Tag Archives: Christ

Notes on a God-Entranced Wedding Day

“There were bells on the hill,
But I never heard them ringing;
No, I never heard them at all
‘Til there was you.

There were birds in the sky,
But I never saw them winging;
No, I never saw them at all
‘Til there was you.”

I love this song. It’s just the sort of song I feel like listening to straight after a wedding. It’s a love song, but the sort of love song that’s best when you make it about God; otherwise, it can be a bit idolatrous (and even slightly creepy, I think) when you make it apply to anyone else.

What a difference, to think how much more beautiful things like birds and roses and meadows are now that you can see and delight in seeing anything of God’s character in them, compared to what you saw when the scales still covered your unconverted eyes. It makes you wonder if you ever saw them at all.

Today, during the wedding breakfast (once the emotion of the marriage ceremony was no longer overwhelming, and the Biblical symbolism of everything had ceased to be made explicit in the wake of the party), I appreciated the difference it makes to see Christ and the church in the post-service celebrations.When people in their revelling leave all head space for Biblical parallels and symbolism back at church with the ceremony, they miss out on seeing something wonderful. Although regarded as ‘packaging’ to the main event like a sort of side-show, the wedding breakfast is beautifully meaningful when you behold Christ in it. To see what seat you have been assigned, and in what company, and to find your name on the name card, all planned and prepared for you before you’d arrived… (what place will the Father have assigned me in the New Jerusalem? Will it matter, as long as I can have the honour of dining at the marriage feast of the Bride and Groom?) To stand and applaud bride and groom as they enter and take their places at the head table… (what will the applause be like when Christ and his church take their places?) To be treated to platefuls of delicious, fine food… (what will we eat when God treats us at the marriage feast of the Lamb?) To be served wine by uniformed waiters… (will it be the angels who wait on us, or will we wait on each other?).

As I sat waiting, and munching, and digesting, by the grace of God I was able to marvel at these things. I saw foreshadows of the marriage feast of Christ in that meal, and Christ made the meal all the more wonderful to me. What a privilege to be there, and to have eyes unblinded as to able to see the things of God at that event, and to have that beauty to delight in. What a joy. I cannot say whether the event made the promises of Christ more real to me, or whether the promises of Christ made the event more real to me.

“And there was music, and there were wonderful roses
they tell me –
In sweet, fragrant meadows of dawn and dew:

There was love all around,
But I never heard it singing.
No, I never heard it at all
‘Til there was you.”

 

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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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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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Notes on the Pursuit of Marriage – A Lesson Shared.

This post is primarily intended for people who are dating and engaged, for those who are single and considering marriage, and for those who are wondering whether the old Christian clichés about dating and relationships actually ring true in practice.

A lot of my friends whom I met in college have just got engaged. I swell with pride every time I see the notification pop up on Facebook and can be filled with so much joy to see something so beautiful that I shed a tear, but it’s always followed by pensiveness about my own situation. Myself, I’ve just come out of a dating relationship. It was a good relationship based on understanding and forgiveness, and I was sad to leave it, and we parted as good friends who had just realised that, for now, a forever-promise wasn’t God’s best for either of us. It was a wrench to say no to that relationship when there were things that seemed to be totally right about it. But it taught me a lot, and without revealing any identities or specific details, I want to share that here for those who might benefit from it. Call it part of the healing process. Continue reading

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Between Culture and Reality – A Thought Along Christian Lines.

The more I think about it… the more I realise that the distinction between ‘culture’ and ‘reality’ is not that easy a thing to see and grasp, unless you can view your culture in contrast with something Other, point for point and distinctive for distinctive. Of course, even then you often end up discounting the Other you’re comparing it with as ‘primitive’, ‘barbaric’, ‘bigoted’, ‘patriarchal’ or ‘undemocratic’ and disqualifying it from comparison before you’ve started. However, I’m not sure it’s impossible to be open-minded enough to try to escape that trap and closed-minded enough not to end up a muddle of multiple relativistic identities. It might be existentially dangerous, it might land you in therapy, or worse – but I’m not sure it’s impossible for certain souls to do and come out of unscathed.

