We're closing down the blog for Christmas, and – may I suggest – you should be closing down your blog reading too. Take a break, get a rest, see the family and be refreshed ready for the new year. If you are preaching over Christmas, as many of you will be, then our prayer for you is the same for those of us who are preaching here – that the Spirit of Christ would be at work in faithful exposition to help people see Christ, believe in him and so come to the Father.
From all of us here, we wish you a very peaceful Christmas time.
Just one last thought: make sure you don't miss the greatest lost verse of a carol ever….. Wesley knew his stuff and this is a verse worth including:
Come, Desire of nations, come,
make in us your humble home!
Rise, the woman's conquering Seed,
bruise in us the serpent's head.
Adam's likeness now efface,
stamp your image in its place:
second Adam from above,
Give us life; impart your love.
Hark! The herald angels sing:
Glory to the new-born King!
Those we have lost
The BBC TV sports personality of the year awards interest me less and less. Maybe I'm just getting old and grumpy, but what used to be a celebration of sport now seems more like a worship session at the cult of celebrity. I can't take many more interviews where the opening question is "how did you feel?" As always, the most moving part is where those who have died (or in modern parlance "those we have lost") have their pictures shown. As always, there are some who I remembered had died (Tony Grieg), some whom I had forgotten (Tony Gubba!) and others who sent me scurrying to wikipedia to discover exactly who they were (Jean Pickering, the only British woman to win both track and field golds at a major athletics championship) . Each represents a sad family and friends. Each represents the tragedy that death is in the world and that – without Christ – it has sting and venom. What a wonderful gospel we have to proclaim this Christmas where death is robbed of its power!
Here's the montage. It's a short three minute clip.
Mind the gap
I enjoyed watching the youtube clip of a very young Joan Bakewell interviewing Lloyd-Jones, his only – I believe – television interview (see below). There was much about it that cheered the heart. He was clear, direct and full on gospel.
But I worry that in posting such things, Christians today are not much helped.
"Do not say, 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is wise not to ask such questions." (Ecc 7:10)
Christian nostalgia can be a killer. It is right to be thankful for the past. It is right to take comfort from it (it is good to know about the revival that broke out in our church church in the latter part of the nineteenth century, for example, with several thousand saved and a prayer meeting of over 1,000 each Saturday night).
But nostalgia itself – wishing we were back in those days, is bad, bad, bad. It's easy to be nostalgic about this particular clip. Easy to be nostalgic for a great leader for those who remember him. Easy to be nostalgic for a leader who is able to say things with this degree of clarity in public. Easy to be nostalgic for a different era of interviewing where the interviewee was allowed to answer and the interviewer was not rude (take note Mr Humphrys).
But nostalgia is a denial of where we are now under the sovereign hand of God. Solomon was right. Don't say it. Watch, by all means. And be encouraged – as I was. But keep your nostalgia at bay, if you please.
Athanasius on singing the psalms
But why do we sing the psalms to music? Athanasius says the reason is not just aesthetic, to please the ear. No, for “Holy Scripture is not designed to tickle the aesthetic palate” (!). He offers two reasons:
- Poetry enables us to express our love for God with all the strength and power we possess
- Chanting the Psalms has a unifying effect upon the singer, because it demands our full concentration: “For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of a man’s whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved… and he is thus no longer to be found thinking good and doing evil… And it is in order that the melody may thus express our inner spiritual harmony, just as the words voice our thoughts, that the Lord Himself has ordained that the Psalms be sung and recited to a chant.”
Following on from (2), he says that “the melody of the words springs naturally from the rhythm of the soul and her own union with the Spirit”; this has a correspondingly good effect on the hearers, as did David when he sang to Saul (1 Sam.16). “When, therefore, the Psalms are chanted, it is not from any mere desire for sweet music but as the outward expression of the inward harmony obtaining in the soul, because such harmonious recitation is in itself the index of a peaceful and well-ordered heart.” When a man sings well he “puts his soul in tune, correcting by degrees its faulty rhythm so that at last, being truly natural and integrated, it has fear of nothing, but in peaceful freedom from all vain imaginings may apply itself with greater longing to the good things to come. For a soul rightly ordered by chanting the sacred words forgets its own afflictions and contemplates with joy the things of Christ alone.”
He adds towards the end a word of warning: “No one must allow himself to be persuaded, by any arguments whatsoever, to decorate the Psalms with extraneous matter or make alterations in their order or change the words themselves. They must be sung and chanted in entire simplicity, just as they are written, so that the holy men who gave them to us, recognizing their own words, may pray with us, yes and even more that the Spirit, Who spoke by the saints, recognizing the self-same words that He inspired, may join us in them too.”
