Category: The Church (Page 1 of 5)

The Poetry of Praise: Developing a Poetic Ear

If you are tasked to choose the worship songs we sing on Sunday, or if you are a writer of Praise and Worship songs, you need to strive to have every word in their praise and worship song to be the perfect word. But one cannot know if a word is the perfect word until one has developed a poetic ear. Fortunately, it is possible to develop such an ear.

 

The Poetry of Praise: Word Choice

How to write praise and worship songs. I think that we could have better lyrics in our Christian praise and worship songs. Wouldn’t it be great if most of the songs we sang had powerful lyrics? This series, called the Poetry of Praise is my modest contribution to improving the lyrics of our praise and worship songs. My desire is that almost every song we sing in church gets more powerful every time we sing it, rather than less. Diction is the first, but it is not the only step toward this end.

 

The Poetry of Praise: We need better worship songs!

We need to do better.  Too much of what we sing in corporate worship is mediocre or worse.  I’m talking lyrically.  We need to choose better songs, and someone needs to write better songs.   Better lyrics are poetry–they will evoke, not just the emotions of worshipers, but their imaginations as well.  This video is the first in a series called The Poetry of Praise.

 

How to go back to church with “those” people

Christians responded differently to the Covid-19 pandemic. Attitudes became entrenched and sometimes hostile. How are we to deal with the divisions created by differing opinions about masks, shutdowns, and vaccinations when we all come back together in corporate worship? C. S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters is helpful here.

 

Going Back to Church with “Those” People

Soon, we will be returning to in-person church services.

As is often the case, in my church, there were differences of opinions over the wearing of masks and the safety of vaccines.  There was more disagreement over the appropriate Christian response to the governmental closures of religious gatherings and quite a bit of controversy over the use of our church building as a vaccination site.

Since last March, I have been researching the Covid-19 pandemic.  I’ve read all kinds of articles from various perspectives, and I have read whole books on the subject.  I went to a Liberal Arts university, so I have some ability to understand science and as I digested all this material, I developed opinions that I believe are the right ones–they are grounded in my analytical skills and my expertise in the evaluation of sources; they are built upon my understanding of human nature and culture derived from a lot of experience and more than a little reading; they rest upon the foundation of 40 years of deeply reading and studying the Bible.  And lastly, conversations with experts.

So I am confused, frustrated, and sometimes angered by those who do not share my opinions on the Christian response to the various issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

I can’t believe they could be so dumb and so unfaithful to the general themes of scripture, the teachings of Jesus Christ our Lord, and the instructions of Paul to the early church.

And soon, I will be sitting in the pew next to these people with whom I have disagreed.  One’s whose views I believe are totally wrong.  And we will together be worshiping our Lord and King.   So how is that supposed to work?

[click_to_tweet tweet=”I am frustrated by those who do not share my opinions on the Christian response to the issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. And soon, I will be sitting in the pew next to these people. And we will together be worshiping our Lord. How?” quote=”I am frustrated by those who do not share my opinions on the Christian response to the issues arising from the Covid-19 pandemic. And soon, I will be sitting in the pew next to these people. And we will together be worshiping our Lord. How?”]

The Screwtape Letters (1942) by C. S. Lewis offers us some help here.     In The Screwtape Letters, a senior demon named Screwtape provides advice to a novice tempter, his nephew Wormwood, about how best to lead his human ”patient” to damnation.  “Our Father,” then is Satan, and “the Enemy” is Jesus Christ.  Screwtape’s letters give a pretty clear indication as to how the demons plan to use the disagreements about WWII to weaken the church and thwart any of the purposes that God might have through the turmoil.   These demonic intentions are no different in our current situation and it is clear from Lewis’s book that we will either be agents of heaven or the instruments of hell as we encounter events like Covid-19.  Indeed, we already have been.

