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New Hymns and the 10-Minute Rule

Friday, September 14, 2018


Much of the discussion about “Oceans” last week centered on the issue of congregational suitability.  Content questions aside (and content isn’t the biggest problem with “Oceans”), I and many others look at “Oceans” and see a hymn that is too difficult for the congregation.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that a congregation can’t eventually kind-of learn “Oceans”.  If you want to grind away at it for several weeks of new-song class, you can get it off the ground, at least for people who can read music.  Non-singers will probably take considerably longer than that to get the hang of it, if indeed they ever do.  Lots of hymns and praise songs are in this category.

However, just because you can slowly and painfully force a group to learn a song doesn’t mean that it’s congregational.  In fact, it means that it isn’t.  One of the hallmarks of congregational music is that it is easy to learn, so that ordinary Christians can quickly and painlessly begin to worship with it.  An unsuitable hymn will take weeks to learn; a suitable hymn will take minutes.

I mean this literally.  During my time at Joliet, I introduced more than 100 hymns to the congregation there, via a small group that met outside of the assembly.  Typically, about 20 people would show up for a hymn-learning session.  Maybe half of those could read music.  They were good singers, but none of them were music professionals or anything like that. 

After a year or two, we fell into a rhythm.  We’d sing the melody together until the song leaders present felt like they had it down.  Then, we’d sing parts until everybody felt like they had their parts down.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  Using this method, we would learn 6-7 hymns in an hour-long session.  Some of these hymns were centuries old.  Others, like “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us”, had been written in the past few years.

From this, I derive the 10-Minute Rule.  If your church sight-reading group can learn a hymn in 10 minutes or less, it’s congregationally appropriate.  If it takes you weeks of grinding, you’re trying to learn something that wasn’t written with the congregation in mind.  What’s more, you’re learning one song when you could have expanded the repertoire by half a dozen with wiser song selection.

The grind method is problematic not just for its effect on the poor, suffering sight readers, but for its effect on the invisible majority.  People who can’t read music will always have a tougher time learning to worship with a new hymn than people who can.  The harder the music is, the more these difficulties will be magnified.  It may well be that rote learners will never reach the point where they can sing an “Oceans” confidently because they are always being surprised by the rhythm.  This sounds terrible, and it distracts worshipers from worship. 

When it comes to worship, content is king, but even great content can be defeated by bad mechanics.  There are hundreds of songs, both new and old, that have strong content and are easy to sing.  If we can learn a new hymn in 10 minutes, why spend hours on one that isn’t 10 times as good?

Workers at Home

Wednesday, September 12, 2018


A few weeks ago, I was asked to lead a study on gender roles in 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus.  I admit that I received the assignment with some amount of fear and trembling (There are a few opinions on 1 Timothy 2 in the brotherhood.  A few.), but the study itself went well.  However, the discussion was so involved that we didn’t get to any of the material I had prepared on Titus, particularly the instructions to young women in Titus 2:4-5. 

Of the attributes listed in those two verses, “working at home” (the ESV rendering) especially caught my attention.  Many Christians read this phrase (more specifically, the KJV rendering of “keepers at home”) as defining the woman of God’s station in life.  Though she may be forced by circumstances to work outside the home, ideally the home is where she should remain.  She is to be a stay-at-home.  A house-keeper.  According to this way of thinking, when Christian women could do this but choose not to, there’s something spiritually suspect about their decision.

Though I would never criticize a sister for choosing to devote herself to domestic pursuits (indeed, my own wife is a stay-at-home mom who homeschools our children), I don’t think the text requires her to do so.  First of all, there’s a slight translation issue here.  The ESV and KJV readings are based on different Greek words from different Greek manuscripts.  The KJV’s “keepers at home” comes from the Greek oikouros, which does indeed mean “housekeeper”.    However, manuscript evidence points to the conclusion that Paul’s original letter used oikourgos, “worker at home”. 

These are two related but different ideas.  A housekeeper’s function is exclusive.  However, the home-worker’s function is not.  I work at the church building, but I don’t spend all my time here (though my wife may disagree!).  Oikourgos thus leaves more rhetorical space for other pursuits.

Similarly, I think it’s important to pay attention to context.  Paul reveals why he thinks it’s important for a woman to be a worker at home.  It’s the same reason as for every other instruction he gives to young Christian women—so that the word of God won’t be reviled. 

