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Why Sunday Music Must Be As Unlike Pop Music As We Can Make It

If the amount of time given to the singing of praise and worship songs,

and the central position of the praise band on “the stage” is any indication,

many North American churches are implicitly asserting that singing of praise songs as the main way we interact with God in our Sunday services.

This means we’d better get it right.

We have all heard people, including some worship leaders, speak as if the term worship was synonymous with singing.  Even the title “worship leader” suggests the reduction of worship to singing.  Worship leader is an appropriate title if said worship leader also leads the congregants in the many other aspects of worship.  For instance:

  • prayer
  • scripture reading
  • the offering
  • the reading of the law
  • confession and assurance of forgiveness
  • the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed
  • funeral announcements
  • pleas for volunteers for the Sunday School
  • and anything else besides singing that also constitutes worship

If the worship leader only leads signing, then they should be referred to as song leaders.

But isn’t this just semantics?  Although it may seem like I am being petty, this is some serious stuff.

Little things like

  • using the terms singing and worship interchangeably,
  • and calling song leaders, worship leaders,
  • and removing all sign of the sacraments from the stage,
  • and calling that area “the stage”
  • and calling that area “the auditorium,”

are hugely important because we do them habitually.  The things we do habitually, change us–they shape what we do and the way we think and who we are.  If we habitually use the term “stage,” for instance, we will come to understand what happens on it to be a performance.

According to James K. A. Smith, human beings are liturgical animals.  He argues that our lives are not given direction by what we think, or even what we believe, but by what we love.  According to Smith, “what constitutes our ultimate identities—what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are—is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love, or what our love as ultimate—what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding and orientation” (26–27 Desiring the Kingdom).   Smith then argues that our loves are shaped and directed by “liturgies”–habitual practices.  Traditionally the church used to orient our identities toward God and the community of faith through all sorts of liturgies: the physical spaces of worship, the sacraments, the church calendar, genuflecting, kneeling, standing, offering  “Peace.”  Fish on Friday, the rosary, daily prayers, and many other regular and repeated practices linked the spiritual realm with daily life.  In modern Christianity, we’ve abandoned almost all of these habits and rituals–liturgies.  But, we’ve not abandoned liturgies . for being liturgical animals, we’ve simply adopted new ones.  We’ve replaced the old ones with new ones.  And the new ones are largely modern and secular: Starbucks and McDonalds, Saturday hockey and Sunday football, Homecoming and Holloween, Twitter and Snapchat, You Tube and Netflix, craft beer and green-coloured smoothies, inclusion and saying “I feel,” when we mean “I think.”   These are not just things we do, they shape who we are because they are regular, habitual–they are liturgies.

We have replaced sacred liturgies with secular liturgies.  This ain’t good if you believe that a spiritual reality is meaningfully interacting with the material one.

Why do people have such a hard time with faith in our culture?  Because our rituals direct our passions and desires to other things–other ultimate loves.  There is some (a lot of?) anxiety in the North American Church about people, especially young people, vacating the pews.   To retain their members, and attract new ones, many churches have attempted to become more culturally “relevant,” but this has exacerbated the problem.  Being culturally relevant usually means importing secular liturgies into the church.  The Starbucks’ Coffee culture, showing movies on Youth Nights, dress-up parties on Reformation Day and the singing to the instrumentation and stylings of popular music are examples. The problem is that secular culture does these liturgies better than the church does, so the church is actually training people to eventually prefer Starbucks and pop concerts to Church.

According to the Westminster Confession, one of the functions of the sacraments is as a “visible difference between those that belong unto the church and the rest of the world.”  The authors of the Confession understood the importance of having a different experience at church than in the world.

Our rituals used to be different than those of the world, but in some churches, even our sacraments are being secularized.  For the health, and perhaps survival, of the North American church, we need to be different, not the same.

Here are some questions that might be a part of a discussion around how to make the singing part of worship, unlike the secular liturgy of the popular music concert:

  • How can we increase the involvement of the congregation in the singing part of worship?
  • Is there a way to teach the worshipers how to harmonize?
  • Should we sing more hymns?
  • Should we sing different hymns (than just the 5 we do now)?
  • Should we sing hymns in their original forms, same harmonies and no modern (and inferior) additions?
  • Are volumes and mixes supporting congregational singing, or drowning it out?
  • Can we use different instrumentation than a typical rock and roll band?
  • Can we develop different song structures besides the verse-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-chorus pattern?
  • Could we create a new genre of Christian music for corporate worship?
  • Is it necessary for the worship band to be front and centre?
  • How can we utilize lighting to take the focus off of the musicians?
  • Can we resurrect some traditional liturgical forms or elements of worship?
  • Can we invent new liturgical forms that are different than secular liturgies?
  • How can we emphasize God’s action in worship and the sacraments?
  • Can we move toward thinking about the sacraments as more than ceremonies of remembrance?
  • Can we mention, or even link our sermons to, the church calendar?

This list includes just some of the ways that we could bring more sacred liturgies into the Sunday service.  Do you have any ideas you could add to this list?

 

 

League of Legends versus Dota 2

League of Legends versus Dota 2 (Image from Cloth 5)

I play computer games.  Every Friday night at around 10:30, I connect through my gamer headset with the same group of guys.  Twice a year we gather for what is known as a LAN party.  We’ve been doing this for so long, I think it might be possible that our group invented LAN parties.  I’ve known some of these guys for 40 years, one (my brother) even longer.

My non-gamer readers can stop here, this will be irrelevant for anyone who doesn’t play computer games.

