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]


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