Friday, August 31, 2018

For All the Saints

Be very careful, then, how you live —not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity,  because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
-Ephesians 5:15-20 (NIV)

My son and I were talking about this hymn tune that we heard in church a few weeks ago: Sine Nomine, written by the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams and used as the tune for the hymn For All the Saints. We were kind of thinking we had heard the tune attached to a different hymn, so we did a little internet detecting. Turns out that it was indeed attached to another hymn, but not one I had ever heard.
     The tune is used in a work called The Secular Hymnal, in which hymn tunes are given new lyrics without overt religious content (or much content at all, as it turns out). The hymnal actually exists, it seems, to allow student choruses to sing “hymns” without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. So it is what its title says: a Secular Hymnal, filled with lyrics that no one would mistake for being religious in any way.
      As an example, here’s William Walsham How’s  lyrics for the first verse of For All the Saints:
For all the saints who from their labors rest,
Who thee by faith before the world confessed;
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

     The lyrics go on to describe how the Lord had been a rock, a fortress, a light for those who confessed him, and how the promise of their glory is an encouragement for us who still struggle to confess him in a world that doesn’t seem to know him. Their example makes us strong and brave in our own testimony, and helps us to look forward to the day when “all the saints” — us and those who have gone on before — will stream “through gates of pearl” as “a countless host”. The lyrics are powerful, and they make good use of the anthemic Sine Nomine.
     In comparison, here’s the first verse of the lyrics written for Sine Nominee in The Secular Hymnal:
This day, this day, I know I’ll find a way.
Let come what may, I’ll make it through this day.
Tomorrow’s fate is not yet on my plate.
But, come what may, I’ll make it through this day.
     Inspiring, no? I mean, the example of the faithful who have gone before us is lost, as is the promise that the same God who has cared for them in their struggles, and given them rest, can be trusted to do the same for us, to make us courageous in our own testimony and perseverance, and to bring us all together in eternity.
     But, hey. You’ll make it through this day, in a very nonspecific, nonreligious way.  
     I know, I know. The Secular Hymnal was made for a very particular purpose, and I can even understand the reasons for it. I just wonder if it should be called a hymnal at all, with lyrics like that. I mean, isn’t a hymn a song of praise, and as such shouldn’t it be addressed to something — and, preferably, to someone who can receive and appreciate such praise? 
     But I guess maybe This Day, This Day is a hymn to someone. Do you see it? Right: it’s addressed to the Great God I. I’ll find a way. I’ll make it through this day. Those who have come before me are long gone. The God in whom they trusted and placed all their hope means nothing to me. I have what I need. I’ll make it on my strength, my intelligence, my wits, my talents, my money, my accomplishments. I’ll find a way.
     But, hey: it’s called The Secular Hymnal. We shouldn’t really expect anything more. 
     Somewhere along the line, though, I’m afraid the church has decided that singing is all about I as well.
     I don’t mean just the lyrics here. (Though, actually, a fair number of more contemporary praise songs and choruses do seem to be written in the first person singular.) What I’m really talking about, though, is the expectation in some churches (surely not ours) by some believers (surely not any of us) that what I sing in church, and how I sing it, is mostly about making me feel the way I think I should, or singing the songs that I like the best, or checking off God’s requirements so I can feel confident that I’ve obeyed him perfectly. We’ve made singing about ourselves: we sing because it makes us feel good, or because the songs have sentimental connections, or because it allows us to take pride over those who don’t sing in the right way. (I mean, not us, or anyone we know; but we’ve heard about people who sing for these reasons, right?)
     Tell me, please, how we (they) get that from Ephesians 5. The only one who isn’t in that text is I. Paul says that singing should come from being filled with the Spirit — that’s his term for allowing the Spirit’s influence to direct the way we live our lives, as opposed to the flesh. Singing’s about God, not me. We sing best, not when we’re giving full vent to our emotions or taking pride in our knowledge, but when we’re letting The Holy Spirit call the shots in our lives. How we sing on Sunday should come from a life lived in step with the Spirit Monday through Saturday. That’s the only way to sing from our hearts — we hear emotions there, but what Paul is talking about is authenticity. We sing because we really are people who are thankful to God.
     Singing’s about God, and it’s also about each other. You may not love that one song, but the person sitting next to you may desperately need to hear it sung. We sing out of the influence of the Spirit in our lives, and we sing for one another. I’m sure God likes to hear us praise him from the heart. But we do it together because we need to speak to each other.
     Maybe it’s because we sit in rows facing a stage when we sing, but we need to get out of our heads the idea that singing is about someone entertaining us. If we come to church with the same expectations that we bring with us to a concert, I think we’re not quite doing it right. Instead, let’s try coming to church with the Spirit guiding our steps, instead of ping-ponging all over the place as our fleshly bodies and minds dictate. Let’s try coming to the singing as thankful people who want to sing about what God has done and how grateful we are. And let’s think about the people around us a little more, and a little less about our irritation over having to sing that song again. If I come away from church evaluating the singing based on how I feel, well, I’m not going to say it’s been a waste of time, but it’s awfully hard for me to be led by the Spirit and bless my sisters and brothers if all I have is me on my mind. 
     Make the most of the opportunity to glorify God and speak to one another. Don’t be foolish.
     I know you’ll find a way.


