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.


The nature of music

5 March 2018

Series: Observations about the conduct of meetings in the so-called ‘new churches’, from an older person’s perspective — 4.

Music, by common consent, has three elements: melody, harmony and rhythm.

  1. Melody is what we normally call the ‘tune’—what you can whistle.
  2. Harmony is the pleasing combination of sounds, where the melody is enhanced by harmonising notes sung or played at the same time as it. This is the essence of part-singing.
  3. Rhythm is the beat.

music natureGood music, of whatever genre, combines these three elements in balanced proportion. Sometimes one element will be in the limelight, sometimes another. No one element should consistently dominate the other two.

Here’s where the guitar can be a dangerous instrument. When played in strumming-style—as it tends to be in church band settings (as distinct from, say, classical Spanish-guitar music)—the rhythm element tends to dominate all the time.

Some Christians have lined up the three elements with the three aspects of our personhood: body, soul and spirit. Rhythm is the ‘body’ bit; it gets you clapping your hands and tapping your foot. Harmony is the ‘soul’ bit, stirring the emotions by its beauty in a way nothing else can. And melody is the ‘spirit’ bit, reflecting our response to the Holy Spirit of God, who witnesses with our own spirit as we worship.

While it would not be wise to push this correlation too far, it does provide a helpful insight into the way we might better play our music in a worship context.

Is rhythm the dominating feature? If so, how can we moderate it? Is there sufficient melody (tune) for people to be able to grasp it fairly readily and so enter into the song with enthusiasm? Is the song structured in such a way that people with a natural gift for harmonising can add depth and beauty to the singing by doing so in a congregational setting?

Speaking from my experience in churches over many years, I would like to see the domination of rhythm-based instruments reduced. It is lovely, for instance, when someone plays a violin or flute. And it’s great to have a competent, play-by-ear keyboard-player, too, who will do more than simply ape the guitar chords. This is particularly helpful when we sing more traditional hymns and carols, for which guitars are eminently unsuitable.

All this is relevant to singing in tongues or, as it is sometimes called, ‘singing in the Spirit’. In my judgment, and on past experience, guitars should never accompany singing in tongues. By its very nature it is a ‘spirit’ activity—the very last setting where dominant rhythm is appropriate. A sensitive background from a keyboard can be helpful, but more often than not it is far better if all the instruments fall silent and just let the best instruments of all, the voices of God’s people, range free.

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


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