Tag Archives: Church

Letter 49: “Do This In Memory of Bruce Barton”

 

The message this Sunday, as it often is, was about identity.  We ended by reciting a lengthy list of attributes that should describe us, each starting with the proclamation, “I am….”  Each “I am” had a Bible verse attached, and it was somehow linked, in some way, to something God had done, but it was all about me.

 

After the first few “I am’s” I fell silent.  I couldn’t join in.  God does not always want our ease, or our power.  Actually, much of the Christian tradition is about learning to suborn our will to His, to accept what He wants, and not infrequently, that involves suffering.  Milton went blind, William Cowper went mad, and the martyrs went home.  Being uniquely loved by God doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of this.

 

We seem much too obsessed with our identity, and too little with God’s.  It’s a fine distinction I know, but much of our preaching and teaching sounds like sanctified self-help, with a concordance attached.  We miss the point of Ephesians 2:5-11.  Christ was so sure of His identity that He didn’t think about it at all.  He was about His Father’s business, and so should we.

 

Such messages look Christian, feel Christian, but somehow fall short.  There is quite a history to such messages in this country.

 

In 1925, Bruce Barton, a son of the manse, wrote The Man Nobody Knows, the best-selling non-fiction book in America of that decade.  Barton was very clear about why he wrote the book.  He took issue with the image of Jesus presented to him in Sunday School and from the pulpit.  As Barton told it, Jesus was a man’s man.  He was a winner, and by following Him, we could become winners too.

 

This marked a subtle shift.  Yes, the Gospel was about serving God and helping others, but as a component of self-fulfillment.  The Gospel becomes just another miracle cure.  One that just happens to be 50% more effective, and without a nasty aftertaste.  Who wouldn’t want that?

 

All of this begs a question, what is the purpose of our lives?  The Bible is rich in words of comfort and assurance, because we need them.  It is also filled with admonitions to self-denial and sacrifice.  We are told to take up our Cross and follow Him who did see equality with God as something to be clutched like a miser, but was willing to die.

 

A gnawing disconnect gripped me, especially after we received Communion.  It didn’t feel quite right.  When confronted with the reality of Jesus, John the Baptist told his followers, “He must become greater; I must become less.”  John 3:30.

 

May it be so, O Lord, may it be so.

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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.

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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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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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Freedom From the Tyranny of Hyper-Spirituality:

The tyranny of hyper-spirituality our church culture had foisted on us set us up for disappointment because it held up religious experiences as the means of God’s grace, rather than the finished work of the cross.

Source: Freedom From the Tyranny of Hyper-Spirituality:

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Letter 38: Ripped from Today’s Headlines?

Last week I decided to start listening to an audio recording of St. Augustine’s The City of God.  I had read excerpts in college, and an abridged version while in law school.  Augustine was prompted to write The City of God by the sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth in AD 410.  He reflects on society, Roman history, the nature of Man, government, and of course the Christian’s true home.

I haven’t made it very far, but I was seized by the applicability of his comments on the Roman people.  He could have written those words today.  How easily we wish to be cosseted and amused.

I was also appreciative of a traditional liberal education, where I was able to read such things.  In our rush to a more job-focused, or culturally driven education, we often forget the value of ancient wisdom that has no direct benefit one’s chance of getting a job.  We seem to have forgotten that one of the original purposes of higher education was teaching us how to live.

“But the worshippers and admirers of these gods delight in imitating their scandalous iniquities, and are nowise concerned that the republic be less depraved and licentious. Only let it remain undefeated, they say, only let it flourish and abound in resources; let it be glorious by its victories, or still better, secure in peace; and what matters it to us? This is our concern, that every man be able to increase his wealth so as to supply his daily prodigalities, and so that the powerful may subject the weak for their own purposes. Let the poor court the rich for a living, and that under their protection they may enjoy a sluggish tranquillity; and let the rich abuse the poor as their dependants, to minister to their pride. Let the people applaud not those who protect their interests, but those who provide them with pleasure. Let no severe duty be commanded, no impurity forbidden. Let kings estimate their prosperity, not by the righteousness, but by the servility of their subjects. Let the provinces stand loyal to the kings, not as moral guides, but as lords of their possessions and purveyors of their pleasures; not with a hearty reverence, but a crooked and servile fear. Let the laws take cognizance rather of the injury done to another man’s property, than of that done to one’s own person. If a man be a nuisance to his neighbor, or injure his property, family, or person, let him be actionable; but in his own affairs let everyone with impunity do what he will in company with his own family, and with those who willingly join him. Let there be a plentiful supply of public prostitutes for every one who wishes to use them, but specially for those who are too poor to keep one for their private use. Let there be erected houses of the largest and most ornate description: in these let there be provided the most sumptuous banquets, where every one who pleases may, by day or night, play, drink, vomit,[1] dissipate. Let there be everywhere heard the rustling of dancers, the loud, immodest laughter of the theatre; let a succession of the most cruel and the most voluptuous pleasures maintain a perpetual excitement. If such happiness is distasteful to any, let him be branded as a public enemy; and if any attempt to modify or put an end to it let him be silenced, banished, put an end to.”

St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, Book 2, Chapter 20

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Letter 37: What Does Scripture Say?

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“Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And he said, ‘Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?’” Acts 8:30-31a NASB

  1. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, depends not upon the testimony of any man, or Church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.
  2. The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the Church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed.