Friday, August 17, 2018

On Change in Church

In the beginning, Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
  They will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment. 
You will roll them up like a robe;
like a garment they will be changed.
But you remain the same, 
and your years will never end.” 
-Hebrews 1:11-12 (NIV)

A blog post got me thinking this week about how the church has changed. It dawns on me that after 50 years in church, all 50 of them in the same “tribe,” and almost 25 in literally the same church, I actually have experienced some changes. Not all of these changes apply to the church I’m a part of now; some are differences I’ve only experienced in other places. But here, in no particular order, are the ways in which church is different now than it was in, say, the mid-seventies, when I was old enough to actually pay attention. Funny how so many of these differences have become so ingrained that you don’t even notice them.
  1. Songs. This is probably one of the most obvious ones. Back in the day, children, before PowerPoint and projected lyrics, we sang out of books kept in the pew racks. (see below for that word “pew”) There were a couple of ramifications that came out of that. For one thing, our repertoire was more limited and less subject to innovation. Blowing the dust off the two different hymnals I used most, I doubt that there were a dozen songs in either that were less than 30 years old. With the slides, we sing songs that you can still hear on Christian radio — along with some older selections the hymnal editors didn’t choose. Maybe some we shouldn’t try, but on balance I think the wider repertoire is a good thing.
  2. Singing. One of the effects of the usage of slides — especially lyrics-only slides — is the loss of harmony. If a church only projects lyrics on the screen, most people will only sing what they hear the leader singing. Some churches use praise teams so that everyone can hear their parts being sung, but that can be hard to follow. Of course, nothing in the Bible suggests that four-part harmony is the official music of heaven. The change is notable, though, in a lot of churches.    
  3. Seating. Pews, not chairs or theater seats. Full disclosure: we still use pews, and a lot of churches I’ve been in still do — even in newer construction. But I think the idea is that pews make things feel “too churchy” for some peoples’ liking.
  4. Prayer. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems like we used to pray in church more than a lot of churches do now. I think we’re afraid that long public prayers aren’t participatory and interesting enough, as though prayer only works when God’s people are adequately entertained. And as though adding our silent prayers to the prayer leader’s audible one isn’t participatory.
  5. Clothes. Coats and ties and dresses and sometimes even hats have given way to khakis and polos and jeans and t-shirts and even shorts and flip-flops. That’s not surprising; it’s just part of a cultural trend toward dressing down. But might that trend also reflect a strong preference for dressing for our own comfort instead of the expectations of others and the demands of the moment?
