After you…

14 December 2018

A phrase from Mark’s account of the resurrection of Jesus struck me today. The three women who came to the tomb early on the Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body were startled to find the entrance-stone rolled back, and a young man dressed in a white robe sitting where the body had been.

He addressed the women, assuring them that Jesus had risen, and asking them to give the good news to the disciples. They were to say to them, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’ (Mark 16:7).

What grabbed me was the phrase ‘He is going ahead of you…’

Beyond its immediate application to the disciples, it has an ongoing relevance for all of us who love andfootprints follow Jesus. Indeed, we ‘follow’ him because he is leading the way. Whatever difficulties we may be called to pass through, we are sure, looking down, to see Jesus’ footprints, because he has walked that way before us.

 

Temptations? Yes. He ‘has been tempted in every way, just as we are’ (Hebrews 4:15). So he knows the pressure you are under when temptation puts the squeeze on. You and I, of course, have sometimes caved in under the pressure. But not Jesus. The verse just quoted goes on to add ‘yet he did not sin’.

Think about that. When you resist a particular temptation, it piles on the pressure even further. Jesus resisted, and kept on resisting. He never gave in at all. So imagine the enormous pressure he must have experienced. Yes, he has ‘gone ahead of you’ in all of that.

Troubles? Jesus knows all about them, too. He endured a constant stream of opposition and misunderstanding. He received death threats. He had nowhere to lay his head. He was betrayed and abandoned by even his closest friends. As you stumble through your own troubles, you will see his footprints there.

Death? That’s the big one that we all face. People everywhere are ‘held in slavery by their fear of death’ (Hebrews 2:15).

But we who follow Jesus need not fear. His footprints are there, too. He has been down into death—caused by sufferings of the most cruel kind—and has come out victorious at the other side. His footprints go all the way through! As the ‘pioneer and perfecter of faith’, he has blazed a trail for us through this, the most daunting challenge of all.

Yes, he has gone ahead of you. All you have to do is follow, knowing his love and encouragement. And, in due course, you will find that he has stopped and turned around to face you with a smile, holding out his hands in welcome and saying, ‘Well done!’

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Hollow Amens

5 December 2018

‘Come on, you folks! Do I hear an “Amen”?’

Pseudo-enthusiastic ‘amens’ from the preacher’s listeners placate — for now — his discomfort with their unresponsiveness.

amen brotherNow, it’s good that people be alert to the preaching and broadly responsive to it. But when speakers deliberately elicit a response like this, it is unhelpful, for several reasons.

For a start, a typical congregation includes a wide range of personality types. At one end of the spectrum is the excitable extrovert who starts gushing at the slightest provocation. He will ‘amen’, whether there’s something to ‘amen’ at or not. At the other is the thoughtful introvert whose natural bent is to keep her feelings — and her responses — to herself. So it’s unreasonable to expect a standard ‘Amen, brother!’ from everybody.

But there’s also a congregation’s ‘group personality’. This shows in learned behaviour moulded chiefly by the nation, race or society to which the individuals belong. In my experience, for example, Americans and Africans tend to be more vocally responsive than the British, who are famous for their ‘stiff upper lip’. That’s why some American preachers I have known, who are used to a certain type of response on their home turf, are thrown by the more subdued attitude they find when they first preach in Britain. That’s when you’re likely to hear the frustrated, ‘Do I hear an “Amen”?’

A second reason this is unhelpful is that it puts the preacher’s personal need above the message he is preaching. No matter what truth he is presenting, what comes over is, ‘I’m feeling a bit of rejection at your quietness. Please meet my need for reassurance by voicing your amens!’ But the aim of preaching is surely to inform, encourage and challenge the listeners, not to boost the preacher’s self-confidence.

And thirdly, calling for a vocal response is inevitably unproductive. Yes, the preacher-pleasers will dutifully call out, ‘Amen, brother. Preach it!’ or whatever. But it’s meaningless; they are only doing it because he asked for it, not because their hearts were stirred to do it by the power of the message. Even worse, the request will cause the less pliant personalities to dig their heels in and become even less responsive. Some might even mutter, ‘Not on your life, mate!’

Years ago, in my own preaching, I came to a place of peace about congregational response. I would work hard at preparing my message. I would pray about it earnestly. Then, when I stood to deliver the word, I would trust the Holy Spirit to apply it in his own way, and I was determined not to be either elated or disappointed by the people’s response. It’s a good place to be.

