Category Archives: Musings

On being ecumenical

Today on YouTube I stumbled across a conversation between Francis Chan, Hank Hanegraaff (radio’s “The Bible Answer Man”), and KP Yohannan (now Metropolitan Yohan). Chan is a fairly famous conservative evangelical pastor, Hanegraaff is a famous evangelical radio personality who converted to Easter Orthodoxy a number of years ago, and KP Yohannan is the founder of the mission organization Gospel for Asia and…well I’m not sure what to call him in terms of Christian affiliation. He’s a leader in a relatively new denomination, but I can’t figure out it if it’s evangelical, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, or something else. But I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

Their conversation got me thinking again about being ecumenical in outlook. By “ecumenical” I mean the belief that the Christian church includes Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox—that all those branches of the church are brothers and sisters in Christ, we can work together across denominational lines, and that genuine faith is identified by confessing the risen Christ as Lord and, beyond that, that we all have the Creeds in common.

Not everyone thinks that way. I grew up in a home where Catholics weren’t considered true Christians and Pentecostals and other charismatics were also suspect. I have friends who still think that way about Catholics and Pentecostals. There is a narrow niche of Christianity, often related to the fundamentalism of the early 20th century, that in its extremes thinks the true faith and true doctrine and true understanding of scripture is found only in one denomination, or possibly even just one church or one preacher. These churches seem to have a habit of focussing on what’s wrong “out there” and naming heretical beliefs—which is to say, belief that is different from their own (which is technically not what heresy is)—and serious distrust of and unwillingness to work with others outside their fold. Often this kind of thinking seems to go along with a lot of disunity and what appears to be a significant lack of grace.

I gave that perspective up a long time ago. I believe I have many brothers and sisters across the denominational lines.

I can’t remember exactly what it was that led me down that road, but I can identify bits and pieces along the way. Learning the history of the church was a big one—many evangelicals have a very short and recent history of the church that doesn’t go back much further than 500 years, to their significant loss. The recognition that for certainly 1000 years, if not 1500 years, the church was fairly unified in its belief was helpful. Sure, there was division between east (Orthodox) and west (Roman Catholic) later on, but much was shared. The recognition that all three major branches of the church recognize and confess the ancient Creeds also helped. Developing an understanding of Catholic and Orthodox theology was another help, though I don’t know it well and even though I recognize there are some beliefs I don’t share with them—but these are Christians that confess Jesus as risen Lord!

The reality is that I can’t believe that God’s Spirit was absent from the church between the death of the last apostle and Martin Luther nailing his complaints to a church door some 1500 years later. If that was the case, we don’t have much hope for the last 500 years of the church either!

There is no pure church. I’m not sure there ever was one after the day of Pentecost. Paul’s letters in the New Testament make that clear! I may disagree profoundly on some things with my Catholic sisters and brothers, or for that matter my Pentecostal or Baptist sisters and brothers, but we together confess Christ and seek to follow him.

And so I continue to try to listen and learn from other Christian traditions and to have a bit of humility about correct doctrine. I’d like to think I’m fairly open minded, but sometimes it can be really difficult to allow others to disagree with something I’m passionate about. But it’s necessary. If this isn’t an oxymoron, I’m convinced that we need to have theological convictions and hold them loosely. Our grounding is in Christ, not a set of beliefs. Our hope is in Christ, not a theological perspective. Our salvation is in Christ, not a doctrinal statement.

Here’s a little sketch I drew of why I’m ecumenical. I don’t know if it will make sense to you, but it makes sense to me.

Loving God Looks Like Loving Your Neighbour

I’ve been pondering Jesus’ answer to the question of what the greatest commandment is (Matthew 22:35-40 and Mark 12:28-31). Here are a couple of thoughts relating to that:

Jesus says the greatest commandment is loving God “and the second is like it,” love your neighbour. The way things are phrased, it looks like the commands are ranked: to love God is number one and the command to love neighbour is number two. But I don’t think we can so easily separate or rank the two greatest commands, for a couple of reasons.

First, Jesus is asked which commandment (singular) of all the commandments is greatest. In his answer, Jesus actually gives two commands as the greatest command: love God and love your neighbour. In Matthew, Jesus says that all the law and prophets hang on both of these commandments; in Mark Jesus says, “There is no commandment greater than these.”

