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The Problem Isn't New Versus Old

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

For years, I’ve been an advocate of using quality hymns in worship.  Not surprisingly, there are plenty of folks who disagree with me, particularly when I get to picking on contemporary praise songs that I don’t think are useful in congregational worship.  They’ve even been known to get upset about it.  It’s like I called their dog ugly or something.

One of the most common countercharges is that I don’t like the contemporary songs I don’t like because I’m stuck in the past.  According to this way of thinking, I believe the only good hymns are the ones written in the 19th century, filled with “Thee” and “Thou”, and possessed of syntax so convoluted that only Yoda could love it.  Oh, and the music has to sound like it was born on a pipe organ too.

There are certainly people who believe such things, but I’m not one of them.  I think “Abide with Me” is a wonderful hymn, but not every hymn has to sound like “Abide with Me” to be good.  Instead, my usual indictment of many modern worship songs is that 1) they lack strong Biblical content, and 2) the music is too complicated for a congregation to learn easily. 

Neither one of these things is a necessary attribute of sacred songs written in the past 50 years, though such songs often fail on one or both counts.  Rather, they are frequently problems because modern authors and composers generally don’t make good content and congregationality their priorities, particularly the latter. 

Chris Tomlin doesn’t write music for me and my modest range.  He writes music for Chris Tomlin, Chris Tomlin’s wonderful range, and Chris Tomlin’s backup band of professional musicians.  Most brethren, however, have musical gifts much more like mine than like Chris Tomlin’s.  Is it any wonder when they struggle with the Chris Tomlin repertoire?

However, when contemporary writers pay attention to content and the musical abilities of ordinary worshipers, they can turn out some excellent work that is eminently suitable for use in our assemblies.  By now, most brethren are familiar with “In Christ Alone”, written by Stuart Townend and Keith and Kristin Getty.  Together and separately, they’ve written plenty of other hymns that are comparable in quality and usefulness.  The same goes for Bob Kauflin and the many writers who have been associated with Sovereign Grace through the years. 

Recently, the Australian group CityAlight has attracted my attention (the tagline on their website is “Christian worship music with Biblically rich lyrics”, which is a good sign).  Yes, they use drums and guitars, but brethren have been adapting denominational hymns for a-cappella use since the Restoration.  We can do it here too.

Consider, for instance, the CityAlight song “Jesus Strong and Kind”, which I recently encountered for the first time.  Its lyrics are:

1. Jesus said that if I thirst
I should come to Him;
No one else can satisfy;
I should come to Him.

2. Jesus said if I am weak
I should come to Him;
No one else can be my strength;
I should come to Him.

Chorus:
For the Lord is good and faithful;
He will keep us day and night;
We can always run to Jesus,
Jesus, strong and kind.

3. Jesus said that if I fear
I should come to Him;
No one else can be my shield;
I should come to Him.

(Chorus)

4. Jesus said if I am lost
He will come to me;
And He showed me on that cross
He will come to me.

(Chorus)

That’s good.  It doesn’t look like the hymns Isaac Watts wrote, nor yet like the hymns I write.  It’s still good.  It reveals Biblical study and contemplation, it is focused, and it is deeply meaningful to the believer, especially those who also have spent time in study of the word. 

If I may indulge in hymn-geekery for a moment, it’s also good because of its structural strength.  Like many modern praise songs, it doesn’t use a strong rhyme scheme and can’t develop structure that way.  Instead, it employs repetition, mixed with a few powerful word changes, as its structural element.  The change from “thirst” and “satisfy” to “weak” and “strength” makes v. 2 meaningfully different from v. 1, even though most of the words are the same.  However, the whole still has unity because of those similarities.

The music is also (or should be, at least) congregationally accessible.  The use of verses means that brethren who learn music by rote don’t have to learn as much.  The range is limited to a congregation-friendly octave, C to C in the original sheet music, though I’d probably raise it to D or Eb for four-part a-cappella use.  I like the tune, too.  Churches of Christ should be able to sing this one easily.

When was this fine piece of hymnody written?  2019.  All it takes is somebody in the denominational world who cares about the Bible and congregational singing, and they’ll hand us something we can use.

Indeed, this happens frequently.  This year, I wrote a workbook called Singing with Understanding for a Bible class I taught.  Each lesson of the workbook pitted an unfamiliar hymn I liked against an unfamiliar hymn I didn’t so that the class could analyze the qualities of good and bad hymns.  For the sake of fairness, I segregated hymns by time period:  old good against old bad, new good against new bad.  Of the four categories, I had by far the easiest time filling out the “New Good” category because so many of the best worship songs being written now are unfamiliar to the church.

That’s a shame.  Rather than allowing CCM icons and praise teams to drive the additions to our repertoire, we ought instead to be looking for songs that are written for and will benefit the congregation.  If we seek, we will find, and our song worship will benefit immeasurably thereby.

