Prayer Puzzles

10 January 2022

I used to think prayer was simple: ‘Ask, and you will receive.’

Not anymore. Experience tells me it isn’t that simple at all: I often don’t get what I ask for, even when I’m pretty sure I have asked ‘in Jesus’ name’ and in line with what I reckon is the divine will.

I’m talking here, of course, about ‘petitionary prayer’: bringing requests to God. The New Testament writers, including Jesus himself, urge us to do that, and most of us do it regularly. ‘Lord, heal my child.’ ‘Let me get the job I was interviewed for.’ ‘Could you please temper my grandson’s autism.’ ‘Deal with that noisy neighbour who’s making our lives a misery.’ ‘Please stop Mum’s dementia from getting any worse.’

One problem, of course, is that answers to prayer are unverifiable. My child got better, yes, but would she have got better anyway, if I hadn’t prayed? After all, non-religious people often get things they long for. No-one can say for sure. Or if she didn’t get better, was it because I didn’t pray enough, or with sufficient faith (whatever that means)? So many unanswerable questions!

It’s not all bad, however. There have been a handful of occasions in my seventy years as a committed Christian where a prayer of mine has brought such a striking and immediate response that I will never doubt that God did it.[1] But the majority of the many thousands of my everyday requests remain in the grey area.

And a huge number have not been answered, in that I didn’t get what I asked for. Christians have come up with all sorts of clever ways of explaining that. ‘It was answered,’ they say; ‘it’s just that the answer was No.’ Which is not very satisfying at all. Yes, I trust my heavenly Father’s love, and I know that his perspective is far broader than my own little world, but it’s still frustrating and puzzling to hit yet another brick wall or ‘brass heavens’.

This has made me more selective these days about what requests I bring to God. And that, in turn, has made me explore other types of prayer. Praise and thanksgiving is one such type, and no Christian worth the name will be short on offering that to God, so no issue there. But what about ‘set prayers’?

I was raised to look down my nose at these, as examples of the ‘vain repetition’ that Jesus warned against. Even saying the Lord’s Prayer was frowned upon in my circles. ‘Proper prayer’, I was taught, would always be extempore and from the heart, led by the Spirit. What a sad mistake—as if only ‘off the cuff’ prayers are in those categories! I have come to see that the Lord’s Prayer and other liturgical prayers from the church’s long history have immense value. I have learnt quite a few by heart, to my enrichment, and use them daily.

Someone has wisely said, ‘When you can’t pray, say your prayers.’ I have been blessed in using the General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer, along with prayers from Phyllis Tickle’s devotional series The Divine Hours, and a variety of other sources. I find they keep my communion with God on sound lines and provide a security in that, in praying them, I am one with the countless believers who, down the centuries, have used them to channel the outpouring of their hearts to God.

And the benefits go further than that. Set prayers help shape our thinking and serve to form our character. When our thoughts and ‘talking to God’ are in danger of going off-piste into potentially dodgy territory, the boundaries of these ancient prayers keep us safe. They pull our focus back to the Lord himself, and away from selfish or misguided aspirations.

Along those lines, I am also finding ‘centering prayer’ helpful. This is a ‘contemplative’ practice used by Christians throughout the history of the church and revived in recent times by the Cistercian monk Thomas Keating.[2] It involves coming consciously into God’s presence for a period of, say, twenty minutes, not to ask for things, or even to praise him—in fact not with words at all—but just to ‘be’ before him. It is ‘centering’ in the sense that we pull right back from the chattering of our minds and imaginations to simply rest in his presence.

But back to petitionary prayer. Why does so much of it seem to bounce off the ceiling?

The ‘word of faith’ people put the blame squarely upon us, the pray-ers. We need to have more faith, they say. We should repeat relevant Bible verses till we go all glassy-eyed and ‘break through’ to God. I’m unconvinced, in spite of the fact that some of them are truly godly people. Their definition of ‘faith’ is, I think, open to question and their grip on reality sometimes painfully tenuous.

Others hold that God doesn’t give us what we ask for because he often can’t. His nature, they explain, is love, and love by definition ‘does not insist on its own way’ (1 Cor 13:5), so he needs the cooperation of human and other agencies in order to change things. That doesn’t go down well with Calvinistic types, but it is something to think about. It certainly goes a long way towards explaining all those unanswered petitions.[3]

So those are my prayer puzzles laid bare. Don’t worry about me, please. In raising these issues I’m not backsliding. The fact is, I pray a great deal more now than I ever did before. I ‘seek God’s face’ daily with determination. I love him and trust him wholeheartedly, and I hope you do, too.

And please don’t bombard me with Bible proof-texts on prayer—I’m familiar with them all. I’m just a learner doing my best to grapple with how they work out in practice, and I’ve still a long way to go. So I’ll wind up by echoing ‘one of his disciples [who] said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray…”’ (Luke 11:1).

 

  1. I relate one of these in my memoirs (p94-95), regarding being stuck with a group of youngsters on a dangerous mountain when darkness fell. Available here: https://www.davidmatthew.org.uk/index_htm_files/DM%20Memories.pdf
  2. A ‘how to’ leaflet on centering prayer is here: https://contemplativeoutreach.org.uk/leaflets/MethodLeaflet.pdf
  3. More on this in T.J. Oord’s book reviewed here: https://dmatthew34.wordpress.com/2020/07/25/god-cant/ Another book, by M.G. Karris relates the principles specifically to prayer and is reviewed here: https://dmatthew34.wordpress.com/2021/10/07/review-problems-with-prayer/

 

 


Waiting around?

27 December 2020

On Christmas Eve, my wife and I popped along to the local parish church for the Christmas Communion service. It was good and, as always, realigned our focus on what the season is all about.

bored2As we walked home afterwards, close to midnight, my mind went back over the words of some of the carols. The service had opened with Once in royal David’s city. It’s a traditional element of any carol service. Starting with the ‘lowly cattle shed’ where Jesus was born, it traces his life right through to his ascension and glory. Then, to bring it all to an inspiring conclusion, it reminds us that we can look forward to being with him one day to behold that glory, and to share in it.

But the way the carol describes this is a huge let-down, and I confess that—not for the first time—I had to smother a snigger as we came to the closing words. Here’s how the last verse goes:

Not in that poor lowly stable
With the oxen standing by
We shall see him, but in heaven
Set at God’s right hand on high,
When like stars his children crowned
All in white shall wait around.

What? Wait around?

I don’t know what this image conjures up for you. But to me it brings up a picture of a scruffily-dressed unemployed person slouching on a street corner, cigarette hanging from his lips, staring into his mobile phone, desperately bored and thinking, ‘Anything must be better than this aimless existence!’

I’m sure that’s not what Mrs C.F. Alexander, the 19th century author, intended, but I have to say this wasn’t her greatest moment of literary achievement. Or of theological clarity, either. She tags along with the notion that we will one day escape this grim material world and float off to a ‘spiritual’ existence in heaven where, dressed ‘all in white’, we will walk about on 24-carat gold pavements, play harps and sing endless worship songs. Let’s face it: that is not an appealing prospect, especially when you throw in the ‘waiting around’.

No, the great Christian hope is far more gutsy and inspiring than that. It’s the kingdom of God in its fulness, when heaven—God’s dimension—comes to a renewed earth; when we get new bodies, like the one Jesus had after his resurrection; when sin and sadness, tears, sickness, depression and death are forever banished; when we live lavishly, enjoying all our human powers to the full. There will be creativity and art, music, maths, research, walks in the mountains, good food and drink, warm friendship, benign animal-friends, laughter, language-learning, choirs and astronomy. And a million blessings besides in the company of our God and Saviour.

This is the prospect that keeps us going. It’s what our minds turn to when the pressures of this fallen world gang up on us and threaten to crush us. It’s what enables us to face death with equanimity, knowing that it is just the gateway to something far better.

That’s what Christmas signals. The incarnation marked the beginning of God’s breaking into our broken society with the solid prospect of hope and a future. And it’s a future far better than ‘waiting around’ on a golden street corner!


Stuck in the mist

20 March 2020

Hiking in the Yorkshire Dales was a regular delight in my younger years. Fresh air, glorious scenery, challenging terrain and, once you got to the top of the fell, a magnificent view.

