Tag Archives: Popular Culture

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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Filed under Christianity, false gospel, preaching, Self Help

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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Filed under advice, authority, Christianity, Holy Spirit

Letter 31: Will You Be My Neighbor?

Good Samaritan

We are knee-deep in another Presidential election cycle. What has been interesting to me is the symbiotic division within the country. The one common denominator has been a sense of fear and anger. We are apparently looking for bogeymen on whom to blame our troubles, and to whom to send our bills. Candidates right and left are more than willing to offer such solutions, and they have the fore.

The Right makes all sorts of angry statements looking to shut our borders, restrict trade, and roll back some social developments of the past twenty years. The Left pooh-poohs this, and derides the Right as ignorant and bigoted and a menace to society, unlike their virtuous selves. This fuels the fear and anger on the right, and the cycle goes on, and on, and on, and on, ad nausam.

What disturbs me most about this rhetoric is the demonization of the “other.” They are stupid, and unworthy of attention or regard. We need not give them any attention or consideration, as their opinions and beliefs are unreasonable, and in fact, pose a threat to our well-being. So we demonize.

Such dismissal of anything contrary to our views promotes stridency, and it also relieves us of the obligation to ask questions. Why does someone believe what they do? Can we even attempt to understand them? Do we realize that these men and women are our neighbors?

That is one of the challenges of following Christ, coming to see others as our neighbors, even if we can agree on nothing.

Kantian ethics, of all things, offers some useful questions to ask ourselves. First, are the rights we are requesting ones we would afford our enemies? Conversely, are the rights of others we wish to restrict ones we would be willing to give up, too? These aren’t perfect questions, but they make a good start.

Will you be my neighbor?

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Filed under Christianity, elections, ethics, politics, virtue

Letter 15: Veni Emmanuel

f2def50dc61dee3d095d9cd167a283e9As with so many other things, the progression of this blog is interrupted by Christmas. The festive season sweeps all before its path, demanding that all pay it attention. Even those who do not celebrate it must account for it, if only to launch legal action to blocks others from imposing Christmas on them.

Nearly every year, I find myself frazzled and spent by this time. Too many activities, constant buying, and the even more difficult business of preparing my own wish list leave muttering with Scrooge that I will boil in his own pudding the next idiot who wishes me a “Merry Christmas,” and bury him with a spike of holly driven through his very heart. I suspect that I am not alone in this.

We have built up in our minds, I think, the image of the “perfect” Christmas. This is fed, in part, by depictions in the media, retailers, advertisers, and even the church. We must be surrounded by family. Everyone must be happy, and receive many appropriate gifts. We must celebrate with various social relations, co-workers, lodge members, fellow parishioners. We must be charitable, and if we do give, we become a magnet to every worthy cause, who seek further beneficence from us.

What have these things to do with Christmas?

Take family, for example. The Christmas story is remarkable for its lack of family. Contrast the birth of John the Baptist at the end of Luke 1 with the birth of Jesus that takes up most of Luke 2. John’s birth was a community event. God manages to scare up some shepherds for Jesus, in addition to whatever animals were present. Since Joseph was “of the house and lineage of David,” presumably, he knew somebody in Bethlehem, but he curiously seems to have made no effort to reach them, since they are not present. Worse, there is the possibility that he did tell them, and they refused to help him, given the suspicious circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy. The first Christmas featured plenty of family disappointment.

Gifts? How retails love to hear the word. Images of wise men are summoned up, and for those more leery of such appeals, the reminder that Jesus is God’s gift to us. But the wise men come later on. Joseph has found a house to live in by then, and Jesus is several years old, since Herod will round up every child under five years of age. And the gifts are really an act of worship, recognizing, as they do various facets of Christ’s identity and mission. Myrrh, as John Hopkins points out in his carol, is used chiefly to embalm the dead, hardly a useful gift for a child. Gold, yes, but myrrh? The “first” Christmas featured less than useful or even tasteless gifts. Anyone want a prepaid funeral plan for Christmas?

The first Christmas was shabby and filthy. It smelled. When I was a child, my aunt and uncle kept a farm in Vermont, which we would visit every summer. We walked carefully through the barn, to avoid the “cow pies.” You would occasionally see either the horses or the cows peeing in their stalls. All of this surrounded the Christ child that night.

Indeed, the visions of joy and serenity fail to grapple with the undercurrent of fear and distress that permeate the Christmas story. Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds are all told, “Do not be afraid.” Then Joseph is told to flee in the middle of night to take the child out from the clutches of those who wish to kill him. Herod is positively terrified of the child. Simeon warns Mary and Joseph that the child will cause tumult everywhere, and closes with the ominous words, “A sword shall pierce your heart as well.” The wise men depart by another route. Fear and danger are everywhere. John captures this in Revelation 12. A monstrous red dragon awaits the coming Christ child. The streets of Bethlehem ran red with the blood of children.

Historically, the Church seems to have recognized the great tension inherent in Christmas, even without all of our modern pre-occupations. The day after Christmas is the Feast of St. Stephen, Martyr. Stephen, of course, was the first martyr. Two days later, the Western Church honors the Holy Innocents. Christ’s coming brings death, even His own. The celebration is tempered with sorrow.