This is a common preoccupation in the Pastoral Epistles.  Paul is concerned with the impression that Christians are making on the communities around them.  He wants to make sure that disciples have a good reputation so that they will be able to share the gospel with others.

When we read “working at home” in this light, a slightly different picture emerges.  So that she doesn’t bring discredit on the cause of Christ, the Christian woman should maintain her home and its inhabitants in a way that meets the standards of society.  The front yard of her house shouldn’t be filled with toys and trash.  When her children go off to school, they should be clean, fed, and with provisions for lunch in hand.  Even if her house won’t always pass a white-glove inspection, she shouldn’t feel afraid to invite in unexpected visitors.  We know the rules.  Basically, don’t do the things that will get the neighbors talking about you behind your back.

This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with whether a woman works outside the home or not.  I know sisters who hold down full-time jobs yet manage to keep their domestic economy running smoothly.  On the other hand, I know some stay-at-home Christian moms whose lifestyle I can only describe as slatternly.  Certainly, more time makes it easier to keep on top of the household, but if a woman can balance work and home responsibilities, more power to her!

Checking the cultural check-boxes is important, but I think our analysis should go deeper still.  As with our word “home”, the Greek oikos is about more than a physical structure.  It relates as much to a family as it does to the place where they live.  A woman of God who is an oikourgos, then, isn’t merely a worker at home.  She’s also a worker at family. 

Obviously, the physical needs of husbands and children are important, but their emotional and spiritual needs are no less important.  A woman who cares for the body without tending to the soul isn’t running a home.  She’s operating a hotel. 

Instead, part of her charge must be to make her house a home.  This starts with the other items on the Titus 2 list.  She must love her husband and her children, and they must know that they are loved.  She must govern her body and her passions, lest she find herself in the position of the foolish woman of Proverbs 14:1.  She must be kind.  She must honor her husband as the head of her family, especially when she doesn’t want to.

However, as with all Scriptural lists of virtues, this one is far from exhaustive.  Instead, the woman of God must seek out all the things that will help her family to flourish (including working outside the home if that’s what’s best for the family).  This includes the laborious task of teaching children to be self-sufficient.  Paradoxically, it is the children’s ability to leave a home and thrive that shows that a mother’s work in that home was successful.

This is a universal activity.  There have been homes and families and mothers since the beginning.  However, simply because it is common does not mean that it is low.  Jesus Himself knelt to wash feet, and even if the world might look down on a family-first woman (just as family men are sneered at), her humility and willingness to serve will win for her a lofty status in the kingdom.

Failing to Taste God's Blessings

Tuesday, September 11, 2018


The first half of 2 Kings is an odd document in many ways, but it has some profound spiritual lessons to offer us.  One of them comes from the story of the siege of Samaria in 2 Kings 6-7.  In this story, the city is besieged by the Syrian army, and things have gotten so desperate that the citizens are eating their own children. 

In this midst of this terrible, apparently hopeless, time, Elisha promises the Israelite king, Jehoram, that the very next day, food would be sold in Samaria for pre-siege prices.  One of Jehoram’s captains sneers at this.  He questions God’s ability to provide such a bounty, even if He were to open windows in heaven.  In reply, Elisha tells him “You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.”

That night, God frightens the Syrians so that they flee, leaving all of their provisions behind.  The people receive word of this, dash out to the Syrian camp, and loot it, so that Elisha’s incredible prediction is fulfilled.  The only loser is the skeptical captain.  The king had put him in charge of the gate, so that when the Israelites rush out, they trample him, and he dies.  He did indeed see God’s salvation, but his unbelief kept him from benefiting from it.

Sadly, all too many people are in the midst of re-enacting this story.  As the word of God’s salvation came to the unbelieving captain, so it comes to them.  They too learn that God promises them life.  However, also like the captain, they choose to sneer rather than believe.  Resurrection from the dead?  Impossible!

God may not reveal His final salvation tomorrow, but just as surely as the word of Elisha was fulfilled, so too will the word of Christ be.  On the day when He returns, every eye will see Him.  Every knee will bow before Him.  Every tongue will confess Him.

However, even though everyone will see the fulfillment of the promise, not everyone will taste it.  God’s blessings are reserved for His own.  They will spend eternity sustaining themselves with the Bread of Heaven and drinking His living water.  The unbelieving will not.  Instead, the same appearance that meant life for the faithful will mean death for them.

The devil likes to try to get us to dwell on the problems that may come with belief.  We won’t get to do fun things anymore, our friends will laugh at us, the smart set will sneer at us, and so on.  In practice, these problems prove either to be insignificant or nonexistent. 

Against them, though, we must set the very real problems that accompany unbelief.  The skeptical captain probably spent his last few hours congratulating himself on his wit.  We may spend our last several decades congratulating ourselves on our superior understanding.  In time, though, the folly of faithlessness always becomes evident.  We will see the salvation of God whether we expect to or not.  Whether we taste it is up to us.   

Who Will Go to Heaven?

Monday, September 10, 2018

A few months ago, one of the sisters here suffered a miscarriage.  That’s certainly a difficult time for any woman, but in this sister’s case, she also found herself wondering about the spiritual situation of her baby.  She came to Shawn and asked him, “Does my baby have a soul?  Will they go to heaven?” 

Shawn was able to help her out, of course, but the conversation helped both of us to realize that this was a topic that we should be preaching on.  After all, “Heaven Bound” is our theme for this year.  We’ve preached multiple sermons on how important it is to go to heaven, but we haven’t really specified who is going to go there.  This morning, then, let’s answer the question, “Who will go to heaven?”

There are several different groups who will spend eternity with God, and the first of these is THOSE WHO HAVE NEVER SINNED.  Consider what God says in Ezekiel 18:19-20.  This text, of course, is not primarily a discussion of life under the sun.  We all know that somebody’s righteousness doesn’t have a whole lot to do with their lifespan.  Instead, the righteous will live spiritually, and the unrighteous will die spiritually.

What’s more, though all of us are responsible for our own sins, none of us will be held accountable for the sins of others.  My father was a good man, but even if he had been the most wretched sinner ever to live, I would not share in the guilt of his sin simply because I’m his son.  Of course, that doesn’t help me a whole lot by itself because I have sinned on my own, but it matters a great deal for those who have never sinned.  Because they have not sinned, they will live.

In this category, we must include those who die as children.  Look at what our Lord says about children in Mark 10:13-16.  Our sins separate us from God, but children have not yet developed the moral capacity to understand sin.  As a result, the kingdom of God belongs to them.  Their personal purity offers no obstacle to spending eternity in the presence of God.  In fact, if we want to go to heaven, Jesus tells us that we have to become like children.

This should be a source of tremendous comfort to everyone who, like me, has lost a child.  We can be assured that if we are faithful, even though we have been parted from those children here, we will be reunited with them there.  This is true for those who die at a young age.  It’s true for stillbirths.  Indeed, it’s true for miscarriages.  We know that even in the womb, children have identities and souls, and that soul is eternal.  Even the child who never sees the light of day will behold the light of the presence of God.

Additionally, this is true for those who may live longer but never develop a knowledge of good or evil.  For instance, somebody who has the mind of a 7-year-old will never sin, no matter how long they live.  They may become adults in their bodies, but they remain children in their minds, and they are no more subject to sin than a child is.  People like this also do not need a Savior because they are sinless on their own.

The other groups we’re going to talk about this morning, though, do need the grace of Jesus to make it to heaven.  The first of these is composed of RIGHTEOUS JEWS.  We know that those who served God under the old covenant received the eternal reward from passages like Luke 13:27-28.  In context, “the kingdom of God” here refers to heaven, and it’s clear that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets will be feasting in that kingdom.  The same will be true of the Israelites and Jews who were less famous than those the Lord mentions, but were no less faithful.  Here, for instance, let’s think of the 7000 mentioned in 1 Kings 19 who never bowed their knees to Baal.  God counted those people as righteous too. 

However, even though these people were counted as righteous because they faithfully followed the Law of Moses, the Law is not the source of their salvation.  Instead, Jesus is.  Look at the contrast that appears in Hebrews 10:11-14.  Under the Law of Moses, the priests continually offered animal sacrifices because of the sins of the people.  However, those sacrifices were not effective.  They weren’t powerful enough to truly take away sin.

When Jesus offered Himself on the cross for sin, though, His sacrifice was incredibly effective and powerful.  It cleansed from sin everybody who believed in Him during the time of the New Testament.  It reaches forward and cleanses us from sin today.  What’s more, it even reached backwards and cleansed everybody who was faithful to the terms of the old covenant.  God promised them forgiveness of sins if they were faithful, but He only fulfilled that promise in Christ.  Throughout the time of the Old Law, that promise was like an IOU that would only be paid with the blood of Jesus.  As a result, those righteous Jews will spend eternity in heaven, but they needed the Lord’s help to get there too.

Like righteous Jews, RIGHTEOUS GENTILES will also go to heaven.  Paul makes God’s perspective on them clear in Romans 2:9-10.  As he often does, Paul here is using “Greek” not to refer to people from the nation of Greece, but to refer to anybody who wasn’t Jewish.  Even though these non-Jews weren’t part of the Sinai covenant with God, they still could please Him by doing good and be justified at the judgment.

Gentiles before the time of Christ were subject to what are called the Noahide laws, the laws that God gave to all people before the Law of Moses.  Among other things, these laws forbade dishonoring God, murder, sexual immorality, and theft.  In some ways, it was more difficult to be a righteous Gentile than a righteous Jew.  The Jews had God’s expectations for them written down, but the Gentiles had to follow their own conscience. 

However, we do know that some Gentiles were pleasing to God even before Christ came.  Consider, for instance, God’s comments on Job in Job 1:8.  Job lived during the time of the patriarchs, a time when God’s word came directly to heads of families.  There’s no evidence that Job appears anywhere in the lineage of the Jews, so both by time and blood, Job wasn’t a Jew.  However, God clearly considers Job a righteous and God-fearing man. 

Nonetheless, even Job couldn’t be justified by his own human perfection.  Other than Jesus, there has never been any man who did good continually and never sinned.  Job must have sinned too, even though his sin is not recorded for us.  Consequently, even though he was faithful to God, he still stood in need of the grace of Christ, and he was saved by that grace, even though he lived thousands of years before Christ was born.

Finally, and most relevantly to most of us, FAITHFUL CHRISTIANS will go to heaven.  Once Jesus died on the cross, the old Jew-Gentile distinction was erased and those separate categories abolished, at least in a spiritual sense.  Now everybody is required to seek salvation through Him. 

If we do so, though, we can be assured of a reward.  Consider the Hebrews writer’s words in Hebrews 4:9-11.  Like the Sabbath came at the end of the week and was a day of rest, at the end of our lives, we can anticipate a Sabbath rest, a time when we can enjoy eternity in God’s presence. 

However, resting is for then.  Working is for now.  It is possible for every one of us to fall away, to be disobedient to God like the Israelites who died in the wilderness.  Thus, we are responsible for striving to enter that blissful Sabbath rest.

This is a thought that makes many Christians anxious.  They’re worried that if the Lord came back tonight, He would determine that they weren’t striving hard enough and so cast them into the outer darkness rather than admitting them to His rest.  As a result, they’re never quite sure of their salvation.

This is an important issue, and Shawn and I have already determined that we’ll use our last Heaven Bound series of the year to examine it.  However, I’m going to give you a sneak peek this morning.  Yes, we do have to strive.  We do have to work toward heaven.  However, striving does not mean the same thing as perfection.

Here, let’s read together from 1 John 1:7-9.  Did you get all that, friends?  To Christians who struggle with sin and are aware of their struggles and their imperfections, I say—good!  As John says, if we don’t admit that, we’re only lying to ourselves. 

What’s important is not whether we sin or not.  It’s whether we are walking in the light.  John tells us that if we are walking in the light and sin, the blood of Jesus will cleanse when we confess those sins.  This implies that it is possible to walk in the light—to be in a right relationship with God--and still have sin struggles.  In fact, this is where every faithful Christian is! 

This text calls us, then, to walk a path between two extremes.  On the one hand, nobody gets into heaven without trying to get there.  We need to strive toward that goal. 

On the other, though, it’s not our job to make ourselves perfect.  Jesus does that for us.  Yes, we should be sorry for our sins, but we should also trust Him when He promises us forgiveness.  As long as we are faithful to Him, He will surely be faithful to us, so that one day, we will live with Him forever.

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