This suggests to me that the phrase “the second is (like it)” does not denote rank or hierarchy, or that it’s just about similarity. The two commands are intimately related, they belong together. Jesus seems to be relating them together as the greatest commandment, rather than ranking them individually, meaning something like “there are two (not one) greatest commands, and the second one is love your neighbour,” or the “greatest command is love God and with it love your neighbour.”

Second, Jesus elsewhere says, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” In other words, when you love your neighbour, you love God.

Third, Paul seems to have understood the two commands in the way I suggest, because in Romans 13:9 and Galatians 5:14 he says that all the law and the prophets are summed up in one command: love your neighbour as yourself (without reference to loving God).

This all suggests to me that the command to love God and the command to love neighbour cannot be separated or ranked or placed in order of importance. If we love God, we will love our neighbour. In order to love God, we must love our neighbour. If we love our neighbour, we love God.

Something to consider as we ponder our priorities as followers of Jesus.

I’m in love with a fantasy.

“You’re in love with a fantasy.”

“I sometimes think I was born in the wrong decade.”

“The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying.”

(dialogue from the film Midnight in Paris)

Midnight in Paris may be Woody Allen’s last great movie, and it’s one of my favourite films of all time. I relate a lot to the main character, Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson (who, as far as I’m concerned, is the perfect actor to play the Woody Allen part for younger characters). Gil is an aspiring novelist who thinks the best time and place is Paris in the 20s.

Here’s a clip of some dialogue between his fiancée (Inez) and two friends (Paul and Carol), after his fiancée starts to tell them about the novel Gil is writing. The lead character works in a nostalgia shop.

Here’s a thirty second clip:

Here’s the dialogue:

CAROL: What’s a nostalgia shop?

PAUL: Not one of those stores that sells Shirley Temple dolls and old radios? I never know who buys that stuff – who’d want it.

FIANCÉE (pointedly): People who live in the past. Who think their lives would have been happier if they lived in an earlier time.

PAUL: And just what era would you have preferred to live in. . . ?

FIANCÉE (teasing Gil): Paris in the twenties—in the rain, when the rain wasn’t acid rain.

PAUL: I see. And no global warming, no TV or suicide bombing, nuclear weapons, drug cartels.

CAROL: The usual menu of clichéd horror stories.

PAUL: Nostalgia is denial. Denial of the painful present.

FIANCÉE: He’s a romantic. Gil would be just fine living in a perpetual state of denial.

PAUL: The name for this fallacy is called, “Golden Age Thinking.” The erroneous notion that a different time period was better than the one one’s living in. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those who find coping with the present too difficult.

I’m not sure if I’m entirely a Golden Age Thinker, but I’ve certainly used Gil’s exact words in my own life: “I sometimes think I was born in the wrong decade.” I long for an elusive simpler time. Earlier in the film Gil’s fiancée tells him that he’s “in love with a fantasy.” And the film is about Gil figuring this out.

It’s a really fun film: it’s set in modern-day Paris, but, through mysterious circumstances, every night at midnight in a certain spot in the city, Gil gets picked up by a chauffeured vintage car, which takes him to hobnob with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, and a host of other famous artists (most of whose names I don’t recognize) in 1920s Paris. [SPOILER ALERT!] There he falls in love with a beautiful young Parisienne of the time, whom he later discovers wishes she lived during La Belle Epoque—Paris in the 1890s—because her decade—Gil’s favourite—is boring.

Eventually Gil realizes that “The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying,” which is a lesson I’m still learning. I think I can’t quite accept the fact that the present—beautiful, difficult, depressing, hopeful as it is—is all I have, as odd as that may sound.

Which is why Gordon T. Smith stung with some of his words in his book Called to Be Saints: An Invitation to Christian Maturity. In a chapter about vocational holiness (“Called to Do Good Work”), he writes,

We are called to be present to our circumstances, our world—to be agents of peace and justice in the world as it actually is rather than as we wish it were. This means we turn not only from pretense (wishing we were someone else or acting as though we are someone else) but also from wishful thinking and illusion regarding our circumstances.

This means that we do not live emotionally in a previous time. We have no patience with “the good old days.” They are long gone. We discern in light of what is actually the case today. This also means we do not engage in wishful thinking. In other words, we do not dwell on what we wish were true but on what is actually true.