If some people got watery-eyed, or said a soulful ‘Yes!’, I’d press on regardless. If others got glassy-eyed or nodded off, I wouldn’t be fazed. Of course, a bit of clear positive response is gratifying, but the last thing I want is to be dependent on it. When I’m in my seat listening to another preacher, I’m not a greatly responsive person, at least outwardly. I listen carefully. I weigh what is said. And when something hits home with me, I quietly tuck it away, to be brought out, prayed over and put into practice later.

I went to a church to preach once, years ago, and it was a bad experience. I didn’t feel comfortable. My words didn’t flow well. There was a bit of an atmosphere and, afterwards, though I stayed for the cup of tea, I couldn’t get away quickly enough. The whole sermon had felt disastrous.

A couple a years later, to my surprise I was asked back. Remembering the previous bad experience, I went with some trepidation and much prayer. I arrived quite early, so was there as the people came in. One lady spotted me and did a double-take. Then she made a bee-line for me.

‘Hello,’ she said. ‘You came to preach here once before, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, I did,’ I replied, wriggling internally with embarrassment at the memory.

‘I’m so glad to see you,’ she went on. ‘I just want you to know that the message you brought last time was spot on for me. It was a major turning-point for the better in my life. Thank you so much!’

I learned a lesson that day: never to judge a sermon’s impact by the outward signs in the people, whether negative or positive. Do your best, and leave it to God. Yes, genuine amens are better than hollow ones, but none of them matter all that much.


Attitude

27 May 2018

I woke this morning with a prayer from one of David’s psalms in my mind: ‘Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me’ (Psalm 51:10).

Ps 51 10It was the second bit that really grabbed me—the need for ‘a right spirit’. I take ‘spirit’ here to mean ‘attitude’, so it’s a prayer that the Lord will enable me to keep my attitudes right. That’s in keeping with the Holy Spirit’s work in us to make us more like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:18).

As for Part 1, sometimes I think Christians get a bit over-fixated on sin. Jesus has dealt with the root issue there, and any follower of his who takes sanctification seriously will hopefully have grooved into a way of life where sin is no longer a major thing. While I’m far from perfect, I don’t spend much time examining my inner self with a torch to see if I can find any dreadful sins lurking there, like slugs under a stone. There are better things to do, and more positive approaches to adopt.

But the dodgy attitudes of Part 2 can hang around like a bad smell when all the known sins have been swept up and binned. A ‘right spirit’ can be hard to maintain. All too easily I can have bad attitudes towards people I disagree with, people who rub me up the wrong way, people with personalities different from my own—and lots more. Spotting this ‘wrong spirit’ in my heart, and doing my best to deal with it, is a full-time job for me.

Thankfully, God is loving, gracious and kind. Every time I pray, ‘Renew a right spirit within me’, he says, ‘Will do, son. I’m not giving up on you. Thanks for asking. Between us, we’ll crack this one! Now get up, look up, and start walking again.’

Purists will point out that many versions have ‘a steadfast spirit’ instead of a ‘a right spirit’ and that that’s the gist of the Hebrew word. Fine, but I still want my attitude to be ‘right’ before I adopt it as the direction of my steadfastness. I want the painting to be finished before I frame it and hang it on the wall. So I’ll continue to pray for that ‘right spirit’ and keep a picture-hook handy.


God only has ‘Plan A’

2 April 2018

In a recent Bible-study group, a friend observed that, as he saw it, God started out with the nation of Israel. But they messed up, failing to go along with his intentions for them. That’s the Old Testament story—the bad bit. So God started again with Jesus and the church—which is the New Testament story, and the good bit.

noplanbNot true! The following is an extract from my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, that explains the ins and outs of it…

‘Too many Christians have lost touch completely with the Old Testament. They think that, because it is all pre-Jesus, it is unimportant. One outcome is that they separate Israel from the church. Their unspoken assumption is that, while God in Old Testament days dealt with the nation of Israel (Plan A), due to their failure he turned his attention to an alternative community, the church, founded by Jesus (Plan B).

‘This is not right at all! God has never had a ‘Plan B’. His ‘Plan A’, as we have seen, was the calling of Abraham and his descendants to be ‘a light to the Gentiles’. By this means, he would reach everyone and in due course put the whole world to rights. Paul constantly has this Old Testament narrative in mind in his writings. He insists that the fact that the Jews failed so signally in their mission did not throw God’s plan off track at all. The Messiah, Jesus, proved to be the true Israelite. He embodied everything that the nation had been called to be and, through him, Plan A remains on track. His resurrection vindicated him as God’s chosen one, through whom all who believe — Gentiles as well as Jews — are justified and partake in the new age he had inaugurated.