Over the years we’ve played many different games.  Some stuck around for years.  These included Doom, Age of Empires, Counter-Strike, most of the Call of Duty series, and League of Legends (League or LoL).

About 5 years ago, DotA 2 (Dota) showed up on our radar.  It is very similar to League.  My brother was working at Valve, the company that makes the game, and he was very eager to have us play some Dota on Friday nights.  Because he was my brother, I played without complaint, but I didn’t like Dota very much. It was frustrating.  I liked League way better.  It was simpler and more familiar.  Why mess with a good thing?

My attitude about League and Dota has changed in the last year.  Not everyone in our Friday night group feels the same way.  Lately, on most Fridays, we play a game of each, but we’ve rarely played a game of Dota without verbal complaints identical to my silent ones of a year ago.  The purpose of this post it to articulate why I now like Dota 2 better than League of Legends.

It’s not that one game is inherently better than the other.  It is simply that each is designed to offer a different gaming experience.  In a nutshell, League of Legends is more about the timing and execution of the skill shot.  The skill shot—the mechanics are designed to serve it, items are designed to enhance it, combos are built around it, and mana pools are deep to feed it.   Aggression and mechanical skills are rewarded in League.

I’m not sure if it’s my fingers or my brain, probably both, but have never been very good with timing and precision.  All games require them, but in some, but don’t have the same emphasis on speed and accuracy.  A long time ago I came to realize that I like games that create unique narratives.  I like baseball better than basketball for this reason.  Age of Mythology better than Rocket League.  I enjoy the Search and Destroy mode in COD 2 much better than Team Death Match because, win or lose, I enjoy the story is created.

I like Dota 2 better than League of Legends because the former creates a better story.

Here are 4 ways I think Dota creates a richer narrative:

Heroes/Champions: In League of Legends, there are five main roles.  ADC, support, mid, top, and jungler.  Although some Champions blur the boundaries between them, these roles are fairly rigid.  The descriptors of the main roles in Dota 2 are carry, disabler, initiator, jungler, support, durable, nuker, pusher and escape.  Each of the five Dota heroes in a particular game has a different combination of several of these qualities in different proportions.  The effect is that there is a lot of flexibility in how and where a hero is played.  Carries, for instance, can be found in any, and even all lanes. Roles aren’t set in stone—there is no ADC (that always goes bot and is always accompanied by a support) for instance.  In Dota you can have a tri-lane; I’ve played two such games this week.  There’s no need to have a hero dedicated to jungling.  Supports in Dota, depending on the specific hero, have much they can do.  They lane block and deny.  They can push or stack camps for gold-hungry carries and pull creeps to neutral camps in order to maintain an advantageous lane equilibrium.   They can be the first to rotate to other lanes that need support.  They can be aggressors and are often initiators in fights and bring game-changing abilities in team fights.

Another element adding flexibility to Dota 2 heroes are talents.  At every fifth level, a player can choose between two traits, unique to each hero on the talent tree.   This means that the character of Abaddon in this game can be different than that of Abaddon in the last game.

In Dota, hero identity, lane assignments and roles are fluid.  All this to say that the individual hero identities and roles are fluid and adaptive, making each game unique from the starting horn.

Items: Item selection further increase the uniqueness of a Dota hero and therefore builds more unique narratives. Each hero has a different set core items making each significantly different than any other hero.  But that’s not all; the situational items can take a hero is very different directions. A support hero can become more of a carry if circumstances warrant.

In League, builds don’t create as much of this differentiation—there is also a lot of similarity in builds within particular roles.  Most ADCs, for instance, buy the same items as the other ADCs.  The items in League tend to focus a character even deeper into their role.  This is not a bad thing.  It’s a deliberate part of League’s design.  Items are meant to increase the power of abilities.

In Dota we find different priorities.  Items take a hero in different directions.  Items can enhance strengths or reduce weaknesses, and they do so in the context of the game/story.  They are used to counter abilities or items on the other team, or to a shift to a new team strategy.  Consequently, it is not possible to “complete your build” in Dota 2.  The story keeps shifting even late in long games.  There is always another item to purchase to help you given the particular story/game in which you find yourself.

Game Play:  In League, with its emphasis on skill shots, commands to move, attack, or spell-cast happen very quickly—you can move, shoot, slash or cast in any direction instantaneously.   Dota has longer animations; the heroes need to turn before they can move or shoot in a new direction.

Again, League is about the skills, so the instantaneous use of these skills is the priority.  To this end, League has large mana pools.  Dota has more inately powerful abilities, but they cost you a lot more in mana to use them.  Consequently, they have to be used more sparingly.  Both the more powerful abilities and the inability to spam them, contribute to the narrative.

Team Fights in League are short and fast-paced.  In Dota there are more of fights, they are longer and they can have various phases.  In Dota there are more buttons to push, but many of the abilities and items are more forgiving with timing and mechanical skill.   There is more time to see the effect of each successful cast or item used. All this combines to enhance the narrative quality of team fights.

In Dota, more expensive items are less effective in relation to how much gold it cost you to get them.  In League, the opposite is true; the more expensive the item, the more efficient it is in relation to the gold spent.  This leads often leads to one team “rolling” the other team because of significantly higher networth.  Teams can’t come back as easily.  Hence the surrender option—why continue if the ending is obvious.  In Dota, there are ways to of dealing with a gold deficiency or an over-fed carry on the other team.  Comebacks are much more likely and comebacks make for great narratives.   This is why there is not surrender option.