But on several occasions there was no view at all, because the summit was covered by cloud. As you enter the cloud you lose perspective. You have no clear bearings. No visible summit-cairn to head for. It can be truly disorientating.

mistLots of people are feeling like that at present under the coronavirus ‘cloud’ that has descended upon us all. Suddenly, everything is confusing. Might I catch the virus? Is my job safe? Should I hug the grandchildren or not? Will we get our holiday deposit back? What if the supply of loo-rolls runs out? Which way is ‘forward’? Just mist all around.

I was encouraged by an ‘in the mist’ experience recorded in the New Testament. It’s the account of Jesus’ transfiguration in Luke 9:28-36 (also in Matthew 17:1-8 and Mark 9:2-8), witnessed by Peter, James and John. Please read it. The key bit is: ‘A cloud appeared and covered them’ (v34). Here’s what I learnt from it.

It’s easy to get confused in the mist. Peter got confused on the Mount of Transfiguration. He started saying all kinds of unhelpful stuff: ‘He did not know what he was saying’ (v33). We’re the same, liable to be confused by the fake news on social media, and by the weird rumours circulating all around. Be aware of the danger of falling for them, and think before you speak or pass rumours on.

It can be frightening in the mist. ‘They were afraid as they entered the cloud’ (v34). And these were big, tough working men, not usually scared by anything. Even the most psychologically robust of us can suffer qualms of fear when plunged into the unknown the way we have been at present. But there is an antidote to that fear…

Jesus was in the mist with them. The cloud covered them all. Maybe the three apostles couldn’t see Jesus because of it, but he was there, close by, nonetheless. Jesus is with us, too, in the midst of this coronavirus cloud. His promise never to leave or forsake us holds good, even here. He has always delighted in standing in solidarity with his people, and he’s doing that right now.

You might not be able to ‘see’ him, but he is near. Hold on to that. He still says, as he did so many times during his ministry, ‘Don’t be afraid.’

God spoke to them in the mist. He urged them to focus on Jesus: ‘This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him’ (v35). Your heavenly Father still speaks in the mist, so keep your spiritual ears open for his voice. It might even be that, in the forced inactivity that the current crisis is bringing to many, you are in a better position than usual to listen to him.

God doesn’t waste words, so expect him to speak pointedly into your situation, maybe giving you a steer when you are confused. Above all, he will nudge you towards a closer relationship with Jesus.

Eventually, the mist cleared. The ‘in the cloud’ experience of the transfiguration didn’t last forever. In due course, Jesus himself led the three apostles out of it into normality again (Matthew 17:6-9).

Our current cloud will pass, too, so don’t despair. We have no idea whether it will be weeks or months, but it will eventually pass.

The disciples were forever richer for their experience in the mist. They came out of it with a better understanding of God and his ways, a deeper appreciation of Jesus and who he is, and a clearer idea of the mission to which he was calling them.

Let’s learn from them and determine that, when all this is over, we too will be the stronger for it.


Dry powder

17 March 2020

‘Put your trust in God, and keep your powder dry!’

That was Oliver Cromwell’s advice to his troops as they prepared to go into battle. He was a wise man. He understood that while trust in God’s providence was to be their basic attitude, it needed marrying with practical common sense—in their case, ensuring that the gunpowder used in their muskets was kept dry, and thus effective.

Oliver_Cromwell_by_Samuel_CooperThe same balance is vital in our coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

All committed Christians will say amen to the ‘trust in God’ bit. But I’ve already seen some weird Christian posts on social media suggesting that this is all we need. The gist is, ‘Repeat this Bible verse often and loudly, and shout your defiance at the devil, and you’ll be OK.’ No mention of taking sensible precautions in line with the guidelines from the Chief Medical Officer and others who are qualified to advise us.

At the other extreme are posts—from people without a faith—that make everything dependent on our own sensible actions, and give no room for God at all. That can leave us open to debilitating worry, or even panic.

So we need to embrace both factors: trust in God, and practical self-help steps.

I’m reminded of the young man developing as a preacher who, hearing that a famous preacher was in town, got an appointment to see him. He had a burning question. ‘When I’m booked to preach,’ he said, ‘how should I go about it? Some say I should prepare my sermon down to the last detail. Others say no, I should just stand up and rely on the Holy Spirit to give me the words. What’s your advice?’

‘That’s easy,’ replied the wise old man. ‘Work hard at your preparation, as if there were no Holy Spirit to depend on. Then, when you stand up to preach, rely on the Holy Spirit as if you hadn’t prepared.’

God has always shown himself to be committed to collaborating with human beings this way. Even in Eden, he did the donkey work of creation, you might say, but then handed over the running and shaping of the planet to human beings. That’s the way he continues to work: he asks us to trust him as the foundation of our lives while, at the same time, he expects us to do our own bit. It’s never one or the other; it’s always both.

Wise and godly people in every generation have understood this. Nehemiah is a case in point. He was in charge of rebuilding the broken-down walls of Jerusalem after Judah returned from exile. Not everybody liked the project, and ‘they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.’ How did Nehemiah react? ‘We prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat’ (Nehemiah 4:8-9).

Not either/or, but both/and. Let’s tackle coronavirus the same way.


Perishing?

2 March 2020

Familiarity breeds contempt. For evangelical Christians, no Bible verse is more familiar than John 3:16. As you know, that’s probably the ‘gospel text’, much used by Christians to explain the gospel to enquirers. It says:

God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

perishing roseWonderful! But because I don’t want to let familiarity breed contempt here, I’ve been trying to look at this glorious statement with fresh eyes.

As a result, I’ve realised that people, almost without exception, take ‘have eternal life’ to mean ‘go to heaven when you die’, and ‘perish’ to mean ending up in the other place. Is that justified? Well, it’s certainly open to question.

The first part of the verse is no problem: God’s love for the world motivated him to give his Son. And, as a result of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, putting our trust in him is altogether beneficial. No issues there. It’s in the second part that we are conditioned to think we know what it means: the perish’ and ‘eternal life’ bits.

Take ‘eternal life’ first. Older Bible versions tended to have ‘everlasting life’, emphasising its duration. But because Bible translators realised that this doesn’t do justice to the original Greek, more recent versions go for ‘eternal life’, which doesn’t home in on duration and is, to be honest, a bit fuzzier to the average English reader.

The Greek words mean, literally, ‘life of the age’—that is, ‘the age to come’, which will be inaugurated at Christ’s return, when the ‘new heavens and new earth’ will burst upon us in all their glory. But the life of that age is available today. We could say that the age to come has, to an extent, overlapped with the present age. It has moved back through history to make some of its benefits available now. The primary benefit is ‘life’—life of a superior quality, the life we enjoy in union with God through Christ.

As the book of Hebrews puts it (6:5), those whose trust is in him ‘have tasted…the powers of the coming age.’ Sure, it’s far from the full banquet that we shall enjoy then, but it’s a superb ‘taster’ to keep us going. and transforms our everyday living. Jesus said, ‘The one who believes has eternal life’ (John 6:47). Since we have it now, the emphasis is more on the quality of that life than on its duration—though its endless duration is taken for granted. It begins the moment someone decides to commit their life to Jesus, so we err if we see it purely as an afterlife benefit.

And what about the ‘perish’ bit? Is that a reference exclusively to fire and brimstone? To the lake of fire? Far from it. To live life without God is to be perishing here and now. That’s why Paul refers several times to ‘those who are perishing’ (e.g. 2 Corinthians 2:15). Without the sense of purpose, direction and forgiveness that comes from staking all on Jesus, people are perishing daily. They are struggling with a sub-standard existence. And the gospel offers relief from that grim condition: if they believe, they can exchange it for ‘eternal life’, starting right now.

Does the ‘perishing’, like the ‘eternal life’, have a longer-term aspect? If, after a life of perishing, I die without consciously putting my trust in Jesus, am I doomed to go on perishing forever?

Some say yes. But deep down it’s doubtful if they really believe it. They probably just believe in their belief in it. No crime, or lack of trust in Jesus, committed in the infinitesimally brief confines of a human life, merits everlasting suffering, especially in the type of hell portrayed in Dante’s Inferno. And how could a just God impose that on the billions who, for one reason or another, have departed this life without even hearing about Jesus? A God who would do that is not, in my view, the God who ‘so loved the world…’

Most evangelicals have been schooled to believe that death is the cut-off point, after which one’s final destiny is sealed—you make your choice in this life and reap the endless consequences in the next. But when I’ve asked people to give their reasons for that conviction, I’ve always got vague, unconvincing answers.