‘According to Paul, Israel thus continues but has been redefined. The children of Abraham — or to use synonymous terms, ‘Israel’ or ‘the people of God’ — are now all who believe in Jesus, regardless of their ethnic background. Justification breaks down the barriers. In this way God has honoured his covenant with Abraham. This is the message of Paul’s letter to the Romans, whose fundamental topic is ‘Who are the people of God?’

‘All this means, of course, that the obsession of some Christians with Zionism and the current State of Israel, in the belief that the Jews have some separate role in the purpose of God, is completely misplaced. If you have held Zionist sympathies, that could be a wobbler.’

There’s more where that came from, and you may be wanting chapter and verse to back up the thesis. It’s all in the book, which you can download for free at http://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/apitfdownload.htm

And if you want more on the role of today’s State of Israel, you will find food for thought in my blog post, Red Herring In Galilee.

Enjoy!


Repetition and repertoire

26 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 3.

In the days of hymns, people sang a hymn through once, and that was it. Fair enough, as many hymns had five or six verses, often with a chorus between. Modern Christian songs tend to be shorter, and thus lend themselves to having sections repeated several times. That’s fine, as repetition can drive a point home like nothing else.

worship bandBut repetition, if overdone, has the very opposite effect. It becomes mind-numbing, so that, far from entering more fully into the sentiment being expressed, the congregation is pushed towards either a semi-hypnotic state where meaning goes out of the window, or into crashing boredom. With me it’s always the latter.

Few aspects of music, therefore, need more careful handling than this if we are to get it right. How can we get it right? One obvious step is for the worship-leaders to look and see if the people are actually singing. There has been quite a bit on the web recently about Christian meetings where the congregation have virtually given up singing altogether. Why would that happen?

  1. Because the music has entered ‘performance mode’. This is especially true of mega-church congregations, where the scenario is ‘rock concert’ rather than ‘people at worship’. May we never allow that to happen!
  2. Because even if they sang as loud as they possibly could, they still wouldn’t be able to hear themselves above the high-volume sound pumped out from the sound-system. So they stop competing. The sound system should serve the congregation, not browbeat them into silence.
  3. Because the guitarist-singer is singing in the style of a performer, playing about with timing, cutting bits short, bending notes etc. They are singing, in other words, as if they were on stage, or singing in private. A congregation is made to feel insecure by this and tends to opt out rather than risk singing out ‘wrongly’.
  4. Because some of the songs are virtually unsingable.

This last point leads on to the issue of the repertoire. Speaking for myself, I am increasingly uncomfortable with many of the songs presented for us to sing. The words of some are at best lightweight, and in a few cases dubious in both their theological content and their standard of English. But here I will address a couple of the musical aspects.

  1. A competent songwriter knows the range within which a typical congregation is comfortable. In broad terms that will be within an octave from the D just above Middle C to the D or E above it. It’s possible to include the odd note outside that range, but this should be the exception rather than the rule. Some songs, alas, go so low that many people stop singing. Let’s ditch them.
  2. Many recent songs were originally composed for solo or group singing by Christian musicians and bands that tour around performing. They are fine for that context, and for listening to on mobile devices etc., but most don’t transfer at all well into a public setting. They often include non-intuitive modulations that throw a congregation completely and put them off trying to master the tune, as they quickly come to believe that there isn’t really a tune there to master.

In all this are we, perhaps, neglecting our rich heritage of older hymns and songs? I believe we are. Why, I wonder, is that?

One young Christian who was preparing to speak at a Bible study at his church was asked, ‘What commentaries are you using?’ He replied, ‘Oh, I don’t touch commentaries. I think it’s important to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to me today about the passage.’ To which another Christian, who had overheard the conversation, commented, ‘Strange, isn’t it, how those who make much of what the Holy Spirit is saying to them have little time for what the same Holy Spirit said about the passage to others?’

The same applies to songs in worship. We have a rich heritage of 2000 years-worth of Christian music and song, and we rob the congregation if we fail to include some of that heritage regularly in our times of singing and worship.

In particular, from the 18th century on there have been some superb examples of Christian songs. True, many of them will have the ‘thees and thous’ typical of that generation, but Christians today are surely robust enough not to let that put them off?