In Dota there are more fights because of teleport scrolls.  Teleport scrolls are also one of the reasons why Dota 2 is more of a team game.  Smoke which makes invisible all heroes in a certain proximity is one of many items that involve the entire team and is used in a coordinated team action.

Dota games tends to be, longer consequently, the victory is sweeter and the defeat more bitter—comedy or tragedy.  Either way, the story is better.

Complexity: Much of the frustration that new players experience in Dota 2 is a direct result its complexity.  This is particularly true of those who have played a significant amount of League of Legends which is more streamlined around skill shots and mechanical skills.  The complexity of Dota arises from heroes and items, but the complexity does not end there.

The League recall takes you back to base.  The Dota teleport scrolls take you to the base and to any tower or fountain.  Further, in League you can select teleport as a summoner spell before the match starts; if you didn’t buy it, you can’t get it, but in Dota, any hero can buy boots of travel if conditions merit.

In Dota, trees can be destroyed through various means so as to improve the vision of wards.

Healing can be done at fountains.

In Dota 2 we have the courier to deliver items, and they can be killed.

There is denying creeps or towers.  You can buy limited items in lane shops and other items exclusively in secret shops.  There are buy-backs, stacking and pulling.  There is the day/night cycle and high-ground mechanics—more complexity.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

Some people don’t like this complexity.  Those who are new to MOBAs might prefer the relative simplicity of League.  I know from first-hand experience that those who have played a lot of League will find these elements frustrating.

I eventually overcame my frustration with Dota because I got used some aspects of this complexity, although I still have much to learn.  I began to understand that the differences weren’t just pointlessly complicated ways of doing a simple task, but elements that made every Dota game unique—I realized that the flexibility and complexity contribute to the narrative quality of Dota 2.

It is truly pointless to argue that one of these games in inherently superior to the other.  If your first MOBA was League of Legends, the only problem with Dota 2 is that it’s not League of Legends, and vice versa.  If players give each game the necessary time to truly understand the relative merits of each, some will naturally like League’s more streamline skill-oriented play.  Others will like the complexity and flexibility of the narrative that Dota provides.

I happen to be one of the latter.

 

 

Why Poland?

When we told people that we were going to Poland for our holiday this summer, they invariably asked, “Poland? Why Poland?”

The main reason we wanted to go to Poland, I suppose, was because it’s in Europe. My wife, Dani, and I love Europe. We love European history and culture, so anywhere in Europe is great.

Now that we have returned from this trip, I can report that Poland is an incredible vacation destination and I am much more qualified to answer the question, “Why Poland?”

The History

WP_20160715_17_24_38_RawI found myself regularly and meaningfully interacting with Poland’s incredible history. Recalling the Tartar invasions of the 13th century, every hour on the hour we heard a trumpeter in Krakow playing the Hejnal, or Hymn to our Lady, out of the tower windows of St. Mary Basilica. Tradition has it that when the Tartars appeared on the horizon, a trumpeter sounded a warning which saved the city.  After the battle, the trumpeter was found slain by an enemy arrow. This is why, at each sounding of the Henjal, the song is interrupted mid-note, commemorating the sudden death of the trumpeter. It was awesome to even hear the trumpeter clearly through the open windows of our room just off the square (Tango House).

We also stayed at in the renovated stables, converted to a charming hotel, of 16th century Palac Stuga. On our WP_20160721_08_11_44_Rawpersonal tour of the old palace we saw the original circular wooden staircases and wall decorations, and also Renaissance additions. The palace itself suffered from Nazi and Soviet degradations, but with government grants, the proprietor hopes to restore Palac Struga to its former glory. One evening, I took a four kilometer hike through fields and forest to the ruins of the much older Cisy Castle. We also took a look at Książ Castle, which, they say, Adolf Hitler planned to make one of his residences.

WP_20160719_11_22_47_RawIt is an understatement to say that Hitler and the Nazis were a significant part of Polish history. It was probably in Poland that Nazi atrocities were the greatest. The murder of Polish Jews was essentially accomplished and the enslavement of the Polish people was well underway. Visiting Birkenau you walk among the physical remnants of an ideology that came dangerously close to conquering Europe, or more. We walked along the railroad tracks, and through the large area where people were sorted–live or die–and down the road which led to the crematoriums. We’d been to Dachau, but the scale of Auschwitz-Birkenau is overwhelming.

Built on top of the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto

Built on top of the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto

Although very little of the Warsaw Ghetto wall exists, for me, the idea of the Ghetto dominated our visit to Warsaw. What shocked me was the size of the thing. The northern point of the ghetto was the train yard where, in the summer of 1942, 250,000 Jews were loaded for the 75k trip to Treblinka. From this point you can see the very tall Palace of Culture and Science, which stands at the most southern point of the Ghetto’s former boundaries–it’s a long way down there! Some neighbourhoods in this area are 15 feet higher than the streets around them. This is because they are build on top of the rubble of the Ghetto.

We went to several museums including the Warsaw Uprising Museum and the Solidarity Museum, but by far the best was The Museum of the History of Polish Jews. This museum is probably the best narrative museum I have ever been too.

Food

I often say that the only reason I go to the historical sights is to give me something to do between meals. I love good food, and Poland has a lot of it.

WP_20160729_14_46_47_RawMilk bars have been in Poland for a long time (late 19th century). They were government subsidized canteens where workers could get a nutritious and affordable meal. Every time the Polish people found themselves in dire economic straits, bar mleczny (milk bars) flourished. It seems as if the requirement for the middle-aged women who work in the milk bars, besides hard-working efficiency, is that they speak no English. So you point to items you think you’d like to eat, and nod in the affirmative to any clarifying question they ask you in Polish. They you pay the equivalent of about $4 and enjoy your pork knuckle with mustard, beet soups and cabbage roll.