Where Transformation Starts

Friday, August 20, 2021

To most of us, the spiritual future of the United States looks pretty bleak.  A Gallup report that was released earlier this year proclaimed that for the first time in any of our lifetimes, fewer than 50 percent of Americans claim to be members of a house of worship.  Though much of this decline comes from the progressive denominations that are progressing themselves right out of existence, the numbers reveal that more conservative churches haven’t exactly thrived either.

In the face of such widespread moral decline, many Christians want to Do Something.  They see all the ways in which the outside world is constantly becoming more wicked, so they turn to politics as the answer to these social ills.  If asked, I suspect that many of these brethren would say that a more godly nation would be a better environment for raising children, spreading the gospel, and so forth.

However, the Scriptures suggest that this course, as reasonable as it appears, is not the one that God would choose for us.  If we live in a time of moral decline (Is the pansexual truly less obedient than the hard-shell Baptist?), it is not the first such that God’s people have experienced.  Indeed, the book of Judges chronicles a repeated cycle of spiritual decline, suffering, and spiritual renewal. 

Within Judges, one of the most famous heroes of the faith is Gideon.  Probably only Samson surpasses him in fame, and Gideon certainly surpasses Samson in righteousness!  As the conqueror of the marauding Midianites, Gideon is enshrined forever in the roll call of Hebrews 11.

Many of us learned as children about the pitcher-torch-and-trumpet stratagem Gideon employs against the enemies of the Israelites in Judges 7.  As we grew older, we may well also have encountered the story of Gideon’s fleece, in which God assuages the doubts of His chosen deliverer.  However, the first command that God gives Gideon has nothing to do with either Midianites or fleeces.  Instead, its object is much closer to home.

Gideon lives in a village called Ophrah of the Abiezrites.  No less than the rest of the Israelites, the people of Ophrah have abandoned the Lord in favor of the worship of idols.  Gideon’s own father, who apparently is a prominent man in the village, has set up an altar to Baal and an Asherah beside it.  In Judges 6:25-26, the Lord tells Gideon to tear down Baal’s altar, chop down the Asherah, build an altar to Him, and offer sacrifices to Him using the wood of the Asherah. 

Given that God already has told Gideon that he will defeat the Midianites, this instruction may well have perplexed the reluctant hero.  What does some religious remodeling in the hinterlands of Manasseh have to do with getting rid of the foreign plunderers? 

God’s point, I think, is that internal renewal had everything to do with solving the external problem.  Gideon, as revealed by his panicked attempt to rescue the harvest, thought the Israelites had a Midianite problem.  They didn’t.  They had a God problem, and the Midianites were nothing more than a symptom of the real issue.  If the Israelites addressed their God problem, soon they wouldn’t be troubled by the Midianites either.

The lesson for us here is powerful.  We serve the One who ordains the rise and fall of nations.  If we have good rulers in our country, it is because He has sent them.  If we have wicked rulers who are leading the people astray, that too is because He has sent them.  Our job is not to rearrange the rulers.  It is to ask, humbly, where we ourselves are spiritually and why God might be sending us trials.

The Lord’s church today is not so wicked as the world, but neither is it so righteous as the Lord.  Far too much of the time, the people who fill the pews on Sundays fill the rest of their weeks with worldliness.  We don’t know our Bibles, we aren’t committed to reaching the lost, and our striving against sin looks more like compromise.  To the extent that we are declining, does the blame belong to Hollywood, or does it belong to us?

Most of us would benefit from a reawakening of Gideon’s spirit, both within our churches and within our own lives.  It’s time to tear down altars, chop down idols, and present to the Lord offerings in righteousness.  It’s time to stop watching shows that we wouldn’t watch if Jesus were sitting next to us on the couch.  It’s time to stop pretending that our porn habit is acceptable because it’s common.  It’s time to confront the lie of a life that doesn’t have time for daily Bible study and prayer yet seems to have plenty of time for social media.

We cannot expect this program to be popular.  Gideon tore down the altar of Baal at night because he was afraid of the reaction from his own community, and events proved him right.  When the men of Ophrah figured out what had happened the next morning, they wanted to kill him.  Ironically, they regarded the steps that would lead to their deliverance as a deadly threat.

So too for us.  We do not cling to worldliness because we do not love it.  We cling because we do.  Seeking the Lord will be painful, certainly within our churches, but especially within ourselves.  If we want to have success in chopping down our brother’s Asherah, we first must lay the axe at the foot of our own.  We must confront our imperfections with relentless self-honesty and relentless determination to do better. 