To me it’s very sad that, at some churches, they have two separate services, one ‘traditional’ (with the organ and hymn-books) and the other ‘contemporary’ (with a worship-band and projected words). This is unnecessarily divisive, in my view. Let’s have a good, rich mix.

There’s more to say on all this…in a future post.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


Miserable Sinners? Our status as God’s people

21 February 2018

Regarding my nature and behaviour before I became a committed Christian I have no doubts. A phrase from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer describes it nicely: I was a ‘miserable sinner’.

That doesn’t mean I was gloomy all the time—in spite of my melancholic streak. No, ‘miserable’ here bears its older sense of ‘wretched’, ‘needy’ or ‘poverty-stricken’, and that was me, all right. And what a relief it was to feel Jesus lifting me up to better prospects as I called to him in faith! That was over sixty years ago.

depressed_bigHe sorted out the ‘miserable’ bit straight away. Far from feeling spiritually ‘wretched’ or ‘poverty-stricken’, I now felt dusted-down, clean and upright, saved by grace and ‘reigning in life’.[1] The sorting-out of the ‘sinner’ bit, though, proved less straightforward. For some years I limped along, often beaten by temptation and feeling awful. But all that changed when, aged seventeen, I had a dramatic experience of being baptised in the Holy Spirit. Love for God and his Word took over, along with a strong victory-consciousness. Sin wasn’t impossible, but it was certainly unthinkable, and I now powered my way through life’s temptations with holy gusto.

I went to my first Anglican service at the age of nineteen and it gave me a shock. Coming from a free-church background, I found it hard enough to cope with the set prayers, but my brow furrowed when we came to the Litany:

  • O God the Father, of heaven: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
  • O God the Son, Redeemer of the world: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
  • O God the Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.
  • O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three Persons and one God: have mercy upon us miserable sinners.

I had problems with that. Here was the church at prayer, and in my book ‘church’ was by definition the redeemed community. So the folk gathered in that gothic building were presumably Christians, saved by grace like myself and there to worship God. But if they were, what was all this ‘miserable sinners’ stuff? Yes, we’re ‘sinners saved by grace’, but the emphasis surely lies on ‘saved’ and ‘grace’, not on ‘sinners’, which can no longer be an apt label for children of God—can it?

Some Christians, I discovered, warned that we are all apt to take sin too lightly. Others said it was an unhealthy preoccupation, and that we should focus instead on liberty and victorious living. I leaned towards the latter position—and still do.

But the issue wouldn’t go away. Over the years it kept coming to the surface and demanding re-examination. Not that I held to ‘sinless perfection’. I knew it was to Christians that John wrote, ‘If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.'[2]  In keeping with this, I tried to live each day for God and had no awareness of sinning with any regularity. If he drew any sin to my attention I was quick to confess it to him, receive his forgiveness and march forward again in a manner becoming a child of the King.

My convictions on the issue became more settled. Grace had enabled me to ‘participate in the divine nature’,[3] and, in line with that nature, the bias of my being was now towards doing God’s will, not towards sin. Didn’t Paul affirm, after all, that ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come’?[4]  Yes, the new nature was now in undisputed charge as the driving force of my being!

But friends of The Book of Common Prayer, and some of the Reformed persuasion, kept casting doubts on my conviction. They reminded me that even the saintly Apostle Paul admitted to defeat: ‘I am unspiritual,’ he confessed, ‘sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do….I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.'[5]

So there!

Finding it hard to square this with Paul’s high doctrine of victory in the power of the Spirit, I concluded, with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, that Paul wasn’t talking about his current experience here. He was using a literary device—the ‘dramatic present’—to describe the powerlessness he had felt years earlier when, as a legalistic Pharisee, he’d begun finding his way towards Christ.

Then I came up with a clincher. ‘Notice,’ I told my breast-beating friends, ‘Paul’s words to the Corinthians. They were guilty of pride, party-spirit, greed and drunkenness, and were slow to discipline the sexually immoral. Yet Paul insisted that their fundamental nature, as believers in Jesus, was godly and good. They were to get rid of ‘the yeast of malice and wickedness’ from the ‘batch of dough’ that they were, he urged, so ‘that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are.’