Surely God’s love, and his reach, extend beyond the grave? And if ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 5:19), how can he be satisfied with a partial outworking of it? So if, post mortem, some fiery cleansing of clinging earthly defilement or unbelief proves necessary, will it not result in every sinner’s ultimately being drawn through by God’s love to a place of acceptance, and the enjoyment of ‘eternal life’? That’s the way the early generations of the church interpreted the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3:15). It’s a pity we have lost that.

I recently posted a review of a book on universalism. It upset some evangelicals. One responder asked, ‘What’s the point of bothering to preach the gospel if, in the end, God saves everybody?’ The answer is, ‘Because people are perishing now!’ Are you going to let them carry on stumbling through life without the grace and blessing that Christ brings? Or are you going to offer them ‘eternal life’—now? 

John 3:16 remains the great gospel text. Give it some breathing-space!

 


The eye of the storm

19 December 2019

Chinese Christian leader Watchman Nee (1903-1972) wisely observed: ‘The reason for much poverty of thought is thinking too much.’

For many of us, our biggest struggles are with the tyranny of the mind. There’s so much going on around us, so many demands on our attention, so many compex issues in the world, so many fascinating questions, it’s no wonder that our minds, as they struggle to eye of the stormprocess everything, sometimes come close to bursting. The mental whirlwind threatens to suck us up, tear us to shreds and spit us out into madness.

As a committed Jesus-follower, I’ve learnt a few mental disciplines over the years. I wrote about some of them in my book A Sound Mind.* Since that was published I’ve made further progress in dealing with mind-matters, and one aspect is a departure from something I said in the book.

In the section on meditation, I wrote that, for Christians, meditation means focusing the mind deliberately on good and godly subjects, rather than emptying the mind. The latter, I suggested, causes a vacuum that invites negative stuff to rush in to fill it. And negative stuff is the last thing we want.

While I remain a staunch promoter of choosing what to think about, and of limiting my choices to good and godly topics, I’ve come to see that, alongside this, there’s room for helpful moments of not thinking at all—of deliberately emptying my mind. These days, because I’m far more conscious of God than of the nasty stuff allegedly waiting in the wings to take over the stage of my mind with vile performances, I can retreat confidently from thinking…into the presence of God.

This practice is called centering prayer. While it shares elements with forms of spirituality outside of Christianity, centering prayer is distinctly Christian. It involves coming deliberately into God’s presence, not to ask for things, and not even to offer thanks and praise, but just to be there. To stop mentally hopping around and just relax in his presence, in the knowledge of his steadfast love.

I normally do this at times when I can be alone and undisturbed, and aim for about twenty minutes. I sit upright, with my eyes closed to avoid distractions. I briefly tell the Lord that I’m coming just to be with him. Then I relax and try not to think about anything. To help keep that focus, I have a personal ‘sacred word’ that I repeat to myself as required.

It’s a bit as if, on a warm summer’s day, I were sitting on a rock at the edge of a river, with my feet in the water. Bits and pieces float by on the current and I find myself automatically picking them up. These are the thoughts that appear, unbidden, in my mind: a phone call I need to make today, the conversation I had with a friend yesterday, the mark on the lounge carpet, the tickle in my left ear…

As soon as I become conscious of having picked something up, I gently put it back in the water and let the current carry it away, because I’m not here to think; I’m here just to be in the presence of God.

I’m getting better at this, but the thoughts still intrude every few seconds. It can be frustrating, and the temptation is for me to berate myself for my ineptitude. But that wouldn’t help. It would only unleash a host of jumpy thoughts, and that’s the opposite of what I’m aiming for. So I try to relax, let the river carry all that away, and remind myself briefly that God understands and is not displeased. And so I return, to think of nothing and relax in his presence. I’m ‘centered’ again.

Sometimes, what I find myself picking up from the water is a spiritual insight. I put that back in the water, too, because the aim of this exercise is not to collect anything, but just to be. I can trust God to bring back to me later that sermon idea, or that angle on a passage of Scripture I’ve been reading. For now, I’m just here, relaxing in God’s presence, soaking up the sunshine of his love.

Time passes fast this way. Twenty minutes are soon gone. I wind up with a brief spoken prayer, get up and go about my business.

The benefits of this practice are more in the long-term than the immediate, I’ve found. The scientists say that it leads to some gradual neural re-wiring that makes for a calmer disposition and the ability to be more in control of one’s reactions. And since it’s true that we inevitably become more like the god we worship, the Christian can see centering prayer as one means by which the Holy Spirit can further the process of transforming us gradually ‘into his image’ (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Watchman Nee would have approved, I’m sure. If ‘thinking too much’ leads to ‘poverty of thought’, here is one way, at least, of taming our wild thinking and thus becoming richer.

At the eye of the mental storm is a place of calm. I invite you to explore it.

*  My book is available from Amazon, in Kindle format only now. For further information on centering prayer, download the guide from Contemplative Outreach here.

 


Charles’s Off-day

13 November 2019

We all have our off-days—even all-time greats like William Wordsworth. Once, describing ‘a little muddy pond’ that he came across on a walk in the Lake District, the poet wrote:

I’ve measured it from side to side:
‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.
[1]

‘Sublime’ isn’t the word that springs to mind on that couplet, but we excuse him because of the many beautiful poems he wrote that were truly sublime. He was human, after all, and no-one can sustain a level that never dips into the banal.

charles wesleyHymnwriters are the same—even the great Charles Wesley. The English-speaking church throughout the world still sings many of the hymns that flowed from his heart and his pen in the eighteenth century. And rightly so. He had a gift for expressing the deepest spiritual truths and Christian experiences in words remarkably concise and, at the same time, profoundly compelling. Take the following, for instance, which in addition to top prize for giving wings to our wonder at what the Lord has done for us, deserves a medal for daring to start with ‘And’:

And can it be that I should gain
An interest in the Saviour’s blood?
Died he for me, who caused his pain?
For me, who him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Brilliant! But when you write nearly 7,000 hymns they can’t all be top-notch, even in a revival, and dear old Charles had his off-days. I’m going to stick my neck out and say it was on such a day—in 1747—that he penned ‘Love divine, all loves excelling.’

Yes, I know this hymn is probably in his top ten for general popularity, and for weddings it’s almost certainly Number One. But it’s poor stuff compared with his best. Somehow the meaning doesn’t seem to ‘flow’. In fact I’ve never been able to sing it without wondering what it’s really about. Is it a prayer for salvation? For some other blessing? For eternity and God’s presence? Or is it just, ‘More, Lord!’—without specifying more of what? Or does it ask for something completely different? I find it puzzling and frustratingly vague and, as such, very unlike Charles Wesley, who typically used words with care and precision.

To save you having to look it up, here it is. The Methodist Hymns And Psalms version has only three verses, but I have also included Verse 2 as this appears in some hymn books and is, I’m informed, genuine Wesley:

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down;
Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All they faithful mercies crown.
Jesu, thou art all compassion,
Pure, unbounded love thou art;
Visit us with thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

Breathe, oh breathe thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast;
Let us all in thee inherit,
Let us find thy promised rest.
Take away the love of sinning;
Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Come, almighty to deliver,
Let us all thy grace receive;
Suddenly return, and never,
Never more thy temples leave.
Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve thee as thy hosts above,
Pray and praise thee without ceasing,
Glory in thy perfect love.

Finish then thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation,
Perfectly restored in thee.
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise.

For sure, singing this hymn—especially to the tune Blaen Wernleaves you feeling good, which is no bad thing. At a gut level it does the business. But if I were to ask you to summarise in a couple of short sentences what its overall message is, you may hit problems. Most of the folk I’ve asked have scrutinised it long and hard, with lots of Mmmms and a furrowed brow, only to duck out with, ‘Well, I’m not sure, really’.[2]

Maybe it would help to check a few hymn books and see in which category they place it. Here are a few I pulled off my shelf:

  • Methodist Hymns & Psalms   The Praises of Jesus
  • Sankey    Public Worship: Songs of Praise
  • Christian Praise   The Man of God: Consecration and Discipleship
  • Grace Hymns   The Christian Life: Devotion
  • Redemption Hymnal    Worship: Aspiration
  • Golden Hymnal   The Christian Life: Fellowship with God and Union with Christ
  • Songs & Hymns of Fellowship   Jesus

That doesn’t narrow the field much. In checking the various hymn books, however, I did notice a couple of other things. First, the punctuation varies, sometimes affecting the meaning. And second, there’s some variation in the wording. For example, Wesley originally wrote ‘Let us all thy life receive’ in Verse 3—which suggests it is a request for new life, for salvation—but the 1935 revision of the Methodist Hymnal changed ‘life’ to ‘grace’, which could make the request more generalVerse 2 has been changed the most. Wesley originally wrote:

Let us find that second rest;
Take away our 
bent to sinning…

The reason this verse doesn’t appear in some hymn books, apparently, is that some find it doctrinally dodgy. The books that include it have adjusted the words to make it more acceptable.

