Blog

Blog

Meditations

Displaying 6 - 10 of 142

Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 27 28 29


A Gouge in a Pew

Friday, September 03, 2021

A couple of weeks ago, I attended a friend’s funeral in an unfamiliar church building.  I took a seat by an aisle and shortly noticed a gouge in the back of the pew support in front of me.  The gouge was at knee height.  To the left/exterior, it was narrow and shallow; to the right/interior, it broadened and deepened to about a quarter inch.  Another, fainter horizontal scrape appeared two or three inches above it.  None of the other pews around me bore similar markings.

I will never know for sure, but I would guess that the scrapes came from a walker or similar piece of assistive equipment.  An older Christian once sat (has sat?) there for years because that was Their Pew.  They shuffled into the auditorium on their walker, gingerly lowered themselves to the seat where I sat, folded up their walker, and dragged it into the same row. 

As they were doing so, their lack of stability forced them to brace the walker against the pew in front of them.  Every time, something (a walker brace?  screw heads?) raked across the pew support.  Service by service, year by year, those feeble hands wore away the gouge that I saw.  That Christian may well be dead now, but the gouge still bears witness.  They assembled.

Sometimes, it is the faith we display in our weaknesses that makes the deepest mark.  Lots of strong, healthy Christians strode into that auditorium, worshiped, and departed without leaving a trace.  However, the pew support remembers the Christian who probably couldn’t drive to church anymore, who couldn’t walk unassisted, whose pace was slow and even doddering.  They certainly inspired pity, perhaps contempt, perhaps frustration from the custodial crew, but they came.  No one would have faulted them for not coming.  They came anyway, and the pew support testifies to their faithful obedience.

So too with the marks we make, and not only on pews.  Some of the Christians whose singing I remember most are those who couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.  They knew it and sang anyway.  Loudly.  They were humbled, but God was exalted. 

How about the introvert who, with white knuckles and sweaty palms, welcomes a visitor to the assembly?  Or the octogenarian who shows up to help a relocated brother unload the moving truck?  Or the song leader who can’t read a note of music but listens to a new hymn over and over on YouTube until he feels comfortable introducing it to the congregation? 

How about the apostle Paul, who struggled with covetousness but learned from Christ the secret of remaining faithful through poverty and prosperity alike?

We often seek to glorify God through our strengths.  This is our wheelhouse.  This is the thing we are good at.  Look at this wonderful thing we are doing (for God)!

Perhaps, though, He is best glorified through our weaknesses.  This is not our wheelhouse.  We are terrified.  We are a hopeless disaster.  We would not be doing this for anybody but God, but He told us to do it, and we are. 

The ungodly might be laughing at us, but God isn’t laughing.  He is pleased.  He loves not only the sacrifices that arise from effortless self-confidence but also those offered in weakness, fear, and trembling.  Against all worldly wisdom, we surrender our two mites, knowing it can’t possibly matter but trusting that it will be enough.

A Message to X

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The other day, a friend forwarded me a message from a friend of theirs.  In it, the friend of my friend described their waning faith.  They felt disconnected from their church, they were unhappy with being single, and they struggled with God’s behavior in Job 1.  In inviting Satan to consider Job, wasn’t God participating in evil?  The following was my response.

Dear X,

I'm a minister in Columbia, TN and a friend of Y's, who shared your concerns with me.  I'm not surprised by your struggles.  When the American version of Christianity is so focused on marriage/family, it's hard to be single!  I also understand why your suffering would shake your faith.  In my own life, I recently was diagnosed with ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease.  It's terminal, has no cure, and probably will kill me within five years, even though I have a 11-year-old and a 9-year-old.  This is, to say the least, difficult to deal with!

I would suggest, though, that what you're struggling with isn't really God's existence, but rather God's goodness.  Logically speaking, even if God is participating in evil in bringing Job to Satan's attention, that doesn't show anything about God's existence one way or another.  Both of us know lots of evil people who nonetheless exist.  It's equally possible for God to be cruel and uncaring yet still exist too.

The problem you're identifying is that God's actions in Job 1 appear to be inconsistent with the Biblical portrait of a God who is loving and kind.  You're saying, "A good God wouldn't have pointed out Job to Satan, so God isn't good."  In your own life, your suffering leads you to question God's goodness. 

However, the Bible does not claim that the goodness of God means that the righteous never will suffer.  Indeed, the opposite is true.  Exhibit A here is Jesus.  He was perfectly righteous, yet a good God handed Him over to torture, humiliation, and death, despite the great grief this caused God.  The Father and the Son shared in suffering to accomplish a greater good.

Consequently, if I have committed to following in the footsteps of Jesus, I also have agreed to accept the suffering that God allows.  Jesus suffered despite and even because of His righteousness; should I expect anything different?  Indeed, how could it be possible for the Christian to be conformed to the image of Christ without suffering?  Christianity without suffering also is Christianity without the cross.

Suffering presents every believer with a choice.  We can turn inward and dwell on our misery, or we can determinedly seek God through the trial.  There is no promise in the Bible that we will be spared trial, but every trial will offer a way to glorify God.  When we endure through trial, we accomplish the greater good He desires.

Back to Job 1.  I think all of the above reveals the answer.  God wanted to give Job the opportunity to accomplish a greater good.  Part of the greater good was that the arc of the story revealed God to be compassionate and merciful, as per James 5:10-11.  Job's story also gave believers before the time of Christ insight into the suffering of the righteous that otherwise wasn't available.  If you have not read the book of Job beyond the opening and closing chapters, I strongly encourage you to do so!

I wish I could talk these things over with you in person.  Regardless, my prayers are with you.  May the Lord bless you richly, even in the midst of trial!

Matt Bassford

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.

Displaying 6 - 10 of 142

Page 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 27 28 29