I have found in these letters three insights that will make it possible for me to come together in worship next to those with whom I disagree on all the issues around the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Best We Knew

In the fifth letter, Screwtape talks about the Second World War.   Obviously, this was a big deal for the original audience of Lewis’s book; it was a time of tremendous turmoil and uncertainty.  He explains to Wormwood,

But, if we are not careful, we shall see thousands turning in this tribulation to the Enemy, while tens of thousands who do not go so far as that will nevertheless have their attention diverted from themselves to values and causes which they believe to be higher than the self. I know that the Enemy disapproves many of these causes. But that is where He is so unfair. He often makes prizes of humans who have given their lives for causes He thinks bad on the monstrously sophistical ground that the humans thought them good and were following the best they knew.

As you can see from this excerpt, in times of turmoil and uncertainty, the demons want to exacerbate division by turning my focus on the rightness of my own position and the wrongness of those who disagree with me.

This is exactly what has happened during the pandemic.  We’ve taken opposing opinions about masks and vaccines and church closures and using the church as a vaccination site.   I am right, obviously.  If you can’t see that, you are obviously wrong.  So how can we get along?  Well, we can’t because not only are you wrong, you are ignorant and probably not even really a Christian.  Have you thought this?  It’s exactly what the demons want, and exactly what God does not.

The amazing thing about this passage is that all our passion about masks, or vaccines, or church closures might be completely misplaced.  And God’s OK with that.  As long as we are looking to values and causes higher than the self.  God wants us to look beyond ourselves–to principles that we believe to be important because we believe we are being faithful to his will.

So there is a lot of soul searching required.  How much of my passion is about serving the self?  Be honest, some of it is.  If you think you are 100% focused on the good of the Kingdom, you don’t know yourself very well.

Let’s get back to the point: How can I get along with people on the opposite side of the issues?  They held their views because they thought they were the right ones.  God doesn’t care very much if they were wrong.  And neither should I.

And be honest, there is a possibility that you were the one who was wrong.  Take comfort in the truth that God likes it that you were trying to be faithful.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”How can I get along with people on the opposite side of the issues?  They care about the issue and they think they are right.  God cares more that they care than that they are right.   #Covid-19 #Church #Disagreements #Issues” quote=”How can I get along with people on the opposite side of the issues?  They care about the issue and they think they are right.  God cares more that they care than that they are right.”]

Don’t be Extreme

If you still wonder if you can go back to church with those people, here’s a second insight.  In the seventh letter, Screwtape returns to a subject he refers to in an earlier letter.  Again, in the context of the Second World War, Christians obviously took opposing positions regarding the appropriate Christian response to the war.  Some were in favour of the war and others opposed it.   I’m sure that there was a lot of division within the church, and strong feelings, and broken relationships–and behaviours akin to unfollowing someone on Facebook.  Even without social media, there were arguments about which side was faithful, and which was in league with the forces of hell.

So here’s what the demons are up to.  Screwtape says,

I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes, except extreme devotion to the Enemy, are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. [The current age is] unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame [it].

It’s like Lewis has written these words for today, not just for 80 years ago.  Did you notice what side the devils are on?  Neither!  The side doesn’t matter, they just want the extremes.  Extremes are emotional and unstable, and they create divisions that are difficult to overcome–because of the damage they create; people on the extremes can’t listen, they can only shout.  I watch the exchanges on Twitter.  If you have a Twitter account, you know exactly what I am talking about.  Extreme this, versus extreme that.  They talk as if those with whom they disagree are in league with the devil.  What they don’t understand is the devil isn’t on one side or the other.  The devil is behind the demonizing of others regardless of the side.

The divisions in our culture are getting more and more extreme–liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans.  And Covid-19 created new issues with new extremes.  The issues are in the church, but we need to keep the extremes out.  In the States, many politicians and much of the media know better but are using the extremes, both sides, for their own political ends.  This, whether liberal or conservative, whether mask or no mask, is what makes the devils dance with hateful glee.  We can’t expect those in politics and media to live in obedience to the king, but it is expected from the children of God.  By his Spirit, we must stay away from the extremes.

It’s not too difficult to infer that God isn’t very concerned about what side we are on.  He is a lot more interested in you still talking to your brothers and sisters in Christ.  And singing with them, and praying.  And disagreeing with them, and still finishing your coffee and shaking hands when you leave each other.

If God doesn’t really care which side you are on, then neither should I.