Before we left, we were told by a former resident that we’d be eating nothing but pork and cabbage. We did eat a InstagramCapture_0a5dc3e4-5b5e-43a7-9f07-94277fb849f1lot of traditional polish food, and, yes, there was always pork knuckle, neck, breaded pork steaks, but there was almost always duck and trout on every menu. There was also bigos, a cabbage and meat stew and amazing soups: zurek, which has several kinds of meat in a sour base, and tasty beet soups, served both hot and cold. But we had some incredible non-Polish meals as well, including Italian, Thai and Spanish. These meals were almost always significantly better than what I have eaten in North America.

One of my favourite things about my previous trips to Europe is the restaurant patio. The inside of restaurants WP_20160724_12_18_10_Raware empty; the seating that spills out onto streets and squares is full. This culture is alive and flourishing in Poland. Each day, we ate at least two meals and made several beverage stops in an outdoor restaurant.

If all this sounds good to you, wait till you hear about how much it costs! Poland is very inexpensive. Museums cost about $4. A B&B in the center of all the action is less than $80, and in the country closer to $50. Most of our dinners, a generous main and a beverage, were less than $30, often less than $20, for the two of us.

So that’s why I loved traveling in Poland this summer.  If you are looking for a wonderful European experience, full of history and great food, try Poland.

Why, in Africa, take-out is more expensive than eat-in.

In Africa, Take-Out is more expensive than Eating-In.

Well, at least it is Yaoundé, Cameroon.

My wife and I had just picked up some Take-Out Sushi. We were discussing if the tipping percentage should be different for Take-Out than for Eating-In. She then recalled that she always paid more for Take-Out when she lived in Africa. I thought this peculiar, as did she when she first encountered it. But then someone explained it to her.

It has to do with the fact that with Take-Out, you are leaving the store with something extra–the container in which the food is packaged. Any of the costs associated with Eating-In is not a factor, since most of the labour is performed by a family member and the dishes can be washed and be as good as new. In the mind of the restaurants proprietors, there is a tangible sense of loss as the cardboard container walks out the door.

I just thought you should know.

A Case for Infant Baptism (2)

I want to move from the scriptural support for the practice of infant baptism to some that is worldview related.  Mixed with these are some personal, perhaps even sentimental, considerations as to why I remain a paedobaptist.

Believer baptism puts the offer of God’s promises with the acceptance of same; infant baptism separates the offer from the acceptance.

In my mind, separation has a couple of advantages.

For one thing, applying the sign of baptism on an infant emphasizes God’s promises, rather than the individuals reception of these promises. In infant baptism, God promises–He is the agent–and the little helpless human simply receives. Every time we witness this ceremony we see again this picture of Grace.  The individual is incapable of responding to God.  They can’t reject him, can’t say thank you. There is no way that we deserve or in any way can earn the blessings of God and unity with Christ as symbolized in baptism.  The very helplessness of the recipient reinforces this idea.

This is a strange idea in our modern culture where the individual is supreme, but not so in the ancient world.   It is likely that the first century writers of the New Testament couldn’t conceive of believer baptism for they were community and family oriented, rather than individual oriented.  When they report that “households” (Acts 16:15 and again in verse 31) were baptized, they would likely be shocked that anyone could think that this didn’t involve children.  It wasn’t until the sixteenth century–the century in which the individual was born–that Christians began to question the legitimacy of infant baptism.

While, primarily emphasizing the actions of God, infant baptism also emphasises the nuclear family, biological or adoptive, and the church family. At an infant baptism, following the promises of God, the parents promise and the church body also make some heavy promises. The Bible is very clear that just because you are in the family, doesn’t mean that you will necessarily grow into the transformation for which circumcision is the sign, but God still has established family as the means by which God’s Word is to be taught and lived. This same principle is embodied in infant baptism.  From my position as the father, infant baptism was a daunting event. In it there is an awareness that this baptism is no guarantee that the child will receive the ultimate spiritual blessings for which it is a signifier. And that if the helpless child in your arms is to know about God’s promises, it is pretty much up to you communicate them. Standing there you become poignantly aware of the awesome responsibility that is yours to train and teach the child in your arms so that they become the individual who professes their acceptance of God’s promises.

When the parents have made their promises, the church body makes theirs–they accept the obligation to support the parents as they raise the child.  The ceremony of infant baptism emphasises the actions of God and his agents.

We are talking about two very important events in the life of a Christian–every Christian acknowledges the importance of doing something about the children of believers; every Church also recognizes the importance of the new Christian publically professing their faith in Christ. The questions is where do we put baptism? And what do we use to commemorate the other significant event?

When those who have been baptized as infants come to faith in Jesus Christ, they publically profess their faith. This is commemorated in many different ways, but this is how it went with my children. They attended a year long class where they were instructed in the foundational beliefs of the church and discipled in being a member of the Body of Christ. Then they were examined by the church leadership. During a church service, an individual who had been a significant mentor on their spiritual journey, introduced my child. She then offered their testimony, after which hands were laid on her by friends and family and she was blessed with prayer. The church service was followed by a time of fellowship with the church family and later, at home, with the extended family. This was a significant event, and it was treated at such.

Many (all?) churches that practice adult baptism alone, practice child dedication.Child dedication emphasizes primarily the actions of the parents who bring the child forward for dedication.  I have contended that infant baptism emphasize the actions of God at the baptism and believer baptism emphasizes the actions of the believer.  Those who espouse infant baptism would argue that the practice that acknowledges God as the primary agent is the preferred, and more Biblical, approach.