  6. Scripture. Growing up, Scripture was read a lot. There were numerous texts in the sermon which we were expected to follow along with in our Bibles. The preacher focused on explaining the text. We had memory verses in Sunday School. Now we still seem interested in the Bible, but it kind of feels like to me sometimes that we’re more interested in it for the wisdom or advice or applications we can see in it than we are in understanding it for its own sake. And what about those texts where the relevance isn’t immediately apparent? Do they cease, somehow, to be the word of God to us? 
    The post I was reading when I started thinking of these changes suggested that many of them, at least, were negative: part of what was being called the “juvenilization of American Christianity.” I don’t know that all, or even most, of the changes on my list contribute to making Christianity more “juvenile”: that is, spiritually immature, consumerist, self-centered, and obsessed with feeling good at the expense of intergenerational community and theological literacy. But I don’t know that they’re all (or even mostly) for the better, either. 
     A couple of things about change in the church: 1) it’s inevitable, 2) its effects take a generation or two to be seen with any clarity, and 3) the pendulum always swings. So don’t imagine that you’ll stem the tide of change by digging in your heels. The church has always been in the process of change, from Day One. James called his church’s assemblies synagogues. Paul’s churches seemed to borrow some things from pagan temples. That way of doing church that you’re tempted to think God dropped the blueprints for down from heaven on Pentecost? It probably displaced some other way of doing church, and probably not as long ago as you think. You might delay change for a while, but it will come, and it will take more forms than you can recognize and trickle through more openings than you can stick your finger in. Change and adaptation are part of being alive, so if you’re feeling a little disoriented by changes in your church maybe take comfort in that truth.   
     But let’s not be too quick to evaluate a change, either as the greatest thing for the church since the resurrection, or the worst since your church threw out Great Songs of the Church. We’re notoriously bad at imagining where change — or lack of change — might take us and anticipating its effects on those who come after us. Your grandchildren will, invariably, have to undo some damage your generation did; but they may also be believers because your generation had the courage to make some necessary changes. Most of the changes the church wrestles with are neither as beneficial nor as diabolical as we imagine at the time. Patience in times of change is a good thing, patience in wholehearted acceptance or visceral rejection. It will take a while before the effects of those changes become truly evident. 
     Of course, the pendulum swings back, at least on some changes. We’re already seeing a correction in church architecture, for instance, from pragmatic and utilitarian to increased thought and even theology in design. Many churches are pushing back against what might have been lost in the megachurch boom of the 90’s and 2000’s. Change is rarely permanent, but (back to #1) it is inevitable. Don’t imagine that any changes are “final.”
     The writer of Hebrews reminds us, in a mashup of texts from the Jewish scriptures, that everything changes but God. We are creatures, he’s the Creator. Everything that we experience is temporary; he remains. If the heavens and earth themselves will be “rolled up” and changed “like a garment,” why would we imagine that the church can, or should be, unaffected by change? Or that we will, or should, like every change?

      However traumatic the change seems, it’s only permanent until the next change.

Friday, August 10, 2018


     …As for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching,  rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 
-2 Timothy 3:14-16 (NIV)

“I don’t know anyone who takes the entire Bible literally, and I don’t know anyone who takes the whole thing as metaphorical.” That’s what this person I was discussing a Bible text with said, and I could only agree. It reminded me that reading and interpreting the Bible together can be hard, kind of like trying to hit a moving target sometimes, or maybe more accurately like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. It isn’t always immediately clear how a particular text applies to us, or why this one should be applied at all while we leave this other one in the ancient world. And by what standard do we decide to take this passage literally while that one is obviously figurative or poetic or at least in need of nuance?
      We sometimes tell ourselves that all we need to do to be united is read the Bible and just do what it says. But of course the church has been trying that on and off for a couple thousand years now, and in case you haven’t been paying attention our record is not unspotted.  
     Reading the Bible, in short, is difficult, and the more people involved in the endeavor the more complicated it gets. It’s so difficult, in fact, that you’d think the church would just give up on it. Sometimes it almost seems like we do. And yet…
     Paul, it seems, made up a word to describe the Bible: theopneustos, literally, “God-breathed.” Some English translations say “inspired,” but “God-breathed” captures it better. We have no evidence that this word was ever used prior to Paul’s usage of it in 2 Timothy: not in the Bible, and not in the extant Greek literature that pre-dates Paul. Apparently, existing vocabulary couldn’t express what Paul thought of Scripture. He literally had to come up with a new word.
     Ever since he did, of course, the church has argued about what that word means. We’ve used phrases like “plenary inspiration” or “verbal plenary inspiration” as shibboleths that prove we’re insiders, that our belief is pure and that we can be trusted to handle the Bible responsibly. We tie inspiration to ideas like inerrancy and infallibility. But it seems to me that Paul didn’t try to define “God-breathed” in that way. He doesn't try to define it at all, in fact. He doesn’t assume a theory of how the text got from God to the writers to paper, or formulate a statement on inspiration for his church to affirm. He just says God “breathed out” the Scriptures, and doesn’t seem to care about anything more than that.
     The point Paul is trying to make by coining that word “God-breathed” is that the Bible comes from God.  Full stop. Maybe he has in mind the creation account, where God “breathed” into Adam the breath of life to make him a living being. Maybe he has Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones in mind, where “breath” enters the reassembled bones as a symbol of God’s Spirit reanimating the remains of Israel. Maybe he’s just thinking about God whispering in the ear of those who know to listen for his voice. Whatever, he’s making a statement about the source of the Bible.
     Which leads him to its function: it’s useful for teaching, for getting in our faces, for straightening us out, and for helping us to come into our own as people who live righteous lives. It does, in short, what God does. This is why the church considers understanding and applying the Bible to be worth the struggle, in spite of the ways in which we get it wrong. This is why we keep going back to it, and why we’d best not stray too far from it in figuring out who we are. Our emphasis should be on allowing Scripture to have its way in our lives, not on proving that we know it better than anyone else, or take it more seriously, or have a higher view of it. The idea that the Bible is inspired is not supposed to be just another test of faithfulness or orthodoxy. Lots of us with what might be called very high views of inspiration don’t give the Bible much traction to actually do its work in our hearts. 
     Notice too that Paul doesn’t seem to think that the Bible alone is the way we learn the faith best. Maybe that’s an unintended consequence of the proliferation of the Bible. It’s everywhere, and everyone can have multiple copies of it. William Tyndale’s supposed hope, that “the boy who driveth the plow” might know the Bible better than the Pope himself, is actually within reach of the plowboy. But if the easy availability of the Bible leads to a radical individualism in reading and interpreting it, then maybe something has been lost.
     Paul tells Timothy to continue living out what he learned from others. Few of us learn the faith by reading through a Bible by ourselves. We’re taught by others. Our faith is influenced by their experiences, formed by their words and examples. We read the Bible best when we read it together with people who are different from us in one way or another. We’re shaken out of the readings that make us most comfortable and forced to plumb the depths of the text in ways that we don’t when left to ourselves. Our faith has to be our own, of course. But it shouldn’t be so radically individual that it can’t find room to sit down and open a Bible with others.
     And, of course, the Bible doesn’t save us. Maybe that raised some eyebrows, so let me say it again: the Bible doesn’t save us. Paul says that the Scriptures make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” Lots of people have come to salvation through Jesus without knowing how to find Genesis in a Bible. No one has ever come to salvation without trust in Jesus. Let’s be sure we don’t start to give the impression that we think the way to salvation is knowing the Bible. The Bible helps us come to salvation because it helps us to know Jesus. Let’s read it with our eyes on him
     I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t know exactly where I stand on inspiration. It sure doesn’t seem like God dictated the Bible word-for-word. There certainly do seem to be some contradictions, maybe even some errors. Definitely some things that are difficult to synthesize. But the Bible itself doesn’t claim anything different, only that it is breathed out by God. That’s enough for me. I think it’s enough for you, too.

     Read it, and let it do its work in you.

Friday, August 3, 2018

One New Humanity

     For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
-Ephesians 2:14-18 (NIV)

     Someone shared a blog post from several years ago with me recently. It might be of limited interest to a lot of readers, dealing as it does with the history of my little “tribe” of believers, but I found it pretty fascinating because it had to do with a subject I didn’t know too much about. And my not knowing about it is significant, because I think that probably my not knowing about it was intentional.
     To make a long story short, the post was an analysis of a letter written in 1958 by a man named Irven Lee, a professor, college administrator, and preacher in Alabama. The letter is a defense of Lee’s convictions that local churches should not financially support para-church organizations (like universities, orphans’ homes, and missions or relief organizations). Lee, and those who share his convictions, believe that Christians are to do things like that themselves, or within their own churches. While I don’t find his arguments particularly convincing — he might make a case that supporting para-church organizations is not best practice, but falls well short of proving that it’s unscriptural or unchristian to do so — I was struck by how well-reasoned they are and how kind his tone is.
     I guess that surprised me because I grew up hearing people like Lee referred to as “antis,” and being told that they didn’t care about orphans. In fairness, I guess, I didn’t hear that much about them at all, because by the time I was old enough to understand the issues involved “our” churches and the Non-Institutional churches had had nothing to do with each other for at least 20 years. When I did hear about them, though, they were always an example of “divisive” groups who elevated their own opinions over Scripture, who had left “us” because they preferred to have their way instead of just following the Bible like we did. 
     A little light research, though, turns up a different story; it’s probably more accurate to say that we’re separate groups now because influential people among “us” decided that “they” should be “quarantined.” “We” spent the next few years eliminating “them” from “our” churches and school and so forth, and that was pretty much that. That, as much as anything, explains why I didn’t hear much about the Non-Institutional churches growing up, or why I didn’t know anything about that church just a couple of miles from my house with the sign that said “Church of Christ” on it. 
     It’s funny; I gave up long ago that oversimplified view of the “Non-Institutional” churches — mostly because I met some of those good folks. (Nothing will overcome prejudice like personal acquaintance.) I guess I still had in the back of my head, though, the idea that “they” had left “us”. I wasn’t around when someone on “my” side of the divide made the decision to quarantine them, but it makes me wonder if I would have gone along with it.
     And here’s the point: it’s best to ignore human efforts to divide people.
     That impulse to divide will probably never leave us. Religion, denomination, race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, language, skin color, culture, political party, economic bracket…on and on goes the list of identity markers that powerful people have always tried to use to break society down into easily manageable segments. While the division over institutionalism in my little tribe is sort of a quaint artifact of a time gone by, when that seemed like such a big deal, there are still plenty of people in our world trying to divide us along ideological lines that will seem equally as silly a generation or two from now.
     And, of course, that leftover division is not just an artifact. It’s also a lingering scar on the face of the church that Jesus died to bring together. It’s like a mass grave unearthed in an archaeological dig; it’s fascinating, and then you think of the carnage behind it and it makes you want to cry.
     Right there in your social media feed there are people who want to divide you from those around you, who want to isolate and demonize those who disagree with them, and want you to do it too. They’re right there on your TV screen, on channels that claim they just want to report the news, but who pay “commentators” (not journalists) large sums of money to be the faces and voices of their ideological points of view. There might be someone in the pulpit of your church doing the same thing, proclaiming a different gospel of division, anger, fear, and superiority instead of the gospel of Jesus.
     That gospel says that Jesus “sets aside in his flesh” the hostilities that divide human beings. He becomes “our peace” by bringing us together with one another and with God “in his body.” It’s not enough to say that Jesus takes away my sins, and the sins of those who agree with me and are like me. He came to announce that in him there is peace for those are near to God, and for those who are still far away from God, and he poured out the Spirit through whom we can all come to God together. 
     That’s why I think it’s best to ignore the efforts of human beings to divide us; their motive is control, power, advantage — always. They won’t sacrifice to bring about that division. Jesus, on the other hand, gave up power and control and advantage — and gave his life — to tear down the barriers that those who want to divide us would put back up. That gives him credibility to me, and makes his view of “one new humanity” that much more compelling. 
     So, yes, ignore the efforts of human beings to divide, even if they sound and look religious. Just recognize it for what it is and refuse to go along with it. May we never again be guilty of trying to divide what the One we call Lord died to bring together. May our words and actions testify to the good news that Jesus has put to death our hostility and comes preaching peace to those far away and those near. May we preach peace as he did, with words that elevate and point to God, and with lives of service and sacrifice for others.

     Ignore those who would divide, and you’ll have a lot more time and energy to devote to the One who brings us all together.