We’re wired as musicians
Music is powerful. Perhaps that’s why it causes such differences as it sometimes does amongst Christians. But despite the negative publicity, we are to think positively about the power of song in the life of the church and the Christian. I’ve thought a lot about this last week. As regular readers know, my precious mother-in-law has just died. Her death was not particularly a surprise, but nevertheless death still stings. Badly. As Mrs R and I have driven back and forth this week we’ve kept returning to Sojourn Music’s Water and the Blood album (Isaac Watts hymns to Bluegrass – I know, not everyone’s cup of tea), and we keep returning to this particular song :
Absent from flesh, O blissful thought
What joy this moment brings
Freed from the blame my sin has brought,
From pain and death and its sting.
Absent from flesh, O Glorious day!
In one triumphant stroke
My reckoning paid, my charges dropped
and the bonds ’round my hands are broke.
I go where God and glory shine,
To one eternal day
This failing body I now resign,
For the angels point my way.
Absent from flesh! then rise, my soul,
Where feet nor wings could climb,
Beyond the sky, where planets roll,
And beyond all keep of time.
God has given us songs. Joyful songs help us express thankfulness in ways that cannot be matched with words alone. Mournful songs like this can help us express a confidence in sadness which even the most poetic words cannot sustain.
He has made everyone of us a musician. Thank God.
Preaching crucifixion and resurrection
Over recent months I’ve posted occasionally here on Galatians, although I’d forgive you for not noticing as it’s been very occasional. Galatians is a letter which in various contexts I’ve kept coming back to. One thing I’ve particularly been helped to see is the way that cross and resurrection are held together in the letter.
That’s seen in the ‘top and tail’ of Galatians. It begins with an explicit mention of the resurrection (‘God the Father, who raised him from the dead’, 1.1), followed by the cross (‘Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age’, 1.4). At the end of the letter we get the two again, but now in the order cross-resurrection: ‘the world has been crucified to me and I to the world’ (6.14), followed straight after by ‘what counts is the new creation’ (6.15), a clear allusion to resurrection. In other words, at the top and tail of Galatians, we find (as it were) cross-language enclosed within resurrection language, with the two linked closely together. The opening speaks of them in terms of what Christ does for us; at the end, it’s expressed as what Christ does in us.
We get something similar in the famous verse 2.20: ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.’ There’s crucifixion in the first phrase, and immediately Christ who is alive in the second phrase.
A couple of short-ish books by Richard Gaffin have particularly helped me to see this: Resurrection and Redemption and By Faith, Not By Sight. Gaffin is a fine scholar, who reckons that our union with Christ in his resurrection is at the heart of Paul’s understanding of salvation – without at all denying how crucial the atoning work of the cross is. Many folks, if asked about ‘the heart of salvation’, would go to cross rather than resurrection, and that for some good and understandable reasons. And then (stereotypically) we perhaps rather tack the resurrection on at the end. But maybe, at least in Galatians, cross and resurrection are different aspects, in profoundly linked ways, of God’s one glorious act of salvation in Christ, both for us and in us.
Feeling the provocation
Some of the most profound things God says to us in his written word are expressed in simple words and short sentences. That is especially true of the end of Matthew 11, which I’ve recently come to in my daily reading. They are well known words, of course. What I particularly noticed this time around was the way in which things which at first sight aren’t easy to reconcile are just set out side by side for us.
First off, Jesus praises his Father for being pleased to reveal ‘these things’ to ‘little children’ (vs.25-26). Then in the very next verse he speaks of himself as the one who chooses to do the revealing, so that we can know the Father (v.27). Such wonderful, loving co-operation of Father and Son, so that the Father may be revealed to us. It’s when I notice the seeming contradiction (exactly who is choosing to do the revealing here?) that I am drawn into wonder of what is being said to us here, and to praise the Father the way Jesus does.
Then comes the well-known apparent illogicality of vs.28-29: what the weary and burdened most desperately need is a yoke to be put round their necks by Jesus. What the burdened need sounds quite like another burden! Moreover, Jesus wants to put his yoke on us because he is ‘gentle and humble in heart’. We would hardly expect the truly gentle and humble to go round encouraging others to saddle themselves with a yoke.
Simple observations, I know. But these things provoked me (I think that’s the right word) as I dwelt on them this morning. That is surely part of God’s intention in speaking to us in such provocative ways. I naturally assume that in my weariness and burdenedness (is that a word?) what I need is more ‘me-time’ and chillaxing. In simple and jarring words, Christ provokes me to see that that isn’t so, at least not at the root of things. May the Lord preserve us, both in our own feeding on his word and in our feeding of others, from being so dull that we fail to be provoked by the sheer direct simplicity with which he often speaks.
From the archives
We still have a number of cassette tapes from early conferences which haven’t made it into digital format. We’re planning to make them available gradually over the next few months, as well as improving the indexing of existing talks.