We live in the world as it presents itself—no nostalgia, no pining for an earlier golden age. We are not waiting around for good fortune to suddenly and finally hit us. We stop investing emotional energy in the “what-if’s,” and we get on with it.

All of us are called to such a time as this. None of us are ahead of our times, and no one is born too late and able to complain that the opportunity passed us by. Rather, we are each invited to respond to the call of God for this day.

(Gordon T. Smith, Called to Be Saints, 104-105)

Eugene Peterson, addressing pastors in Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, has much the same thing to say as Smith, but he says it much more succinctly: my work is “these people, at this time, under these conditions” (p. 131).

I have some maturing to do I guess. As we all do. But it’s not maturing I particularly want to do, even though it would make the difficulties of today that much more bearable. I think Gil’s realization that “the present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying” is in many respects a very Christian perspective. We recognize that we live in a broken world, and all is not well, even as we hope that eventually it will be.

I’m reminded of something I quoted in a post almost twelve years ago:

Our creation story does not call us to roam through life in the pursuit of happiness. In fact, that is the very thing from which we are saved. Our story portrays the great journey of God into his limited and needy creation.

Biblical hope is found when Christians hear the gospel and take their place in the great processions of the body of Christ. The proclamation of that hope is that in communing with Christ we discover all the grace we need to live joyful but limited lives. For in communing with God we encounter the mystery of his presence with us.

(M. Craig Barnes, Yearning: Living Between How It Is & How It Ought To Be, p. 21)

Wishful thinking, the grass is greener, “Golden Age Thinking”. . . none of these things actually make things better. In fact, they probably make them worse.

Here is the moment of realization for Gil, which his Parisienne love (Adriana) does not understand, but is a lesson worth remembering. They’ve jumped from the 1920s to the 1890s, and Adriana wants to stay in the 1890s, Le Belle Epoque:

Because if you stay here and this becomes your present, sooner or later you’ll imagine another time was really the golden time. . . The present is always going to seem unsatisfying because life itself is unsatisfying.

. . .if I’m ever going to write anything worthwhile I’ve got to get rid of my illusions and that I’d be happier in the past is one of them.

(dialogue from Midnight in Paris)

Or, if I’m ever going to be a better pastor, or if I’m ever going to live a worthwhile life I’ve got to get rid of the illusion that I’d be happier in the past.

Are we losing our ability to see?

(For my one remaining reader: I wrote a post in July on the WordPress iPhone app. It was written when we were staying in a cabin north of Estes Park, Colorado. The cabin is 8200ft+ [~2500m] above sea level. The post was a riveting reflection on making a proper cup of tea in relation to boiling point at various altitudes. Alas, there was a problem with the app and the post is lost forever.)

There is quite a bit being written these days (if you’re looking in the right places) about how conversation is becoming a lost art in our society, particularly for younger generations. Conversation’s demise usually linked to increased use of smart technology and social media. I think there’s good reason to believe that we are losing our ability to speak with others. But today I wondered if we are—I should probably say, if I am—losing our ability to see as well.

I don’t mean this simply in the sense of not noticing our surroundings because we’re always on a device, though that’s part of it. I mean it in the sense of wondering if we’re training ourselves to glance, to glimpse, and then move on, without ever fully appreciating what we see.

In order to visit my family in British Columbia, we have to drive through the Rocky Mountains. I’m often frustrated when in our hurry to arrive at our destination we don’t (or aren’t able to) take the time to stop in the mountains to breathe deeply and really take in the amazing beauty of the mountains. We try to do this when we have time (though we could make time even if we feel that we don’t) with a walk along a river or a hike into the mountains, but even then we’re always moving and our final destination is always in mind. I can’t remember the last time I simply stood and observed and took in the beauty around me for more than a few seconds. I’m not sure I’ve ever done that.

What does traveling through the mountains have to do with this? Only this: I’m talking about taking time to see and take in. I was on Instagram at lunch today, where I follow a couple of accounts that post pictures of small-town and rural England. They post beautiful pictures of rolling countryside and quaint villages. I love these images, especially the ones of the countryside. But here’s what I do: I scroll, I glance at the photo, I double-tap to like, and I move on. I rarely really look or perhaps gaze at the image. I realize it’s only a picture, but there’s something significant about just scrolling past with only a brief sense of “that’s nice” and a feeling of appreciation, but rarely, if ever, actively appreciating the image with a longer look.

