Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Speak to One Another with Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs

You have probably noticed that when a person gets drunk, that person says and does things that he does not typically say and do when he is sober.  When it comes to being filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18-20), instead of doing and saying stupid things, we are to be so filled with God that we do things and say things that we would not typically do and say if we were not filled with God – that is, good things.  Apart from God, apart from being full of God’s Spirit, we will tend toward not singing, but mumbling; we will not make music in our hearts, but will worry and fret about everything; and, what comes out of our mouths will be complaining and grumbling instead of giving thanks.

            God has called his people to be filled with the Spirit.  Singing is part of being filled with the Spirit of God.  Singing is what happens when we experience God’s overflowing grace in our lives.  Having been predestined, elected, adopted, and redeemed by Jesus leads to a joyful overflow of praise which comes out in song.  Music is powerful.  Music is not only a means of expressing our praise and commitment to Christ and each other, it is also a powerful means of being impressed.  When children first learn the alphabet, it is taught to them in a song; just trying to teach letters in a rote fashion typically doesn’t work well for pre-school kids.  This is why we remember certain words for a lifetime.  It is why we still remember words from old TV shows, because those words were set to a catchy tune.  I still know all the words to the Gilligan’s Island theme song, as well as The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family, and Underdog. Music is powerful.  It is why an Alzheimer’s patient may not remember who her daughter is, but can flawlessly sing the words of Amazing Grace.

            It is important for us to understand this power of music and song, because singing is not to be exclusively a matter of expression; it is to be a powerful means of being impressed.  Singing is to be both an offering, a sacrifice of praise (Hebrews 13:15) that is given to God; and, singing is to be a vehicle whereby we are taught and encouraged and built up in the community of believers.  We are to sing; and, we don’t only sing to God, but we also sing to one another, and even to ourselves.  Church music, then, is to be both a means of praising God and a practice of encouraging each other.

            If we are to speak to one another with singing, it is necessary for us to know what psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs are.  When we think of the word “psalm” we may rightly think of the bible book of Psalms.  Singing the psalms is an ancient practice that goes all the way back to the Israelites singing psalms in the temple and synagogue.  The early church maintained this practice, especially as a means of being faithful to praying without ceasing.  However, over time, medieval congregations did not sing psalms.  In fact, the congregation did not typically sing at all.  Almost all the singing was done by church choirs and professional musicians employed by the state (since there was no separation of church and state) to write, compose, and perform in worship services.  500 years ago, when the Reformation came in all its force, one of the reforms made, especially by Martin Luther, was giving music back to the people.  One of the results of this change was putting the book of psalms to song in what we know as the Psalter.  For many Protestant denominations, the Psalter was the primary means of singing.  The Psalter was chiefly setting prayers to song; it was both a means of expressing prayer to God, and a means of learning Scripture.

            There had always been hymns in the church, but it was not until the Reformation that hymns began to be written and sung by congregations by the thousands.  Hymns for the Reformers were used to both impress sound doctrine and theology on Christians, and be a means of confessing the faith together.

            Spiritual songs are the present day equivalent of praise and worship choruses, or what some refer to as contemporary songs.  These are songs that are purposefully designed to be emotional, to be expressions of praise to God and give powerful testimony to what God has done or is doing for a person on a very feeling level.

            So, then, psalms are used to pray and learn scripture; hymns are used to teach us sound doctrine and confess the faith together; and, spiritual songs are an important way of expressing praise to God, and being encouraged in the faith.  Church music is to serve, then, as both a revelation from God, and as a response from God’s people.

            There are two important deductions from the admonition in Scripture to sing to one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs:  1) a variety of songs is inferred and expected; and, 2) Paul commanded their use.

            The reason worship style is such a hot topic, and always has been so, is because we all have our personal preferences.  Yet, if we are to be faithful to this passage of Scripture we will not just lock in on what I want.  The truth is that we are selfish people when it comes to music.  We want what we want and we don’t care what somebody else wants.  And we will persist in that selfishness until somebody calls us on it.  That somebody is the Apostle Paul.  The Word of God is calling us to encompass psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs – all three of them – in our worship.

            Last year I asked a trusted Christian musician and pastor some questions about worship and music.  I asked him how I can lead among a variety of preferences concerning music.  One of his responses I have not forgotten.  He answered my question with a question:  “How highly do people, including and especially your musicians, value the unity of the church?  Do they love each other so much that they can allow for a wider range of style, and do so without vocally complaining about it?  When I arrived at our church, some people were in a rather bad habit of saying very openly, ‘Oh I hate that song,’, or, ‘If I hear this song one more time I’m walking out.’  What I tried to do was teach people that this is not the most loving or mature approach, and does little to build up the rest of the Body of Christ.”

