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By the Waters of Babylon

Come sit by the waters of our land of captivity;
Defy its profiteering smile police: weep for Zion.
Turn your tear-stained face from this crass entertainment empire
Lest placated you forget how truth and freedom feel:
Lest you let them make a circus of our Christ-song.

If I should forget thee, O true Kingdom of my God,
Then let my freedom song cease altogether.
Grieve by the waters for the real and the right:
Don’t let them numb the pain with their ephemera.

Come brother, hang your harp on the willow tree with me,
The Lord’s song to them is just a curio.
Don’t let them win a submissive grin lest the winds should change
And you forsake your home, your God, your heart.
Don’t let the culture-colonizers quench our sorrow.

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Humble Submission: An antidote to Postmodern moralizing

While political activism dominates public discourse about gender relations and Feminist Theory becomes a source of moral authority, so that any conservative evangelical caught telling a female parishoner that she ‘ought’ to submit to her husband and male church leadership may quickly find themselves accused of imposing ‘Patriarchal oppression’ on her…

… how about we just extricate what we do from all consideration of politics and theory, get on with obeying what we believe the Bible says, and make submission into something that we women volunteer freely to those who don’t expect it? As in, offer it without it being demanded of us; as in, positively being what we are through it and displaying it openly as an act of witness for those who would call us evil because they disagree with what we advocate? This, I feel, is the most effective line of attack, precisely because it is not an attack.

With humble submission comes an invincible kind of threat to the confrontational moralizer. Its very power lies in its refusal to assume power. It cannot be attacked by any moralizing Postmodern, because the Postmodern’s justification for attack is that their opponent exerts violent or oppressive power over the vulnerable. For this reason, Postmoderns rely on their ability to posture as the vulnerable, or as representatives of the vulnerable, and on their ability to frame their opponents as the powerful – in short, in their ability to propagate and inculcate polarizing narratives that set up the advocates of their cause as the ‘goodies’ and cast their ideological opponents into the uncompromising mould of ‘evil villain’. The power of humble submission, however, lies in its intrinsic vulnerability and refusal to wield power, so that it cannot occupy the role of ‘oppressive, powerful Other’ reserved for it in the narrative. In fact, it presents itself as the flesh-and-blood reality of the illusion that Postmodern paradigms strive to convince people that the ‘goodies’ embody. Whilst being what it is, rather than what it might pretend to be, humble submission is also defined by what it lacks. It is not powerful. It is not willing to defend itself. It does not ‘put out’; it takes in. It is not a self-asserting force, which a dissident opponent can buffer. It is a thing that is, rather than a thing that does violence to being; it is response, rather than call – and a gentle response, at that.

The Postmodern must be the ‘response’ in order to grant their defensive mode of attack to be viable. To present the Postmodern with humble submission is to deprive them of the opportunity to do this, and is akin to trying to power up an electrical appliance with two sockets, rather than a socket and a plug: there is no violence from the one who ought to stand in the role of ‘oppressor’ to stoke the fire; no spark of aggression to light the tinderbox of ‘moral offence’. It presents the Postmodern with no ammunition for the freedom-fighting indignation under which they masquerade as moral heroes. Indeed, God uses the things that are not to nullify the things that are! Mightn’t they then be won over without a word?

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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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“Are You Going to New Hope Revival?” – Young People, Elitism and Christian Conferences According to an Unchurched Convert.

Perhaps Christian conference names are meant to sound quirky or enigmatic.  However, as a newly converted, teenage, unchurched Christian listening to my churchy classmates boast about how many they had been to, and watching them show off their snazzy wristbands and recite lists of their favourite Christian music artists, I just found them intimidatingly pretentious. I grieve for this culture and the source of discouragement it must be for other socially insecure, image-conscious teens who have newly converted from non-Christian backgrounds. I really do.

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A Sight for Sore, Western, Christian Eyes.

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February 11, 2014 · 12:46 am

Little Lie

Little lie
Declawed and toothless, where did you come from?
You prowled around our churchyards armed with nothing but your hot, smooth tongue.
Flitting through our doctrines, we’d left the door wide open – woe is us.
Little lie, how could we find you now
After all of the lives we’ve thrown away on you?

O Christ’s Body Broken, how many thorns must be thrust in your side
just to prove you’re alive?
So many poisoned members lost, and still you’ve afflictions to fill
before your Master arrives –
Will you have blood left to shed by then
When our hands have crucified you again and again?

Little lie,
You took us in the day we took in you.
Starving and left homeless, little stray, we built you castles in the sky.
And now as Christ’s afflictions fill
On cheap speculation’s thrill,
Can we claim the Body still?

(This is Christ’s Body, broken for us.
Who could have thought that times would turn thus?
Church for each doctrine, church for each whim,
Pouring out His blood or pouring out Him?)

Little lie
Declawed and toothless, where did you come from?
Licking your wounds ’til the Lamb takes out your tongue,
Flitting through our doctrines, we’d left the door wide open – we were wont.
Body of Christ, don’t heed or pity:
A holier blood was shed to ransom you.