But we’ll skip these minor issues for now and stick with the hymn’s overall meaning. I invite you to read it again, thinking about what Wesley actually says, then ask yourself, ‘What is his sequence of thought? What is the hymn actually saying?’ Like me, you will find some parts that are like lean meat among the gristle: tasty and satisfying, and you don’t have to chew too much. The second half of Verse 3, for example, which expresses so well our desire to be as liberal and unfettered in our praise of God as are the angels in heaven.  And the second half of the last verse, which reminds us that we are on a journey of sanctification that will one day end with unspeakable joy in his presence. The rest you might chew ad infinitum until you spit it out as unswallowable.

So what is it about? ‘Well, it’s all about love, isn’t it?’ say the bride and groom who have picked it for their wedding service.

I think we can safely ditch that idea. A couple in love spot the word ‘love’ in the title, read the first two lines and conclude, ‘Ooh, fantastic! It’s all about love. And we’re in love. And sometimes our love feels so wonderful it seems to have an almost heavenly, divine quality. And—would you believe it?—there’s the word ‘divine’ in the opening line! And Line 2 says this heavenly love has come down to earth. So, yes, it really does describe the love we share. Well done, Wesley! We’ll use this as the opener at our wedding.’

Even though this hymn hasn’t, in fact, the remotest connection with romantic or married love, the wedding congregation will sing it through without batting an eyelid—and without any clue as to what they are really singing about.

What the hymn is about, we can safely say, is sanctification—the process by which Christians leave behind their old, sinful ways and become in character gradually more like Jesus. Down the centuries, Christians have adopted various views about sanctification and how it works, and this hymn reflects one view that was popular in Wesley’s day but which other Christians, both then and since, have viewed with suspicion. They are the ones who omit Verse 2.

But let’s start at Verse 1 and try to work our way through the hymn, hopefully to get a grip on what it’s all about. Brace yourself: it’s not easy!

Verse 1

Love divine, all loves excelling,
Joy of heaven to earth come down…

The whole hymn is a prayer, and here we are addressing Jesus. He’s the one who came down to earth from heaven to incarnate and demonstrate the Father’s love for us. So it’s not some abstract idea of love we are singing about, it’s him. This is confirmed later in the verse, where we address him by name:

Jesu, thou art all compassion,
Pure, unbounded love thou art.

Yes, he is the very personification of heavenly ‘love’, of God’s ‘compassion’. Good. All clear so far. The other two couplets of Verse 1 are where, in our prayer, we ask him to do something for us:

Fix in us thy humble dwelling,
All they faithful mercies crown.

We ask him to come and live in us—a ‘humble dwelling’ indeed for the one used to the glory of heaven and the Father’s company. But what we are supposed to mean by this request? Your guess is as good as mine. Are we asking him to save us? Maybe—though many of us who sing it are saved already, committed Christians in whom Christ, by his Spirit, already dwells. Since Wesley wrote it for Christians to sing, is there, perhaps, some further ‘coming and dwelling’ that the hymn may be requesting, one that will be the ‘crowning’ moment, the pinnacle, of all the ‘faithful mercies’ that God bestows on us, his children? Perhaps the remaining couplet will clarify what it is we’re asking for:

Visit us with thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.

The trembling heart, no doubt, is the excitement, tinged with holy fear, that we feel in anticipation of this unidentified coming and dwelling. Which leaves only, ‘Visit us with thy salvation’. Ah, there’s the answer, then: this is a prayer for salvation. In that case how can this be an appropriate hymn for already committed Christians to sing? Unless, of course, salvation somehow comes in two stages. But it doesn’t, does it?

Verse 2

This is the verse that many hymn books omit. As we have noted, some compilers have skipped it because of their doubts about its doctrinal soundness. In fact Verse 2 caused controversy in Wesley’s own day. Let’s take a look at it and see if we can fathom out why. It starts clearly enough, still addressing Jesus:

Breathe, oh breathe thy loving Spirit
Into every troubled breast.

We singers have a ‘troubled breast’, that is, a heart all a-flutter with worries and fears. We need something to calm the trouble, and that something is God’s reassuring love, so we ask Jesus to ‘breathe’ his ‘loving’ Holy Spirit into us. Wesley here uses the ‘breathing’ terminology of John 20:22. OK so far.

Let us all in thee inherit,
Let us find thy promised rest.

If you know your Old Testament you will recall that the term ‘inherit’ was used primarily of the Israelites entering the Promised Land.[3] The land was the inheritance that God had undertaken to give them. Entering it meant an end to the long years of wandering in the desert living in tents, and in that respect it represented the ‘rest’ that they needed. In Canaan they could settle at last, build houses and till the fields. So the land was both their ‘inheritance’ and their ‘rest’.[4] The New Testament takes up this imagery and points out that the Israelites’ entry into Canaan was just a figure of a far greater ‘inheritance’ and ‘rest’ to follow, namely the wonderful salvation that has become ours through Christ. In him we come out of the spiritual desert and give up the wearying struggle to please God by our own efforts, and so we enjoy the ‘rest’ of faith.[5]

It is this imagery that Wesley takes up here in Verse 2, where our prayer continues with the plea that we might find our spiritual ‘inheritance’, our ‘rest’. That fits in fine if this hymn is indeed a prayer for salvation. But I can assure you this was not Wesley’s intention because his original version had, ‘Let us find that second rest.’ What on earth did he mean?

In Wesley’s day there was a doctrine doing the rounds called ‘entire sanctification’. According to this view, an initial salvation experience—justificationwas not sufficient. It needed supplementing with a second experience of grace, one of sanctification, by which the believer was freed from the power of sin and enabled to live a life of complete holiness or, to use a phrase common at the time, of ‘perfect love’. This second work, according to its proponents, was not so much a process as a powerful crisis-experience, received by faith, and some went so far as to say that the believer could, as a result of it, attain ‘sinless perfection’ this side of Christ’s return.

Charles believed strongly in this two-stage approach, and it is to an experience of the second stage that he refers in the line, ‘Let us find that second rest.’ Knowing this background, we have the key to the whole hymn. It is, in fact, the prayer of Christians who have experienced Stage 1 but not yet Stage 2, and their plea is that, as they reach out in faith, God might grant them the Stage 2 blessing.

So we can now look back to Verse 1 and better grasp what Wesley was writing about. The ‘trembling heart’, we now see, is one desperate for an experience of ‘entire sanctification’. While grateful for God’s ‘faithful mercies’ to us so far, including justification, we still yearn for those mercies to be ‘crowned’ with the ultimate mercy of a sanctifying experience, and we look to the one who is ‘love divine’ to ‘visit’ us with this second aspect of ‘salvation’, that is, to provide it.

Christians unable to subscribe to such views modified this line from ‘Let us find that second rest’ to ‘Let us find thy promised rest’, which is loose enough for us to apply to spiritual rest in a more general sense, whether it be peace in times of anxiety or the fulness of our inheritance that will become ours only at Christ’s return. But that is certainly not what Charles Wesley set out to say.

The hymn’s second verse also becomes clearer now. It is the ‘loving Spirit’ who will provide, through such an experience, the perfect love we want to fill our ‘troubled breast’. Wesley takes some liberties with the Bible’s ‘inheritance’ and ‘rest’ imagery. In the New Testament it refers to salvation by faith in Christ, but Wesley narrows it to mean the desired Stage 2 experience. The rest of Verse 2 continues the underlying sanctification theme:

Take away the love of sinning.

Believers in ‘entire sanctification’ maintained that a Stage 2 experience put an end once for all to the pull of the sinful nature, striking a death-blow to the very source of sinful impulses. Wesley’s original line—‘Take away our bent to sinning’—expressed this clearly. But some Christians, uncomfortable with Wesley’s doctrine of sanctification, could not in good conscience sing this line and so modified it to ‘Take away the love of sinning’, in the hope that all believers would be able to sing this as an expression of their general desire to live a life free from besetting sin. And sing it, praise God, we can.