He concludes, “And so you too, Marcellinus, pondering the Psalms and reading them intelligently, with the Spirit as your guide, will be able to grasp the meaning of each one, even as you desire. And you will strive also to imitate the lives of those God-fearing saints who spoke them at the first.”
Athanasius on the unique place of the psalms
Here's some church history to gladden your Monday morning. It's from Athanasius' letter to Marcellinus. Marcellinus has been ill, and using his illness “to study the whole body of the Holy Scriptures and especially the Psalms. Of every one of those… you are trying to grasp the inner force and sense. Splendid!”
The uniqueness of the Psalms
- Athanasius describes each book of the bible as “like a garden which grows one special kind of fruit; by contrast, the Psalter is a garden which, besides its special fruit, grows also those of all the rest.”
- Of the uniqueness of the Psalter, he also writes this: “besides the characteristics which it shares with (the other bible books), it has this peculiar marvel of its own, that within it are represented and portrayed in all their great variety the movements of the human soul. It is like a picture, in which you see yourself portrayed, and seeing, may understand and consequently form yourself upon the pattern given.” In it “you learn about yourself. You find depicted in it all the movements of your soul, all its changes, its ups and downs, its failures and recoveries.”
- Then he goes on to “yet another strange thing about the Psalms”, which is that we not only hear “the words of holy men as belonging to those who spoke them”, but “it is as though it were one’s own words that one read; and anyone who hears them is moved at heart, as though they voiced for him his deepest thoughts.” So, in the Psalms, “the reader takes all its words upon his lips as though they were his own, and each one sings the Psalms as though they had been written for his special benefit, and takes them and recites them, not as though someone else were speaking or another person’s feelings being described, but as himself speaking of himself, offering the words to God as his own heart’s utterance, just as though he himself had made them up.”
- What is more, when one sings them, “he cannot help but render them in such a manner that their words go home with equal force to those who hear him sing, and stir them also to a like reaction” – whether it be repentance, hope and trust, joy, lament, praise, or whatever. So “just as in a mirror, the movements of our own souls are reflected in them and the words are indeed our very own, given to us to serve both as a reminder of our changes of condition and as a pattern and model for the amendment of our lives.”
- Also, the Psalms help us more deeply to understand Christ, for “before He came among us, He sketched the likeness of this perfect life for us in words, in this same book of Psalms”.
Saul’s evil spirit
Much ink is spilt over the evil spirit from the Lord that comes on Saul in 1 Sam 16.14. I came across this little paragraph in David Firth's excellent Apollos commentary and thought it worth repeating:
It should be borne in mind that the OT is seldom concerned with secondary causation, and since Yahweh is Lord of all, the spirit is seen as coming from him. But the narrative still holds Saul responsible for his actions while afflicted (18.10-11, 19.10), so although this statement is absolute, the wider narrative indicates that a more nuanced understanding is necessary. A specific psychological assessment of Saul is not really possible, and this first mention being expressed in terms of its absolute cause discourages the attempt. But we should note that the word usually translated 'evil' or 'grievous' in the OT does not necessarily have a moral force (see Amos 3.6) and this is almost certainly the case here.
A grudging admirer of liturgy
I'm not a fan – in general – of liturgy. That comes from a convicted ecclesiology. However, neither am I one of those stick-your-head-in-the-sand kind of non conformists and I dip into the prayer book from time to time in my own devotions (please keep this to yourself). I particularly like the Church Society's English Prayer Book and use it for funerals. The renditions of the Advent collects are particular favourites. This Sunday (so I am told, I don't really understand these things) is Advent 3. And the collect is almost a preachers' prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, who at your first coming sent your messenger John the Baptist to prepare the way for you, grant that ministers and stewards of your truth may so make ready your way, by turning the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, that at your second coming to judge the world, we may be found an acceptable people in your sight; for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever, Amen.
New hymn misses the mark. Sadly.
Some hymns need updating, musically at least. And I am always cheered when groups who otherwise concentrate on modern songs try their best to revive a modern hymn. So I was mostly cheered the other day to sing Hillsong's Cornerstone (listen here and sheet music here). But I have two objections:
- one is musical. The song starts low so it can up the ante and sing an octave higher later on. I dislike this because most people can't sing a top F anyway and also it is the kind of device which is easy to use to whip people up. I guess you could sing the whole thing in a more moderate key.