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If you feel like a ‘second class’ Christian, this is for you.

For all of you who are trusting in God and feel unworthy or inadequate to serve Him – and maybe feel like giving up.  For all of you who are troubled; who perhaps feel like you’re not made of the same ‘stuff’ as some of the inspiring ‘super Christians’ in your church and don’t feel like you ever will be.  I’ve believed in the lie too.  J.C. Ryle (1816 – 1900), an evangelical writer and former Bishop of Liverpool, has a few words for you.

Extracts are taken from J.C. Ryle (1857) Expository Thoughts on Mark (out of copyright), accessible online at http://www.gracegems.org/Ryle/Mark.htm
[Last accessed 4th February 2013]

Corresponding Bible passage: Mark 1:29-31 (World English Bible):

“Immediately, when they had come out of the synagogue, they came into the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick with a fever, and immediately they told him about her. He came and took her by the hand, and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them.”

The sin-sick soul is not merely cured, and then left to itself.  It is also supplied with a new heart and a right spirit, and enabled so to live as to please God.

[…]

There is comfort here for all who are really serving Christ, and are yet cast down by a sense of their own infirmity. There are many in such case. They are oppressed by doubts and anxieties. They sometimes think they shall never reach heaven at all, but be cast away in the wilderness. Let them fear no longer. Their strength shall be according to their day. The difficulties they now fear shall vanish out of their path. The lion in the way which they now dread, shall prove to be chained. The same gracious hand which first touched and healed, shall uphold, strengthen, and lead them to the last. The Lord Jesus will never lose one of His sheep. Those whom He loves and pardons, He loves unto the end. Though sometimes cast down, they shall never be cast away. The healed soul shall always go on “serving the Lord”. Grace shall always lead to glory!

You might still have questions.  That’s all very well, you might say, but what am I supposed to do when hard times actually hit and I’m in the thick of them?  Why don’t the ‘super Christians’ seem to get spiritually shipwrecked, too?  If this is you, read on.  If it isn’t, read on anyway.

“We learn, in the second place, to what remedy a Christian ought to resort first, in time of trouble.  He ought to follow the example of the friends of Simon’s mother-in-law.  We read that when she “lay sick with a fever”, they “told Jesus about her”.

There is no remedy like this.  Means are to be used diligently, without question, in any time of need.  Doctors are to be sent for, in sickness. Lawyers are to be consulted when property or character needs defense.  The help of friends is to be sought.  But still, after all, the first thing to be done, is to cry to the Lord Jesus Christ for help.  None can relieve us so effectually as he can.  None is so compassionate, and so willing to relieve.  When Jacob was in trouble he turned to his God first – “Deliver me, I beg you, from the hand of Esau.” (Gen 32:11.)  When Hezekiah was in trouble, he first spread Sennacherib’s letter before the Lord – “I beseech you, save us out of his hand.” (2 Kings 19:19.)  When Lazarus fell sick, his sisters sent immediately to Jesus. “Lord,” they said, “he whom you love is sick.” (John 11:2)  Now let us do likewise.  “Cast your burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain you.”  “Casting all your cares upon Him.”  “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God.” (Psalm. 55:22; 1 Pet. 5:7; Phil. 4:6.)

Let us not only remember this rule, but practice it too.  We live in a world of sin and sorrow.  The days of darkness in a man’s life are many.  It needs no prophet’s eye to foresee that we shall all shed many a tear, and feel many a heart-wrench, before we die.  Let us be armed with a formula against despair, before our troubles come.  Let us know what to do, when sickness, or bereavement, or cross, or loss, or disappointment breaks in upon us like an armed man.  Let us do as they did in Simon’s house at Capernaum.  Let us at once “tell Jesus”.

Are you really serving Christ?  Do you want to be really serving Christ?  Are you not sure whether you are or not?  Step out in faith for Christ, trust Christ, and when it hurts, tell Christ. Keep on being led by Jesus and relying on Jesus and trusting in Jesus and crying out to Jesus.  I find it a little odd that Ryle doesn’t mention, amongst the examples of godly men he gives, Jeremiah the ‘weeping prophet’, or King David the psalmist, or even the very Logos and Prince of Peace, praying to the Father in Gethsemane that he was “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death”.  These godly ones spared themselves no dignity before God.  They found it hard.  They didn’t just ‘tell’ Him that it hurt – they fell on their faces, wept, bawled and sweated blood.  It is okay to do that.  We aren’t failures because we find it hard.  We just have to bring our needs before Jesus.  Remember Luke 18:17: “Most certainly, I tell you, whoever doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a little child, he will in no way enter into it.” What do little children and Christians both do when they’re facing trouble?  They cry out for help.  That grounded, solid guy from church whose whole face radiates with joy, who is always delighted to see you and always happy to help; whose speech is always godly, and whose diary is full of appointments with the people he ministers to – how did he get like that?  Possibly by believing in his forgiveness in Christ, knowing himself a child of God, stepping out boldly in faith, relying on God’s help, and crying out to Him when it hurt.

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