Alpha and Omega be;
End of faith, as its beginning,
Set our hearts at liberty.

Here we continue to address Jesus, who is ‘the Alpha and the Omega…the Beginning and the End’ (Revelation 22:13). In the light of what we now know about the hymn’s doctrinal background we can be certain that here, according to Wesley’s intentions, we are asking Jesus who, as ‘Alpha’ and ‘Beginning’, has given us the experience of justification, to now fulfil his role as ‘Omega’ and ‘End’ by granting us the subsequent experience of entire sanctification and, in so doing, ‘set our hearts at liberty’ from their ‘trembling’ and troubles.

Verse 3

Now we’re on a roll because we know the nature of Wesley’s concern, and Verse 3 continues the theme:

Come, almighty to deliver,
Let us all thy grace receive;
Suddenly return, and never,
Never more thy temples leave.

Some might see a reference to Christ’s second coming in the phrase ‘suddenly return’, but it is highly unlikely that this was Wesley’s thought. In his theology, to pray ‘Let us all thy grace receive’ is to request the second grace of ‘entire sanctification’. Jesus, who is ‘almighty to deliver’, can rescue the Christians who have progressed no further than Stage 1 from the pain of their predicament, and can do it in an instant, in a ‘sudden return’ to their hearts. He has come once to bring justifying grace; now he will ‘return’ to bring sanctifying grace, and having done so, Jesus will never again leave them because these believers are ‘temples’ in whom Christ will now dwell permanently by his sanctifying Spirit.[6]

Thee we would be always blessing,
Serve thee as thy hosts above,
Pray and praise thee without ceasing,
Glory in thy perfect love.

At last a fairly straightforward bit. Yes, we do want to be as free and unceasing in our praise as the angels in heaven. For Wesley, of course, a Stage 2 experience is the key to triggering it in our lives here below, for this is an experience of ‘perfect love’—a much-used synonym  for ‘entire sanctification’ in his day. Today we sing these four lines without that connotation, and they remain an eloquent expression of our longing to give the Lord the praise due to him. We would say about them, ‘This is Wesley at his best’, though the man himself would probably turn in his grave if he knew how far we had strayed from his original sentiments.

Verse 4

In this final verse the sanctification theme persists as strongly as ever:

Finish then thy new creation,
Pure and spotless let us be.

We tend to read these words as an aspiration towards that happy day when Jesus will return to take us home. Then, he will purge away all remaining traces of sin and will put the finishing touches to the ‘new creation’ that took place when we were born again.[7] Wesley may also have had this in mind, but primarily he was talking about a Stage 2 experience by which the believer, this side of glory, could be ‘pure and spotless’ in his enjoyment of Christian perfection.

Let us see thy great salvation,
Perfectly restored in thee.

This couplet has always been, to me, the most puzzling in the whole hymn. Clearly I’m not the only one with a problem, because hymnbook compilers have changed it more than any other. One hymnal, for example, has: ‘Let us see our whole salvation perfectly restored in thee’.[8] Another has: ‘Let us see our whole salvation perfectly secured by thee’.[9] But Wesley wrote it as quoted above. It makes sense to see it as somehow in line with the theme of the hymn as a whole, but how? Many of us who sing it have quietly thought—to quote the man himself, in another hymn—‘Tis mystery all’.

Anyway, you’ll be pleased to know I think I’ve cracked it. The punctuation is the key. All the Methodist hymn books, including the current Hymns And Psalms, place a vital comma at the end of the first line. This serves to clarify that what is ‘restored’ is not God’s ‘great salvation but ‘us’, who see it. On this basis the gist of the couplet is: ‘‘Let that state of affairs come about whereby, in receiving the second blessing and thus being restored completely (‘perfectly’) from our Adamic condition to what you always intended for redeemed humanity, we experience (‘see’) your great salvation in full.’ If this is right, and I’m now sure it is, Wesley wasn’t producing his best writing here, which supports my ‘off-day’ theory.

The last four lines, by contrast, are wonderful:

Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love and praise.

No need to get tied up in doctrinal knots here—we can all rejoice in such prospects. As for Charles Wesley, while he may have been prone to overwork the ‘crisis’ aspect of sanctification as a Stage 2 experience, here he clearly acknowledges that there is also a ‘process’ aspect to our becoming more like Jesus. He refers, of course, to Paul’s statement about that process in 2 Corinthians 3:18, which the KJV renders, ‘We…are changed into the same image from glory to glory’.

That process will culminate when ‘in heaven we take our place’ and find ourselves capable of praising and worshipping our Lord and Saviour in perfect bliss and without limits. Then we will gladly ‘cast our crowns’ at his feet, acknowledging him alone as King of kings.[10]

So that’s it. Now I know why I have always found this hymn so frustratingly vague: it’s because the original words have been seriously tweaked to mask its doctrinal dubiousness, and because what in an eighteenth-century context was crystal clear—the typical Wesley style—we today sing without that context and so are left with a string of inspirational phrases that are like a sheep’s coat: warm but woolly.

What will all this do for our attitude to Wesley’s hymn from now on? That we will all continue to sing it is, I hope, beyond doubt. The modifications made by history to his original words, to make them more acceptable, have been enough to push the hymn into the OK-zone. And if Verse 2 gives you problems even in its tweaked form, you can always choose to sing the three-verse version.

But you won’t be able to sing ‘Love divine’ now without knowing both the controversy behind it and its original meaning. Like Jacob who, after his encounter with Truth incarnate, walked with a permanent limp, you will always bear, as you sing, the scars of coming face-to-face with the truth behind this hymn. Happily, Jacob went on to live a long and productive life, and I hope that you will still find yourself able to sing Charles Wesley’s ‘off-day hymn’ frequently and productively as long as you live.

Footnotes

1. From Wordsworth’s poem The Thorn, stanza 3, part of his Lyrical Ballads, 1798.

2. Some have surmised that it’s just a general seeking after God. Others that it is saying, ‘Lord, finish the work you’ve started in me.’ A few see it as a prayer for salvation. Some Pentecostals think it may be a prayer for baptism in the Holy Spirit. Most just don’t know.

3. E.g. Leviticus 20:24; Deuteronomy 12:10 etc.

4. For the ‘rest’ imagery see, e.g. Deuteronomy 3:20; Joshua 1:13, 15

5. See Hebrews 3:7 – 4:11

6. 1 Corinthians 6:19

7. 2 Corinthians 5:17

8. Golden Hymnal, No. 362

9. Redemption Hymnal, No. 71

10. See Revelation 4:10


Painting and Sung Worship

27 September 2019

Back in her school-days, Amanda had been good at art. She promised herself that, one day, she would take up watercolour painting. And one day, in middle age, she did.

She bought the basic kit: tubes of paint in a selection of colours, a small easel, and a range of good brushes. Guided by YouTube videos, she made a start, and was soon making some progress. Not great art, perhaps, but highly satisfying, relaxing and, she felt, uplifting.

nettle bunchIn due course, she decided it was time to join a watercolour evening class, where she could get some proper teaching, learn from others and be stimulated by their skills and their company. This she did, but got a shock at the first session.

As Amanda was getting her brushes and other stuff out of her bag, ready for the session, the teacher made an announcement for the benefit of herself and a couple of other new members: ‘No, leave your brushes where they are, please. At this class we have left such traditional items behind. Instead, we paint with nettle brushes only.’

‘And what on earth are they?’ asked Amanda, curious.

The teacher held up a limp-looking object for all to see. It looked a bit like a faded posy. ‘This,’ she announced, ‘is a nettle brush. As you can see, it’s a bunch of nettle stems, held together with a rubber band. You use this as your brush, dipping it into your paints and applying it to the paper to create some fascinating effects. This, my friends, is the future of watercolour painting!’

Being new, and wanting to appear compliant, Amanda took the bunch handed to her by the teacher and got to work with it. It was a struggle, understandably. For a start, the nettles stung her hand. Then she noticed that everybody else was wearing rubber gloves, and made a mental note to bring some next time.

But the main problem was the lack of precision and control. Sure, the nettle brush created some unusual effects, but not always the ones she would have chosen. After a few dips in the water-pot, it became even less controllable. Indeed, it became a positive hindrance to her getting the kind of results she wanted. How she longed for her familiar set of well-used sable and prolene brushes!

At her second class, increasingly frustrated, she asked the teacher when the nettle brush experiment would end, so that she could revert to her regular tools.

