These are spiritually oppressive days. The coronavirus is oppressive, the George Floyd killing and its fallout are oppressive, and the online quarrelling between brethren over these issues is oppressive. All these things combine to paint a grim picture of our spiritual reality.
However, I don’t think that this picture is accurate. Nothing about God’s people and His church has been fundamentally altered. The storm may be raging, but the houses with foundations continue to stand. We are not a perfect people, but we do diligently seek the Lord, and for those with eyes to see, the search is so, so evident. I am thankful for everyone who is engaged in it. In particular:
I am thankful for every Christian and every church that strives for unity in the face of racial and political difference. We are not all the same, and if that changes in the future, something horrible has happened. We do not all see things the same way, and that is unlikely ever to change!
Nonetheless, we work to be one in Christ Jesus. We carefully, awkwardly reach out to those of different races. We make allowances for differences in upbringing and experience that lead to different perspectives. When a brother or sister makes a thoughtless comment, we smile with thin lips instead of exploding in outrage.
Unity is not an accident. It is the product of constant, patient effort. I am thankful for everyone who makes the effort.
I am thankful for my black brothers and sisters. Though I try to empathize, I know I never will be able to see the world through your eyes. When I say the wrong thing, it’s because of my imperfect understanding, not evil intent.
Nonetheless, I don’t have any trouble seeing Christ in you. I see your anger and your pain, but I know that Christ was angry. I know that Christ suffered when He saw injustice. I rejoice when you rise above those who hold you in contempt, when, rather than returning evil for evil, you speak truth in love. By your godliness and self-control, you put your enemies to shame.
I am thankful for my black brethren who are church leaders. You are among the best of us, and in many cases, your example is one I honor and strive to imitate. The work that you do as preachers, elders, and deacons brings glory to God, and your dignified, humble service powerfully rebuts the lies of racism. May your hands and your hearts always be strengthened for the labor you do for God!
I am thankful for the white brethren who serve as adoptive and foster parents for children who are black and brown. You know as well as anybody that love isn’t color-blind, that love sees color, because love has to see color. You also know, though, that color is no barrier to love. In many cases, you have taken heavy burdens upon yourselves because of love, and though your struggles and suffering often are known to no one but God, they still glorify Him. White sisters, every time you go out in public with a child of color and somebody sneers at you, remember that fools sneered at Christ too. As you despise the shame, you walk in His footsteps.
Most of all, I am thankful for the love of the God who has called us and bound us together. By nature, we are children of wrath, hateful and hating one another, and yet He had compassion on us and showed us mercy through His Son. As we seek to be transformed into His image, may His compassion and His love be our guiding star, imperfectly seen, even more imperfectly followed, yet always present. As we despair of ever perfecting ourselves, let us repose our hope in the One who fully is able to perfect us.
The law of Christ is not as I would have written it. There are actions that don’t bother me very much that God labels as sins, and there are things that chap my hide but are not condemned by Him. I think pineapple on pizza ought to be classed as an abomination, but Jesus declared all foods clean, so there I am.
More seriously, there are plenty of people out there with serious, serious problems with portions of the word of God. Their problems are so serious that they go hunting for reasons to become atheists, just so that they won’t feel obliged to keep that abhorrent commandment. Sometimes, it’s not even something that they have to do. They just don’t like that God said it, so they leave.
This is not a new problem. Indeed, it is clearly on display in John 6. Contextually, Jesus’ ministry has reached a high point after His feeding of the five thousand. Throngs of new disciples think so highly of Him that they want to make Him king by force.
In response, Jesus preaches one of the most alienating sermons of His ministry. Among other things, He tells His disciples that they have to eat His flesh and drink His blood if they want to inherit eternal life. 2000 years later, this is still a difficult concept, and its effect on its immediate hearers is predictable. His new followers desert Him in droves, grumbling that His teaching is too hard to understand.
I doubt this result was accidental. I’m sure Jesus would have been pleased if the crowds were sufficiently devoted enough to stick around even though they didn’t understand what He was saying, but He knew they weren’t. He made such challenging statements in order to separate those who were truly committed from those who weren’t.
Today, God’s word continues to serve the same function. I’ve never met anyone who was upset by the content of John 6, but I have studied with those who stumble over baptism, sexual morality, and marriage. Others don’t like what the Bible says about authority. Still others would rather zero in on grace and ignore Scriptural teaching on obedience.
Sooner or later, all of us are going to run into a hard saying in Scripture, something that we don’t want to do or don’t want to believe. That’s not in question. The question is what we will do when it happens. Either we turn tail like most of the disciples in John 6, or we struggle on regardless.