I see it in myself and others in the endless photo-taking and selfies when we’re at some beautiful spot—the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, the Great Plains, wherever it may be. We seem to spend more time looking at the world through our cameras than at the world itself. Years ago I gave up filming and photographing my children’s choirs and bands at school, because I didn’t want to keep watching these personal events through my camera (I leave the film work to Dixie now, who doesn’t mind.) I love photography and would like to pursue it more, but often it turns the world into something to be consumed by my camera and a rapid succession of stills, without actually making an attempt to simply appreciate the living, breathing, moving wonders of the world. I imagine photography should start with the appreciative gaze and only after that should I frame up the picture.

What am I losing in training my mind to glance and move on? What will this do to my understanding of the world around me, or even my sense of what’s real in an increasingly digitized world? What will this do to my sense of what it means to truly appreciate or even love something or someone?

I’m not sure I’ll ever think I’ve taken it in enough, whether it’s nature or a photograph, so maybe I’ll always be frustrated. But it can’t hurt to pursue the gaze, the meditation, and appreciating creation a bit more.

A Heart was Hardened

Our high school Bible study has been reading through Romans this year. They like choosing difficult books—last year we went through Revelation —and Romans is no exception. Some weeks we struggle to find anything to talk about (we discuss one chapter each time we meet), other weeks we struggle to understand, other weeks I confuse them with my attempts to help them along (I try to avoid teaching and instead guide and facilitate discussion), still other weeks I annoy them when I get really excited about something and pull out the white board (I do like to teach sometimes!). Then there are weeks when they find some answers on their own or have moments of clarity. Those days are wonderful. And on occasion I am able to help them understand or have a moment of clarity, which is particularly gratifying.

Today we discussed Romans chapter 9, which talks about Paul’s grief over the unbelief of Israel and then goes into God having mercy on whom he will have mercy, and hardening some people’s hearts, and the analogy of the potter and his clay. It’s a difficult chapter, one I imagine Calvinists like to go to (wrongly, in my opinion) for their predestination theology.

It troubled some of the youth, as it troubles me, that God might harden some hearts against him. We tried to figure this out, how this could work, why God would do this. I talked a bit about how we live in a very individualistic, personal rights-oriented culture, which is offended by any notion of someone compelling someone else to do something against their will, but that in an ancient group/family-oriented culture what Paul says may not be received negatively in that way.

One youth suggested that maybe if a person rejects God, God responds by hardening that person’s heart. I suggested that God might “give them over” to their hard-hearted desires (as Romans 1 talks about)—if that’s what they want, that’s what they’ll get. Commentaries seem to agree (we don’t always go to commentaries, but sometimes it helps).

We looked at the story of Moses and Pharaoh, which this chapter in Romans may reference. Early in Exodus God tells Moses that he will harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he won’t let the people of Israel go. When the confrontation actually happens, there’s a lack of clarity about whom hardens whose heart. Initially God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, then Pharaoh’s heart is simply hardened, and later it says Pharaoh hardens his own heart. So which is it? Perhaps it’s both.

I suddenly thought of a real-world analogy. I asked the group, what is our first response when we are confronted with a negative truth about ourselves? If Dixie criticizes something about me, what is my initial reaction, even if what she says is true? I may get angry or offended, I may deny the charges, I may get bitter, I may argue, I may try to turn her comment back on her and point out her faults. In a sense, Dixie’s words have the power to prompt a “hardening of my heart,” even if ultimately it is the preexistent state of my heart that is ultimately responsible. Nods of recognition from the youth. In a very bad situation, I say, one where a relationship is already strained or perhaps where no real relationship exists, such a critical comment—such a confrontation with the truth—may actually strain the relationship or potential of relationship beyond possibility, at least for a time.

Similarly, when we are confronted with the truth and power of God when our hearts are already in rebellion against him, that very truth has the power to harden our hearts, even though it is ultimately the prior condition of our hearts is responsible for the hardening.

That was helpful insight.

God has already given us permission to love.