‘Experiment?’ retorted the teacher. ‘This is no experiment! This is the very essence of modern watercolour technique. It’s the only way forward for us. So like it, or lump it.’

After one more week of frustration, Amanda packed the class in, and never went back. Instead, she started meeting up with a couple of friends who, like her, were amateur watercolourists. They would get together one afternoon a week to paint together, encourage one another and, yes, to enjoy experimenting with new techniques, though it’s no surprise that nettle brushes never came up.

Now, for ‘painting’ read ‘sung worship’.

If, to you, ‘sung worship’ means the liturgical practice of your local parish church, or the customary string of eighteenth-century hymns at the Sunday-morning chapel service, this is not for you. I’m referring to the music of what are sometimes dubbed ‘the new churches’, the ones that are growing steadily, with some variety in the services, and oodles of young people. The sung worship there is led by a ‘worship band’. That’s mostly guitars, plus drums and a bass.

Of course, younger folk who have never even heard of fine-tip sable brushes, having been reared from childhood on nettle ones, think nettling is normal. To them, the contemporary style and repertoire of the worship band is normal. But anyone who has known anything of the musical and poetic riches of the church’s 2000-year history finds it excruciating. Like Amanda, after a week or two, they are ready to walk away, because asking them to offer sincere worship via this medium is as futile as asking them to eat their consommé with chopsticks.

Musically, most of the current songs are inept, to say the least. They follow the trend of modern secular songs in tending to be tuneless, counter-intuitive, pitched too high or too low, painfully repetitive and virtually unsingable—at least by a congregation.

As for the words, some are reasonable. They can use phraseology that would seem out of place in a traditional hymn, and that’s no bad thing. But a majority are theologically weak, as nourishing as watered-down soup. And the generous sprinkling of ‘yeah’, ‘oh-oh-oh’ and ‘gonna’ does nothing to beef them up. Many focus on me and how I feel, rather than on the majesty of God and his great salvation. Some, I fear, are complete gobbledygook, with words that would defy any attempt to say what they mean, or even how one line connects in meaning with the line before.

‘But this is the future,’ we’re told if we point out that nettle brushes sting and make a mess rather than enhancing our lives as a thing of beauty. There’s an unbelievable arrogance in turning up one’s nose at the rich musical heritage of the last two millennia by acting, in practice, as if any song more than five years old is one of those dreadful, old-fashioned sable brushes.

Personally, I’m up for a bit of nettle painting now and again, as long as it’s not all the time. And I wouldn’t want to go permanently traditional again and sing nothing but hymns by Charles Wesley or Isaac Watts. It’s only an insistence on either/or that drives people away: either the older folk, depressed by the tuneless, rhythm-driven modern songs, or the younger ones, repelled (or it is alleged they would be—I’m not so sure) by a singable tune and archaic, though meaningful, words.

But surely it doesn’t have to be exclusively one style or the other? Wise church leaders will insist on a healthy mix, for everybody’s benefit, just as wise parents insist that their kids eat some cabbage and carrots along with their chips and spaghetti hoops.

Which raises an important question: who exactly dictates the style, the ‘culture’ of a church’s sung worship? Leave it to the oldies, and every week they’d sing Amazing Grace, The Lord’s My Shepherd (to the tune Crimond), And Can It Be, and Crown Him With Many Crowns. Plus a dozen other traditional gems. Leave it to the youngsters, and every week we’d get the kind of songs I’ve shot down above. That’s why, if the ‘worship leader’ is eighteen years old and you ask him to include something ‘a bit older’, he’s not to be blamed if, in response, he starts up a song that was at its peak eighteen months ago. He doesn’t know anything older than that.

The default, nevertheless, seems to be to let the youngsters dictate the style. That, I’m convinced, is a huge mistake. The church is primarily a family, with a mixture of ages and personalities, and wise parents make sure that everybody has a say. To let the kids dictate everything is a recipe for disaster in any family. Kids, by definition, lack both experience and wisdom. It’s not their fault. It’s just that they haven’t lived long enough yet. No parents worth the name would ever let them run the family.

So, should we instead let Granny and Grandad dictate the pace? No. They’ve had their prime time. The day when they set the pace has passed, and they’re content now to take a back seat, though still as part of the family, with their wisdom respected, and their preferences at least taken into account.

So who does set the pace, the style, the culture in the family? The parents, of course! The middle generation, the ones old enough to have accumulated a bit of wisdom and experience but who still have some energy and go about them, and the strength and stamina to run the family. And in a church, that must be the leaders. They must cow-tow to the wishes of neither the youngsters nor the oldies, but steer a wise middle course representing love, balance and progress.

Only they can ensure we have a balance of nettle painting and the kind done with brushes. And that, I suggest, is the right formula for growth that is both deep and lasting.

What’s the alternative? Keep banging away with the nettle brushes and you risk losing the older folk, with all the wisdom, experience, finance and commitment that they bring to the church. Sure, the church will still grow, but exclusively with younger people, and that’s not a proper family; it doesn’t reflect the heart of God.

Stick with the set old ways seen in chapels nationwide, and you’ll end up with a shrinking bunch of pensioners and yet another listed building sold off for housing. That’s not family either.

Some have looked for a compromise by having two Sunday services, one called ‘traditional’ and the other ‘contemporary’, with worship-styles to match. It doesn’t usually work for long. It means that there are in reality two congregations—a sixth-form college and an old folks’ home—and never the twain shall meet. From what I’ve seen, both eventually fizzle out.

A variation is to do nettle painting alone at the main Sunday service. Any oldies with a robust constitution are welcome to come along, of course, but most can’t cope with it, so they don’t. Ah yes, so let’s have a completely separate Tuesday afternoon session for Seniors, with the same basic elements that mark the Sunday service: worship, word, communion. But the ‘worship’ bit, of course, will be sable brushes from start to finish, just the way Christian pensioners like it.

Again, it’s splitting the family, which is failure. In the New Testament, the primary metaphor for the church remains family. God is our Father, Jesus is our Elder Brother, and we are all brothers and sisters together—a typical family mix of different ages, male and female, intellectuals and artisans, musical and tone-deaf, introverts and extroverts, and all the other variations. We’re only family if we’re together.

If the Sunday service remains—as, in practice, it does in the ‘new churches’—the main weekly expression of the church’s life and worship, it is there, not somewhere else, where ‘family’ needs to be modelled. Our sung worship is a key element of that service: if that doesn’t express family, then family is absent. And family is what we all want; it’s what we need; it’s what we all long for. Not in theory; in practice.


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!’


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]


Music without ceasing?

12 February 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective—1.

Hearing deteriorates as folk get older—as I know from experience: my hearing aids are very powerful ones. One feature of this deterioration is losing the capacity to ‘filter out’ one sound from other, competing sounds, and focus on it .

This means that, if someone is speaking in church—praying, perhaps, or making some connecting comment—and a guitar or keyboard is playing at the same time, it is virtually impossible for many of us to make out what the speaker is saying, as the frequency of the music almost always overrides that of the speaker’s voice.

Worship-teamThat’s why it is immensely off-putting to older folk when music is played in the background all the time during the open time of worship. This has, sadly, become the norm in some churches, but I regard it as an undesirable practice. Not only does it prevent some of us from hearing any simultaneous oral contributions. It also inhibits such contributions from the congregation. Few people are confident enough to chip in while music is being played, especially when they feel they will have to raise their voice higher than is natural for them if they are to be heard above the music. So they keep quiet—and we are the poorer for it.

Music and song do not equal ‘worship’; they are simply one of many expressions of it. When we gather as a church family, our corporate worship consists in, not just the singing, but the prayers, testimonies, prophecies, tongues and interpretation, relevant Scripture passages etc.

Musicians and stage-singers have an unfair advantage here, in that they are in position at the front, with microphones, and can thus inhibit or face down contributions from the floor. For this reason, they need to be mega-sensitive to the presence of the congregation and ideally should stop playing immediately if someone in the congregation begins to pray out loud or whatever.

Some would discourage ‘from the floor’ contributions anyway, favouring the ‘front-led’ approach to meetings. The congregation then become, not participants, but observers. It’s a negative trend, I believe, possibly reflecting an unhealthy desire for control on the part of the leaders. Certainly, it’s hardly ‘family’ anymore; it’s a performance. And, to be honest, I often find it boring—though I always try to keep a positive attitude. You never get bored when there are contributions from the floor. Some of them may be a bit messy but, to me, that’s part of what ‘family’ is all about. It’s real, and I think the Lord loves it!