If we want to be pleasing to God, though, this choice is no choice at all. Either we submit to Jesus in everything, whether we understand it, whether we like it, or we submit to Him in nothing. If we pick and choose from His precepts, we have removed Him as Lord and set ourselves in His place.
The temptation to do so can be severe. If we decide to reject the words of Christ, the devil will hand us half a dozen justifications for doing so in a heartbeat. We must remember, though, that the troublesome issue really isn’t what’s at issue. It’s just a tool that the devil is using to get what he really wants—our souls. As long as he can separate us from Jesus, any method will serve.
That’s the decision that we have to make, then—whether we want Jesus to save us or not. If we do, we will accept Him, hard sayings and all, because there is no other option. Peter says lots of dumb things in the course of the gospels, but in John 6:68, he gets it exactly right. He asks, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
Next to those words, the hard words pale into insignificance.
Just when we thought that racist behavior couldn’t get any more indefensible and awful than the Ahmaud Arbery shooting, along comes the George Floyd suffocation. The image of a uniformed police officer kneeling on the neck of a compliant Floyd who is pleading for air is among the most horrible I’ve ever seen. I can’t bring myself to watch the video, even though I can claim no closer kinship to Floyd than being the fellow bearer of an immortal soul.
In the face of such a stark symbol of human hatred, I completely understand why black people all over the country have taken to the streets, crying for justice. Though I cannot condone it, I even understand the behavior of those whose rage and pain has led them to loot, burn, and destroy. Surely something must be done in response to such monstrous evil! If there is anything in this tragedy that I don’t understand, it is how one human being can literally crush the life from another while listening to his pleas for mercy.
However, as comprehensible as the actions of the rioters are, I only can see them as fundamentally misguided. It may be satisfying to destroy the business of some shopkeeper who had nothing to do with the Floyd killing, may well be committed to racial equality, and might even be black themselves, but doing so does nothing to advance justice for anybody. In fact, it only makes the world more evil and less just. People who feel like they have to do something are doing the wrong thing.
I worry too that the feeling that we have to do something is a trap for the rest of us. In its infinite wisdom, the online mediasphere has concluded that all of us need to take a stand against systemic racism, but the problem is that there don’t seem to be any systemic solutions available. The state of Minnesota already has laws on the books prohibiting murder. I’m sure that the handbook for the Minneapolis police department emphasizes that officers must treat all people equally and fairly. I’m sure they undergo sensitivity training on a regular basis. I’m sure they’ve been told that they must intervene whenever they see a fellow officer abusing someone.
And yet, one police officer killed a man who was no threat to him while three others watched. Write the laws how you will; until the hearts of people like that change, nothing will change. After all, if the Pharisees successfully subverted even the law of God, I am confident that those who are so minded will be able to subvert and defeat the intent of any mere human law.
This takes us, then, to Christ. He has the power to transform the most corrupt and hateful heart if it will submit to Him. When it comes to racism, meaningful change is possible only through the gospel, one conversion at a time.
Some say that’s not good enough. We can’t wait for the slow work of the word; we have to take action now! However, those apparently quick, easy solutions tend to have coercion behind them. If others do not want to be righteous, we must make them be righteous.
Sadly, the more we use force to fight against racism, the more it will flourish. Even now, racists across the nation are watching looting videos and nodding self-righteously, confirmed in their belief that black people are little more than animals. If the government seeks to compel heart change, it will create martyrs for a cause unworthy of them.
The work of persuading others to God is like planting a white-oak sapling in your front yard. Change is always slow, sometimes imperceptible. As the years go by, the apparent lack of progress will be frustrating. However, if we are patient and do not lose heart, it will produce the result that we desire to see.
“ABIDE WITH ME” The title and theme of this hymn come from Luke 24:29 in the KJV, which reads in part, “But they constrained him, saying, Abide with us, for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.” The author, Henry F. Lyte, takes this literal appeal (the two disciples were offering Jesus hospitality for the night) and transforms it into a prayer for Jesus’ presence through the metaphorical darknesses of our lives: change, temptation, and even death. The tune, EVENTIDE, is a masterpiece of Victorian hymnody. It’s more difficult than most of what we sing, but it suits the mood of the lyrics perfectly.
“ALL HAIL THE POWER OF JESUS’ NAME” Like many hymns, this one is based on the description of Jesus in Revelation 19:12 as a monarch wearing many crowns, which symbolizes His unlimited authority. It invites various groups to acknowledge that authority.
"All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name" sees wider use than similar hymns, such as “Crown Him with Many Crowns” (which is arguably better lyrically), because of the tune. CORONATION is easier to sing, uses some unusual harmony, has a great tenor line, and evokes Baroque-era absolute monarchy. I’m a little surprised that hymnal editors, who love to attribute great hymns to great people on the basis of scant evidence, haven’t credited the tune to Handel instead of its actual composer, Oliver Holden.