For the past several years I have wrestled with how to best celebrate this season. I am haunted by a feeling of emptiness. The joy and excitement that I think I should be feeling are far from me. My efforts at producing the expected spirit have fallen flat.

So I go back to the stories of the first Christmas.

In re-reading them, I am impressed at the disruption and the disappointment. For all of the Jews waiting for Messiah to come, it is amazing that none of them are in attendance. This becomes a recurring theme of Jesus’ life. He is not the Messiah they are looking for. Jesus slips by unnoticed, not unlike today.

Do I miss Him?

I am coming to the conclusion that worship is the key to Christmas. The point of our celebration should be Christ, and honoring, and worshipping Him. Perhaps this is not such a digression from our considerations after all. Prepare for the Coming King, do him homage. I think you will that many of the things we usually do this time of year fall away.

Read the old story. Meditate on the words. Sit in the stillness. Appreciate the light and the darkness. Marvel with Mary, tremble with shepherds, worship with the wise men, weep with the mothers of Bethlehem, sing with the angels.

Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the new-born King!

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Filed under Christianity, christmas, holidays

Letter 10: Where Have All the Worship Songs Gone?

dlr_30041

He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old.”

Matthew 13:52 (NIV)

This past Sunday, due to a shortage of musicians, we sang mostly older worship songs in the praise and worship service at church. Many were songs we had not sung in two years. People quickly joined in the singing. There was a sweet spirit in the air, and it set me to asking, “Where have all the worship songs gone?”

I can guess, literally, what has happened to many of them. They lie in a box in a storage closet somewhere moldering. Just a pile of old overheads that will eventually be thrown out whenever the church goes through a spring cleaning.

I did find it very strange though, that we are unlikely to sing older worship songs. I asked my wife, who was one of the musicians that day, about it. She explained that many songs have a dated feel to them that simply don’t fit with the rest of the worship set. It may also be that certain songs require a certain set of instruments to perform, and as time passes, the church may not have the requisite musicians to perform that piece.

But I countered, we do just that with the hymn service, which she also plays for. We play old songs. We play nothing but old songs, really, and we will mix various hymns of different styles: old Reformation chorales, Wesley hymns, Victorian sentimentalities, and turn of the century revival songs. Somehow that works. Why not with worship songs?

Every hymnal is the result of a centuries long editing process. Each hymnal is a bit like amber, freezing in time the thoughts and sentiments of whatever body produced them. But across the spectrum of hymnals at least a third of the songs would be the same songs. Roughly another third represent the particular tradition of the publisher: Psalms in a Presbyterian hymnal, the works of Charles Wesley in a Methodist hymnal, a sampling of house writers and composers in a hymnal produced by a publishing company, etc.

The remaining third represents newer songs, perhaps carried over from a prior edition because somebody liked it, and hopes enough people like it going forward to move it to one of the other two categories going forward, or brand new inclusions. Most of these aim to be “contemporary” expressions, focusing on particular issues of the age. For that very reason, they tend to be the most dated. But there are a handful of these that live to future editions, and may yet join the ranks of the perennials.

My concern is that the practice of worship music does not allow that process to continue. The perennial hymns remain because they struck a chord with the congregations that originally sang them, and they saw fit to pass them down to succeeding generations that found similar value in them. But they achieved this status only by virtue of repetition. We do not repeat worship tunes long enough for them to pass on to posterity.

In this, our practice seems to follow the world. A song enters the stream of music for play. It catches on, and gets played more frequently. If its popularity grows further still it will be played still more frequently. Should it enter the blessed ranks of the top 10, it will become inescapable over the airwaves. Make it to the top two, and you may well hear it twice within the hour. But then a funny thing happens. Having ascended the greasy pole of popular tastes, a song’s decline will be rapid indeed. Within weeks, it is hardly, if ever, heard. It may make a brief reappearance at year’s end or on an awards show. Then it is heard no more.

Why? In the case of Top 40, the need for novelty, and the ever changing tastes of the teenaged ear explain much. But why are we so fickle when it comes to worship? We are supposedly worshipping an eternal God (“Jesus Christ the same yesterday, today and forever.” Heb. 13:8). Why wouldn’t we try to convey something of that eternity in our worship?

A worship service can fill many functions. In it, we teach about God, and what He expects of us. We explain something of the Christian life. We are encouraged, chastised, and renewed. We direct our worship toward God, and remember the elemental truths of our faith.

In the Apostle’s Creed, we state that we believe in “the communion of saints.” We speak of it as if it were a present reality. But what is that communion? This side of heaven, I believe this works out to a sort of conversation across time, as we commingle the old words and songs with the new. To do that, we occasionally need to sing some songs we haven’t sung in some time.

So, if I may from this remote vantage, suggest to worship leaders that they dig out those old boxes of overheads and troll them for selections for the coming week’s service. You will be doing the Church Universal a favor, and in a small way, be fulfilling the will of God in helping to leave generations yet unborn some new timeless masterpiece.

hymnal

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