I know from experience that it’s possible to welcome contributions from the floor with congregations up to about 150 in number, provided the musicians are sensitive and know when to keep quiet. After that, the dynamics change. But I’d argue that, once numbers reach 150, it’s time to split the congregation into two of 75 each anyway, to keep the ‘family’ atmosphere that the New Testament presents as central to the church’s very nature. Small is beautiful!

What do you think?

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


Who are you?

11 February 2018

Some words grabbed me in a song we sang in church this morning: ‘You’re a good, good Father; that’s who you are… And I’m loved by you; that’s who I am…’

woodworm floorboards 2

‘That’s who I am.’ I felt a deep satisfaction in that: the essential thing about me—my identity—is that I’m someone loved by Father God.

I’d been prompted to think about identity by a couple of Facebook posts I’d read the night before. One was from a woman who wrote, ‘First and foremost, I’m a feminist.’ How sad. Nothing wrong with feminism, of course; in a male-dominated society it can bring a needed balance. But it’s hardly worth making the centre of your personal identity.

Then I read a post by a man who had been in a local ‘gay pride’ march. He didn’t say so explicitly, but he gave the impression that, for him, his identity lay in his sexual orientation. Again, one can sympathise with gays who have suffered discrimination and feel the need to push for greater acceptance in society. But for your whole personal identity to be tied to this aspect of your personhood is, surely, a sad state of affairs.

In the West, we tend to find our identity in our job. Who are you? I’m a nurse. I’m an engineer. Our profession is probably one we have chosen, rather than one foisted on us by circumstances beyond our control. It suits our natural gifts. And we probably devote at least eight hours a day to it for a sizeable chunk of our lives. So, yes, it’s important. But can your profession truly be ‘who you are’? I don’t think so.

Others find their identity in some physical trait. I’m black, and proud of it. I’m Native American and proud of it. Nothing wrong with that either, especially if you have suffered discrimination and want to redress the balance. But it’s hardly important enough to make you say, ‘It’s who I am’, as if everything else about you is minor beside it.

The physical trait may be an illness or disability. I’m a diabetic. I’m a cancer-sufferer. I’m paraplegic. No doubt this is a major element in your life, so you might as well come to terms with it and, as far as you can, make the most of it. But to build your whole identity on such a feature—that’s can’t be right, can it?

No. All these sources of identity are unsatisfactory. Each one is like rotten floorboards in a house: they will hold you up most of the time but, sooner or later, they won’t be able to take your weight and you’ll end up, injured, in the cellar. Sure, being a nurse, a homosexual, a feminist, a black-skinned person, a diabetic or whatever is a major facet of your life, but if you make it the source of your very identity you’ll never reach your full potential as a human being.

You need a more solid floor to walk your life on. I’m convinced that, if you’re to reach your full potential, be at peace with yourself, and be of maximum benefit to those around you, there’s only one truth worth pinning your ‘This is me’ badge to. It’s what we sang to God in church this morning: ‘You’re a good, good Father; that’s who you are… And I’m loved by you; that’s who I am…’

This is true for everyone, by the way, not just for committed Christians like me. Of course, if you don’t believe it, it’s not going to do you any good. Like the poor student who received a solicitor’s letter to say he’d been left a million-pound legacy by a distant relative he didn’t even know existed. He thought it was a con and continued to live like a poor student. It was months before he ventured to look into it properly, only to discover, to his astonishment and joy, that it was true. Then, and only then, did he begin to experience the benefits.

God is a good, good Father. And you really are loved by him! It’s worth investigating, starting, perhaps with a few tentative prayers. As a result, you could discover your real identity, find solid ground at last beneath you feet—and weep for joy.


Wart Treatment: the blight of ‘isms’

5 February 2018

The body of Christ has warts. They’re called isms.

I’ve seen lots of them. I was born into Methodism and grew up in Brethrenism, where they taught me Dispensationalism from the Scofield Bible. At university, I encountered the writings of the Puritans and embraced Calvinism, with its inseparable partner, Amillennialism. This taught me, of course, to despise both Dispensationalism and that alleged arch-enemy of thinking Christians, Arminianism.

wartLater, I flirted with Postmillennialism and got involved with what some called Restorationism. Finally, resisting the advances of (among others) Reconstructionism, Haginism, Wimberism and Classic Premillennialism, I settled on a brilliantly novel idea: I would just try to interpret the Bible sensibly and serve Christ. What a stroke of genius! Maybe I should patent it and market it as Christian Minimalism.

You’re thinking: ‘You pompous ass. It’s impossible to avoid isms altogether! It’s human nature to take even mainstream items of Christian faith, lump them together and stick some ismic label on them. Even good people do that. You can’t beat ’em, so join ’em. Wear your “I’m a Baptist” badge with pride.’

No chance. Seriously, I’ve concluded that every ism must, by definition, be something less than fully-fledged, developing Christian faith. Have you noticed that while each ism is quick to line up supporting Bible proof-texts, it conveniently ignores texts that seem to say something different? Or it explains them away in what seems to me like elastic exegesis.

Take Calvinism, for instance. It maintains its ‘five points’ based on the acronym TULIP,[1] claiming that the five stand or fall together and forbidding us to pick and choose. But Limited Atonement sticks in my craw. It does the same even when they euphemise it as Particular Redemption. An estate agent can insist on describing a house as having ‘great potential’ but in reality it’s still a run-down property.

When I point out to Calvinists that ‘The Lord is…not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance’,[2] they tell me that ‘everyone’ means ‘everyone without distinction’, not ‘everyone without exception’. My reminder that Christ is ‘the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world’[3] prompts the retort that it depends what we mean by ‘for’. Certainly I have no business, they insist, to tell people indiscriminately that Christ died for them. Hmmm.

It’s the same with the Perseverance bit. Sure, it is God who saves, and no-one can snatch us out of his, or Christ’s, hands.[4]  But if ‘once saved, always saved’ is true, why did the Holy Spirit, in overseeing the compilation of the New Testament, include so many warnings about the dangers of falling away?

The sobering words of Hebrews six and ten apply, Calvinists say, not to the genuine believer but to the person who merely professes to believe. But that’s hard to swallow when he’s described as having ‘shared in the Holy Spirit'[5]. And if he’s liable to the ‘raging fire’ of God’s judgment[6] because he has ‘treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified him'[7], in what sense did Christ’s blood sanctify him in the first place?

Yes, yes, I know the standard answers you’re going to throw back at me. I’ve read them all and studied them ad nauseam, and I’m still not convinced.

No, the whole TULIP thing is too simplistic, too neat and tidy for me. It forces on Scripture a scheme that’s less than Scripture and that tends to become a Scripture substitute. It’s an ism and a wart. Bishop Ryle was right when he observed: ‘I have long come to the conclusion that men may be more systematic in their statements than the Bible, and may be led into grave error by the idolatrous veneration of a system.'[8]  For me it’s out with TULIP and in with CHRYSANTHEMUM—or any other long-named flower that gives scope for all those facets of God’s truth that can’t be made to fit a five-letter acronym.

‘Ah, so you’re an Arminian!’ you say. Not so. ‘Saved today and lost tomorrow’, for instance, doesn’t square with the New Testament’s promises of eternal security for the believer.

‘Oh, come on! You can’t have it both ways!’ Yes, I can, because that’s the way Scripture seems to have it. Like the twin lines of a railway track, divine sovereignty and human responsibility in salvation run a parallel course, meeting only in eternity and the mind of God. For now, I’m content to run my theological train along both rather than opt for the wobbly ride of any ismic monorail.

I’ll be a Calviminian. If I meet a troubled Christian who lacks assurance, I’ll remind him that Jesus turns away none who come to him. If I meet one who indulges in sinful behaviour without raising a hair, I’ll warn him that his salvation is in jeopardy and quote him Matthew 7:21-23. For myself, I’ll relax in the security of God’s sovereign love and grace that keeps me safe now and for ever, and I’ll hold fast to him as if it all depended on me.

This isn’t a new idea. John Newton, caught up in the Calvinism versus Arminianism debate three centuries ago, wrote that when preaching he tried ‘to keep all shibboleths and terms and forms of distinction out of sight, as we keep knives and razors out of the way of children, and if my hearers had not other means of information I think they would not know from me that there are such creatures as Arminians and Calvinists in the world. But we talk a good deal about Christ.'[9]  Wise man.