“ALL PEOPLE THAT ON EARTH DO DWELL” If worshipers have been singing it since 1560, it’s probably pretty good! The lyrics are a paraphrase of Psalm 100, and it’s easily one of the top three paraphrases in our repertoire. It’s much less clunky than psalm paraphrases usually are because the author took a very short psalm and stretched out the content to make for smoother writing.
The tune, OLD 100TH, is even older than the lyrics. Like many older tunes, it relies on harmony rather than rhythm to add interest, changing chords on nearly every beat. Such tunes can be difficult to sing, but this one isn’t because of the slow tempo at which it is sung and the skill with which the harmony was written. The good “tune math” makes it sound majestic.
“AMAZING GRACE” This is one of those rare birds, a hymn with a mediocre tune that is sung because the lyrics are so good. The tune, NEW BRITAIN, is an import from the Sacred Harp tradition, and it works much better with Sacred Harp-style harmony (For those of you who aren’t familiar with the Sacred Harp version, you can take a listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPOo4dOuPbQ). However, for a hymn about God’s amazing grace, NEW BRITAIN with common-practice harmony simply doesn’t sound very amazing.
The lyrics, though, are amazing. Despite being 250 years old, they are as simple, direct, and clear as if they were written yesterday. If I had to guess, the inspiration for the hymn came from Luke 15:32, and “I once was lost but now am found” was the first line John Newton wrote. Anyone familiar with his life story understands immediately why he would have identified with the prodigal son, and his celebration of the grace that he believed God had extended to him is one in which we all can share.
“BE STILL, MY SOUL” is the masterwork of that gifted translator of German Lutheran hymns into English, Jane Borthwick. The German original, Katherine von Schlegel’s “Stille, Mein Wille” is quite a bit different in meter, rhythm, and tone. Borthwick’s translation is more thoughtful and philosophical. As a hymn for reflection in times of sorrow, “Be Still, My Soul” is unsurpassed.
The tune to which we sing it, FINLANDIA, is much later than the text. It originally was an orchestral tone poem by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. Its classical genesis is evident in its ultra-boring alto line and ultra-hard bass line. I’m always slightly surprised when I come out on the right note on “remain”! Good tune math helps here too. Singing FINLANDIA congregationally is difficult but doable, and the tune is so beautiful that it’s worth doing.
Warren Buffett is fond of saying, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.” In other words, any fool can run a business successfully during a financial boom. However, when the times aren’t so good, foolish risks will be exposed, along with the ones who took them.
The same is true spiritually. Indeed, this is the point that Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. All of us who labor in the Lord’s church are building on the foundation that Paul, along with the other apostles and prophets, laid down. However, not all builders in the church build with equal wisdom and skill. Some are building for eternity; others are building without thought for the future.
When the fires of trial come, though, the quality of each man’s work will be revealed. Every faithful builder will endure, but the product of their labors might not. There are preachers and elders who will inherit eternal life but won’t bring any of those they taught and shepherded with them.
I think the present distress is just such a time of trial, and it will reveal how the workers in each congregation have been building. Most congregations in the United States are either still not assembling or resuming limited assemblies, and it remains unclear how all this will shake out. I’ve seen brethren speculating either gloomily (“Everybody will just start watching the livestream on Sunday morning and not bother to show up!”) or rosily, (“We’ll come back better and stronger then ever!”).
In reality, I think the answer is a great big, “It depends.” Some churches will lose many people; others will lose few to none. A common theme in those disparate results, though, will be the quality of the teaching and leadership the congregation has received before the crisis struck.
It starts with the greatest commandment. People who went to church pre-coronavirus because they loved the Lord with all their heart and soul and mind and strength will be back after the coronavirus has run its course. Devotion to Christ doesn’t sit on the couch and watch YouTube if it has any other choice. On the other hand, people who went to church Sunday mornings because they were used to going might well not be back after they’ve gotten used to not going.
So too with the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us. Congregations where the relationships between brethren are strong will continue to flourish because those relationships will pull everyone back. The aftermath of the epidemic will change our society in many ways, but people still will be drawn to warmth and kindness. On the other hand, congregations where the relationships between brethren are not warm and strong are going to suffer greatly. If you feel lonely when you go to church, you might as well feel lonely staying home.
How have we built? Have we taught our people to love God and love one another? Have we presented every other commandment as depending on those? Or instead, have we wasted our time on feel-good fluff and trivia? The stakes for having gotten this right are already high. The stakes for getting it right in the future are even higher.