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Time to let go…

Today I took a notebook that I had started using as a journal and left incomplete about three years ago.  It was the latest volume in a shelf full of journals spanning my life since age 11, and they nearly all told a reformulation of the same sin-ridden story, which got more and more lurid every time it was re-spun.  I started reading and I was appalled.  It was a chronicle of idolatry, lust and perversion.  It made me feel sick, and it was sitting on my shelf because I had given it a right to remain there. At former times in my life I would go over to those chronicles and read them because I was feeling ‘nostalgic’.  I used to do it a number of times a year; I used to analyze and annotate and meditate on them.  I would spend hours at a time poring over them.  I would look back at those times and chuckle, as you chuckle at a picture you drew when you were five and think, ‘Aw, shucks; what a genius in the making’ – but more morbidly.  At no time would I look back on those sins without cherishing either the sins themselves, or myself for committing them – in the very peculiar way that we love to cherish the ‘tragic’, ‘romantic’ stories that we spin out of human sin, especially if they’re about ourselves.

I cut the pages out of that book with my Dad’s stanley knife, put them through his shredder two or three pages at a time, and chucked the basketful of remains into the paper recycling wheelie bin.  I could still read isolated lines of tiny font from the typed entries as I carried the basket out; I thought of all the hours I’d spent conceiving these little brainchildren, and my heart ached a bit. Into the waste they went, a line here, a limb there… some people grieve more over the loss of a cherished self-narrative than that of an unwanted gift of new life.  May God help me discard the former in order to embrace the latter.

One day, God willing, those pages will end up as toilet paper, as the slightly yellow recycled letter-paper they use at the council, or as ‘eco-friendly’ greetings card material.  And I won’t be able to trace a single shred.  Jesus flushed those sins a long time ago and he’s going to help me out of this cesspipe even if I’m still caked in newer layers of sin while he does it.  I hope the Lord will see me hammer more and more nails into this particular coffin and help me to shred the rest of my sin-chronicles, book by book.

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A lesson about repentance

Something the Lord taught me today…

You know when you feel bad about something and want to repent and get it off your shoulders, but you feel like the shame is too much and that repenting isn’t enough?  That happened to me today.  My temper had got the better of me and I had made a hurtful comment.  But then a thought about the nature of repentance flashed across my mind, and I found myself praying, “Lord, put my shame for that on Jesus”.  Immediately, I was utterly disgusted that I had even dreamt of praying that.  I envisaged Jesus carrying his cross, stumbling along in agony, covered in blood from tip to toe.  How could I dare to pray such a thing against my Lord and Saviour who died for me, when I had no right to walk away Scot-free for saying such a horrid thing?  I should be the one feeling ashamed here, not the sinless Saviour who died for me!
Then I realised.  That’s precisely what Jesus came to do.  The scars, the blood, the agony, Jesus went through it all so that I wouldn’t have to be held responsible for that horrid comment I made today.  In fact, you could say that it was because of that horrible comment that he had to go through it.  Let’s forget ‘churchy’ language and niceties here. “Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe; sin had left a crimson stain, he washed it white as snow” is all very well.  But what it means is that I can pray “Lord, put the blame for that horrible comment I made today on your blameless son Jesus whom I killed” and walk away knowing that I’ve been made innocent.  It’s scandalous.  It makes my stomach churn just thinking about it.
And it’s made me never want to sin ever, ever again.

I know that I will sin, and that Christ’s blood will cover it.  But just as the scandalous nature of God’s love prompted me to  cry out, “No! I don’t want Jesus to take my shame!” before remembering that the reality of Jesus’ suffering is God’s overwhelming love for a guilty humanity that doesn’t deserve to have its sentence waived, in the same way I hope that it will make sin seem ever-repugnant in times of temptation.

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