That settled it. As Christians we don’t want to sin and, through the Spirit’s power, we don’t have to. But the habits of our pre-Christian days, and daily shoulder-rubbing with an often-corrupt society, combine to trip us up from time to time. When that happens, we avail ourselves of God’s gracious provision, get back to our feet and resume our journey forgiven. But tripping up is surely a rarity, not a way of life? Our bent is towards godliness, not sin, for God himself ‘works in [us] to will and to act according to his good purpose.'[6]

That’s it, then. Cranmer and Co., who compiled the Prayer Book at the Reformation, got it wrong. As committed Christians, we’re not ‘miserable sinners’ after all. That notion was baggage brought over from Rome, and good riddance to it!

Then a friend told me the story of the flashlight. ‘When a light shines on you from a distance, many parts of you remain in shadow,’ he said. ‘But as you move towards the light, it penetrates ever more deeply into those shadows. And as we draw ever closer to God, who is light, the more aware we become of hitherto unrevealed sin in the farthest recesses of our souls. It’s the paradox of sanctification,’ he concluded. ‘The closer you get to the Lord, the more conscious you become of remaining sinful tendencies.’

Oh shucks! In that case the measure of godliness is not increasing victory by the Spirit but an increasing attitude of ‘Woe is me!’—back full circle to ‘miserable sinners’.

Undaunted, I dipped again into John’s first Letter for consolation. And I found some. ‘No-one who is born of God,’ he asserts, ‘will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.'[7]  That’s genetic terminology—’seed’ is the Greek sperma. John is saying that, because my heavenly Father begot me, I just can’t help growing like him. Spiritually, his genes are shaping my character as surely as my earthly father’s genes shaped the colour of my eyes. God isn’t a sinner, so neither am I—miserable or otherwise.

So that’s it, ‘the conclusion of the matter’, as the Preacher said. End of story. I’m a saint, not a sinner; a child of the King, not a breast-beating peasant. I’m moving from glory to glory, not from bad to worse. I have a brand new life, a stake in the divine nature, the divine seed within me and victory before me.

I just wish Paul hadn’t said, ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am (not was) the worst.'[8]

Footnotes

  1.  Romans 5:17
  2.  1 John 1:8-10
  3.  2 Peter 1:4
  4.  2 Corinthians 5:17
  5.  Romans 7:14-20
  6.  Philippians 2:13
  7.  1 John 3:9
  8.  1 Timothy 1:15

Accompanying, leading or driving?

14 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 2.

There’s nothing more embarrassing to the congregation than seeing a worship leader strumming away with their eyes tight closed and thus unaware of someone who has come forward to contribute, or of one of the church leaders who wishes to say something, or is signalling them to stop playing.

guitarIt’s not good enough to say, ‘Sorry, I was lost in worship.’ The answer to that is, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be. Your business is not to ‘lost’ but to be sensitive to the Lord and to other people, not to drive things, but to lead sensitively, and for that you need to be aware of what’s going on around you.’

And, please, leave us some pauses. People who typeset books know the vital importance of ‘white space’. A solid, long paragraph of type puts people off reading, whereas well-spaced, shorter paragraphs with a few millimetres of white space between them enhance readability. It’s the same with music. Constant output wearies people and inhibits their involvement. They tend to shut their eyes, or stop singing, or sit down and adopt an attitude of prayer. What they are really saying by their actions is, ‘Please, let’s have a bit of let-up.’

We need frequent quiet pauses — audible ‘white space’ — where the Holy Spirit can speak in the silence.

Then think, please, whether you are accompanying, leading or driving the ‘worship’. Guitars, by their very nature, have a driving effect; the rhythm impels things along. That’s OK in itself, but it does mean that the musician needs to back off, or at least break the rhythm, from time to time, otherwise ‘drivenness’ becomes the main feature of the music.

Ideally, I believe, musicians and front-singers should fit somewhere between ‘leading’ and ‘accompanying’. As for the first, they are there to set the pace of the song and decide when to move from verse to chorus etc., so that the congregation all know where the song is going. As for the second, the congregation’s singing is just as important as what the musicians are producing, and sometimes it will be appropriate for the musicians to let the flow of a song come from there and fall back into more of an ‘accompaniment’ mode for a while.

Or even to fall silent! We love it when, from time to time in an appropriate song, the musicians stop playing altogether so that we have just the sound of everybody’s voices. And don’t be too quick to come charging back in again with a driving rhythm!

The name of the game? Sensitivity. To God and to the congregation.

[For other blogs on this theme, click Music and Worship under CATEGORIES at the top-right of this post]


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