If we do, who can say what the future holds?  Religious feeling in any country waxes and wanes through the centuries, and it certainly is possible that the COVID pandemic is sowing the seeds of a third Great Awakening.  However, greater obedience is not fundamentally the duty we owe our country.  It is the duty we owe our God and ourselves.

This article originally appeared in Pressing On.

A Spectacle

Friday, August 13, 2021

Language is a funny thing.  Over decades and centuries, words shift in meaning, sometimes dramatically.  One such word in English is the word “spectacle”, particularly in its adjectival form.  Rather than merely referring to that which is attention-grabbing, “spectacular” now is generally that which is both attention-grabbing and good.  People today would not describe the Hindenburg disaster, for instance, as spectacular.

However, every major English translation of the Bible uses “spectacle” in its older sense in 1 Corinthians 4:9.  When Paul writes there that he and the other apostles have become “a spectacle to the world”, he doesn’t mean that they are surrounded by people applauding their virtue and skill.  Instead, he compares the spectacle they offer to that of a man condemned to public execution. 

The Romans were thrifty people.  To them, executions weren’t only an opportunity to rid the world of someone they considered undesirable.  Instead, they also sought to shame and disgrace the condemned as an object lesson to anyone in the crowd who might consider defying the might of Rome.  The humiliating subtext of the crucifixion of Christ was typical for the Romans.

This, then, is the kind of spectacle that Paul and the apostles are presenting.  They are being held up for mockery, reviling, persecution, and slander.  More provocatively, Paul says that they are being displayed in this way not by the Romans or even the Jews, but by God.  He is allowing them to be exposed to mockery so their mockers could see their faith, to reviling so the revilers could receive their blessing, to persecution so their persecutors could see their endurance, and to slander so the slanderers could see their graciousness.  In the end, the spectacle is not of humiliation.  It is of glorifying God by imitating Christ.

I have become a spectacle at two times in my life.  The first was when my daughter died; the second is my terminal diagnosis.  Neither of these are positive.  I believe that both are evils conjured up by the devil and permitted by God.  My struggles with ALS already have exposed my vulnerability to mental illness.  I anticipate that in future, they will reveal the weakness and failure of my body and perhaps even my mind.  These are the things that my disease will highlight in me.  Nonetheless, I am determined to turn each, so far as I am able, to the glory of God.

I say these things, though, not to elicit either sympathy or admiration.  I am only what Christ has made me, and I never will be anything more.  Instead, I want to point out that for all of us, the worst times in our lives, the times that shock others and elicit their pity, are also the times when God is exhibiting us as a spectacle. 

When we are so exhibited, we choose the kind of spectacle that we will be.  Will we display only suffering and shame, human frailty and human failure?  Or, instead, will we imitate Christ and His apostles?  In the face of trial and tragedy, will we shine with faith, resolve, courage, and hope?  We usually cannot choose to avoid becoming a spectacle.  However, we can determine that regardless of what the devil throws at us, our spectacle will honor God.

Language is a funny thing.  Over decades and centuries, words shift in meaning, sometimes dramatically.  One such word in English is the word “spectacle”, particularly in its adjectival form.  Rather than merely referring to that which is attention-grabbing, “spectacular” now is generally that which is both attention-grabbing and good.  People today would not describe the Hindenburg disaster, for instance, as spectacular.

However, every major English translation of the Bible uses “spectacle” in its older sense in 1 Corinthians 4:9.  When Paul writes there that he and the other apostles have become “a spectacle to the world”, he doesn’t mean that they are surrounded by people applauding their virtue and skill.  Instead, he compares the spectacle they offer to that of a man condemned to public execution. 

The Romans were thrifty people.  To them, executions weren’t only an opportunity to rid the world of someone they considered undesirable.  Instead, they also sought to shame and disgrace the condemned as an object lesson to anyone in the crowd who might consider defying the might of Rome.  The humiliating subtext of the crucifixion of Christ was typical for the Romans.

This, then, is the kind of spectacle that Paul and the apostles are presenting.  They are being held up for mockery, reviling, persecution, and slander.  More provocatively, Paul says that they are being displayed in this way not by the Romans or even the Jews, but by God.  He is allowing them to be exposed to mockery so their mockers could see their faith, to reviling so the revilers could receive their blessing, to persecution so their persecutors could see their endurance, and to slander so the slanderers could see their graciousness.  In the end, the spectacle is not of humiliation.  It is of glorifying God by imitating Christ.

I have become a spectacle at two times in my life.  The first was when my daughter died; the second is my terminal diagnosis.  Neither of these are positive.  I believe that both are evils conjured up by the devil and permitted by God.  My struggles with ALS already have exposed my vulnerability to mental illness.  I anticipate that in future, they will reveal the weakness and failure of my body and perhaps even my mind.  These are the things that my disease will highlight in me.  Nonetheless, I am determined to turn each, so far as I am able, to the glory of God.