- one is theological. The original hymn is about the security of standing on solid ground, not sinking sand. Indeed, this was the first idea that came to Strict and Particular Baptist pastor (and hymn writer) Edward Mote. It came into his head as "I went up Holborn." To replace it with the idea of Cornerstone (a good idea, of course, but a mixed metaphor in this context), seems a great shame. The hymn is diminished for its omission. I guess we could rewrite the chorus:
Christ alone, Solid Ground
Weak made strong in the Saviour's love
Through the storm, he is Lord, Lord of all.
Better perhaps, but still omits the original sentiment of security being found in Christ and no other – "all other ground is sinking sand".
Oh, and it omits one key verse (which is easily remedied)
His oath, his covenant, his blood
Support me in the o'erwhelming flood
When all around my soul gives way
He then is all my strength and stay.
If anyone wants to suggest ways to improve, I'll happily hear them….
Interfaith. Nonsense. But believed nonsense.
Just watching the Mandela thanksgiving service in South Africa. Right at the start, there are prayers (contributions, really) from Rabbi, Hindu leader, Imam and Anglican Archbishop. Each is praying to "their" god with the unexplained assumption that each god is the same. It's nonsense really. They're contradictory in what they're saying – for example, the Muslim prays to Allah who is "unlike any other in all his attributes." I'm not sure what the actual participants believe – I take it that the Imam is unlikely to embrace multi-faithism.
But none of that seems to matter. The irony is that, to onlookers at least, the multi-faith approach is not inclusive. Rather, it diminishes every religion. For if all these (and presumably more) lead to god (whoever he/she is) then there are other equally valid lines to him too. So, holy men. We need none of you. This, it seems to me, is the absurdity of multi-faith approaches. Every one is ridiculed by it, and all emptied of whatever meaning they have.
This is almost certainly the way public events are going in the UK. We already see seeds of this. And it will be accepted without a twitch by the UK public because this nonsense is what is believed anyway. If there is a god (and I accept that many would dispute that), then my way to him is as equally valid as yours. It may be nonsense, but it is believed nonsense.
Which all goes to show, Mr Preacher, how those of us who have the high calling of publicly proclaiming Jesus as Lord and Saviour must do so without compromise. We must not be afraid to say that Christianity is unique and not just one amongst many ways. We need to tackle that directly and proclaim the uniqueness of Christ as his Scriptures teach.
Are you a visiting preacher in your own church?
I don't normally reference other blog posts – I take it you have better things to do than read the same thing over and over. But one particular post caught my eye this week because I've been thinking about something similar, although not quite the same. I saw the link on Challies blog (where else) to this post by Tom Rainer, CEO of Lifeway. Essentially, he was making the point that pastors should not make the mistake of ignoring what materials are being used in church. Hey, guys, if you use Lifeway materials, then you're on solid ground.
OK, I'm being facetious, but he's got a point. Although, to be fair, it's a point those of us in UK sized churches will have little trouble over – most of us can keep an eye on what happens in our small groups. What got me thinking was a slightly broader question. What are your people hearing? Let me put it another way: where are your people getting taught?
I'm not into the kind of heavy shepherding that tells people where they go or what they can listen to online. I can't imagine how you'd ever police that anyway. But pretty much every Christian has some input outside of church:
- perhaps they use Bible reading notes?
- perhaps they visit certain sites or blogs and download audio?
- perhaps they support certain Christian organisations who hold certain lines?
- perhaps (this is almost certainly the worst!!) they watch Christian TV which means (in the UK) Revelation TV or GOD channel?
- perhaps they attend an external group
You can't possibly (and nor should you, I would suggest) shepherd all of this input. But still, it's good to know – even wise to know – the sort of thing people are hearing. It's not always easy – I've been trying to find out some more detail about a reasonably well known external study group – but have been fobbed off and told by participants that I can't see their notes as it's not allowed (that kind of thing rings all sorts of alarm bells, despite the fact that I know that this group is pretty orthodox). So, how do you know what people are hearing?
Here's my radical notion. You spend time with them. You talk to them. I know, pretty far out, isn't it? Start small: you have them to lunch and you can ask them what they've been up to this week. What have they been learning in their notes and so on. We used to call this pastoring and it's a key element of ministry, often lacking today. For it shapes what you do in the pulpit. Any preacher knows that preaching as a visitor at another church is a bit of a hit and miss affair. You don't know the people. But without knowing what your people are going through in general terms, and also in the specificas, how can you be anything other than a visiting preacher to them? More specifically, how can you preach to your own people unless you know what they're hearing?