VII. All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.

VIII. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by His singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the Church is finally to appeal unto them.

  1. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
  2. The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.

– Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1 (emphasis added)

We have been engaged in a heated discussion at church that I won’t bore you with.  However the argument behind the arguments has been fascinating.  A few have even brought it to the forefront:  What do the Scriptures say?  This question lies at the heart of Protestantism.  We all say that we are guided by Scripture and Scripture only, if we are true to the tradition of sola scriptura.  But that seems to only beg questions that we do not wish to address, hiding, as it were, behind the big book.

To help illustrate this, I want to step outside of a strictly religious context and venture into another world I am familiar with, the world of Law.  Reading judicial opinions it is always fascinating.  You are presented with a particular factual situation, and the judges choose what laws apply to that situation.  Where this gets truly fascinating is when the judges agree on what laws apply, but disagree on how.  This is exactly what we do when it comes to Scripture.  We have a text that we agree is authoritative, but we can read the same text and come to opposite conclusions.  “A government of laws, not of men,” we proudly proclaim, but of course, it is judges who decide what law governs and how.  We keep trying to remove human input to establish absolute authority, but we never can.

When Luther laid out the standard of sola scriptura, he did so with the expectation that he going to an authority that was authentic, unencumbered with decades of human detritus, utterly unassailable, and one that would be clearly understood by all.  While he never explicitly stated it, he also believed that anyone reading Scripture would come to the same conclusions as to its meaning and application, namely his.  He was surprised, hurt, and angry when things didn’t turn out that way, with the Anabaptists getting the worst of it.

Because we are dealing with what we deem Holy Writ, it is simultaneously important that we get it right and that its application and understanding be universal.  It makes disagreements tricky.  Presumably, someone must be wrong, and the consequences can be eternal.  But who?

The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined … can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture…”

We certainly hope that this is true.  Some go so far as to formally ask for the Spirit’s guidance as they read or listen to Scripture.  I’m not sure if God is so interested in the formalities, but certainly we should enter into the Bible with the expectation that God will be there with us, impressing upon us what He wishes us to understand.

But…..

How are we to make sense of this process, and how do we know we’ve got it right?  More importantly, if we wish to engage our neighbor, how do they know we’ve got it right?

Entire books are written on this subject, and I hardly think I can add anything to them.  But even these texts falter on the question of handling differing understandings.

My first fight with my wife faced this problem squarely.  It was out first Christmas together.  I was driving down to her parents, and tuned in the most wonderful live performance of Handel’s Messiah by an early music ensemble from Montreal.  It was spellbinding, and I couldn’t wait to share the experience with my then girlfriend.  Meanwhile, she was preparing for my arrival by playing Christmas carols on her piano to greet me when I arrived.  I came in, greeted her, and started telling her about the Messiah performance, that she just had to hear.  She got upset, repaired to her room and slammed the door.  I was left staring at the dog, both of us wondering what had just happened.

Slowly, all too slowly, the idea dawned on me.  Maybe she was upset because she wanted me to listen to her playing, and took my enthusiasm for Handel as a criticism of her playing.  At almost the same time, I think the thought struck her that maybe I wasn’t thinking of her piano playing at all.  We talked.  I explained that I didn’t realize that she had planned a special “concert” for me, and that I was just looking to share an experience with her.  Two totally different understandings of the same experience, and each one valid, but so far apart in reaching mutual understanding….

So I conclude with some observations.

First, we are all selective in our use and understanding of Scripture.  Traditional Protestant teaching separates the Old Testament into the moral and the ceremonial Law.  We are to uphold the Ten Commandments, but pass lightly over the directive about preparing sacrifices.  Some wish to restrict themselves to only those things Jesus taught in the Gospels.  Traditional Christian readings of the Song of Songs treat the book as an allegory of God’s love of the Church, yet at the time it was written, there was no church.

Second, we must confess to our own limited understanding.  We “see through a glass but darkly,” and bear the stain of sin everywhere.  We can see this in the obtuseness of the Disciples, in Peter’s comment about the difficulty in understanding Paul’s letter, and indeed, in our own struggles.  If it were easy, we would have no need of the Spirit’s help.

Third, it can be very difficult to fully grasp what God may be saying to other people.   We can, and should go back to Scripture, but we must bear in mind that everything filters through our own understanding.  In practical experience, only rarely do we hear the same thing at the same time.  I am still called upon to evaluate what you report as coming from God, but I must admit that I cannot live inside your head or your heart.

No matter what we do, everything must pass through our minds.  There is no getting around this.  We can claim that Scripture is self-explanatory, but even then, it must pass through our understanding to become self-explanatory.  God promises to one day write the law in our hearts, and certainly we aspire to so unite our wills with God’s that we will will what He wills, without having to think about it.  But for now, I, at least am not there, and I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have achieved that union.

So, approach Scripture with expectation, and humility.  Trust that God will guide you, but keep in mind that we may not understand Him aright.  Until we know as we are known, our understanding is provisional and imperfect.  Be respectful of others, and realize that they labor under the same limitations as you.  Pray, pray, pray, for understanding, wisdom and peace.  The good news is that God is more than able to look out for Himself.  Be patient, and let Him do His work.  “‘Tis grace has brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead  me home.”

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