Who is speaking in baptism? God or the baptized? Or both? For the infant baptizers, it is clearly God–he speaks first and human beings receive (as opposed to, human beings are active and God responds to our obedience). In my tradition, the believer will have their chance to speak, but that won’t be until he or she becomes a beleiver.

In a culture where the individual is god, to baptize infants is counter-cultural.  We swim in the waters of individualism, and a ritual that focuses us on God’s action rather than our own, that focuses on the offer of Grace, rather than on our acceptance of it, is a ritual we ought to observe–if it’s scriptural.  I think that there is strong evidence infant baptism is scriptural.

I understand that there are some who do not.  This is an important issue, but it is not a foundational issue, so I can easily continue to worship in my wonderful credobaptist church.

 

The Case For Infant Baptism (1)

Lately, I’ve been having a lot conversations about baptism. Some of these have been with credobaptists who wonder about the scriptural justification for infant baptism. Some with those who were baptized as infants, but now attend a church that adheres to believer baptism, and are required to be re-baptized in order to be a member. This post is my explanation, to those who wonder, why some Christians insist that infant baptism is baptism.  This is a difficult task because, in the case of most protestant denominations who practice it, infant baptism has everything to do with “Covenantal Theology.”  This is more of an worldview, than just an interpretation of scripture, so to actually understand infant baptism, you really need to be looking through the lenses of Covenantal Theology.

Just a few terms: paedobaptists baptize children; credobaptists baptize believers.

I have no problem with credobaptism. No paedobaptist does; it is clear that the church in Acts baptized adults.  I go to a church that baptizes believers only.  It is an important issue, but it is not, as they say, a “Salvation issue.”

I believe that there is adequate historical and scriptural evidence that infant baptism was normative in the early church. I also think that baptism of infants is, today, a counter-cultural practice to which all Christians might consider returning.

The historical evidence points to infant baptism being practised in the early church. Augustine of Hippo (354–430) speaks to the universality of infant baptism saying it is  “held by the whole church, not instituted by councils, but always retained.”  There is only a century separating John the Apostle and the Church Father Origin, who was certainly baptized as an infant in around 180 AD.  It is reasonable to assert that the practice of baptism as performed in the earliest days of the church, was imitated in the decades that followed; they did what they saw done. By itself, historical evidence like this is not an adequate reason to accept infant baptism, but it can be used as a support to scriptural evidence.

Scripture ought to be our guideline when trying to determine who to baptize. So the question is, What do the scriptures say?

Well, this is inconclusive. There can be clarity, but to achieve it, you have to read every verse regarding baptism from a particular perspective. If you read it with one perspective, one can convincingly argue that believer baptism is scriptural; if you read it from another, then infant baptism is the way to go. Proof of this is that both credo- and paedobaptists use exactly the same texts to support their views.

Those who baptize infants start with a covenantal perspective. God deals with his people using Covenants. The mark of the Old Covenant was circumcision, carried out long before a child could make any personal response to God. Abraham circumcised Isaac at eight days old (Genesis 21:4). Babies born into a believing home receive this sign of the covenant, and it is clear that the faith of the parents is sufficient for the whole household, including the children. Clearly, children were a part of the Old Testament people of God.

Circumcision was a sign–it pointed to something else–a transformation of the heart. In Deuteronomy 10:16 this is referred to as the “circumcision” of the heart. We also find this language in Jeremiah (4:4). In Ezekiel 36:24-27 it’s called a new heart, a heart of flesh as opposed to one of stone.

Importantly, outward circumcision did not guarantee the inward transformation.   In Jeremiah 9:25-26 it says, “The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will punish all who are circumcised only in the flesh–Egypt, Judah, Edom, Ammon, Moab–and all who live in the desert in distant places. For all these nations are really uncircumcised, and even the whole house of Israel is uncircumcised in heart.” The sign of circumcision was not simply a sign of belonging to a racial group, or even a particular religion–it was a sign of spiritual transformation. One which the recipient of the sign may or may not experience.

Paul sees circumcision in this way as well. In Romans 2:25-29, especially verses 28-29, he emphasizes that what counts is “circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit.” He then comments on God’s first command to Abraham to circumcise his household: “[Abraham] received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Rom 4:11).  Paul reinforces the idea that physical circumcision is a sign for spiritual transformation. He also says that Abraham is not only the spiritual father of uncircumcised Gentile believers (4:11b), but also of “the circumcised who not only are circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (4:12).  Here we see that faith precedes the sign of the covenant, but once received, the faith of the adult is sufficient for the whole household, including children.

The general pattern of scripture shows important parallels between circumcision and baptism; both are a signs of the covenant of the righteousness we receive by faith, both symbolize the righteousness that believers (like Abraham) receive by faith; both point to the cleansing and renewal of the heart, fulfilled ultimately in Jesus.   In the case of circumcision, God commanded that it be administered to Israelite baby boys at 8 days old, before anyone could tell whether God had changed or would change their hearts by his Spirit, whether he would enable them to trust his promises.  The New Testament doesn’t explicitly identify the recipients of the sign of the New Covenant.

Protestant denominations seem to agree that baptism is a sign of union with Christ, symbolizing righteousness in Christ and participation in his Death and Resurrection which can be receive only by faith.   Credobaptists argue that since baptism symbolizes grace received through faith, the recipient ought to have professed their faith before receiving the sign.   Paedobaptists say that, just like circumcision in the Old Covenant, baptism is not a sign that righteousness and union with Christ has been accepted, but a sign that it has been offered.