I’ve been reading J.B. Philips’ short book Your God is Too Small with a couple of colleagues. It’s a quick read and an interesting approach to helping us see who God is and all the ways we get God wrong. The first half of the book, which is as far as I’ve read, is about all the destructive, unreal pictures of God that people often have (the second half is about constructive views). The following paragraph stood out to me. It’s from a section on a god who we see as an entirely negative force in our lives, whose “whole Nature seems to deny, to cramp, and to inhibit” our own nature:

“They are bound by their negative god by their upbringing, by the traditions of a Church or party, by the manipulation of isolated texts of Scripture or by a morbid conscience. At last they actually feel that it is wrong to be themselves, wrong to be free, wrong to enjoy beauty, wrong to expand and develop. Unless they have their god’s permission they can do nothing. Disaster will infallibly bring them to heal, sooner or later, should they venture beyond the confines of ‘his plan for them.'” (p. 51, Epworth Press edition, 1975, emphasis mine)

“Unless they have their god’s permission they can do nothing.” Two things strike me about this:

1. I see this crop up among the youth at our church who want to be faithful to God in every decision, but who are stuck because they need God’s permission (or direction) to choose this job or that job, this college or that college. I’ve told the youth on a couple of occasions that they are free to make their own decisions about these things, as long as they are pursuing love of God and love of neighbour in their choices. That’s not to say they shouldn’t listen for God (that’s part of loving God!) nor that God doesn’t have a specific call for them. But the tendency is to think that God has one, single, narrow path laid out for our lives, and we had better find and stay on that path if we want things to go well for us. Instead, I think there is a wide field of potential and opportunity that lies within the scope of loving God and loving neighbour and we are free to wander and discover and live within it.

2. In spite of what I tell our youth, I also find myself wrestling with this negative vision of God, without whose permission I often feel I can do nothing. In a strange and dangerous way, I subconsciously think that because I was called to pastoral ministry, I somehow have to be in line with God (within his field of specific permission) for every step I take along the way. But why should it be any different for me as a pastor than for a plumber, teacher, doctor, mechanic, or student? It shouldn’t. And yet there I often live.

God has already given us blanket permission to love him and others, and within that permission there is room for creativity, growth, change, risk, and so on. But some days it’s hard to believe this.

Thoughts on Revelation 2: What Did John Actually Know or Understand?

Recently, as a way to review what we’d read in previous Bible studies, I was listening to an audio version of the book of Revelation, as read by actor David Suchet (I know him a little from the Poirot tv series). It’s really a wonderful reading of scripture, particularly of Revelation. In fact, the way Suchet read Revelation was itself a revelation.

He reads it with a note of wonder in his voice, as if he was actually describing what he saw in the vision, as if it was John’s first time sharing the vision. This made a significant difference in how I read and hear Revelation. I’ve tended to read and hear it as if John writing down deliberately coded imagery and narrative, like he’s kind of winking at us and saying, “I know a lot of things but I can’t tell them to you directly, so here it is in code that I hope you can figure out.” It’s our job as modern readers to decode it and try to figure out what exactly John is on about.

With Suchet’s reading, I began to realize that just maybe John is actually just describing what he saw in his vision and that he himself may not know what it all means either. After all, Jesus invites John to “write what you have seen” (1:19). John sees something, but he doesn’t necessarily know what it all means. There are places where John explains something apparently on his own (such as identifying the dragon as Satan in 12:9). On the other hand, when Jesus tells John to write what he sees, he has to explain to John what he had already seen (the seven stars and seven golden lamp stands, etc., 1:20), suggesting that John doesn’t quite understand what he sees.

This is speculative on my part, of course, but I don’t recall seeing anything in the text that suggests that John understood everything he saw. A first century reader/hearer/seer (such as John) might be able to untangle the Old Testament imagery sprinkled throughout better than most average modern readers can, but maybe even for them it was largely a mystery too.

On the other hand, there are some parts that are clearer than others and there are some overarching themes that are also clear. This would emphasize that the point is really to get these more obvious big picture things. Things such as: Jesus is victorious king and worthy of worship, be faithful, endure what you may have to endure, all shall be well, and not get hung up on some of the other weird imagery which may just be intended to evoke something more like general understanding (e.g. evil is at work in the world, Christians will likely face persecution of some kind, etc.) rather than being imagery we are meant to decode. This is how I’ve been reading it already, but mostly so that the youth do get the big picture and don’t get too hung up on sorting out all the weird stuff—but I always with a sense that we are nevertheless missing something.