Charity and Humility

In the sixteenth letter, the local church is described as being “a unity of place and not of likings.”   It brings together people with whom you might not naturally associate too closely. In the church, different classes, generations, races, and political views come together in unity in a particular place.  This is the kind of unity the Lord desires.  The devils want divisions about “likings”:

The real fun is working up hatred between those who say “mass” and those who say “holy communion” . . . .  And all the purely indifferent things—candles and clothes and what not—are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quite removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials—namely, that the human without scruples should always give in to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application.

We will always have disagreements.  They had them in the early church and we have them now.  The argument around circumcision was a big deal; it was about fully understanding the extent of Grace.  But not all conflict is as significant. Screwtape calls these “unessentials.”  I think sometimes, when we are in the middle of it all, we can’t tell if we are dealing with a serious issue or an unessential liking.  A good rule of thumb is that the closer it gets to Christ, the more essential it is.

The Corinthian church had a contentious issue to deal with.  The issue was about eating meat that has been associated with idol worship.  Most of the meat available in the Corinthian marketplace and at public social gatherings was associated with idol worship.  You can imagine that some Christian thought it was was a sin to eat this meat and that Christians must, then, eat only vegetables.  Others argued that since the Greek gods didn’t exist, the meat was fine.  You can imagine the same passions from both sides of the issue as we have about masks and vaccines and defying government closures and using the church as a vaccination site.

So what does Paul say? Well, he says, go ahead and eat the meat.  But then he says that love is more important than anything else, so consider how eating meat will affect others and refrain from any action that will cause others to stumble.

I’m not sure which side is supposed to move when it comes to the Covid 19 issues.  We have to determine who might be stumbling.  I won’t be stumbling.  That means I’m the one that is supposed to concede.  Crap!

Hell wants us to focus on being right and heaven wants us to focus on loving each other.  When we thwart the plans of the demons, the church becomes “a positive hotbed for charity and humility.”  Whatever side we are on, we’ve got to get out of the “fight because you are right” mindset and embrace an attitude of love.

There are a lot more issues pulling against Church unity today.  It’s not just the Covid-19 pandemic.  Most of the issues have nothing to do with orthodox doctrines about Jesus Christ. I wonder if we can’t take these three insights into all the big issue conflicts we find ourselves in.

  1. Believe in your position, but remember that God is more interested in motives than rightness.
  2. Don’t be extreme, except in your devotion to Him.
  3. If your causing your brother to stumble, his position is the one we are going with.

These are the three insights that I will be trying to remember as we head back into in-person corporate worship because Christ prayed for unity above all things.  These are the very circumstances in which he prays it.  Who am I to place my desire to be right (even though I am…stop it! Just stop it!) above the prayers of the King?

The Worship of Freedom

So do we worship freedom, alongside God, in the church?  In some cases, I think we do, but even where it has not yet become an idol, our awareness of the possibility might delay its eventually becoming one.

Take the quiz in this video to determine if Individual Freedom is taking too great a role in our life and worship.

Why Pastors Must Read Fiction

Trixieliko / Pixabay

Recently, I heard a pastor admit from the pulpit that he didn’t read fiction–I’ve heard this before.  These confessions are not usually necessary for it is usually apparent from their sermons.

I have heard the reasons.  Some don’t read because they see reading fiction was a frivolous endeavor, even a dangerous one.  Others, because they have no time.  After you read the Bible and the theology texts, blogs, and all those books on Christian living, there isn’t any time for fiction.  Some don’t read fiction because, “Well, it just isn’t my thing.”

I perused several articles in which other pastors exhort their colleagues to read fiction.  These articles offer some very good reasons for pastors to read fiction, but they didn’t give the most important reasons, which I will save for last.

It’s Relaxing

Reading a novel is relaxing, and pastors should find time to relax.  Reading The Girl With the Dragon Tatoo by Stieg Larsson is a great read, but it’s a book for the beach.  I’m not arguing that pastors read more beach books, although it couldn’t hurt.