I believe this is the key difference between the two views, so let me say it again, for the sake of emphasis: Supporters of believer baptism see baptism as a sign that righteousness and union with Christ has been accepted by faith. Supporters of infant baptism see baptism as a sign that righteousness and union with Christ has been offered and will be received only by faith.  You don’t need to accept either view, but you must conceded that both are reasonable readings of the supporting texts.

I think that many of the credobaptist objections to infant baptism are resolved when we allow the sign of baptism to stand as a sign of God’s covenant promises (which can only be received through faith) and not a sign of the acceptance of these promises. If this point is conceded, then we ought to be baptizing babies. The question now is whether or not it is to be conceded.

I think this point ought to be conceded and here’s why: there is no scriptural reason for children to be treated differently under the New Covenant than they were treated under the Old. The Israelite children were clearly considered part of the covenant community–they received the sign of circumcision. I think it is appropriate to assume the continuity between the two covenants unless there is explicit biblical reasons not to. If the children of Christians are to be considered outside of the New Covenant community, then we would expect this significant change to be explicitly expressed in the New Testament writings. All the other ways where the New diverges from the Old is explicitly articulated. Here’s the list:

  • circumcision is no longer a requirement
  • both Jews and Greeks must be baptized
  • no more animal sacrifices
  • dietary laws no longer apply
  • temple worship is replaced by the “Spiritual Temple”

The New Testament offers no shift in the relationship of children to the covenant, moving them from inside through the covenant sign of circumcision, to outside through exclusion from the covenant sign of baptism. If children were suddenly outside the covenant, a radical change in God’s way of dealing with his people, surely there would have been some discussion, if not a major controversy, that would have been recorded in the New Testament.

Indeed, what is remarkable about the New Covenant is that it became more inclusive. Where the Old Testament sign of circumcision was restricted to males and, in general, Jews. The New Testament covenant adds women and Greeks. It seems inconsistent that the sign of the New Covenant would become less inclusive in just this one way.

In conclusion, paedobaptists would say that every objection raised against the baptism of infants can be raised against circumcision. If these objections are invalid for circumcision, they are invalid for baptism.

There are other dimensions and arguments to infant baptism that I have not gone into because they, too, are not conclusive.

I Love Audio Books

Audible-Audiobooks-883_l_96e7ae5d2c81e2afThis past year I’ve been listening to audio books. I like listening to audio when I climb up my local mountain. I looked into Audible Books, but at $14.95USD it was too expensive. They did offer a free book if you gave them a try. Being a cheap Dutchman, I went for the grandfather of all books–War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. That’s 61 hours and 8 minutes of listening for nothing. Audible Books just got pwned! The problem is, I loved this book, seriously–I thought this book was infamous only because it was the longest book. It’s long, but it’s also one of the best books I’ve ever read (listened to). I loved listening to a great reader read it to me. It was very immersive; I hardly felt that I was climbing.

This was such a delight that I thought I would keep my membership for just a few months. Just to knock off some other biggies. Books that I had started, but for one reason or other had not been able to finish: Moby Dick by Herman Melville, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman.

Just one more. I had seen the trailer for the movie, so I decided I’d listen to the book The Martian by Andy Weir before the movie came out.

I had always meant to read A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, but I’d need more than a summer to read it, so I never picked it up. Wow, what a book, and a great performance by John Lee. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is in the top ten of almost every list of must read books, so I checked that one off.

I did some listening directly related to my work: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor and two collections of her short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Everything that Rises Must Converge. Also, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain.

I have already read Tolkien’s trilogy four times, and the Hobbit at least a dozen times, but the last time was a while back, so I listened to them.

Then I listened to some religious books: The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns, The Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyan and Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis.

Most recently I finished Watership Down by Richard Adams, and I am just finishing Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.

I purchased a bunch of books on a few very good sales, so i am set for a while. I look forward to another year of listening and hiking.

If you are interested in my recommendations for listening or reading, here is my list in order of awesomeness. I’ve separated Tolkien out because with Tolkien I have no objectivity.

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Two Towers by J. R. R. Tolkien

The Return of the King by J. R. R. Tolkien

So here’s my list in order:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Martian by Andy Weir

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis

The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns

Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor

The Pilgrims Progress by John Bunyan

A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

 

“Just a Symbol”?

Is today (January 28, 2016) closer to

A) January 27, 2016

or

B) January 28, 1986?

The obvious answer is A), because we almost always think of time as sequential, but for the friends and family of the five astronauts and two payload specialists that died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on this date in 1986, the answer would likely be B).   LambI watched the launch of the Challenger with my grade eight and nine students.  We watched for a few hours after as we tried to understand how this could have happened.  This was a meaningful event.  Chronologically, yesterday is closer to today, but if meaning is our standard, at least for some people, today is closer to this date 30 years ago than was yesterday.

The non-sequential nature of time is something we usually ignore, but it can add significant depth and experience to our lives if we are more aware of it.  I’ll attempt to illustrate this using the elements of Tim Keller’s sermon called “The Story of the Lamb.”

The story of the Lamb is actually the story of three lambs.

The story of the second lamb cam be found in the book of Exodus.  The Israelites are slaves in Egypt and as prologue to releasing his people, God has sent nine plagues upon the land of Egypt.  The tenth plague will be the death of the first born.  In  Exodus 12:23 we an amazing twist in time:

When the LORD goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.