We have just published EMA 1993 and 1994. 1993 features David Peterson (on worship), Dick Lucas (on John 14), Phillip Jensen (on Acts 17), Don Carson (on Jesus) and John Lennox. 1994 features Dick Lucas with some expositions for expositors (on various passages), Bruce Milne on preaching heaven and hell, Chris Wright on Deuteronomy, but perhaps the highlight from that year is Mark Ashton on building a congregation (in two talks) – for anyone who has read Persistently Preaching Christ, this is a much earlier source of similar material. We hope all the talks will be useful and encouraging to you.
Proclaimer Bible (another chance to win)
First, we have a winner from our Proclamation Bible draw. Jonathan Gardner is part of the pastoral team at Mission Care in Bromley, a Christian Charity running nursing homes – congratulations to him.
But if you missed out, read on because we have another to give away.
We’ll make this second draw at the end of January, from all those who have booked for this June’s EMA by then (if you’ve already booked, you’re already in the draw!).
I’ve blogged about EMA before (here); suffice to say we’re excited to be welcoming Tim Keller, Michael Raiter, Andrew Reid and others. You can find the details of EMA here, and the booking form is here. As well as the chance to win a bible, another advantage of booking early is you can choose from all the seminar streams – there’s still space in all of them at the moment, but we expect some to start filling up soon.
Labels. Can’t live with ‘em. Can’t live without ‘em.
It never ceases to amaze me how we argue over labels. I realise, of course, that in our muddy evangelical world, labels are useful, if not essential. I use them myself. We need to know where others are coming from, especially when it comes to working closely together. This is not about evaluating who’s a believer and who’s not, but there are practical issues of co-operation that we need to take into account and that make a real difference in local church and how it operates. That means labels are a good starting point.
But surely that’s all they should be – a starting point? Labels are slippery things and so they can never tell you everything you need to know about someone. Take “Reformed” for example. When I started in ministry, not so long ago, no one wanted this label! At least, not in the UK. It implied a culture as well as a set of beliefs. It went along with a certain style of church and dress. Remarkably, that has changed significantly even in 15+ years.
Now, everyone wants to be Reformed! And anyone who doesn’t see that as a primary label (a noun) wants it, at least, as an adjective. So, what happens? We start arguing about who owns the label! And the custodians of the label argue that others who don’t share their particular belief in one area or another cannot share the label: they are, after all, the custodians!
Enough already. Labels are really, really useful as a starting point. But we only ever know and trust one another (and provide a basis for working together) through relationships. That’s one of the reasons the internet can be so helpful, yet so dangerous at the same time. Helpful in that is facilitates relationship maintenance. Dangerous in that it requires serious effort for those relationships to ever get beyond the superficial.
Labels without relationships are never going to do anything but divide and stir controversy. So let’s rejoice in labels as far as we can, see their usefulness. But let’s hold to them loosely, always seeking relationships as the real means of knowing one another.
I’m Relational, I suppose. Or I would be, if that wasn’t another label.
Cornhill this year?
Over 20 and more years, we’ve served local churches by training something like 1,000 men and women in expository ministry. We don’t pretend that this is the only part of church life, but it is a key element (if not the key element) and therefore time spent on this is time well spent. There are a raft of other excellent training opportunities out there, but nothing gives time, energy and intensity to expository ministry quite like the Cornhill Training Course.
We’re beginning to interview men and women for 2015/16.
Perhaps this is something you’d like to think about? We don’t take fully formed preachers, nor even just those who are convinced that full time ministry is for them. In fact, very often, we’re happy to see students return to the holy glory of serving God in all kinds of non-ministry related jobs. But time at Cornhill is never wasted, because these guys are often church leaders and occasional preachers who will serve the local church well. We ought to say that age is no barrier either. Most years we have some newly or early retireds. Come and visit for a day and think about making this part of your 2015.
Perhaps you’d like to think about this as a church? Maybe there’s someone in the church you want to encourage in this way? Maybe you’d like to think about having a placement, but there’s no one local at the moment? There may be a student somewhere else who would be interested in your church: and don’t worry if you feel small. The experience in a small church (which was my own) is very different from a large church – and that can be great! There are more preaching opportunities for a start.
Either way, we look forward to continuing to serve you. We count partnership with churches as of huge importance. And if you want us to serve in this way, we’re happy to help.
Be in touch. Soon.
Let the story sing
I’m preaching on Judges 17-18 in a few weeks’ time – the story of Micah and his idols. Not a passage I would have chosen myself! It’s been a challenge to prepare and think about how to preach it. One of the key difficulties is that narrative is too easily robbed of its life and vitality by expository preaching. I say this should not be so – but we need to be honest and say it often is. Bible narratives are carefully crafted stories. They often contain twists and turns which bring the stories to life. There are details which add colour, even if they don’t have primary significance (ten cheeses, anybody? 1 Sam. 17.18).How can we preach to avoid draining the story of life?