I tend to agree (with Toni 🙂 ) that much of Revelation is referring to events in Rome in the first and second century, but this doesn’t really change anything for us in terms of reading it the above way, because even if it was written to and about that time period, the book is nevertheless for us, and the big picture stuff we see at work through the centuries.

I started writing this post weeks ago, and it only now occurs to me that this approach presents a sort of irony when it comes to reading and interpreting Revelation. To say that John is simply reporting a vision he saw is to read Revelation in a straightforward, literal way (which is not what I necessarily advocate doing). Yet it is those who tend to read Revelation in a woodenly literal way who seem to be hung up on explaining all the imagery and seeing modern-day significance in every object, creature, and beast.

Thoughts on Revelation: The Mark of the Beast

Our youth small group Bible study has been working its way through Revelation chapter by chapter this year. Knowing that this particular book of the Bible presents readers with unique challenges, I’ve been doing some reading in commentaries and other books in advance as we go through. Yesterday, reading through Eugene Peterson’s excellent Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, I had a bit of a revelation myself.

Yesterday we talked about Revelation 14. Both that chapter and the one before it mention the “mark of the beast,” which goes on a person’s hand or forehead. The question of the mark of the beast and what it is has been a hotly debated question for some Christians, particularly in more conservative circles, for a long time: is it a barcode tattoo? credit cards? debit cards? chip implants? Every time some new technology comes out it seems like someone brings up the mark of the beast. This is especially true when the new technology involves financial transactions, because Revelation 13 says that people won’t be able to buy or sell without the mark.

I’ve always thought a mark on the forehead or the hand was an odd place to put a mark, but then for a long time I’ve also known that Revelation is rich in symbolism and metaphor and so there is much there that should not be taken at literal face value. So I haven’t thought about the mark much, until it came up in our reading.

Then Peterson made a connection I had never heard before, but makes complete sense, especially given how much Revelation (re)uses Old Testament imagery. The mark of the beast is on the forehead or the hand. Way back in Deuteronomy 6, Moses speaks for God and says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart…” (this is the “Shema“), and then he goes on to tell Israel to tie this command to their foreheads and hands. From this we get the phylactery, a small box Jewish men would wear (or put on their doorposts) containing a little scroll with a portion of the Torah on it, probably even the words of the Shema itself, which reminded them of who they were: people of the One God, the God they were to love completely.

This correspondence between the phylactery and the mark of the beast was a lightbulb moment for me. Suddenly the mark of the beast made a great deal more sense. The phylactery is a symbol or mark identifying who a people belong to, who they follow, who they obey. It is a symbol of allegiance. It is a visible symbol of a life that is lived.

I realized suddenly that the mark of the beast is not about physical objects or marks like credit cards or tattoos. The mark of the beast is a way of life. Just as the mark of Christ, the seal of the Spirit, which the Christian bears, is love (and faithful endurance, to use the language of Revelation), so the mark of the beast is the opposite way of life (Revelation is filled with opposites, e.g. the Lamb that was slain and the beast that looks a like a lamb). Given the contexts of these chapters with dragons and beasts and buying and selling, the mark may play out in things like false religion (including perhaps most insidiously false Christianity), allegiance to a certain political system or market economy, self-interest, individualism, and all manner of idolatries, etc.

If the mark of the beast is a way of life then, on the one hand, the concerns of a more fundamentalist/literalist, end-times/tribulation focussed view—concerns about whether, say, debit cards are the mark of the beast or some future where we’ll have to make a choice about chip implants—largely disappear.

On the other hand, the mark of the beast as a way of life is much more insidious, because we tend to slide very easily and without much thought into the whatever current trend or way of life that comes our way, trends and ways of life that very often are or turn into idolatry. In other words, the mark of the beast is not necessarily something we consciously choose to receive, but something we may simply slide into without even consciously doing so.

This requires patient endurance from the saints indeed!

Why Do We Sing in Church?

(Originally posted November 18, 2017 at malmochurch.ca.)

Tomorrow morning we will gather at Malmo again, as we have been doing faithfully for 125 years or so, to worship together through fellowship, prayer, scripture reading…and singing.