            If the music in your church is being done well, and is faithful to Scripture, yet others or even yourself thinks the music is lifeless, or dull, or strange, the real issue is not one of style.  The place to look is in the heart.  Is that heart filled with the Spirit of God?  If it is, we will speak to one another using the Psalter, using time-honored hymns, and utilizing fresh contemporary praise songs.  The result will be that the Body of Christ, the Church, will be built up in the faith.  And that is my desire and my prayer.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Biblical Anachronism

            Yes, I know I just used a big word:  anachronism.  The word simply means trying to fit something from the past into the present, or vice versa.  For example, chances are that submitting a job resume that was produced on a 1940 Cyrillic Royal typewriter probably will not land you a position in a Fortune 500 company.  That would be anachronistic. When it comes to church ministry, we certainly need to be aware of not being so tied to past forms that we are irrelevant and unable to deal with present opportunities.  The concept, however, works the other way round, too.  Churches and ministers may unknowingly settle for anachronistic readings of Holy Scripture.  That is, rather than trying to understand the Bible’s stories, characters, and teachings on its own terms, too many individuals dislodge Scripture from its historical moorings in order to make it relevant for today.  As a result, with the aim of trying to personally apply the Bible to present day problems, whole portions of God’s Word are ignored and never read.  If God intended for us to approach the Bible this way, he would have given us scripture memory packs from heaven.  It is believed that all we need do is simply read and memorize an isolated verse and be blessed.

            The Bible is very much a collection of books that are immediately helpful for every believer in God for every age.  Yet, when we only approach the text of Scripture in order to be instantly relevant and useful, we actually undermine the integrity and history of God’s Word.  The Bible is not a random collection of verses to be ransacked by present-minded people for the sole purpose of finding personal fulfillment and inspiration to get through the day.  The Bible is an unfolding drama of redemption that moves its way through history with people tied to their particular time and place.  So, an evangelical anachronism asks present day questions of the biblical text before ever answering the crucial questions that the text itself raises for us.

            To be able to see the characters of the Bible in their own time, surrounded by their own historical context, to be attentive to both their wisdom and their blindness, to recognize the extent to which they were caught up in situations beyond their control that demanded faith, and to realize that they themselves were on a journey of knowing God – to know all this about the past and to be able to relate to it without any anachronistic distortion to our present realities is what it means to have a biblical sense.  Yes, Holy Scripture is relevant and applicable to our present day situations.  But unless we gain a certain biblical sense about the Bible itself, we will only get a twisted understanding of how to use it for our life and ministry today.  What this means in making sense of particular bible verses is that we must first understand the shape and flow and overarching argument of the biblical writer so that we can begin to develop a working understanding of that verse.

            Some may mistakenly think that what I am advocating is that only the learned trained minister or theologian can make sense of the Bible.  No, instead what I am advocating is that we become eminently familiar with God’s Holy Word.  There is no substitute for actually reading the Bible for oneself, over and over and over again.  And we need to read through whole sections and books of the Bible – more than once.  If we are to have a solid biblical sense of the Bible, we will need to completely immerse ourselves in its contents daily.  The spiritual discipline of plain old bible reading needs to top the list of things we do on a regular routine basis.  We are to swim in God’s revelation to us, to plunge in headlong and come out dripping with his grace and truth.  If we are too busy for this most basic of spiritual disciplines, then we need to repent of our sinful busyness and discover anew the forgiveness of Jesus Christ contained in, well, the Bible.

            Don’t settle for anachronistic approaches to the Holy Bible.  Take it on its own terms and enjoy discovering its depth and richness.  Then you will truly know what it is to be blessed.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Speaking Truthfully to One Another

When we go to the doctor, we want he/she to be honest with us about our true condition and health.  If we have a clean bill of health, we are glad for that truth.  If, however, we have something wrong, we would like to know what it is and how to deal with it rather than have the doctor avoid the truth so as to not make us feel bad or hurt our feelings.

            In many ways pastors are spiritual doctors; it is their job to deal in the care of souls.  In order to care for those souls, telling the truth to parishioners can not only be comforting, but it can also be painful.  Pastor John Ortberg once said that “Trying to grow spiritually without hearing the truth about yourself from somebody else is like trying to do brain surgery on yourself without a mirror.”

            The truth will set you free.  But before it will free you, it will make you uncomfortable.  We all have a real need to hear the truth spoken in love.  And here is the truth that we must get a hold of:  we are to be open, honest, and real with each other in the church because we belong to one another (Ephesians 4:25).  We are to stop being dishonest, and start being truthful.

            What is truth?  Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  Our lives together as a community of believers are to be shaped around the person and finished work of Jesus Christ.  Since Christians share a common confession of Jesus together, we are to share a common life together.  That life is to revolve around the truth of Jesus.  That means we will put off non-Christian ways of relating to each other, and put on a Christian way of relating to each other.  We will speak truthfully.  And we will do it because we belong to each other.  Just as Jesus closely identified with us in his life, death, and resurrection, so we are to so closely identify with each other that we take responsibility for each other.  My problems are your problems – your issues are my issues.

            We are to put off bad habits, and put on good habits.  We are to put off lying, and put on truth.  Let’s be honest:  we are in the habit of not being truthful.  We are in the habit of being liars.  We are in the habit of pretending and being plastic – and what we need to see is that, in the Body of Christ, pretending that you are okay when you are not, or even acting like your life is hard when it is really not, is presenting yourself in an untruthful way.  Secrecy and deception are tools of Satan, not God.  Therefore, we must put off the bad habit of pretension, and put on the good habit of speaking truthfully to each other. 

            Why do we lie and not speak the truth?  We are in the habit of lying because we have bought into the lie from the enemy of our souls that being truthful and transparent is too traumatic for us – we believe we can’t do it.  The truth is that many Christians don’t think being open, honest, real, vulnerable, and genuine is worth the risk.  We have believed the lie that we will not be accepted, that we will lose face with others, or that people will just gossip about me if they really knew about me.  In other words, we let shame call the shots instead of speaking truthfully to one another.  So, we simply avoid the truth and, so, end up avoiding others.

            A lie is like a knife stabbed into the bowels of Christ’s Body, the Church.  We are not to hide in the shadows and live in the dark.  We are to step into the light and forsake all fakery and be truthful.  Ephesians 5:8-11 says: For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.  Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.  Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 

            When Ananias and Sapphira lied to the Apostle Peter, they were judged severely because they betrayed the community.  Lying undermines community and erodes the church.  If we cannot be truthful to each other in the church, then we are living in the darkness and have need of coming into the light of truth. 

            How do we speak truthfully?  We speak truthfully by making and keeping promises to each other because that is what God does with us.  Churches that love truth will make a safe place for the awkwardness of confession, forgiveness, and healing.  There must be assurance that members won’t abandon one another as they reveal their sins and weaknesses and fumble forward toward maturity and holiness.  Truthful churches are communities of encouragement and hospitality where we are safe to be real.  No one in the Body of Christ should ever have to suffer in silence, cry alone, or wonder whether the church will forsake them.  The Church of Jesus Christ is to have a refreshing openness with each other, since we belong to one another.  To have union with Christ is to have union with one another; you can’t have one without the other.

            We must love one another enough to both speak and listen to the truth.  Author Lewis Smedes has said in his book The Power of Promises:  “Yes, somewhere people still make and keep promises. They choose not to quit when the going gets rough because they promised once to see it through. They stick to lost causes. They hold on to a love grown cold. They stay with people who have become pains in the neck. They still dare to make promises and care enough to keep the promises they make. I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God.

What a marvelous thing a promise is! When a person makes a promise, she reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: she will be there even when being there costs her more than she wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.”

            I am harboring no illusions or ideals here: being transparent and real is both scary and traumatic, but if we are to be the church we will speak truthfully and not put up a false front.  We will neither hide nor hurl.  We will neither pretend everything is okay when it is not, nor will we project our problems onto others by hurling untruthful accusations.  Instead, we will learn to communicate to each other by speaking the truth in love. 

            There are two tendencies that may plague us going forward from here:  complacency and mediocrity.  When it comes to having healthy relationships, we are too easily satisfied with a minimum amount of effort, words, and commitment.  We are to live into our baptisms; we are to renew our covenant of care and commitment to each other.  That means we will let the Word of God invade our hearts to the point of being willing to say what needs to be said and to be open enough to let others into our lives. 

            Some of us have putrid spiritual abscesses in our lives from either hiding the truth or hurling truth without love.  Spiritual healing does not come apart from spiritual surgery.  We must let God’s ordained means of bringing health and healing into our lives today.  God the Father sent God the Son to die on a cruel cross for all of our unhealthy and sinful ways of relating to each other.  God the Father and God the Son sent God the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to form a new community of believers in Jesus around truth.

            I’m not talking out of the side of my neck when I speak about these things.  I did not grow up in a family that was safe to have truthful communication.  As a result, I learned very early in life to hide.  My learned habits of communication were untruthful.  It took years of painful spiritual surgery to become a person who could swim in the truth of deep relationships instead of superficial ones.  It pains me, I think more than others, to see people settle for mediocre relationships in their families, with their friends, and especially with their church.

It only seems reasonable to me that churches need small groups of people who come together with the expressed purpose of sharing life together through being real and working out our salvation together.  When Paul wrote his epistles, he wasn’t writing to a large building with hundreds of people in it; he was writing to small gatherings of believers throughout the city or region.  If we lose our first love of Jesus we will see no need for sharing life together in such a way.  You cannot have a robust relationship with Jesus Christ without having an equally robust relationship with others in Christ’s Church.  The first step of real spiritual growth, after professing Christ as Savior and Lord, is allowing Christ’s Church to take responsibility for you, and for you to take responsibility for the Church because we belong to one another.

Will you let a trusted layperson or pastor into your life?  Is there anything hindering you from doing so?  Do you settle for superficial relationships?  Why, or why not?  What do you think God would like to do through you and your church when it comes to genuine community?  Go for it.