I’m convinced that we must do so. For the power is in the text, so to speak. A sermon which has no connection with the text may sound impressive and even be very loud, but it cannot, ultimately have any power, for the preacher is the preacher of the word.
I’m also convinced that such narratives still call for expository preaching. I don’t care how many times I have to make this point, but expository preaching is a mindset not a method. Expository preaching is not reducing every passage down to three didactic points and I will challenge anyone who says so. Expository preaching is letting God say what God says: it is letting the text dictate the message and the tone. This last part is important. When we do sermon practice classes here at PT Towers, we have a series of questions: one of the most important is “Was the sermon true to the genre of the passage” – i.e. did it reflect the tone, pace, colour and life?
A narrative sermon which robs the narrative of these things is a poor sermon. God may use it, of course, but we should not excuse our preaching poverty. In the case of a passage like Judges 17-18. I think that means as much attention should be given to the reading of the passage as is given to the preaching. By which I mean, let people hear the story. Let people be drawn in and captivated.
Here’s just one example. The Levite in the story of Judges 17-18 turns out to be Levite royalty. He’s Jonathan, Moses’ grandson (Judges 18:30). This amazing detail is not revealed until the end – though it explains why the Danites recognise his voice (Judges 18:3). This twist in the tale serves an important purpose: it accentuates the depths to which Israel had sunk. Even the royal family is drawn in! It must not be revealed too early, or else the shock is lost.
Perhaps you’ve got a narrative to preach this weekend. Let the story sing.
A measure of grief
I’m watching my mother-in-law die. This time next week, in all probability, her earthly time will be over. Her kidneys have completely shut down, and it’s only a matter of days that the body can sustain itself in those circumstances. We have begun grieving already. Grief is a strange thing for Christians, bringing – as it does – a real mixture of emotions. As we reflect, we’re not quite sure what holy grief looks and feels like.
We know, for instance, that Christian death is bitter-sweet. We know that it is right to feel the aberration that death is and the weight of sin in the world that makes it so. We know that it is right to feel the loss of someone God has given us for a time. We also know the glorious hope of eternity that Christ has won for us.
I can’t help thinking that in amongst all these emotions, we are also tempted to feel sinful emotions. Self-pity is one of the ugliest sins and it takes opportunities such as this to lay claim on our hearts. It can lead to self-centredness. We’re so busy feeling sorry for ourselves, that we forget to seek the good of others who may also be grieving. And so it goes.
I’m convinced that the pastoral answer to grief is to know certain truths before the moment comes. I think we’re pretty bad at ministering in this way. As a result, pastoral help can often seem trite or full of platitudes. It’s almost impossible, for example, to encourage a grieving husband with the temporary nature of marriage ended by death – though I’m convinced this is an important truth in the grieving process. If a grieving person’s only hope is “We’ll meet again” they will struggle to grieve and recover and our ministry will do little for them.
It reminds me of something I once heard Don Carson say at a ministers meeting: ultimately, he said, we’re about preparing people for death. I’m sure he’d want to nuance that if he had more time – but there’s solid truth there. Too much of our pastoral work is preparing people for this life only, and as such, we fail to adequately help people to grieve well.
God loves your family unit. But it’s not a church
One of the less helpful things I hear young guys (especially) saying, is that their family unit (often with young kids) is a mini church. I think this comes from a genuine desire to lead families well, but I think it’s somewhat sub-biblical. For sure, there are things about a family unit which are similar to a church: we are to teach our kids for example; there are also word connections, most notably in the way that the word ‘family’ is sometimes used to describe groups of believers, such as 1 Peter 2.17. But drawing the parallels too closely is dangerous. For one thing, the passages that suggest this might the case cannot stand the weight. [It is also, by the way, part of Catholic teaching, ecclesica domestica].
For example, it is true that the marriage relationship is a picture of Christ and the church and the husband and wife are to relate to one another as Christ and the church do (Eph. 5). But that relationship, though mirrored on Christ and the church, is not the same in every area. For one thing, if that picture were extended to the family unit, it would make the husband the Messiah and the wife (not the family) the church.
Why is thinking unhelpful? For one, it idolises marriage. Marriage is one of the relationships Christ gives the church (and that’s the right language from 1 Cor. 7). Singleness is the other. Claiming families as mini-churches can elevate the family too much and demonise singleness.
It also perpetuates headship myths. I need to explain what I mean by that: I am a firm complementarian, but we need to acknowledge that there are aberrations of this position: misogynism, over-developed cultural stereotypes, etc. Making the family (a key building block) into a church (another key, but different building block) can encourage these deviations.
But most importantly, we diminish the church. The church is the church. It is the gathering of God’s people from every tribe, tongue and nation. It is the gathering of families and singles, marrieds and widows. It is the gathering together under the word of God to serve God and one another. A family can never be that, nor should it try to be. A family is different: glorious, still, lovely, beautiful, delightful, precious.
In fact, God loves your family unit. But it is not church.