course of a year.  There was no point at which I “made the decision and came on down.”   If you hit me with the Four Spiritual Laws, I think I might have fled.

All of this is a long way of saying that your witness depends much on your relationships.  It is the people you see every day to whom you will most often witness, if only unconsciously.  The better you know them, the more you can share, and the more they will invite you to share.

sheep-in-snow2

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The Feminization of Christianity | The Art of Manliness

Welcome back to our series on the relationship between Christianity and masculinity, which aims to explore the historical and cultural factors that have made women statistically more likely to be committed to the religion than men. In our last post, we weighed one of the more popular explanations for this gender gap: that the theology, story, and ethos of the Christian gospel was intrinsically feminine from the start, and thus naturally attracts more female than male adherents. We ultimately dismissed this theory by showing that it’s possible to see both traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine traits in the religion. The fact that the softer, gentler side of Christianity has long been emphasized over its harder qualities, then suggests that factors above and beyond the faith’s intrinsic narrative and theology led to one side being privileged over the other. Today we will explore theories as to what exactly those “feminizing” factors were, beginning with a discussion of when

Source: The Feminization of Christianity | The Art of Manliness

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Letter 40: Adventures in Combined Worship

Like many churches, our church has gone to a summer schedule of only one service.  This has brought some challenges, as we seek to combine elements of both a “traditional” and a “contemporary” service.  To my mind, the combined format has not worked very well.   While both services have their own flow and logic, as combined, the resulting service has a Frankenstein feel to it, with bits and pieces stuck together without much regard to how they function.

So, we start with two hymns, each sung singly, with a pause to move from one to the other, followed by a prayer, and then the worship set. The flow goes start-stop, start-stop, start, stop, then start, and continue on for the next fifteen to twenty minutes.  The rubric of the traditional service involves a series of discreet parts intentionally chosen (when done well), that are designed to focus and direct one’s mind.  The contemporary model seems to require broad bands of time, giving the Spirit room to work, chiefly on our spirit and emotions.

As we’ve worked with trying to combine the two styles, it has become clear to me that it is not the music necessarily, that separates the two.  Music is music, and one can perform it in virtually any manner imaginable, and I’ve seen hymns performed as worship songs, and worship songs sung as hymns.  Instead, the two styles have different flows and different foci that make it difficult to combine them, unless you wish to create something entirely different.

The traditional service has many individual components, which works to fulfill a checklist of sorts.  We come into God’s presence, express praise, worship, and awe.  We confess our sins, and offer up our prayers and petitions.  We then let God speak through His Word.  We may also partake of Him directly through His Supper.  We close in a statement of praise and purpose thence depart.  Each part is distinct, not unlike the singing, and few last long, except the sermon.

The contemporary service has far fewer parts, and most of them are of far longer duration.  It is unhurried, seeking, I think, to free the mind, and welcome the Spirit’s embrace.  It is intentionally unintentional from the standpoint of human thought and activity.  The discrete and rapid shifts of nearly every aspect of the traditional service jars with the contemporary worship experience.  Thus we are dropping the traditional hymn singing from the combined service, and we may not get to prayer.

The strength of the contemporary format is an openness to the workings of the Spirit (thought one is left in the lurch if the Spirit decides not to act).  The strength of the traditional format is a completeness in the range of worshipful activities offered, and the more conscious effort to ties the congregation together.  But the traditional approach can also be rote and stale.  How would a service that combines that openness to the Spirit with the fuller dialogue with God flow?

First, we are called to worship.  We hear God’s invitation to us, to turn out eyes and minds toward Him.  This is a communal act, and need not take much time.  Having drawn near, we engaged in praise and worship, and luxuriate in His presence.  Here, we can sing, dance, or remain in silence.  The challenge here is to draw everyone together.  The best way I can think of to accomplish this is to begin and end the set with strong congregational singing.

Following this, I know the hope is that people will spontaneously burst into prayer.  However, in my experience that tends to yield the same voices, often uttering the same prayers.  I think the prayer should be led and guided, making a point to address concerns of the congregation, hopefully submitted in advance, and other affairs of the moment, but also leaving space for people to pray as the Spirit leads.  Prayer is a time to speak to God in hope and faith, but also presenting our questions, fears, and doubts.  It comes from the time that we have spent in His presence.  Ideally, close with a few moments of silence, inviting God to speak to us individually.  This should then prepare us to hear God speak to us collectively through His Word preached.  Alternatively, one could place the corporate prayer after the message, placing it as a final response to God.

Close with one quick hymn or song, invite people up for further prayer if desired, and formally dismiss the congregation.  I did leave out a specific time for confession, something that has been a part of some traditional liturgies.  This can be incorporated into the time of prayer or the call to worship.

The time breakdown should probably run thirty minutes for worship, ten for prayer, thirty again for the message, and ten to close.  If one assumes a ninety minute block for the service, this breakdown leaves ten minutes as a cushion.  Obviously, if you have something like Communion or a baptism, everything needs to be shortened.