Get Out of Yourself

We all live narrow lives and look at the world with a fairly limited vision.  I am a white, North American male who was born in the early 1960s.  I look at the world through these lenses.  I was never sexually abused.  I don’t know what it is like to be an immigrant or a tanner in India. I don’t have autism or a brother with schizophrenia.

When you read good fiction, you are immersed in the reality of these things.  Can you see how imaginatively understanding these things would make one a better pastor?

Experience the Beauty and the Power of Language

Good art, be it visual arts, music, or fiction, is good because it is rooted in an endlessly creative God who has chosen to be imaged by creative human beings. Art isn’t irrelevant. It’s part of what God commanded us to do in the beginning.  When you enjoy truth and beauty, when you are blessed by gifts God has given to other human beings, you are enjoying a universe that, though fallen, God delights in as “very good.”

Good Fiction is True

Good fiction challenges us where we need challenging: In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says fiction “helps us to know what we believe, reinforces those qualities that are noblest to us, leads us to feel uneasy about our faults and limitations.”  If Gardner is right, and I think he is, what human being, let alone pastor, wouldn’t benefit from the reading of good fiction.

As poetry is “the art of saying what cannot be said” (Alan Watts), narrative attempts to explain the inexplicable.  You can’t deal with ideas like Good, Sin, Death, Sacrifice, Grace, Love, Redemption, etc. propositionally.  Only narrative is up to the task.  A sermon delving into topics like these needs the support of a mind that has been broadened and deepened by fiction, stories which have taken the preacher to an understanding beyond personal experience and theology.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”If you can’t read fiction, then you can’t read the Bible. #Fiction #Theology #TheBible  ” quote=”If you can’t read fiction, then you can’t read the Bible. “]

You can’t read the Bible if you can’t read fiction.

These are all great reasons for pastors to read fiction, but there are still more compelling reasons.

The Bible is a collection of all sorts of literary genres, and all of these are ancient expressions of these genres.  Ideally, you’d need to read all sorts of ancient texts, in their original languages, just to begin to get a sense of how to read the biblical text.  There are people who can read these texts this way, and we can read their books and articles, but our access to the original texts is indirect.  We need direct engagement with texts in general in order to understand the role of the reader–a role that involves far more than our mind, but our heart and soul and imagination as well.

The Bible doesn’t simply address man as a cognitive process but as a complex image-bearer who recognizes truth not only through categorizing syllogisms but through imagination, beauty, wonder, awe.

Russell Moore

The Bible is not simply a text that we mine in order to extract nuggets of truth.

It’s not an encyclopedia, and it shouldn’t be read as one.

The tools one needs to read the Bible are the same tools one develops when one reads good fiction.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”The tools one must develop in order to read the Bible are the same tools one develops when one reads good fiction.” quote=”The tools one must develop in order to read the Bible are the same tools one develops when one reads good fiction.”]

Many North American Christians are still under the influence of Modernism.   We tend to equate truth with fact.  We think that for the Bible to be true, it must be factual.  This gets us into all sorts of problems with our interpretation of the Bible.  We will reject the intended meaning of a text when we reject the very mode in which the text was intended to be read.

Most pastors know that the Bible is not anything like an encyclopedia, but we have been so steeped in Modern thinking for so long that it is sometimes a struggle to step out of a rationalist reading of the Bible, and reading a steady diet of theology reinforces this error.

The pastor who reads theology, but not fiction, is like a biology lecturer, who has dissected a thousand frogs, and keeps dozens in his lab, but hasn’t patiently them in the pond.  He knows so much, but his understanding of frogs is illuminated by a fluorescent light and contained within the glass walls of an aquarium.

How can we reset our default settings–our idolatrous, Modern settings–so we can better read the Bible?

Read good fiction.

Reading fiction will develop the understanding, and we will come to understand that the opposite of fiction is fact, not truth.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”The opposite of fiction is fact, not truth.” quote=”The opposite of fiction is fact, not truth.”]

Many sermons can be preached effectively by a pastor who doesn’t read fiction, but there certain times when a broader reading list would greatly improve what we hear from the pulpit.  And occasionally, it will protect the speaker from coming off sounding silly.

Recommendations:

What should I read?