I say these things, though, not to elicit either sympathy or admiration.  I am only what Christ has made me, and I never will be anything more.  Instead, I want to point out that for all of us, the worst times in our lives, the times that shock others and elicit their pity, are also the times when God is exhibiting us as a spectacle. 

When we are so exhibited, we choose the kind of spectacle that we will be.  Will we display only suffering and shame, human frailty and human failure?  Or, instead, will we imitate Christ and His apostles?  In the face of trial and tragedy, will we shine with faith, resolve, courage, and hope?  We usually cannot choose to avoid becoming a spectacle.  However, we can determine that regardless of what the devil throws at us, our spectacle will honor God.

My Heart Is Broken for Bill Cosby

Friday, July 09, 2021

Among its other vices, our society loves to find people with unpopular views (the more unpopular, the better) and hold them up for public scorn.  Self-righteousness is apparently very pleasant to the American palate.  Amazingly enough, some reporter recently succeeded in finding someone who did not believe that Bill Cosby deserved to be in prison. 

An ancient actress named Carroll Baker gave an interview in which she expressed her belief that Cosby was innocent.  Instead, it was his victims were at fault.  Baker’s claims are fantastic and easily dismissed, as they were meant to be.  However, in her semi-coherent rambling, she did say one thing that struck me.  “My heart is broken for Bill Cosby,” she said.

Indeed.

Our hearts ought to be broken for Bill Cosby, not because he is not a malevolent sexual predator, but because he is a malevolent sexual predator.  Baker to the contrary, there is no doubt that he drugged and raped dozens of women, doing unimaginable harm.  However, among his victims, we must number Cosby himself. 

Like all of us, God gave him an immortal soul.  He also was blessed with great gifts such as few of us possess.  Through these gifts, he accumulated great wealth, reputation, and fame. 

Tragically, he also listened to the whispers of the devil.  In pursuit of selfish pleasure, he did great evil, and this evil corrupted everything else he had done. 

His wealth was expended in lawsuits and payouts to victims, his reputation was shattered, and his fame was transmuted to infamy.  Today, although he is a free man, he is every bit as miserable and ruined as the women he exploited.  This is to say nothing of the horrible damage he has done to his soul and the horrible fate that likely will befall him on the day of judgment.

What a tragedy!  What a waste!  Even the predator is the prey of the evil one, who has betrayed him as he always betrays his followers.  The true villain here is Satan.  While we long for justice, we also must regard the evildoer with compassion.

If we’re not willing to do that, we must ask ourselves where we draw the line.  What is the difference between the sinner who is worthy of pity and the sinner who isn’t?  Is it, perhaps, that we are moved by our own plight and the plight of those who sin like we do, while we shower contempt on those who sin differently?  It was not so for Jesus.  Though He did not sin, He pitied even those whom He knew never would listen.

In particular, we must learn to see the tragedy in those who sin against us.  “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing!” Jesus cried on the cross.  Well, yes, they did know!  They were unjustly killing a genuine prophet who told them He was the Son of God, and they did it for the sake of their position and power. 

However, they acted in ignorance too, ignorance of the damage they were doing themselves, ignorance of the doom they were bringing on their nation, and ignorance of the eternal destruction they were storing up for their souls.  Jesus saw that they were deceived, and He appealed for their forgiveness.

Our hearts ought to be broken for Bill Cosby.  They ought to be broken for all those who trouble us.  Mourning is as appropriate a response to sin as anger is, and they ought to be combined in us as they are in God.  In a world so marred in every way by sin, we need not fear an excess of compassion.

In Christ I Will Not Lose

Thursday, July 08, 2021

As I contemplate my future, one of the most unpleasant prospects is that of developing frontotemporal dementia.  In my family, FTD and ALS are genetically linked.  My mother had both.  I do not know whether I will be spared.

However, as awful as FTD is, my trust is in the One whose power is greater than any illness.  As of now, there is no medication that will slow its inexorable march, but I am confident that any victory that it wins over me will be temporary only.  For me, as for any Christian afflicted with Alzheimer’s or dementia, I know these things to be true:

In Christ I will not lose my memories.  Jesus knew His friends and loved ones after His resurrection, and I will be raised like Him.

In Christ I will not lose my personality.  He who is able to restore the martyrs from scattered ashes will be able to restore it too.

In Christ I will not lose my relationships.  Heaven is a place of greater fellowship, not lesser.

In Christ I will not lose my mind.  I know I will have it because it is impossible to love God fully without it.

In Christ I will not lose my joy.  At His right hand there are pleasures forever.

In Christ I will not lose my salvation.  He will not hold me accountable for the foolish and hurtful actions that I am no longer able to control.

In Christ I will not lose my life.  It is hidden in Him.

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