Part of the key to making this work and flow is to think about what each part is doing and how it relates to the whole of the service.  The Sunday worship should be a time for the people to come together before God, engage Him, and depart from thence into the world, renewed and reconnected.  Each part does its bit in that process, by drawing us in, uniting us, speaking to God, listening to God, finally going forth to do His will in the world. There should be movements and pauses as we make this journey.

That isn’t what my church doing, alas, but then I’m not sure they know what the various parts of a worship service are for, or that its significance is as a collective experience.  Something for you to add to your prayers for us.

Nov_ 29 combined

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Letter 39: A Fourth of July Oration

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“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Philippians 3:20 (NRSV)

On August 24, 410 A.D., an army of Visigoths under Alaric I, sacked Rome.  Few events have portended so much.  Rome’s citizens were left with only their lives with the Visigoths were through.  Rome had sat inviolate for over a thousand years.  Her armies had brought stability, order and security throughout the Mediterranean world.  Now all that was gone.  Writing from Bethlehem, the translator St. Jerome declared “The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken.”  In his wake, Alaric left a new world of fear and uncertainty.

Many questioned the Empire’s switch to Christianity.  Could the old gods be angry?  Still others saw the collapsing world around them, and looked for someone, anyone really, who could offer them the old security.  From across the Mediterranean came a firm voice that offered a final coda from the ancient world to stand as a bulwark against the rising tide of barbarism.  Addressing the crisis of his time, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, gave the world his magnum opus, De Civitate Dei, The City of God.

Now the great crisis of the Fifth Century will seem far removed from our own day, and a subject entirely inappropriate for a commemoration of Independence Day.  Yet, its lessons stand as an important reminder to us of our obligations as citizens, and concerning the nature and role of government.  On this day we celebrate our freedom.  Let us remember what a frail things freedom is, that we would use it well.

As Augustine saw it, the world was a dangerous place.  As Christians, Augustine reminded his readers that they were first and foremost, the people of God, and ultimately the citizens of His City.  He was quite aware, however, that we had yet to possess this city.  For now, he wrote, we live in the City of Man, which is at war with the City of God.  As such, we are by nature aliens and strangers in this world.  Our hope lies elsewhere.

Jeremiah 29 records a letter the prophet sent to the Jews taken into exile by the Babylonians.  Israel had linked its religious identity with their political identity.  To be a revived people of God, they must then become a revived nation.  But here they were in exile, in a strange land, with strange customs, subject to other authority.

Jeremiah disabuses them of these hopes.  They will remain in exile for seventy years.  Instead of pining for a lost nation, and hoping for what cannot be, he urges them to settle in to their new surroundings, lay down roots, raise families, and flourish where they are.  Jeremiah goes further, urging the exiles to pray for the welfare of the cities where they now reside, and intercede with the Lord on its behalf. (Jer. 29:7)

He makes the point that their identity as God’s people is not dependent on whether there is a Jewish nation.  They can be God’s people where they are, if they embrace the tension this creates.  He urges us to engage our neighbors, from a position of exile.  Here furthermore grounds these efforts in the hope and knowledge that God remains in control, and that He has a plan that is unfolding. (v. 10-11)

The tension should inform our lives as citizens.  Too often, we head to one extreme of another.  We can withdraw, deciding that the world is too evil, and await the coming Kingdom.  Or we can wrap the Cross with an American flag, and confuse our home with our salvation.

God does use purely secular authorities.  Isaiah 45 sings of the Persian emperor Cyrus as God’s instrument.  Similarly, God explains how he used the Babylonians to carry out His work.  Indeed, it is Caesar’s need for more taxes that brings the pregnant virgin to Bethlehem to fulfil prophecy.  As the Psalmist says, even man’s wrath praises Him.  (Ps. 76:10)

So how are we to live our lives here?  We live here, but the ground of our being lies elsewhere.

At least we should follow Jeremiah’s instructions, to build a life here, to not hold back, but we should also hold up a mirror, shining God’s light on this darkened world.  We should be prophetic voices, reminding the world of God’s justice, and seeking to bring our world as close to that vision as we can, even while realizing that we shall always fall short.

But we do not despair, in this, the country of our exile. For all the celebrations and gnashing of teeth, we too often lose sight of this tremendous truth, that we are citizens of heaven, and from thence comes our salvation.

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Contemporary or Traditional Music: Which is Right?

Our church has gone to only one service during the summer, and we are trying to combine elements of both services. This article does a good job of explaining the challenge we face in trying to combine musical styles.

A Question of Style Let us limit our discussion to congregational singing. Some concepts can be applied to choral singing as well. However, for the sake of brevity, we will ignore entirely the issues of solo and instrumental music.

Source: Contemporary or Traditional Music: Which is Right?

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