Read from the “top 100 books you must read before you die” list.  Read from the best books of 2020, or 2019.  And read old books.  C. S. Lewis explains why.

OK, so here are some recommendations.

My favourite book of all-time is A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.  It’s funny and profound.  I’ve written about why this book is so essential for Christians to read in a series of posts.  But read the book before you read the posts.  It’s far better, and less propositional.

Any and all of the short stories of Flannery O’Connor.  Pick up one of her collections like Everything that Rises Must Converge.  O’Connor takes a hard and critical look at Christianity in a Modern context, and she also reintroduces readers to God’s Grace despite ourselves.

If I were ever stranded on a desert island, and I couldn’t take the Bible, I would take The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien.  It doesn’t replace the Bible, because it isn’t the inspired word of God, but it contains so many of the essential Biblical themes and truths, that it might sustain me until I get rescued.

1984 by George Orwell is one of the best books of the 20th Century.  Everyone should read it.  It’s brilliantly written is is as relevant today as it was in 1984, and 1949 when it when it was published.

Watership Down by Richard Adams is about rabbits, but it’s also about human nature, faith, trust, and leadership.  And another thousand things.  This one is great on Audible, read by Ralph Cosham.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry takes the reader to India in the 1950s.  You might not be interested in India in the 1950s.  It doesn’t matter.  The book is very well written and you become invested very quickly.  If nothing else, it exercises our empathy, helping us to step in the shoes of others who live in very different circumstances.

You’ve heard of the problem of evil, the strongest challenge to the Christian God.  Like all of his work, The Road by Cormac McCarthy is about the problem of good.  This is a dark novel, but the distant glimmer of light and hope argues that life must be about more than suffering and death.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.  This one is a doozy.  It’s monstrous.  (Read this hilarious article about “How to Read Infinite Jest.“).  This book rivals A Prayer for Owen Meany for my all-time favourite book.    But if you are not a fan of fiction just yet, hold off for a year or 10.

The good news is there are thousands more.  You’d find a lot more recommendations in the comment section if this blog had a huge following, but there might be one or two there as well.

Happy Reading!

That Doesn’t Count as a Hymn

Photo by Michael Maasen on Unsplash

We usually sing at least one hymn in church every week.

I don’t know, but there might be a hymn quota.  A requirement of some sort that we sing a hymn every week to appease the hymn lovers.

I am one of these, a hymn lover.

But sometimes I am unappeased.

If there is a hymn quota, certain conditions must be met and a specific standard must be achieved in order for a song to meet the hymn requirement.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”If there is a hymn quota, certain conditions must be met and a specific standard must be achieved in order for a song to meet the hymn requirement. #hymns #worship #praiseandworship” quote=”If there is a hymn quota, certain conditions must be met and a specific standard must be achieved in order for a song to meet the hymn requirement.”]

When the Hymn Doesn’t Count

  1.  When you change the harmonies.  One of the reasons we like to sing the hymns, is we like to sing the harmonies.  We know our parts.  Something special happens when we are able to contribute something musically beautiful to the praise and worship of our Lord.  If we sing one of our favourite hymns, say “Holy, Holy Holy,” but I can’t find my part, the discrepancy between the joyful worship I might have experienced and the frustration I actually experienced . . .  Well, it would be better if we didn’t sing it at all.
  2. When you add a flakey chorus or bridge.  Perhaps the fad is over, but for a while there we were always singing hymns with new choruses added.  A few of these were quite good, most added nothing to the song, and some are downright bad.  If we are going to sing hymns with added choruses, they should be only those in the first category.  Otherwise, just toss it.
  3. When it’s not a hymn.  There are songs that sound like hymns, but they aren’t really hymns.  Let’s sing these songs, but they can’t be counted as having sung a hymn.  “In Christ Alone” is one such song.  “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” is another.  These are wonderful, but they don’t count.
  4. When you change the lyrics.  The song has already been written.  If you want another song with a different theological emphasis, write it, but you can’t rewrite this one.  It does us no harm to sing in words that are not contemporary–it might do us some good.
  5. If it’s a Sunday School song from decades ago.   Hymns are old Christian songs, but not all old Christian songs are hymns.  It is a condition for many under 30 to lump together anything that happened before their birth into the category ‘old.’  Consequently, a young worship leader can easily conclude that “Pass It On” is a good old hymn. It is not.
  6. When you change the musical style of the hymn, it’s awesome.