The Destroyer.  This destroyer does not bring regular destruction, but End-Times destruction–Revelation 9:11:

And they had a king over them, which is the angel of the bottomless pit, whose name in the Hebrew tongue is Abaddon, but in the Greek tongue hath his name Apollyon.

Lamb1This Destroyer, then, who visits death upon all the first born of Egypt is the bringer of End-of Time Judgement, long before the end of time.  Time is bent when the Destroyer of the future kills all the first born in ancient Egypt who were unprotected by the blood of the second lamb.

Importantly, the tenth plague is not just the death of the first born Egyptians, but the first born of any who live in Egypt–this includes the Hebrews.  The Hebrews are not exempt from Eternal Destruction–they are not saved by their own merit, nor by God’s ignoring of their sin.  They are saved by the blood of the lamb.  The Passover is the central act of Jewish worship – and it commemorates salvation by “the bloody death of a helpless victim”–the second lamb.

The first lamb is found in Genesis 22.  God says to Abraham,

Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you. (22:2)

In this culture, the first born already belonged to God; he has a claim on the first born as representative of the family(Exodus 22, Numbers 3 and 8)–the firstborn’s life is forfeit.

You must give me the firstborn of your sons. Do the same with your cattle and your sheep. Let them stay with their mothers for seven days, but give them to me on the eighth day. (Exodus 22:29-30)

The first born, as the representative of the family, bore the guilt of the entire family.  Abraham, Keller says, believed that God was just calling in the debt.  Although the father would have been distressed by the loss of his son, sacrificing Isaac was also an act of giving God his due.  Just before Abraham can carry out the sacrifice, angel of the Lord calls out “Stop.”  Then this:

Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram[a] caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.  (Genesis 22:13)

God himself provided the alternate sacrifice.  The ram functions as a substitute for the first born who is himself a representative of Abraham’s family.

Lamb2Back to the second lamb. In the Exodus story, the Hebrews understood that God  was, again, making a claims the on the debt of the first born, and that he, again, provided an alternate.  When they heard God’s instructions for the first Passover, they would likely make the connection to the first lamb–the ram caught in the thicket which took the place of Isaac on the alter.  The story of the second lamb doesn’t mean what it means without the story of the first lamb.  Again, time is bent back upon itself.

The deliverance from Egypt wasn’t the solution to all their problems–they still lived in a spiritual bondage, and consequently were subject to Final Judgement. To solve this problem, they need another lamb–Lamb 3, Jesus.  John the Baptist called him “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Lamb4The night Jesus was arrested, he ate the Passover meal with his disciples.  This night, the lamb wasn’t on the table, but at the table.  The first two lambs were just animals.  The ram that took Isaac’s place on the alter did not actually save the boy.  Nor did the Passover lambs save the Hebrews by their death.  The first two lambs only pointed to the third.  The third lamb was the God’s Son, but this time no one yelled, “Stop.” Like the first two lambs, his death was in the stead of those who deserved it.  Unlike the first two lambs, Jesus is the ultimate lamb that provides the ultimate salvation.

The central act of Christian worship, Communion, commemorates “the bloody death of an innocent victim.”  The bread and the wine in which Christians partake an obedient response to Jesus command to “do this in remembrance of me.”  In it we remember Jesus, the Lamb of God, giving his life for us, once and for all, on the cross.

Christians have different views as to what happens at communion, from the supernatural event of transubstantiation to it being a completely human act or “just a symbol.”  If we think of time only as sequence, the Passover and the Last Supper happened many, many centuries ago. If they are relevant at all, they are relevant only as a symbol. If you understand that time has loops, it becomes far more than a mere symbol.

Lamb5When we partake of the bread and wine, we are not simply remembering an event that took place 2000 years ago.  We are standing at the convergence of several events, profound events each involving a substitutionary death.

Jesus died once for all, but as time bends, we stand before him as he says the words “this is my body, for you.”  Communion is not merely a memorial because Jesus is active as he offers us the bread and wine–his body, not many times, but once.  But with the bending of time, he’s offering it now.  One death and resurrection, but a continual offering of Grace.

As you partake of the Communion meal this weekend,  think about the nearness in time, higher time, of the ram that took Isaac’s place on the alter, the Passover lambs that died in order to protect the Hebrews from an early encounter with The Destroyer of The End-Times.  Think especially about the Lamb of God–the ultimate lamb–who died to save us from the ultimate consequences of our sin and who is right now seated on the throne of heaven.  Think about standing at the convergence of all the Communion meals being celebrated across space and time as Jesus offers us the salvation he paid for with his life.

If you manage to catch just a glimpse of any of this, you will not be able to think of The Lord’s Supper as “just a symbol.”

Christians are Anti-Progress

ProgressBChristians are often resistant to progress, sometimes when they shouldn’t be.  I am resistant to the label because I don’t think, in many respects, Christianity calls us to be inherently anti-progress.  But in one sense, I am OK with this label.

The Good was traditionally understood to fall into the transcendent category.  We are much more materialistic these days and, consequently, are suspicious of, or flatly reject, the category.  We haven’t lost the idea of good, but it has moved from a higher ideal to the material realm.  It now lives at the end of every line of progress, which we see everywhere, even where it doesn’t exist.  The good is now “just what happens next.”  Pastor and blogger Toby Sumpter (“Committed as Christmas”) argues that living in this “evolutionary universe” erodes commitment.

The Biblical worldview emphasizes commitment–God is so committed to humanity that he would die for us.  People exhorted to be committed to God, parents, spouses, children, governments, neighbours, church and creation.  A commitment to commitments is out of step with the dominant culture.  Sumpter says that this “is why marriage . . .  is not merely an old fashion custom, it is positively anti-progress.”