And here’s another thing: our understanding of the Bible—where we tend to root our isms—is constantly growing and developing. Every ism takes a selection of biblical truths, as understood at the time, and sets them in concrete, leaving no flexibility, no scope for our grasp of God’s amazing truth to be adjusted. That’s never going to sit comfortably with people like me, who feel that, like the potter’s jar in the book of Jeremiah, our traditional ‘jar’ of received doctrine has been smashed beyond repair, and is being reshaped on God’s wheel into a new and more beautiful one.

Isms have another off-putting feature: they lock people into a sub-culture that’s a parody of fully-rounded Christian faith. Methodism, for example, locks its followers into John Wesley, Wesleyan doctrine, Wesleyan hymns, stewards, circuits and moderators, and I don’t want to get stuck in an eighteenth-century rut any more than I want to get stuck into a seventeenth-century Puritan one.

I don’t even want to get stuck in a twenty-first century ‘new church’ sub-culture. Once quite broad, this is rapidly narrowing to ismic proportions. Suggest singing one of Wesley’s hymns in some ‘new churches’ and they’ll laugh at you. Question the ear-splitting volume of the music group’s sound system or propose a period of quiet prayer and they’ll tell you—as someone once told me—that you’re going to be uncomfortable in heaven, because the silence there lasts only half an hour.[10]  Suggest that what is commonly called ‘anointing’ is often just hype and they’ll accuse you of not being ‘in the flow of the Spirit’.

I want to break out of denominational sub-cultures and just be a follower of Jesus. That doesn’t mean adopting the pious ‘I belong to Christ’ stance of the Corinthians[11] or becoming the sole member of a church of one. It means acknowledging that the Holy Spirit who speaks through the Bible to me has also spoken through it to others—some of whom are long dead.

That’s why we need at least a nodding acquaintance with church history. Each new movement of the Christian era has picked up neglected Bible truths and handed them like a baton to subsequent generations. Tragically, we tend to throw away the baton of accumulated understanding and manufacture our own flimsy ism, running with it as if it’s the repository of all truth. Inevitably we end up in isolationism and triumphalism—though we never admit to either.

But there’s an end coming to all this. One day, praise God, the warts will all be gone, leaving the body of Christ a fit match for its glorious Head.[12]  Meanwhile, we can move things along in that direction. How? By refusing names and labels that mark us out as something less than disciples of Jesus. Let’s put Christ first and, by refusing any lesser loyalty, help turn Christianity’s isms into wasms.

Footnotes

  1. The Total Depravity of fallen humanity. God’s Unconditional Election of some to be saved. Limited Atonement—Christ died only for the elect. Irresistible Grace that draws the elect to Christ. And the Perseverance of the Saints, who will endure to the end because salvation is God’s work, not man’s.
  2. 2 Peter 3:9
  3. 1 John 2:2
  4. John 10:27-30
  5. Hebrews 6:4
  6. Hebrews 10:27
  7. Hebrews 10:29
  8. Quoted in N. Douty, The Death of Christ, p60
  9. Quoted in J. Pollock, Amazing Grace: The Life of John Newton, Lion, 1981/1996, p170-1
  10. Revelation 8:1
  11. 1 Corinthians 1:12
  12. Ephesians 4:15-16

A Grotesque Mismatch

5 February 2018

mismatchI once saw this in real life in a special hospital—a handsome young man in his thirties with the undeveloped body of an infant. I had to struggle hard to keep a grip on my reaction, because the grotesque mismatch made me feel suddenly sick.

It’s a good image of Christ and his church. Jesus himself is the Head and the church his body. He is fully-developed, mature and glorious; the church is ill-matched to the Head, stunted and deformed. It is deformed by superficiality, self-seeking, tradition, division and doctrinal imbalance.

God intends the church to mature and grow so that it matches the glory of the Head. The match will be complete at Christ’s return, of course, but God intends things to improve before then—and we Christians, who comprise the church, are responsible for working with the Holy Spirit to make it happen. Look carefully at these scriptures:

  • Ephesians 5:23  ‘Christ is the head of the church, his body.’

  • 1 Corinthians 12:27  ‘You are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.’

  • Ephesians 4:11-16  ‘It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants… Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.’

Are you doing your part?


The Bible teaches…

26 January 2018

‘The Bible teaches…’ Time was when I used that phrase a lot. Having spent over sixty years studying the Bible, I felt I had a pretty good grasp of its message. I could tell you with great conviction what ‘the Bible teaches’ on, say, the baptism in the Holy Spirit, or male headship, or divorce, or the kingdom of God, or homosexuality, or church government, or whatever.

bible-thumper.jpgThese days I’m far less dogmatic on these and a host of other issues. And that’s because I’ve come to the conclusion—better late than never—that the Bible as a whole doesn’t in fact ‘teach’ much at all very clearly.

I’d always been aware, of course, that my convictions about what it taught on this or that were not shared by all Christians. Some of them had reached conclusions very different from my own—and from the same Bible at that! But somehow I had failed to grasp the enormity of the problem highlighted by these differences. The problem is this: if, after two thousand years, Christians are still reaching hugely different conclusions about the Bible’s teaching, the only thing I can conclude with any certainty is that the Bible is not clear in its teaching at all.

For decades, I felt convinced that my own conclusions (and those of my spiritual clan) as to what the Bible teaches were the right ones, and that everyone else’s were wrong. Now, I’m deeply ashamed of the appalling pride that this attitude displays.

Proof-texting was dear to me in those bad old days. I was skilled at mustering verses from both Old Testament and New to back up the ‘right’ view that I was presenting. I wrote semi-learned papers on a host of topics, using my middle-of-the-road knowledge of Hebrew and Greek to bolster my case and quoting from my extensive library of Bible commentaries and reference works.

I don’t do that anymore. I’m convinced that, if you have a mind to, you can present a decent case from the Bible, with supporting proof-texts, for just about any theory you want. Indeed, this has been happening regularly for two millennia, and it’s happening still. I don’t want any part in that sort of behaviour now. So I’ve ditched my old views on the Bible’s inerrancy, even its infallibility, and certainly what the Puritans called its ‘perspicuity’. I take a far less tidy view of the whole thing these days.

‘Ah,’ you say, ‘it’s tragic that you’ve gone off the rails at this late stage in your life, Dave. So sad that you’ve kicked the Bible into touch like this.’

Hang on. I didn’t say that! The fact is, I love the Bible now more than I ever did. I read it more. I draw more strength and sustenance from it, and I honour it as God’s Word with a new-found vigour. And that’s because I’ve adopted an altogether different approach to it. ‘And what exactly is that? you have every right to ask.

Now, I see the Bible as ‘God’s Word’ in only a secondary sense. The ultimate ‘Word of God’ is Jesus Christ. The Bible is the story—a God-breathed one, I believe—of a people struggling, through their changing times and cultures, to understand God better, and often getting it only half-right, or sometimes even wrong. But the whole story was leading to its brilliant climax: Emmanuel, God with us in the person of the God-man, Jesus the Messiah. He alone is the end to which the Bible is merely the means.

Jesus, and Jesus only, is ‘the exact representation of God’s being’, the full and final revelation of what God is truly like. Everything else is shadowy, vague, temporary, unclear. But in him the shadows have cleared and the sun has come out. The Bible gave enough light to guide the previous generations along, but it will always be secondary to him. I’m now trying to take my views and convictions, my lifestyle-model, my attitudes, my standards, my everything from him, and from nowhere else.

As for the Bible, I feel wonderfully liberated by my new way of looking at it. I love to read it for the insights it gives into the life of pilgrimage that I’ve embarked upon. I am gripped as I read about the ups and downs, the frustrations and joys, of previous generations of God-seekers, and learn much from them. I tap into the Bible’s psalms of praise and its accounts of the moments of life-changing revelation enjoyed by the pilgrims of old. And I quietly skip (as Jesus did when quoting Isaiah in the Nazareth synagogue) the bits now shown, in the light of his revelation, to be wide of the mark.

So that’s where I’m at. If what I’ve written makes you hopping mad, I’m not going to let that faze me. After all, not so long ago, I would have reacted the same way myself, so I can understand where you’re coming from. I sincerely hope, though, that you will pause to think about what I’ve written, and maybe even become open to a few changes yourself. Jesus, I think, would smile at the prospect…

[You can read more about my changed attitude to the Bible in my free e-book, A Poke In The Faith, which you can download here.]

 


%d bloggers like this: