Monthly Archives: May 2014

Too Scared to Cry: The Church that Forgot How to Lament

Moore, Russell (2014) ‘Too Scared to Cry: Social media outrage and the Gospel’, published on DesiringGod.org on 28th May  2014. http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/too-scared-to-cry-social-media-outrage-and-the-gospel [last accessed 30th May 2014]

I only wish there were a ‘reblog’ button for Moore’s article. The point of it is that we have forgotten how to lament. And I completely agree with it. I see this so often in the world as well as in Christian circles. Instead of being sad, we’ve got to be angry – at people and at God. We’ve got to be angry, and to make accusations and impositions on people and things to change. We shake our fists and our heads, we demand our rights from man and God, to be respected, to be prospered, we call down fire from heaven, and we say ‘How can a loving God have ordained this?’ in disgust and unbelief.

No, no, no. Let us wail and lament and cry and fast and rend our hearts for our pitiful state – our cruel world, our raggedy English church that wallows in the same mire and takes it into its delicate pores. Let’s learn to lament together about this condition, rather than stoking each other’s indignation. Let us share sadness, rather than anger. If we will permit ourselves to be sad, there might be wisdom and insight, and with these, a foundation of repentance for the bearing of more and better fruit. “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” said Jesus (Matthew 3:8 ESV). Grief, sorrow, wisdom and insight appear to be bosom chums, after all. We would do well to get used to tempering our grief with sorrow, I feel; then we might be able to bear wisdom and insight and use them fruitfully.

For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
(Ecclesiastes 1:18 KJV)
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
(Ecclesiastes 7:4 KJV)

Let us crack open the Scriptures, read what God says and promises to peoples who live and behave like our churches, and lament. Never was the Word of God so readily available to our people, and never were our churches so illiterate in it, and never did our churches so blithely disregard it, blaspheme it even – so dare we feel entitled to blessing, prosperity and a bounteous harvest? What impudence, to complain “The Lord hasn’t been speaking to us or pouring his Spirit out on us lately, and there is no increase”, and to feel justified in railing at God for this! For a long time now I have felt that we are dancing on the edge of an iceberg. All around are the symptoms of decay, and God knows what monstrosity lurks beneath. If these signs are all around, then why is it a surprise when ministries and endeavours praised and encouraged by churches at the proposal stage then fail for lack of support when put into practice, or when parochialism, individualism, selfish priorities, lack of diligence, lack of unity, pressure to ‘perform’, the idolatry of leadership and the devaluation of follower-ship and submission to authority, and a crumbling sense of community, push lone wolves into lone ministries that have to scrap with each other for resources in order to survive, because those who could be providing the resources have been driven by those same things to be the bosses of their own ‘lone’ ministries? Are these not just more symptoms of the underlying leprosy? What sort of house is a house struck by a leprous disease, when you need a safe structure in which to dwell and operate that’s not going to disintegrate when you need it to support you? Would you trust the decaying loft beams to hold you up while you try to build a dormer window for your roof extension?

The really sad thing is, I think, that not even the victims of this situation can claim that they do not also contribute to the problem in some way. Individuals make demands on the resources of church communities for their ministries with the intentions of doing good, but it is the church communities that have to suffer the loss of those resources if the individuals do not contribute anything to that church community from which they have taken. The church is already a large and struggling ministry from which many are prepared to take, but to which few are prepared to give in time, money, fellowship or service. Stretching the church’s resources further cannot be a help to that community, if it is already sick and weak. To put it another way, while I am working at Joe Bloggs’ street evangelism project, I am not visiting my widow friend from the 10:45 congregation – if, indeed, I were the rare and sought-after sort of churchgoer who actually visited widows and supported evangelists, as per the Biblical mandate.

Let us not be angry at this, nor let us be shocked. Let us not point fingers, even if we have specific scenarios in mind. Nobody has been wronged who is not in some way guilty, so let us not be furious: there is no-one towards whom we can rightfully direct fury; we’re all stained with the same blot, and our indignity is shared. Rather, this is what happens when you have a diseased condition in the churches and the Christians who inhabit them (and those who don’t). But where fury cannot be justified, let us not grow apathetic like people of the world do. It’s the classic get-out clause, and an excuse to do nothing, when everybody and nobody is to blame. We are not excused, and the disease does not disappear, just because nobody is allowed to rage at anyone or anything. The response I think we need to offer is a lament, and that’s a response that the world at large doesn’t seem to include in its repertoire: it seems to me that when the world goes about the business of getting down to brass tacks, it usually only rages and plots in vain, and anything else is widely considered an admission of defeat. Those moral defeats that it cannot deny: the Holocaust, the Great War – the world laments. But as for us, let us lament those things that the world would conceal: we have already surrendered to the gospel in moral defeat, we have accepted the intrinsic vileness of our condition and do not need to hide or distract ourselves from it by reviling others, and those of us who are wise stake our lives on the cause of God, and nothing can defeat that cause. Let us weep and pray and search our hearts, that they might be set right, and rifle through our practices and our ministries and our subcultures and our churches, each to that which has been put under his own stewardship, with carefully-chosen advisers, to find out where the rot is and to seek to expel it and turn away from it – this is the essence of repentance after all. God heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds – but I cannot recall where he promises any such thing for people who have allowed themselves to be driven by judgemental, self-exalting and other-abasing anger against people and things and God.

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A Life Lesson From This Year’s Wedding Season

When someone dries your tears
When someone wins your heart
And says you’re beautiful – when you don’t know you are,
And all you long to see is written on his face,
When love has come and finally set you free
On that wedding day.

When I listened to this song I suddenly realised what all those conservative evangelical books on ’emotional purity’ before marriage were really talking about. They were all so vague; they used so many generic, fluffy terms that their advice about ‘protecting your emotions’ and ‘not giving away your heart’ didn’t seem like anything I could hold up as a mirror to my own inner life. I had been so promiscuous about my emotions when I was younger that I’d become calloused to the indignity of throwing them around. Over the course of a number of months the cogs had slowly been starting to turn, when I heard this song and the truth hit like a sledgehammer. After the big moment of penitence my major urge was as follows: I’ve got to warn the others before it’s too late for them. So, dear daughters of Jerusalem, treat this as a plea from one worn and weary maiden tired of crawling through beggars’ dust, to another (hopefully less worn, less weary, less tired and less dusty).

Marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship to the church – and as relationships go, it’s as exclusive as they come. This song paints it more vividly than I could readily have imagined. It’s no wonder adultery and idolatry are so closely linked in the books of the Prophets; that the harlotries and whoredoms of God’s people are so often instances of Baal-worship. But it’s clear from the text that sex is not all there is to it. Take Hosea 2, for example. Judah didn’t break God’s heart just because she ‘did the deed’. Rather, it was about whom she allowed to be her Saviour, whom she allowed to provide for her, whom she allowed to allure her when he spoke tenderly to her, whom she would accept her peace from that she might lie down in safety on his account, and whom she allowed to give her hope and accept her. This takes ‘purity’ to a new level. Christ tolerates no rivals in that intimate kind of service and neither would a husband who loves his wife as Christ loves the church – and it is the exclusivity of that relationship – the ‘holiness’ or ‘set-apartness’ – which is so beautiful.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
(Ephesians 5: 22-32, ESV)

Pragmatically speaking…

If you throw your heart, mind, hopes, dreams, fears, memories and emotions at someone before you’ve learned what that person is truly made of and what they’re going to be to you, then you can’t take them back later.

Protect your inner life. Control your own body – possess your own vessel – in sanctification and honour. It goes for women as it goes for men – but I address women especially because I am a woman, and because I see elements of my own expressly female constitution in Judah’s heart-whoredom, over which God laments in the book of Hosea in the shoes of a wronged husband. Remember the Leona Lewis song – “My heart’s crippled by the vein that I keep on closing – you cut me open and I keep bleeding, keep, keep bleeding love” – don’t let it apply to you. Don’t bleed devotion like a leaky flask onto whoever waits eagerly enough to get their fill. Honour those to whom your inner life really belongs, even if that’s just you and Jesus for now, by not pouring your heart out to people you aren’t meant to be bound to. The more you give of your heart to a person, the more you become bound up in theirs, and here I speak from experience. I stand guilty as charged; what can I say? I have my regrets and my heartaches; I have that one leaky vein that I struggle to keep shut, and this is the long, painful lesson I’ve been learning.

Tell me, you whom I love,
    where you graze your flock
    and where you rest your sheep at midday.
Why should I be like a veiled woman
    beside the flocks of your friends?
(Song of Solomon 1:7, NIV)

Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and you are to present it as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God. Don’t set yourself up for abuse and exploitation for another’s pleasure. Don’t lay yourself a trap to fall into. Don’t let other loves ‘sap’ your reserves of trust, intimacy and affection, and rival your Lord and your husband to whom you pledged these things in love. To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish and obey, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance… You gave yourself to him, giftwrapped, with love in your eyes and joy in your heart, and you promised to be his forever.

If Christ has chosen you to be his bride, his specially elect and a member of his body, then he needs your heart just as your earthly husband does, and he needs you to let him be your hero, and he needs you to be pure. So protect your inner life. Keep it from emotional scavengers and voyeurs. Be careful whom you allow to dry your tears, and win your heart, and convince you that you are beautiful when you wouldn’t let yourself believe it. Don’t look for all you long to see in the face of any Tom, Dick or Harry (or Sally) who etches it there. You don’t even know what they really want those pieces of you for.

Christ paid a high price for you and your heart. You might have zero self-esteem, you might hate yourself, but whatever you feel inside, if Christ was crucified to reconcile you to God, then your heart is too valuable for you to throw it around. It’s been called in, claimed, taken, reserved, bought and set uniquely apart by someone who has pledged to love and cherish and own it forever, and sealed that pledge with his own blood, that he might have it exclusively. You were was his before he even quickened your heart to love and summoned you to the altar to say your vows: he betrothed you to himself forever and wooed you, in the manner of Hosea 2 and Ezekiel 16. So don’t throw your heart around. It’s not for you to throw. Daughters of Jerusalem, set your heart apart for Christ, and for those whom God has appointed to take care of it, for his sake and for yours.

#lifelessons

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What Our Worship Lacks: A reflection on ‘Tragic Worship’ by Carl R. Trueman

Original article: Trueman, Carl R. (2003) ‘Tragic Worship’ in First Things
http://www.firstthings.com/article/2013/06/tragic-worship [last accessed 2nd May 2014]

I’ve had a rip at ‘chipper’ worship music already. Shallow, exclusively-cheerful music expressing profound and complex truths as simple platitudes doesn’t give people time or space to weigh up how they feel about the realities they’re expressing – and these realities take more than a bit of emotional and intellectual digestion. There are paradoxes everywhere we look – paradoxes whose lines converge ever-imperfectly in our finite minds like geometric lines into exultant joy, but also into heart-broken sorrow. We are free because God was nailed to a tree to suffer in our place. When we meditate on this, when we sing about it, how can our thoughts and feelings not be complex or even incomplete? This is not something to be ‘chipper’ about. This is not the ‘chipperness’ of having just baked a pie or won a game of football, or having finally won that pay rise or that job we were hankering after. No, this is the “pleasing grief and mournful joy” of which John Newton writes in his hymn Looking at the Cross, and it is profound and heart-breaking, as well as uplifting. The paradox inherent in these feelings is nothing new to Christ’s order of things. We are saved from death and hell by a crucified convict who is the Son of God, and this is surely a paradox par excellence. We are worthy of hell, but stand with the hope of heaven. We are weak, and yet we are strong. We are poor, and yet we are rich. We are at peace, and yet we are at war. We make well, and yet we are sick. We are dying, and yet we live. We are being crucified, and yet we are triumphing. St Augustine of Hippo put his spiritual experience in similar terms of paradox:

What is this which gleams through me
And smites my heart without wounding it?
I am both a-shudder and aglow.
A-shudder, in so far as I am unlike it,
Aglow in so far as I am like it.

I was encouraged to find that my favourite preacher John Piper had similar things to say about this pet subject of mine in the last sermon of a series entitled Thirty-Year Theological Trademarks, ‘Sorrowful, But Always Rejoicing. But for now, I would like to turn your attention to a 2003 article by Carl R. Trueman in First Things, entitled ‘Tragic Worship‘. Trueman believes that the missing element of our worship; the thing that makes it sound trite and shallow and unexciting, is precisely the lack of that half of the emotional paradox which we cannot bear to present to people. We, as a British culture, are allergic to mourning. We are allergic to death. We are allergic to meditating on our inadequacy before God – and if some of our music pays lip service to these, much of our other music does what British media does: it serves as a form of distraction from sober questions and heart-breaking realities.  We might listen to a sermon that causes us to question the deepest motivations of our heart – and then before we even have time to think and present our admissions and concerns to God and reconsider our priorities or the authenticity of our faith, we are forced into a high-octane performance of ‘Oh, Happy Day!‘.  At times like this, it seems as if these genuine wrestlings, these heart-changing feelings of discomfort, were not the very stuff of the Christian life, but were instead so many cracks that we have to paper over by a cheery onslaught of noise. We do not like discomfort or questioning, because these things are awkward, and like everyone else, awkward is something we resist, because it threatens the status quo and makes our lives more difficult. Deep, soul-searching questioning, especially when it borders on sad thoughts and confounding paradoxes, is what we seem to invite through our evangelistic events, but we stifle it when we treat it like this. There is authenticity, there is real life, when we allow ourselves to admit our own disquiet and our own grief and our incapacity to understand to each other and to God. When we admit that our plant is diseased and seek to heal it, rather than sticking a faux flower on with some PVA, we see a growth that’s real. I think our churches would do us a favour if they incorporated this into our some of our worship, rather than leaving us in a position in which we struggle to muster the courage to air these matters and get ourselves taken seriously by people who are accustomed to an emotionally, intellectually and existentially easy ‘church’ life. Sure, we laugh together. We learn together. We even sing together (sort of). But do we weep together? Do we grieve together in a real, mutual way over Kingdom things? Do we wrestle with God’s Word together? Do we confess our sins to each other and do we share our spiritual burdens, sorrows and trials with each other? Sometimes. But not usually, in my experience.

This insistence on the importance of the ‘tragic’ in our services might sound absurd to some. But I’m convinced. As well as life, joy and healing, Christianity addresses death, human corruption, the nature of God, the price of evil. Our view of life and humanity is authentic: the Biblical worldview supports existential questions and uncomfortable truths; it provides catharsis for our despair over the brokenness of the world and humanity and ourselves, and it and validates our grief. Christ is a haven for the weary, the orphaned, the widowed, the foreigner; he is a friend of the sinner and a Redeemer of the unworthy. Our faith is a faith that encompasses our grieving and thinking and wondering and crying. The point that Trueman makes in his article is that when we remove this from our worship, we impoverish it. The point that I want to make in my article is this: if the gospel of Christ has the capacity to do this, then why aren’t we using it? When worship can only be “undignified“; when it cannot also be sober, or thoughtful, or mournful; when it cannot sit in a corner and weep plaintively to God in anguish and fear at the same time as it rejoices in loud and jubilant singing; when it cannot express those deep feelings of undeserving and human inadequacy mingled with our delight that we do and should feel when we sing the words, “in royal robes I don’t deserve, I live to serve your Majesty” – we are erasing part of what belonging to Christ is about. We are erasing part of the human condition and its needs, even, and these are needs that Christ himself can satisfy. Why won’t we let him? In Christ’s ‘arsenal’ of promises, his promise to satisfy our thirst and give us rest come close to the top of the pile!

Now, there are many things Christ didn’t promise: he did not promise, for instance, a miracle healing to everyone who believed in him, as some would have him do. However, he wept for the dead with mourners. He wept over unbelieving Jerusalem. He promised rest to those who are weary and heavy-laden. He placed himself in the role of physician to the sin-sick. He was kind to doubters and genuine questioners. He was grieved by the unbelief and perversity that he saw in his generation and the obstacle that it posed to the power of his disciples’ ministry. What’s worrying me is that people today, especially young people, are deliberately turning away from Christ to get their experiences, emotions and concerns validated elsewhere, because the church does not draw on the resources provided by the God of Israel in his Word to minister to people in this way. And the killer is this: the Word of God is more than capable of doing it. It has this capacity built-in. You only have to read the thing, and you find comfort. What a vanity, what a waste, that people don’t seem to know about this.

The world is out to distract us from uncomfortable truths, paradoxes and complex feelings, probably because these things don’t do well at the hard-sell, and probably because the world doesn’t have any meaningful answers anyway. In Britain the secular distaste for matters of death and sin is fairly universal. But they are real things, and they perturb us, and, stifled by social conformity, when we find ourselves in need of an outlet to express and embrace our concerns, the church of Christ should be a place where we feel accommodated rather than alienated. The glorious, joyful, life-giving gospel has, and is founded on, these heavy and burdening aspects of life that are suppressed from polite conversation as taboos. The Christian worldview should validate as real and considerable things, the deepest, darkest crevices of human depravity and the loftiest heights of the holiness of God alongside the greatest deceptions and disappointments of the world and the most righteous and true promises of God. We should be among those brave souls who are not too prudish or morally squeamish to accept that these things exist; those who can relate to a convicted mass murderer or a child rapist, and recognise them as sons of Adam, as sinners who fall short of God’s holiness just like we do; as human beings made from the same stuff as us, who are just as worthy of hell as us but for the undeserved grace of God, and not as monsters. We don’t just impoverish ourselves, I feel, but we impoverish our ministry of the gospel when we join the world in erasing the tragic from the visible aspects of our worship. Through this erasure we offer, in Trueman’s words, “a less realistic view of life than one can find in a movie theater”. Life is hard, and that is something we’ve been promised. God is not less good because we suffer. If (God forbid!) we are embarrassed of God for allowing evil and suffering in the world, as much of the world goads us that we ought to be and even manages to convince some of us, then masking the fact isn’t going to sort out either the world or us. If we make pain, suffering, hardship, hell and doubt into so many white elephants crammed into one room, it’s just going to make the gospel of Christ look trite, cheap and irrelevant at best, and at worst, it’s going to distort it. I say, let’s get real about how we present ourselves and humanity before God, and about how we present God. There will always be stumbling blocks and people to stumble over them, but the glory of God is dearer to God than that, and the gospel is the thing with the power to redeem anyone at all from spiritual death, and from the depravity of their own heart.

This doesn’t mean that we have to be perennially dreary, but perhaps it does imply a balance shift that allows us to feel more authentically. Cue Leeland weeping for “the lost and unsaved“, and Godfrey Birtill on God being “still God, when we’re desperate for our healing/even through the things that hurt us/when the government has no answers“, and Laura Story on our experience of disappointment and heartache in this life as “the revealing of a greater thirst this world can’t satisfy“.

 

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