It is not inappropriate to find pleasure in change.  We were created to desire change.  I love the changes between the seasons and, although I love steak and mashed potatoes, I don’t want to eat them two days in a row.  But we were also made to crave permanence.  The things that human beings love most are a balance between change and permanence:

Baseball always has four bases that are positioned 90 feet apart and there are always three outs per inning.  These permanent qualities are complemented with change, for no two games are alike.  In this blend of constancy and variety is the appeal of baseball.

The same is true of our fascination in watching a lava lamps, a campfire, or waves crashing onto the beach.  Our fascination is rooted in the balance between newness and change.

The problem arises, when we lose the balance between permanence and change.

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis attributes our obsession with new experiences to demonic activity.

Now just as we [the tempters] pick out and exaggerate the pleasure of eating to produce gluttony, so we pick out this natural pleasantness of change and twist it into a demand for absolute novelty.  This demand is entirely our workmanship. . . .  Only by our incessant efforts is the demand for the infinite, or unrhythmical, change kept up.

The task of the demons is made much easier by the evolutionary worldview that dominates popular thought in our culture.  Change is a good, but it is not The Good.  So in a sense, it is appropriate for Christians to be labelled inherently anti-progress.

 

An Inventory of Moments

lava lampMoment 1: I was about 6 years old when we moved from Montana to Michigan.  I was brought to my new school and left in the charge of Mrs. Smith, my new grade 1 teacher.  I sat alone in the classroom waiting for something to happen.  I imagine I was scared, but I don’t remember.  What I do remember is a blonde head popping up in the outside window, shrieking with excitement–“It’s a new boy!”

This was one of the moments from my life.  Objectively, time is composed of a series of identical units, but our subjective experience is that time is not homogeneous–time is less like a clock than a lava lamp.

In an attempt to understand time in this more subjective way, I have here described a few of the events that constitute a very large inventory of moments.

Moment 2: I was high up in the Canadian Rockies, far off any road–we had travelled up a frozen river bed till we could go no further.  It was too late to build a lean-to, and too cold, so we decided to sleep in the truck. It was too cold to sleep in the truck.  So at 3am we started climbing higher into the mountains and watched the sunrise from the top of the world.  At about noon I saw a huge mountain muley careening down the opposite slope.  Then he disappeared in the brush.  I waited.  He appeared in a small stand of trees to my left.  That’s when time almost stopped.  I didn’t even feel the recoil of my 30-06.  I didn’t hear the gun’s report.  All I saw was the deer turn and run back the way he had come.  He didn’t make it thirty feet.  A perfect shot.

Moment 3:  Dread poured from my chest into my belly.  I turned and ran home crying.  I had forgotten my cotton balls AGAIN!    I think we were going to make cotton ball igloos on construction paper and snow was impossible to represent without cotton balls.  I had forgotten to bring them several days in a row.  I still think this is way too much responsibility for a 5 year old and why the heck didn’t the school provide the necessary materials for our kindergarten projects.  I remember returning to school with a green Dippity Doo jar full of cotton balls.

Moment 4 occurred on May 20, 1980.  It was raining mud.  I was out in a field south of Olympia, WA at about 8:30 in the morning.  I was turning off water pumps because we didn’t move irrigation lines on Sundays.  When I was finished, I got into my truck and I couldn’t see through the windshield.  The wipers smeared grey mud.  Church was cancelled that morning because of volcanic eruption.  That was Mt. Helen’s first, one of the later ones happened on a beautiful clear day and I watched the ash bloom from the same field (another moment).

Moment 5: I was on the Oregon coast with my daughters in August 2008.  My sons weren’t there because of summer jobs.  My wife was leaving me so she didn’t come; it wasn’t a very happy holiday.  This had been my point of view for the previous 18 months–I had no happiness, nor any hope for future happiness.  I was watching my girls and the waves crash onto the beach; I sighed and said to my self, “So this is how live is going to be from now on.”  Then it hit me–I was in this incredible place with people I adored and we were going out for clam chowder later.  I said it again with an entirely different view of the world, “So this is how life is going to be from now on.”

Moment 6: Joe Carter’s homerun in 1993.

Moment 7:  In 1996 we bought a farm, a pigeon farm (we raised squab for the fancy Chinese restaurants in Vancouver and the other markets across North America).  One day we took possession I went for a walk by the barns.  I wondered what I had gotten myself into.  I knew little about raising squab and the flock was in bad shape; there was a lot of disease and very poor production.  It was a scary moment and I’ll never forget it.  10 years later I could diagnose diseases by smell and production was increased 20 times.

Moment 8 was at Dachau, the Nazi concentration camp outside of Munich.  I’ve always been interested in World War Two.  I took classes on it in both high school and university, read many books, and watched every documentary I could.  The Holocaust was particularly intriguing and baffling for me–how could people do this to each other, and on such a scale?  In spite of all I read, perhaps because of it, the Holocaust and Nazism were abstract concepts to me.  The incredible thing about Dachau was the realization that the Holocaust was made out of concrete, wood and barbed wire.  There was a road outside the barbed wire–if you were standing on that road in 1944 you were not in the camp, 20ft. over and you were in the camp.  That 20 feet made all the difference.  It was in that moment that I became aware of the spatial and material reality of the Final Solution.  Evil is not just a vague idea, it is a concrete reality.

Moment 9: Every time I’ve watched “The Sound of Music.”

Time is made up of such moments; they surge around us and engulf us and lift us and then dissipate–like a lava lamp.

 

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