Different Musical Styles

Perhaps you expected me to rail against changing the way a hymn sounds.  That’d be a silly thing to complain about.

 

“Worship Christ the Newborn King” or “Coming King”?

Myriams-Fotos / Pixabay

This weekend is the first Sunday of Advent. We sang some advent songs.  That was awesome.  Mine isn’t a liturgical church–it’s more of a Modern one–so there’s not too much attention given to the Church Calendar except the biggies like Christmas and Easter.  I like liturgy and The Calendar, so I like it that Advent gets some attention.

One of the songs we sang was “Angels From the Realms of Glory.”  But the words were different.  Rather than singing “Come and Worship Christ the newborn King” we sang “Come and Worship Christ the coming King.”  Well, I didn’t sing that.  I stuck to the real lyrics, not out of stubbornness; each time we got to the line, I was already halfway through the familiar, so I just forged ahead.

I wondered about this change.  It’s obviously a shift in focus from the Incarnation to The Second Coming.  The verses of the song are about the Bethlehem story, so perhaps the lyric-alterer wants to generate some relevance for the modern worshiper by also anticipating Christ’s future coming.  Maybe he thought this made the hymn a little more well-rounded.  This argument for breadth makes some sense, but if we sing about everything in a single song, aren’t we in danger of singing about nothing.

My view is that there is much to be gained by a focus on the Incarnation during the season in which we remember it.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”The Incarnation already gets eclipsed by the Resurrection in the minds of Modern worshipers, let’s not degrade it further by singing about the second advent in the very season wherein we are supposed to be celebrating the first. #Incarnation ” quote=”The Incarnation already gets eclipsed by the Resurrection in the minds of Modern worshipers, let’s not degrade it further by singing about the second advent in the very season wherein we are supposed to be celebrating the first.”]

The Significance of the Incarnation

Advent celebrates the coming of Jesus into the world when God takes human form.  We Modern, Western Christians often fail to fully grasp the significance of the Incarnation.  The ancient Hebrew faith was unique in that there was one God and he was outside creation.  He seemed to make it a priority of being with his people, first as a pillar of fire over the Tabernacle and later in the Holy-of-Holies in the Temple, but his holiness made approaching him problematic.  In the Incarnation, a wholly transcendent God took on flesh–he became one of us.  This is remarkable.  It redefines humanity’s relationship with God.  He’s accessible and present.  At it’s most basic, the Incarnation means that God is with us–Emmanuel, which has been his object all along.  The incarnation also reminds us of our value; when God takes on flesh and remains enfleshed, he’s telling us a little about how he views humanity.

Human beings were special in creation–we were made in the Image of God.  There are tremendous forces loosed upon the world that are degrading human value at every point.  Contemporary idols, Choice, Freedom, Ease and Pleasure demand human sacrifice upon their alters.  Politicians continue to insist on hierarchies and institutions suppress dialogue.  Posthuman ideas whisper into our ears, as did the serpent in the garden so long ago–human beings are not special.  And don’t get me started on the dehumanization of social media.  We need every reminder as to our position in creation and the value conferred upon us by our creator.  We need to be reminded of our Hope.

The Incarnation is a significant part of a long, long story of Redemption.  This story also includes the call of Abraham, the Exodus, King David.  It also includes Good Friday, Easter and the Second Coming.  To reduce this long story and all it’s parts to “Jesus was crucified rose from the dead, and is coming again” is to degrade the story.  We need to delve deeply into each part in order to experience the significance of each.

So, at least for these weeks in December, let us worship the newborn king.

[click_to_tweet tweet=”‘Come and Worship Christ the newborn King’ OR ‘Come and Worship Christ the coming King.’ ” quote=”‘Come and Worship Christ the newborn King’ OR ‘Come and Worship Christ the coming King.’ “]
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