Singing has been a part of Christian worship since the first Christians gathered. In fact, some parts of the Bible are widely believed to be taken from early Christian songs of worship. For example, Philippians 2:6-11 is often referred to as the “Christ Hymn”:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (NIV)

These stanzas contain not only generic praise to God, but they tell a story—the salvation story, in fact: God becomes human, dies on the cross, is raised from the dead and made Lord and Messiah.

But why do we do this? Why do we sing together in church, especially when some people don’t like singing or think they don’t have a good voice?

I can think of several reasons, and none of them have anything to do with being able to sing or carry a tune: singing brings glory to God; it helps us remember the gospel story; it is modelled and encouraged (even commanded!) in scripture; it brings believers together and encourages them (have you ever been at a concert or worship event where thousands of people sing along together? There are few things more unifying and beautiful).

(There are more reasons, I’m sure. In fact, here are a couple of further explanations for Christians singing that I have come across that you might find helpful: “The Three Rs: Why Christians Sing” and “Seven Biblical Reasons Why Singing Matters.”)

So as we gather tomorrow and in the weeks to come, consider: can I choose to participate in worship, including the singing, even if I (think I) don’t sing very well, even if I don’t fully understand why we do it?

Author and pastor Eugene Peterson wrote, “Worship is an act that develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God that is expressed in an act of worship.” Often we talk about worship, and especially the singing part of worship, as an expression of our feelings for God. That may be true, but there are some people who do not express their feelings for God in that way, and there are some days when my feelings for God are not great.

In a much more important way, whatever our feelings may be on a given day, our singing praise, our singing the gospel, plays a significant role in transforming us bit by bit over time, through low seasons and high seasons, as individuals and a community, into the people of God…if only we will open ourselves up—both our mouths and our hearts!

Two roads diverged in a wood and yet I return home.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

~ from “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

I seem to recall writing a paper on Robert Frost’s poem in university, in which I argued that there didn’t appear to be any difference in either road the narrator had to choose from.* I can’t remember the details, but my hunch, nearly twenty years on, was that I was pushing against the idea of this being a carpe deum (“seize the day”) poem. Carpe deum being the idea that you should live life to the full, taking adventurous chances, etc.

I’ve tended to push against this idea, which seems to me to be the brainchild of a specific kind of personality, rather than some kind of immutable universal truth. My adventurous friends would dispute this, but I have the personality of a hobbit. I’d rather be at home with my books and tea.**

In recent years I’ve also pushed against this in the context of Christian faith and discipleship. Our obedience and service to God and neighbour begins wherever we are in the hum-drum ordinary of the everyday, rather than on some wild adventure in a strange land among strange people doing what we tend to consider exciting (if not altogether extraordinary) things for God (though we may certainly be called to that). This is important, it seems to me, because for young people especially, the idea of ordinary, everyday faithfulness seems boring—surely faith calls us to more exciting things?

In recent years I’ve really begun to appreciate the fictional work of Wendell Berry. His overriding concern seems to be having a strong sense of place, of being loyal to and faithful in the place you are, of putting down deep roots. His fictional world is one built around a small town community and the farmers and families that surround it and their generations of life, death, simplicity, and faithfulness. I am very much drawn to this idea.

It occurred to me recently that there may be good reason for this: the first seven years of my life were the longest I have ever lived in one location (though I did spend twelve years in the same small town). I have moved many times in my life—not least during my university years, before and after the school year I would move in and back out of an apartment. And the pastoral vocation isn’t one where generally deep roots are planted. I’m well past the average duration for the kind of position I hold at my church and the odds are against me being here for a decade. Pastors in one location for more than twenty years is almost unheard of, and I have deep respect for the one I do know. So I have good reason to be drawn to permanence and connection (to family and friends). And these days, my wife and children are the most permanent thing I know, so being with them is growing ever more important.

And yet.

And yet I find that when I am walking in the woods I am drawn to explore every rabbit trail—where two roads diverge—I come across and I want to keep walking just to see what’s around the next bend. Explain that.

Maybe it’s because even though I am wandering and exploring I know I will soon return home.

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*It was for a class on the early 20th century literary theory called “New Criticism,” which allowed me to write a paper without research, but musing on the text alone. I don’t know how legitimate that was, but it was fun.
**That’s not to say that we shouldn’t make the most of every day, but that the most of any given day is generally very ordinary.